We grew up on the Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific tracks in Oconomowoc. South Street. The house was 90 feet from the tracks. On a summer morning, eating your cereal, you could watch the sash of the southern kitchen window vibrate itself closed when a train went through. Sometimes, it took a couple of trains, and someone would just push it open again. We didn’t know about the free windows you could get if you bought ten, (I guess that deal came later).
I always thought kids looked down on those of us who lived “on the tracks” but,they didn’t know what went on between the sidewalk and those four steel rails that curved into oblivion about 3/4 of a mile down the street. Oh, we knew where they went, but standing on the tracks, looking west, that bend was the question mark, “where could you go?” what was “out there”. Standing on the tracks? Yes, Virginia, our parents “let” us stand on the tracks. We were pathfinders, and football players, and outlaws. We had tallgrass forts and a football field between the telegraph poles with about a ten degree tilt to the north. When I was small, we still had steam locomotives. The Milwaukee Road used steam units well into the fifties for local switching (a siding served Carnation Company as well as Oconomowoc Lumber) and although it was a rare occurrence, there still was the occasional Black monster pulling a full freight billowing the charred coal smoke that left a black dust film on our window sills, our cars, and everything else.
One of the neighbor ladies told us daily that the “railroad police” would arrest us and throw us in jail for ten years if we played on the right of way. But play we did. When we weren’t emptying the trash, or doing our paper routes – or some such mundane tasks. So, as I sit at my desk, I think about the lonesome sounding whistle, and how much it has been a part of our lives – yes, both Pam and I grew up on the tracks, she in Hartland, I in Oconomowoc. Seems I was just looking the wrong direction as my eyes followed the cabooses around the Blaine St. curve.
We married, and lived for a couple of years on Hy. B in Oconomowoc (not near the tracks) then moved to Hartland, where our subdivision homes were within a few hundred feet of the same tracks. From there, we moved to Willowbrook Farm, a handsome, money pit of a “cottage” where, just across the marsh and Hy. JJ, ran the same CM StP & Pacific tracks, and I’m here to tell you that you haven’t heard a train whistle until you’ve laid in bed with the windows open and listen to the wail of the train horn amplified across the heavy air of the thousand acre marsh. You have to resist the urge to get up and open a door to let the train come through.
We moved again, a temporary spot as we planned, four years without trains, but then to Stone Bank, where, a small farm field away, runs the old Chicago-Northwestern track, now Union Pacific, with its long uphill grade, where you can lay in bed with the windows open and hear the sissy diesel electrics labor up the long grade to the mini-divide, where it is decided whether water runs to Lake Michigan or to the Mississippi, then, having reached the divide, let it roll down hill all the way to bigger cities, where no whistle ordinances and speed limits restrict their fun.
Trains are like dirt under your finger nails – once there, they just never leave you. To ride on one is still a treat. To watch a hundred car freight is still a wonder (yes, I still try to count cars). Still wondering where they are going, what the are hauling and what the destinations of the AmTrak passengers are. What do those folks face when they get where they are going? Reunions? Mourning? or just a joyride around America. That sounds like fun.
John,a great piece of writing.You describe it beautifully.
Fine writing, Mr. Outlaw-pathfinder. Talk about a haunting thread stitching through a life. This is my favorite essay yet. I hear and see and smell and feel that sooty, shrieking, juddering drama. As opposed to “sissy diesel electrics.” Hoping for the movie: “A Train Runs Through It”