My father and the power of trains
The train depot attracted my boyish curiosity with an intensity that time has not diminished. Among the powerful draws of the depot was the telegrapher. Here was a single man who controlled the trains with a mere touch of his finger. Lesser mortals relied on the corded telephone; the telegrapher moved giant trains with a powerful, cordless tap.
The telegrapher at our local depot was a man I knew and loved. He was my father. Like the trains he controlled, my father was intriguing in power, a mystery of harnessed energy and outlandish size, capable of rapid movement, noisy, always captivating to a small boy hungry for contact. Transferring feeling from train to father was easy for a 10-year-old boy. It is not difficult for a grown man. The mystery of father never wanes.
In an impressionable boy’s world, no creatures could be as powerful in appearance, as fascinating in function as the steam locomotive. Wheels taller than you, puffs of rich white smoke, interminable hissing of a giant snake, mighty rods churning wheels with monster arm movements, pungent smell of soft coal, heat of movement and furnace — all combined to open a boyish mouth and eyes, touch a soul’s yearning for bigness and power. How could these narrow tracks support this mass of steel? Plus the thousands of tons behind it? As a train would leave, I would stand on the embedded ties and look hard at the swinging, shrinking caboose lantern.
Like the mystery that was my father, the train was a source of wonder. Who gave it that power? Where had it come from? What was the wide, long world like out there? Like my father, the train did not talk.
I would wonder how so narrow a path could extend so far, beyond boundaries of wild dreams. I could walk this 3-foot-wide lane all the way to Alaska, then, turning, walk south all the way to the tip of Chile, maybe Patagonia. For a long time after a visit to the depot I would wake during the silent night, hear the staccato chug-chug-chug pounding of the switcher locomotive, two minutes of silence, then another chug-chug-chug-chug, a progressively fading whinnying of a giant horse.
I watched passing trains with a riveted, matchless fascination. On occasions the heated steel of a locked box-car wheel, sparks and red glow emanating, would pass. It was called a “hot box,” a symbol of all the unfunctioning unturning of life. Yet here, the engine, enormous lover of the handicapped and weak, cared enough to carry the lazy unturning wheel. If God were ever to become a machine, He would choose the locomotive, the machine most like the deity in power and concern.
My father’s commitment to the trains pervaded his life. He could remember when the world of travel and shipment primarily depended on the train, giving him a prestige he never relinquished. Not only did he think his work was important, he felt its importance, a combination denied to many in the computer age.
He enjoyed all talk connected with trains, his exuberance showing. He developed a canine hearing for a train whistle, lifting, pausing, for a sound only his ears could detect. Sometimes he would interrupt our meal with, “68, on time,” or go to the door and listen to 68 roll by some six blocks away. His hearing included an even more fascinating gift — he understood the Morse Code.
To a Tom Mix and Green Hornet boy, decoding was second only to hitting a home run. Entering my father’s office, the endless wireless dot-dot-dot could be heard, a background to my father’s work and conversation. Of a sudden, he would say “hang on” as he heard the magic code call to him over the wireless. I would feel a sense of pride in his unique power to decode the important message of how late 102 was to be.
In those days, emphasis was placed on knowing the SOS, three dots, three dashes, three dots, the universal distress signals. The signal could save one’s life when conventional communication failed. I imagined a large number of family tragedies where my father’s tapping saved our family from danger, or death itself. When he gave me a key set with batteries and wrote out the Morse Code for me to learn, I individualized the tragedy, carrying on long coded conversations with him from a collapsed mine, a locked car trunk, a sinking ship. The truth is I talked to him more in my imagined wwireless code than I did in person. Our silence fueled my imagination.
The exclusive and intensive masculine power of the railroad workers attracted me almost as much as the train. All looked like real men raised on the health food of the day: meat, potatoes, much beer and a little whiskey daily, a “touch.” Muscular bodies with rounded bellies, hair everywhere — deep voices and the brusque approach abounded. Soft men need not apply. Yet behind the oozing maleness were a tenderness, humor and spirit of camaraderie that today’s men’s groups can only thirst after.
I sense these qualities today when I talk to the conductor: He is in charge of all possible situations, a real man you can count on.
Later, on Christmas college vacations as I worked in the baggage room with the holiday mail, I learned that these men were exactly as I had imagined. Then, I was “Ray’s boy,” home from college just like their own sons. Now an enjoyable, respectful kidding dominated, centering on girls, the ease of college life and my physical weakness. Behind the teasing was the self-educated railroad man’s acknowledgement of the importance of formal education.
I always traveled the 600 miles to college and home on the train. My father would send me his single yearly pass, then his privileged half-rate tickets in the mail. I would feel special as I handed the pass or ticket to the conductor, who, often as not, would say, “Ray’s boy, eh. How is that old goat?” It seemed to me they all cared about one another. The tickets always came with a paternal note, telegrapher style — cryptic, not a single punctuation mark, no capitals, three lines at most — “o.k. here weather cold safe trip” and then the best part: “love dad.”
No analyst is necessary to tell me that I projected my need for paternal love to the train. I am proud of my projection and plan to keep it. A few weeks ago I went to New York by that peculiar high that accompanies a writer on his rare trip to sell his book. They rejected it. During the anxious expectancy en route, as well as in the self-doubting despair on the return, I was not alone. Even though he has been dead three years my father was with me. I went by train.
Ray Lovett is a psychotherapist in Dorset (www.raylovett.com). Raymond Lovett Sr. worked as a telegrapher for the Rutland Railroad for 45 years.