Safe in the Arms of Trainmen
For we were doing something forbidden. We held our poses for the engineer and his assistant, sitting high up with their blue caps and red neckerchiefs in the cab of the engine. Yes, we wanted their eyes to pry, to think us beautiful candidates for true love, always, of course, just beyond reach. And sometimes we did indeed seduce them. Sometimes they would flirt back--or so we thought--with a couple of friendly riffs on the whistle as they charged on down the track.
Then came the challenge of the people in the passenger cars. Now our hand on the hip was assigned to wave, condescendingly, of course, like a pretty beauty queen, not giving over too much heart or heat.
After the heads in the windows blurred by, we'd hop from our posts, traverse the cockleburs to the edge of the track bed, and stand rapt, counting, always counting, as though our lives depended on the correct number. The rattling, dizzying cars holding "c" things--coal, cattle, cotton, chemicals, construction--sped past us. We screamed the count into the chaos, glad for momentary relief of inhibitions imposed on us as nice little girls.
Then we'd sense a slackening of the din and prepare ourselves for the cabooseman. Was he the lowest in the hierarchy? Did he have official duties? We never knew what his job was, except to stand holding the back railing, surveying the receding scene and waving to us.
With him, we ladies of innuendo, we scandalous vamps turned virtuous. Our ruse was over. To be sure, we had had about all the excitement we could manage. So we stood, hoarse and shivering now, a little pigeon-toed and pot-bellied, waving our sweet little hands to this uncle of a fellow, this last chance at daring contact with men.
About that same time, there were two other safe men at the scene of a train. On the shoulders of my father, in the summer of 1948, I see the only President I have ever seen, before or since, in person. Harry S. Truman is on his famous whistlestop tour, barnstorming the country, standing where the cabooseman usually stands. This time it's called "the rear platform" and it's flag-draped.
Leaning forward, I yell into my father's ear, "He waved at me." My hands grip the crown of his head, my starting-to-be-long legs yoke his Old Spice neck.
"That's nice," he murmurs upward, "but pipe down."
"No, you don't understand," I say urgently, this time cupping his chin in my hand in a play for full attention. "He looked at me, me!"
"Oh, all right," my gentle father says quietly "Yes, I think I saw him do that."
And I wiggle a little, satisfied. For what more could a train ask, than to bring a girl's father and her President into perfect narcissistic alignment for her?
Another time, just before I drift off. My mother and I are going somewhere on a Pullman. The porter, tall and pure black, with pink palms that my blue eyes cannot quit staring at, has boosted me into an upper berth. Strange, he's done it so aseptically that it's as though he's not even touched me. Still, I lie there honored, flattered, feeling delicate and rich. Then he's said, "Goodnight, little lady," and drawn the curtains, taking my brown oxfords off somewhere to be shined like a princess's before morning.
The scene is a far cry from my maternal grandmother, Dora Pearl Bell, riding the train from Tupelo, Mississippi to Clarksville,Texas in 1895 as a seven-year-old. The family had had a hard winter, with nothing to eat but sowbelly and beans, and her father determined to give it a go in Texas. The womenfolk and children were in the passenger car, up front, while the men and boys were two cars back, with the cattle and household goods. If they kept the windows closed, the air was suffocating with body odors and tobacco, as well as stifling hot in the southern humidity. With the windows open, the woodburning engine belched ashes and cinder on them.
I do not think my grandmother had any train flirtations. I hope she had safe men on her train.
By the time I knew of trains, I knew of the dangers of men. So why do the trainmen, all of them, chug in and out of my memory as such wholesome personages? For one thing, they were public figures, to be trusted like policemen and postmen. They wore uniforms; they had hats. And they were kind to us kiddies, parasites forever waving alongside their tracks. They thrilled us with their whistles, and most of the time they bothered to raise their big worn hands to return our greetings. We could prance, preen, flirt, try all our instinctual wiles on them, and there was no chance they would stop the engines and come down to "get us," whatever that might mean.
And they had power. They operated those screaming, blasting behemoths up and down the land, dragging miles of cars, in a display of muscle that was so far from the domain of girl dreams that it seemed, at the least, the job of Assistant God.
And what of the other men in my life, hubbed around the memory of trains? The gentlemanly black porter, with more elegance than salary; my father, allowing his daughter up on his shoulders after a long wait on the brick-inlaid depot yard, to afford her a glimpse of a President he roundly disliked; the same Harry S. Truman on his Presidential tour who waved at me, just an ordinary American girl, gosh!
They were all, all of them, honorable trainmen.
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