Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – September 16, 2004
Short Stories From 10 Years Ago – September 16, 2004 – What’s not to like about a train? It’s a safe, comfortable method of travel. Trains snake their way through almost every country in the world – chugging up hills, down into valleys, through tunnels, across rivers and gorges, over mountain passes and into small villages, picturesque towns and grand cities.
They run in all seasons and deliver passengers and cargo to their respective destinations in timely fashion. Commuter trains shuffle people to work in the morning and back home at night. A train is a microcosm of our larger society. Everyone onboard – from the engineer to conductors, service personnel and passengers has his or her own story. On any given day you could find people on board in the throes of great sorrow or joy.
People going on job interviews, leaving home, coming home, people having clandestine affairs, children going to school, tourists travelling from city to city and country to country. People going on vacation, business men and women shepherding cargos to far away places, and others departing for business meetings where their hopes will be dashed to the depths of despair or elevated beyond their widest expectations.
Commuter trains are a no-nonsense means of transporting passengers from the suburbs to the city centre for work or play. They are a straight forward, comfortable, well run way to get from one place to another without the usual hassle of traffic, driving and parking. If I lived outside the centre of any major city I would probably consider this predictable method of travel. Then there are the freight trains that are an essential part of the chain of delivery for most manufacturers bringing goods to market. It’s hard to imagine what would replace freight trains. Goods must find their way to our homes and businesses.
I bet if you think about it, you have a few train memories of your own. I recall as a kid, sitting with my brothers Eric and Mike in a park, in front of a busy freight crossing. A train with three mammoth engines up front came chugging, whistling and spitting its way past us. We marvelled at the endless cars lumbering by, each with numbers and names printed on the sides. The enormous flatbeds, their cargo lashed down by heavy steel chains, were interspersed amongst the cars. Mike loved the train men hanging off the sides of the cars and he waved furiously at them as they went by.
They grinned and returned a salute to him, perhaps remembering when they were little boys, marvelling at a passing train. I have no idea how many cars were on that train, but it took at least fifteen minutes to pass us by. Eric and I loved the engines. Mike could hardly wait for the caboose – it was his favourite part of the train. He smiled ear to ear at the man on the back, and jumped up and down with sheer delight when the man took his hat off and waved both arms over his head. I’m sure it was a gesture of appreciation for Mike’s unrestrained enthusiasm.
Then the train was gone – and with it the myriad, human stories of all those on board. We looked down the tracks after it and all three of us felt a little sad for its departure. We wondered about the many lives that big train would touch as it threaded its way across the country. I’ve remembered that particular train all my life.
I hurt my back very badly in the summer of 1975, and in late September that same year, I took a trip up north with my parents to recuperate. I was twenty-six years old and badly in need of some loving attention and pampering. We drove to Sault St. Marie and then took the Algoma Central Railway tour to the Agawa Canyon. It’s another hundred miles further north through some of the most rugged and beautiful wilderness in Northern Ontario. The train crossed incredible trestle bridges, ran past magnificent lakes and rivers and by the sheer granite rock formations of the magnificent Canadian Shield.
The final five hundred foot drop down to the floor of the Agawa Canyon was breathtaking. The train stopped for a couple of hours for lunch. Photography and hiking buffs were in their element. The scenery was second to none. I have incredibly happy memories of that holiday with my parents, and especially of our train excursion. I’d love to go back one day and take the winter trip up to the canyon – warm and comfortable in a heated coach car – Canada’s blustery winter safely at bay outside the window. I’ve heard that the canyon in winter is absolutely spectacular.
I also have lovely recollections of train trips throughout parts of Europe. I once made a mad dash down the platform of a departing train in northern France, literally threw my backpack on board first, and then ran like a mad fiend after the train, finally grabbing hold of the hand rail and swinging on board as the train whistled out of the station. My friend and I were elated with the athleticism of our feat and laughed uncontrollably from the sheer adrenaline rush of our dashing exploit.
I’ve ridden the rails from Calgary to Vancouver – another trip with exquisitely beautiful scenery. I had a berth on that train. The problem with that trip was a logistical one. In order to use the toilet, I had to recess the berth in my private cubby, back into the wall. Because I have the smallest bladder known to all of womankind, I was in and out of the berth all night. I might just as well have saved my money and slept sitting up in a coach car. Live and learn – it was still a marvellous trip.
Movies are also famous for their trains. Over the years in dozens of films, there have been prison trains, departing trains, arriving trains, late trains, troop trains, runaway trains, derailed trains and trains with bombs planted on board. The Orient Express offered masterful story telling with a quirky cast of characters, romance, murder, deception and intrigue.
Perhaps one of the most amusing train scenes is in the film Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Butch is blowing up the safe in the rail car to get the railroad’s money. He miscalculated terribly and blew the entire car sky high. As pieces of the rail car and money rain back down from above – Sundance looked at his partner askance and quipped, “Butch – do you think you used enough dynamite?”
If you’re wondering what to do on your next vacation – you don’t want to spend a fortune – you have a penchant for new experiences, have an open mind and are up for an adventure – book a train trip somewhere in the world. You never know who you might meet and chances are you won’t be disappointed. On the other hand, if you want to do something safe and predictable – go to Florida (wait until hurricane season is over) or play bingo! Me – I’m gonna try the train!