An Arkansas Essay – February 6, 2008
My mother hated the trains, and she blamed them for what she considered Pine Bluff’s demise. I loved the trains.
In 1959, Momma would come to pick me up at the Episcopal kindergarten, which let out at precisely 11:30, and then she would make an attempt to cross the tracks where they crossed near the church rather than driving more in town to do so because there was a train that came down the Fourth Avenue tracks at precisely 11:40. There was no alternative — we had to cross the tracks to get to Woolworth’s and that’s where we ate lunch every day (Momma always hoped for one of the five booths but more often we got stuck at the counter.) I sometimes would find little ways to delay leaving school or getting into the station wagon to thwart her plans. It was often hot, so the windows would be rolled down, and if I was lucky I’d be rewarded for my dawdling by hearing the tell-tale clang, clang of the warning signal before Momma had even started the car. It was by far the best if the timing worked out in such a way that we would be the first car to be stopped at the tracks, and so timing was crucial on my part. I loved watching the signal arm come down with its flashing red lights to save us from what, obviously, would have been sure death had it not kept us from going on the tracks.
It is a well-known fact that the more engines there are on a train, the longer the train, so I would carefully count them, always hoping for a bonanza of at least three. The trains slowed down in the city limits, so it was possible to look for the Kilroys as we sat in the car behind the barricade without getting too dizzy. But the very best thing, the very, very best thing, was when the train actually STOPPED. Mom would sigh and I would look very angelic to assuage her. I don’t know why trains stopped in our town, but I imagined somewhere along the line someone was hooking up or de-hooking a train car full of valuable merchandise, like hankies or hammers. It wasn’t the actual stopping that was actually so wonderful, however, as much as it was the starting up again that I loved. The train would be silent there on the track, giving up no hint of when it would move on. Sometimes even the warning signal would go quiet. Then, suddenly, there would be a belch-like shudder that would run down the train from wherever the engines were now to wherever the caboose was out of sight in the other direction. Another shudder would follow, then another and another, the time between them shortening (think: Music man — “Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods, cash for the fancy goods …”) Finally the train would begin crawling slowly forward, but if it was a three-enginer or more, the engines would be out of town by now, free of in-town speed restrictions, picking up velocity. The final cars would FLY down the tracks and the cabooseneers would wave good-bye as they went on their way to somewhere exotic, maybe Hawaii.
Mom would re-start the car (she turned it off to save gas) and put it into drive, but it would still take a few seconds for the arm signal to determine it was absolutely safe for us to cross and then to rise.
When I got a little older, Genna and I were allowed to go to Woolworth’s by ourselves to go shopping. It was during one of these shopping excursions when I found out without a doubt that Mom was wrong when she blamed the trains for the demise of our city. Woolworth’s apparently did not carry the exact color of nail polish my beautiful teenaged sister wanted to buy, so the plan was to walk to Kress’s across the street to compare the offerings there. At the time of her decision, it was 11:36, so it was perfect timing for the train to come by — but this time we were ON FOOT. Oh. My. Gosh. Nothing can compare to standing mere feet away from a train on its way to Hawaii. I froze with delightful terror as the thundering train drowned out all sound, the back draft of its wind pulling on my coat, and the very earth trembling beneath my feet. How could something this terribly lovely kill a town? Not possible.
Daddy loved the trains, but I don’t think it was a topic he cared to discuss with Momma on a regular basis. I know that he loved the trains because he actually rented a building for the print shop that was in a block BETWEEN the two avenues the trains ran on. Sometimes it was actually possible for trains to be on BOTH tracks at the same time, sometimes they would both be going the same direction, or sometimes they would be going to opposite points of the compass. Sometimes, and this was very rare indeed, both trains would actually be stopped on the tracks and we, and everyone else between the tracks that day, would be trapped in space and time. It was nirvana.
So there was no demise, just perhaps an adjustment or two.