This morning I woke up before my alarm. Lying with a warm glow of rising sun tapping at my frosty window, I heard the faint whistle of the Crescent, which usually goes unnoticed as she meanders through our city to make her way from New York to New Orleans as she has every day since….
Not long ago, I was on this train, at about this time, my children fast asleep at home, as they are right now in the bed beside me, oblivious to the activity that goes on down along the tracks.
Here it is quiet in the Tiny Kingdom. I grew up along the tracks and as my husband and I took a recent trip (our first together by train to New Orleans), we passed right across the tracks of Livingston where I, as a child, used to play. Without my mom’s knowledge of our whereabouts, my friends and I would place dull pennies beneath the nose of that great machine.
We’d slouch in bushes until she had snaked, rattled and rolled across each of them, spewing them out into the sharp, grey, oil soaked gravel, where the now open inner copper filling would reflect a sharp brown ray until we were able to come from cover to gather them.
My children have seen the train, maybe once, with disinterest, as we exited the Whistle Stop Café after a good after church meal in Irondale. Too eager to return home to an unfinished game of Runescape, they’d hurry us along as we tried to wait until she was ready to pull out of the station.
As I write, I look at a large black and white photo of a train on my study wall taken in 1911. It is black, dull, nothing like the Crescent, but a workhorse, owned by my great grandfather as he pioneered the transporting of deer and turkey into the state of Alabama and was the first to practice timber conservation. Black men cling proudly to the great machine, being careful to sit very still as the camera captures their images forever. Huge virgin timber lies stacked neatly behind on cars that disappear off the edge of the page.
I know, or at least suspect, that my children would have barely survived in those days. No air conditioning, no automobiles, even ice was a luxury.
And then all along the tracks, as I sat perched in my seat, with enough leg room to lay my Doberman and one of his friends, out the window I see homes not much more modern than those in the old pictures of my great grandfather’s lumber town.
Old black men sit on the porches, full of old trinkets, furniture and tires are strewn across the back lawn that is separated from me only by a line of trees and metal fence. In their eyes, as they watch the train, there is a similar disinterest to that of my children, not a care about the mystery that lies within the great train that rolls by them each day.
Me, I am different. When I see a train, I think of all of the people aboard. Who are they? Where did they come from? Where are they going? There is a story in every booth, on every aisle. In one box sits a hundred or so lives, people left behind, people being joined.
Most of those leaving with my husband and I on that early Thursday were headed to New Orleans to party. Many returned with us on the same 7 am train leaving New Orleans on that Sunday to return six hours later (not much later than it would have taken to drive I65, except that we spent our hours sleeping or dining and hanging out with our new friends from Gadsden in the diner car).
I have always wanted for my children to understand the world, to have their eyes opened and their hearts changed by experiences abroad, through missions trips in Mexico or maybe in Africa, and then right here, as I look into the barren living rooms of so many who were unable to make their way away from the tracks, I realize there is plenty for them to do, right here in our own back yards.