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                                         Robert Drake

OUR             was
   TOWN, WOODVILLE, situated right                  t o see them meet at that late hour since
on the main line o the Illinois Central
                     f                                                               f
                                                    neither they nor the “City o New Or-
Railroad-usually referred to, in its ad-            leans”actually stopped there. (Woodville
vertisements, as the Main Line of Mid-              was too small for that and somehow it
America. Roughly parallel to the Missis-            didn’t seem t o matter anyhow: the
sippi River, which lay twenty miles to the          Panama’s high speed and the resulting
west, it was part and parcel o the Missis-          commotion only enhanced the drama.)
sippi River Valley and its culture and was          But sometimes you would wake up in
often referred to, if not as the “I.C.,”            your own bed around midnight and hear
simply “the Railroad,”just as the Missis-           the two “Panamas” blow for Woodville
sippi itself was known as “the River” and           and for each other, so you knew all was
“theLate Unpleasantness” o the preced-              well and under control and on time.
ing century as “the War.” And Woodville                 Perhaps the Illinois Central was not
itself was quite dramatically situated              without a sense of history too, as well as
about halfway between its termini o      f          geography. Its Central Station in Chi-
Chicago to the north and New Orleans to             cago-right off the Loop on one side and
the south; and quite often the daytime              Lake Michigan on the other-had been
streamliners, the “City o New Orleans,”             built for the World’s Columbian Exposi-
one headed north, the other south,would             tion o 1892-1893, the fair which so ex-
pass each other in mid-afternoon right              cited Henry Adams; and indeed t h e
there-the whole thing enhanced by the               “Panama” itself was supposedly named
doubletracks and automatic block sig-               to celebrate the immense Central Ameri-
nals in use back then, implying that the            can banana trade (after all, New Orleans
whole thing was a class act.                        was the second port in the nation) and
   The north and southbound versions                perhaps the Canal itself, though that
of the overnight crack train (all-Pullman           didn’t actually materialize until a couple
and extra-fare too)-the “Panama Lim-                 f
                                                    o decades later, duly celebrated in 1915
ited”as it was called-often did likewise,           by the Panama-Pacific International Ex-
though hardly anybody was ever there                position in San Francisco-just in time
                                                    for World War I. Yes, the I. C. had a sense
     DRAKE h f e s s o r ofEnglishat the Uni-
ROBERT   is                                          f
                                                    o them both-past and present, history
versity of Tennessee, Knoxville. A new collec-      and geography too.
tion of his stories entitled The Picture Frame is       I was even told once that the reason so
forthcoming from Mercer University Press.           many students from theSouth continued

Modem Age                                                                                  343
their graduate work at the University of       And the be-all and end-all, the rationale
Chicago rather than at the older Eastern        f
                                               o the whole business itself was finally
schools was its geographic inevitability       making connections, bringing people and
and furthermore the same logistics had         their wares together at their common
had a hand in persuading other South-          destination. I had somehow sensed this
erners to head for Miiinesota and the          from my earliest childhood-all o it onf
Mayo Clinic, not Johns Hopkins, i they         time, nothing left to chance, all predict-
were seriously ill. And along the way          able.... And the station agent could al-
there was plenty of scenery, not just          ways tell you where the train was right
something picturesque t o be admired           that minute, with no stone left unturned,
but something to be viewed with re-            and no surprises.
spect-Lake Michigan, the Ohio junction             The bottom line, you might say, was
with the Mississippi at Cairo, the smooth      there for all to see, certainly in the great
and seemingly endless prairies of the          “union” stations of our big cities-in the
Midwest with their “corn knee-high by          central dramatic feature embodied in the
the Fourth o July”-marvels all of them,
              f                                ubiquitous clock which usually towered
not just something else to be conquered.       over the building itself,showing thewhole
Nature, weather, all the “givens” were         world exactly what you could expect and
after all the ones calling the shots here;       f
                                               o course thereby commanding the re-
and you would do well to adapt yourself        spect o all. And in short, it was all some-
to the realities, not the reverse. And per-    thing you could counton, unlike what you
haps that was part o the ultimate fasci-
                       f                       might feel about buses or airplanes or
nation for me: you played by their rules,                      f
                                               other modes o movement. On occasion
not your own.                                  it might seem they kept their appoint-
    And yet the ingenuity of man was not       ments with whim or caprice, even irre-
wanting either. After all, it was the steel    sponsibility. And often it didn’t seem
rails, designed and fabricated by man          to matter: with the motor vehicle it may
himself, which here carried the great          have been informality that carried all
forces where he willed, in our case all the    before it, with the airplane it was speed-
way to Chicago and the Lakes in the                         f
                                               and much o it highly informal too! Fur-
north, then all the way southward to New       thermore, you were always more or less
 Orleans and the Gulf, even branches lead-     helpless in their hands. Indeed, an old
 ing t o both Louisville and St. Louis. And             f
                                                friend o mine once referred to the mode
 extremes of climate, terrain, time, and         f                                 f
                                                o the train as travel, while that o all the
 place were not wanting (blizzards in the       others was transit. And furthermore, she
 north, hurricanes in the south) quite fit-     said she didn’t ever again want to ride
 ting for a land so diversified, so much its    anything where she couldn’t tell them to
 own master. And perhaps that was the           stop and let her off if necessary!
 real fascination of the train for me and          But again, the emphasis was all on
 many others-not only an exultation in          what you could expect, what you could
 their achievements in transportation but       more or less set your watch by. I remem-
 also a kind o triumph, celebration they
               f                                ber my father telling me that all the rail-
 imposed on the land-time and place             roads in the country-their time, their
 themselves-but, mind you, always with          schedules-were regulated by a central
 due respect. (These were people, remem-        control system based in Washington. And
 ber, who never forgot that the earth was       whatever time was laid down there was
 the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.) Even     what the whole country followed, mak-
 men-and American men at that-knew              ing allowance of course for different time
 who was the boss in all such matters.          zones. The key to the whole system came

344                                                                              Fall 1999
when the noon hour was struck from             accept its dignityand pride. Peopleacross
there everyday of the week-which went          the country would set their watches by
out to every railroad station in the coun-     the most prestigious trains, never doubt-
try in a signal which sounded like the         ing their reliability except in the most
mild “tick o a telegraph instrument-           extraordinary circumstances-floods,
mild in sound but gigantic in significance.    blizzards, tornadoes, all agents of the
And there was no guess work about any          unpredictable-all that trains were not.
o it. Time then was the essence of the
 f                                                And when 1 speak of drama here, I
whole concept: that was its master and         mean just what I say. To hear the whistle
its attraction, towering above all in the      of asteam locomotive several miles away,
dominant station clock, which sometimes        especially at night, to know exactly when
flaunted a Mercury-like figure from its        you could expect it at your station with
pinnacle, to show who and what was in          bells ringing and steam pouring forth like
command-something like fortune or              a volcano, with dignity and force, was
fate,something you couldn’t argue with.        not t o be ignored-right on time, nearly
Indeed, you almost bowed your head             always true to the where and when-
accordingly. And it all originated in Wash-    something like an old friend: these were
ington, just as the rails, the tracks them-    the greatest of gifts, reassurances. And
selves began and ended, for the I.C., in       then the arrivals by night, which my fa-
Chicago and New Orleans. And it was all        ther always said made everything feel
connected. And though my father always         spooky-the wind whistling around the
refused to change his watch whenever           station’s eaves, as it sat there in the
he had to leave the Central Standard           midst of almost total darkness, then the
Time zone, even he had to submit to this       headlight which you could glimpse down
fundamental principle.                         the track, sometimes even around a cor-
   Well, this of course was only part of its   ner, not seeming to slow down at all
hold, part of the drama which held you         except just as it pulled up to the station
fast, your attention never faltering. Be-      waiting room, because it knew you would
cause embodied in the whole concept            wait for it, and you knew it was always in
was something almost mystical, almost          control. And thereby you knew what an
like magic. Look-there was all that            entrance was like, like something on the
speed, all that power and yet all of it        stage or screen: bold and peremptory, it
ultimately controlled by ribbons of steel      was not something you could ignore.
onlyfour feet, eight and half inches apart,    And the very idea of missing it was un-
a steel highway, if you will, all dependent    imaginable if not intolerable.
for direction on a surface no wider than          Trains had a glamor then, no doubt
thelength of apiece of chalk. But this tiny    about it. But even more than glamor there
surface, this delicate control had the last    was a force, a necessity which com-
word, and its word was law, wherever it        manded all the rest. Because if they often
was headed. And so the gigantic force,         led to romantic journeys and exciting
the pride of time and place which was          things you couldn’t say nayto, they often
this monstrous creature was directed           foreshadowed things that were portents
and controlled by something like a mi-         of disturbance, disasters which you ig-
crocosm, anever-failingdevice you could,       nored at your peril, to say the least. After
again, count on. Something o coursef           all, it was on trains that dead bodies were
which had to obey you, provided you            shipped home from big city hospitals,
played by the rules o the game your-           transports which brought back disasters
self-all balance, all harmony you might        from the battlefield, and the ominous
say. And nobody failed to believe in it, to    news brought by newspapers and tele

Modern Age                                                                             345
grams-none of it pleasant. And this was          tion in the whole scene, no drama either.
its business side-no excursions, no gai-         Instead, just the inevitable predictabil-
eties here. And again, it was not anything       ity, with no surprises and no excitement.
you could ever argue with. Once when                Long after I had left Woodville and
my mother’s father, who had been                 gone off to school, every time 1 came
Woodville’s Marshal for years untold-            home foravisit I would sooner or later go
you could always spot him on his big             down to the depot, to see what was going
gray stallion, they said, in a procession,       on. Of course the best time was mid-
a parade or whatever the occasion-was            afternoon, when I could see the “City o   f
down at the station, waiting for the ar-         New Orleans” groaning its way round the
rival o a desperately sick lady from a
       f                                         bend at the end of the cut, even if I was
tuberculosis sanitarium, he was right            lucky, see the two “Cities” meet right in
there to help remove her stretcher from                  f
                                                 front o the station and know that their
the baggage car where they always car-           passengers were exactly halfway through
ried the dying and the dead in those             their respective journeys, wondering
days. And I never forgot what she was            about them, what they thought of the
supposed to have said to him when s h e          journeys’ ends they were approaching,
looked up and saw him there: “Mr.Wood,           what they hoped or feared as the result,
I’ve come home to die.” And that was all         wishing too that I might be on there with
that was necessary, though it had all the        them-the excitement, the mystery it
overtones o Camille. I couldn’t imagine
             f                                   might hold for me.
buses or airplanes arriving in such cir-            On the other hand, I could recall some
cumstances: with them there was no cer-          actual memories about the “Panama”
emony.                                           because part of my schooling had taken
    Well, they’re more or less all gone          place in Chicago and sometimes I came
now-the big steam locomotives, with              home by that route, leaving there about
their glitter, their power. And I remem-         5:OO in the afternoon, arriving up the
ber when t h e streamlined, diesel-              road from Woodville around midnight at
equipped “Panama”first charged through           a larger, more important station. And
the deep cut right in the middle o townf         there were lots of memories to call up
under what was called the “overhead              after that: a seat in the observation car
bridge,” just after World War 11 began.          since there were no “day coaches” avail-
And you could hear its big flat whistle,         able, a “club car,” where 1 could sit read-
sounding just like what it was-a ma-                            f
                                                 ing, say, one o Conrad’s or Hardy’s nov-
chine, and you could see its big electric        els, at nearly 100 miles an hour, with a
headlight going back and forth making a          martini in my hand, oblivious of all ex-
monstrous figure “8”, in the interest o
                         all                 f   cept the soft, swift swaying o the car as
safety and security. But it was all too          we sped down the Illinois prairie. And
mechanical, all too artificial for my            then duly taking myself back t o the
taste-and I gather, the taste o many  f          diner-two units, one for dining, theother
others. There was no particular drama,           for cooking-for one of the I.C.’s fine
no vibrant life, t o set it all wild and free.   dinners, especiallywhen seafood reigned
Instead, there was only the more or less         supreme. And naturally it would often d o
calmly efficient and predictable, just as        so since their trains went in and out o   f
you might have expected-not the “on              New Orleans every day. Then a liqueur t o
time” shibboleth always demanded o           f   finish off with before returning to the
the bold chargers in the old days. Now            observation car, where the lights were
there were no exceptions, no variety to           now dimmed and you could sit watching
heighten one’s excitement, his participa-         the world outside lit up-for Christmas if

346                                                                                Fall 1999
it was that time o year or hot summer
                    f                         ture: the train made an extra stop. It was
time which you could only feel. And since     Christmas and an even larger crowd than
you were in the last car, it often felt as    usual seemed on board-more cars, more
though you were at the very tail of some      people. So the train stopped first where
lightning-like animal or even a comet,        it usually did-its length about halfway
which was giving you a larruping fast         beyond the station. But that apparently
ride for all it and you were worth.           didn’t seem adequate enough to “dis-
   Then as the evening waned and pas-         charge” so many passengers, so the
sengers sitting beside you might begin to     “Panama” pulled up until the observa-
nod, your own spirits would rise expect-                                            f
                                              tion car was halted right in front o the
antly at the thought of home and family       station. And now looking around, I saw
which now drew nearer every minute.           that there was nobody else waiting to get
First there would be the Ohio to cross at     off there but me; so I raised my question-
Cairo, safely of course at only 20 miles an   ingeyes to theconductor, whom Ithought
hour, 1 was told, then some miles o run-      I recognized from previous journeys. And
ning right beside the moonlit Mississippi     he bowed and smiled as if by way o        f
as it slowly but steadily moved south on      saying yes, go ahead. Could anything in
its way to Memphis and the Delta. Then        my life, my career ever have been more
ultimately t o “The Big Easy,” as New                                           f
                                              exciting? Was it all some kind o reward
Orleans was sometimes called, and fi-         for my lifelong fidelity to this mode of
nally into the Gulf itself and the wild       transportation and my old friend, the
freedom lying ahead. Soon now there           I.C.? Perhaps even then I might have had
would be the slowing down and grinding                     f
                                              some sort o idea that this might be one
of brakes and you would get your things         f
                                              o the last o my train journeys, so dwin-
together and make your way to the door        dling did the trains seem to be in num-
leading backinto the Pullmans and other       bers and frequency as the years fled on.
cars, all ready now for the dramatic ar-          Well, so be it. Perhaps, in addition to
rival just ahead, no matter how often you     my smiles at seeing my parents again,
had done it before.                           therewere a few tears also. But again you
   And finally, in what might have been       gave thanks for what you had been given,
one o my last such homecomings, I was
      f                                       been allowed as sure and certain, what
suddenly presented with something like        finally you could count on. And that ulti-
a splendid surprise, perhaps as a sort of     mately was all that mattered, with trains
benediction to all these years o adven-
                                  f           or anything else.

Modem Age                                                                            34 7

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