28 October 2006

I Hear That Train a Coming...

It is not sunrise, and a train whistle comes up from the river where the tracks have been since they first arrived. The sound throws me backward in time, like Proust’s madeleine.

- I am eight years old and hearing the Capitol Limited coming from Union Station on its way to the impossibly remote and exciting Chicago. I hear it from my bedroom window in the dark of early winter evenings.

- I am on ten years old and on the train itself, in a Pullman roomette, heading into Pittsburgh at midnight, seeing through my window the flames of the steel mills. And the next morning, chugging through Gary, going slower than the cars on the highway alongside and panting to get there.

- I am thirteen, and on the North Coast Limited going to Missoula where we are all getting off to go on a wilderness camping adventure in the Bitterroot Mountains. The bears eat our cured meats one night and we all have to fish for our supper, great cut-throat trout draped over our broad mouthed Sierra Club cups.

- I am twenty three and married and now living in Chicago, and our apartment looks over to what was called the IC tracks, the commuter line that ran down into the south suburbs and beyond. They did not sound their horn, there being no grade crossings, but their huge mechanical whoosh came as reliably as Big Ben’s chimes. At first we despaired of ever getting to sleep, and then five years later, in the remote woods of Massachusetts where I first served we lay awake in the vast silence, needing the noise to get to sleep.

- I am thirty eight, and living in a settled suburb of Austin Texas where the Mo-Pac line carries Amtrak into town once a day. My baby boy rides on my back as I walk the neighborhood. We wave to the train as it passes.

- I am in New York City, where there are not trains except underground, but at least once a week I am standing on a subway platform – horribly hot in summer and numbingly cold in winter, waiting for the whoosh or the air that comes before and the shrill brakes that pummel the ears.

I remember so many trains – the little toys that ran under the Christmas tree and fired my imagination of power and travel, the mad dash from Grand Central to Penn to change trains on our way home from the Montreal Expo in 1967, the ceremonial trains in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Vermont meant to entertain and preserve, commuter trains into Boston, day trips to DC to see the sights, posh journeys by office car to the Canadian Rockies, being over crowded on the way to Naples, and evicting presumptuous nuns on the way to Florence, eating on a diner while climbing the Dolomites, carving mountainsides in the Austrian Alps at night, tearing across France to Geneva, lumbering to Canterbury or flying to Edinburgh.

But mostly what I remember is remembering. Trains carry me forward and backward in time, to my next destination and back to my origins. And when I hear the whistle now, it all comes back in a terrific rush of recollection. And with that recollection comes a poignance that is almost unbearable.

It is as though with each train my whole life goes tearing by as I listen or watch, and in each window sits some earlier self - a boy or a young man. They see the landscapes and cities, the horizon that betokens all adventures and dreams. They look out on a world unfolding and full of promise. And I long to be with them again, to remember with every sinew the moments when the world was new.

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