Darkness, Light, and the City

A historical note from the Museum of the City of New York  ~ July 13, 2019
Photo ~ Ariella Axelbank
Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago, but it evoked memories nonetheless. Given the remarkably coincidental blackouts, my 2014 reflections on the experience seem timely; New York’s power is back on, but the memories linger.

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers. At the time, Buchanan South should have been converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose in order to allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly. Given the loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines, Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

That’s when the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. Newly returned from my time in Liberia, I was visiting friends who also had worked there. While we enjoyed the twin pleasures of after-dinner conversation and the view from their eighth floor apartment, all of New York seemed to disappear.

It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and power can go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode; winds bring down power lines; squirrels play tag; and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.

But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Scanning the horizon, we found no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss stretched before us.

The night seemed endless. A vibrato of sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of goods looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene resembled an etching by Albrecht Dürer.

Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds gradually lost their appetite for mayhem, we rested: three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what would be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to climb around buildings and into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable. Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night, not only because of the arson and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive only the rising of the sun could bring release.

In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, plastic wash basins, and razors, ready to become human again.

Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wanted to go back to Liberia. Today, I might not be so inclined. But at the time, looking down into those chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to civilization in any number of ways: not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.

I had learned to experience darkness as a blessing during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my dad and off we’d go, traveling graveled country roads that led far from the lights of our little town. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazed by the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap in blankets for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate, and admire Orion, with his belt and his sword.

I learned the constellations — Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio — and I began to learn those exotically-named stars: Aldebaran, Antares, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius. Little verses helped me find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into sky-borne mysteries seemingly close enough to touch.

With passing years, trips into the country became less frequent, and adventures with my friends were measured in lumens. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore — even Paris, the City of Light — drew us out of our midwestern darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.

If circumstances forced us to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah, or Evansville, no matter. Our lives were arcing in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into darkness, teaching me its pleasures anew.

With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars. Ribbons of phosphorescent spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.

When unexpected and unwanted darkness falls — as it has in New York City, and Louisiana, and California, and Venezuela — the experience can be unnerving at best. At worst, it can make life seem unbearable, even as it gives free reign to the worst of human impulses.

But that other darkness, that more comfortable darkness, still enfolds the world like a favorite childhood blanket. Wrapped in nature’s darkness, safe and secure, we’re free to lift our eyes until our gaze arcs to Arcturus and beyond: toward galaxies beyond our sight, and a universe beyond our understanding.

The poet reminds us: Arcturus already is there, steadfast at our vision’s edge. We need only lift our eyes.

Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water,
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (More than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be –
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.
~ Eavan Boland

Comments are welcome. For more information about poet Eavan Boland, please click here.

Cherishing Betsy’s Legacy

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman holding a chicken in her lap. She watches me move between stove and sink, and I return the favor, attentive to her placid presence.

Over time, I’ve come to know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s as busy as any modern woman: her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to turn away from her chores to pose for the camera on that morning, but when asked, she cooperated: perhaps happy for a moment’s rest.

Surprised, made wary by her inexplicable behavior, the dog presses close, protective and alert. Still, they’ve spent his lifetime together, and her hand calms his fears.

Around her portrait, scraps of ephemera provide clues to the nature of her world. An invoice from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain notoriety by suing the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes. The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad was ordered to pay.

At her feet, a decorated business card announces Mr. A.D. Perry, a “reliable seedsman” from Syracuse, New York. And in the background, covered with penciled notations suggesting the quick, calculating mind of a business-like woman, are the music and lyrics to a nearly-forgotten American standard: Sweet Betsy from Pike, a song still able to convey all the humor, grit and tenacity of American pioneer women across the decades.

“Sweet Betsy From Pike” ~ 2nd South Carolina String Band

I call my kitchen companion Betsy, because of the song. Debbie Little-Wilson, the Texas artist who created the collage, titled it She Made Her Own Groceries, and indeed Betsy did. Flour, sugar, and salt may have made their way to her through Mr. Want’s wholesale company, but vegetables and fruits came from the seeds she ordered from Mr. Perry, received in trade or saved from her own crop. Milk cows were common, and game was plentiful. As for eggs, the chicken in her lap suggests their source.

In Texas, the abundance described by John Milton Hadley in 1855 also would have surrounded her:

The supply of wild fruits exceed that of any country I ever knew. Straw- rasp- goose- blackberries grow plentifully. Plums — persimmons — crab apples — wild cherries and grapes also abound. There is an unlimited extent of hazel nut thickets, and hickory trees are found and walnut — besides most other mast-bearing timber — All which are apt as I’m told to be very productive. Hence, thee can have “nuts” to crack. Now, I have not been over the territory and can not tell from my own sight what the afect [sic] of it presents, but there is variety in everything I learn as everywhere else.

Challenging as Betsy’s life may have been, it was a life marked by freedom as well as by hardship: a life constructed through choice and shaped by circumstance. Looking at her, I think of Mrs. Crooks, whose beautifully penned letters to my great-great-grandmother Annie are among my own treasures. One, dated May 19, 1881 and written in Poplar Hill, Kansas, found its way to Annie’s new home in Chariton, Iowa:

Crops are usually good and vegetables of all kinds in abundance. We have had lettuce, onions and radishes from the garden and soon will have peas. There will not be much fruit this year, the severity of the weather killed the peaches [and] the apple orchards are not many in bearing yet.
Elmer is farming — 300 acres in wheat, 75 in corn, about 5 in potatoes, early corn and vegetables. How are you and Mr. Crowley? Does he sigh for Texas when the cold north winds blow and the snow and ice is plentiful? Is it hard to wean him from the land of sunshine and flowers?
Elmer sends his best wishes to you all and we both hold you in grateful remembrance for your kindness to us while on our way to Kansas.

Today, Poplar Hill has disappeared. The post office where Mrs. Crooks would have mailed her letter closed in 1889. As for Chariton, the Lucas County town where Annie’s husband David helped organize the 34th Iowa Infantry at the beginning of the Civil War, and in which they settled after their post-war years in Texas and Missouri, it remains home today for David and Annie; for their children and grandchildren; for their great-grandchildren and more, resting in the heart of the land that sustained them.

They weren’t perfect, these forebears of ours who made a country. They had their own share of strange ones and lazy ones, and for many families the liars, cheats, and thieves became the stuff of legend. But they knew how to break a prairie and plant a crop, how to build shanties of sod and lay rails of steel. They mined the coal and laid the roads, built the schools and educated their children, birthed their babies and buried their dead, and against all odds made it work by virtue of their resilience and stubborn determination.

Were mistakes made? Of course. Were they always successful? Of course not. But even in the face of failure they loved their country and cherished their independence. Remembering grandparents and great-grandparents who fought and died to ensure their freedom, they lived out their days counting the cost of self-evident truths and and inalienable rights. They preserved and planted the seed of liberty with as much deliberation as they planted their corn and peas, and brought in its harvest with equal delight.

As surely as Betsy made her own groceries, they made their own country, tending to the responsibilities and hard work of citizenship with diligence and care.

My mother and her baby sister, gaining independence on their grandparents’ farm

Reflecting on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation, I find myself uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination to institutionalize dependence at every turn.

Increasingly, we are told we cannot be trusted with our own lives: with our health, our children, or our economic decisions. We are told we do not have the strength, the tenacity, or the wisdom to weather the storms of life or deal with its catastrophes.

We are assumed to be too frail to accept the realities of life, too ignorant or uneducated to understand them. We are assured that only the self-appointed experts among us have the knowledge or skill to set the parameters of our lives, while those who know nothing about us demand that our youngest, our most frail, and our aged have the conditions of their lives determined by governmental fiat rather than by the loving decisions of supportive families. When curiosity, conviction or the quest for a better life leads us to strike out in new directions, far too often our progress is impeded by barriers put in place by those convinced we have no right to chart our own course.

No doubt each of us has taken risks that ended in great reward and engaged in risky behavior that brought unhappy consequences. We have been wrong about individuals and supported bad policies, but we also have been right about people and causes and benefited greatly because of it.

Some of us live financially comfortable lives while others constantly are scrounging for a few more dollars. Some of us have achieved our goals, while others continue to press on. But through it all and however imperfectly, we sense that growth and maturation is the point of life. The independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and, in the end, it is the willingness to accept both risk and responsibility that brings life’s greatest rewards: to nations as well as to individuals.

Today, questions abound. Are we willing to exchange the rewards of risk for the poor substitute of comfort? Will we choose passivity over active participation in our life and governance? Will we forego excellence in favor of mediocrity? Will we fall victim to those who play on false or unreasonable fears, or will we be courageous? Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent, or will we look for strength to those who understood the power of self-determination; who had a vision of true independence; and who preserved a nation for us through their effort and their will?

Time will tell. But Betsy, straightforward and serene, stands as a reminder. Her legacy can be ours, should we choose to accept it.

Some of my own family’s nation-builders

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Sparrows

Savannah sparrow  (Passerculus sandwichensis) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Botanists and wildflower enthusiasts have their DYCs — the difficult-to-identify sunflowers, sneezeweeds, tickseeds, ragworts, and rudbeckias collectively and humorously known as ‘darned yellow composites.’ In the same way, more than a few birders refer, somewhat ruefully, to LBBs: the ‘little brown birds’ that can be equally difficult to identify.

American sparrows certainly qualify as LBBs. This lovely savannah sparrow at least has a bit of yellow above its eye to help those interested in knowing its name. But most people aren’t aware of or interested in such distinctions, and so the sparrows — brown, ordinary, and easily overlooked — live out their lives in relative obscurity while the cardinals, hummingbirds, and orioles of the world bask in our regard.

One person who found sparrows worthy of attention was Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition.  Befriended and encouraged by such luminaries as James Whitcomb Riley and Frederick Douglass, he self-published a volume of poems titled Oak and Ivy in 1893. By 1895, his poems were appearing in such major publications as The New York Times, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England.

Today, Dunbar’s influence continues. A line from the third stanza of his poem “Sympathy” provided the title for Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but caged birds weren’t his only concern. In “The Sparrow,” he addresses issues even more relevant today: species loss, human insensitivity to the natural world, and our rejection of the gifts life offers to us.

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Then taps upon my window-pane
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay
‘Til, in neglect, it flies away.
So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above
To settle on life’s window-sills
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din,
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life, please click here.

 

Prufrock and Peaches

The peach orchard ~ May, 2019

Poor J. Alfred Prufrock. One of T.S. Eliot’s most memorable creations, he roams the streets and rooms of his poem — “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — haunted by a hundred indecisions.

Sometimes distressed by the grand questions of life, he becomes equally paralyzed before the smaller decisions it requires, asking “Do I dare disturb the universe?” while remaining unsure how to part his hair.

In the midst of his dithering, he asks a question I’ve always found amusing: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” At the height of our peach season, filling my baskets at a local orchard and daring to eat a peach or two as I plucked, I pondered J. Alfred’s question, and tucked this answer in with the fruit.

 

To
dare to
pluck, to sift
through leafy boughs
in seach of summer’s
bounty; to taste what heat
sends, dripping-sweet, down chins and
elbowed branches; hearing orchards
sing of rain-drenched life, of growth, of joy ~
it’s here the answer ripens as it will.

 

Comments always are welcome. For the complete text of Eliot’s poem and the context for Prufrock’s question, click here.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

Life, Imitating Art

The Red Bench, Rockport City Cemetery

Gary Myers, an artist whose work I admire and whose blog I’ve followed for years, lives north of Elmira, New York in the memorably-named town of Horseheads. His paintings have hung in an assortment of galleries, including the West End in Corning, New York; the Kada in Erie, Pennsylvania; and the The Haen in Asheville, North Carolina.

A new solo exhibition of his work, opening June 7, will be his twentieth at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia. The title Gary chose for the show, Red Tree: New Growth, neatly acknowledges both past interests and emerging directions in his art.

As he’s moved from one theme to another throughout the years, I’ve found his rich, mola-like landscapes and his unique portrayal of the archaeological foundationsof our lives particularly appealing. Still, his iconic Red Tree — together with red-roofed houses, red chairs, and red boats — continue to serve as his most immediately recognizable and evocative symbols.

Mantra ~ G.C. Myers

Reflecting on a painting destined for the June opening in Alexandria, an homage to the Red Tree titled Mantra, Gary linked it to the broader theme of the exhibition:

Over the past twenty years of these shows, the work has always changed in small increments: changes in colors and tones, changes in strokes and textures, additions and subtractions in elements and forms.
Slight differences mean that each repetition is new, and has its own meaning. Each is its own moment, with its own place on the grid of time and space.

Still, art occasionally escapes that grid, as I learned on my recent visit to the Rockport City Cemetery. Wandering among the gravestones, reading their inscriptions and admiring the wildflowers that surrounded them, I hardly expected to find a bright red wicker bench settled in among the bluebonnets and coreopsis. And yet, there it was — seemingly unattached to a particular grave site, but compelling as any monument. Even as I laughed, I couldn’t help thinking: If this Red Bench were a painting, it would have to be one of Gary’s.

Years of exposure to his use of various shades of red made it impossible not to see the bench as a delightful, if unexpected, extension of his artistic vision. It was as though an unseen hand had picked up a brush and added a dash of vibrant color to the landscape: not precisely imitating art, perhaps, but evoking the work of a favorite artist with considerable brio.

Of course, if color alone were at issue, the spicy jatrophas blooming throughout the cemetery might have outdone the Red Bench in terms of visual impact.

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

But the bench’s functional similarity to the multitude of Red Chairs in Gary’s paintings evoked memories of other chairs, other cemeteries, and other times: memories as bright and vivid as the Red Chairs themselves.

Prior to his 2012 exhibition at Erie’s Kada Gallery, Gary invited his blog readers to submit titles for a still-unnamed painting destined for the show. Each suggestion would be listed on the back of the painting, becoming a part of its history; the winning title would be featured at the show and earn a prize for its creator.

Shedding Daylight ~ G.C. Myers

After sending off my own entry, I thought no more about it until, to my astonishment, Gary selected my suggestion — Shedding Daylight — as the title for his painting.

I’d come to the title through a chain of circumstances that included a visit to another favorite resting spot: League City’s Fairview Cemetery. Small but filled with historical interest, the first burial there was a nine-year-old girl named Charlotte Natho, who died of diphtheria following the Great Storm of 1900.

Wandering the cemetery late one afternoon, I discovered a sturdy tree with a  less than sturdy chair propped up against it. The chair wasn’t as stable as the concrete benches scattered around the cemetery, and it didn’t come close to having the panache of Rockport’s Red Bench, but it intrigued me. Had it been a favorite of someone buried nearby? Was it meant to allow family members to take their ease while they chatted with the dearly-departed? Or was it simply a gracious reminder of simpler days, when the invitation to ‘set a spell’ rarely was refused?

Whatever the chair’s purpose, it reminded me of a decades-earlier conversation with my mother during our visit to a midwestern cemetery. Reminiscing among the gravestones of long-time friends, she said, “Dylan Thomas was wrong.” I’d been only half listening. “What?” “That poem he wrote. The one they made you memorize in school. The one about being mad about dying. He was wrong about that.”

The poem in question was Thomas’s famous villanelle,Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” A beautiful example of the poetic form, and certainly his best-known work, it begins:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Intent on memorizing the words, I learned little of Thomas, his father, or the struggles and frustrations which influenced the poem’s development. Still young and hardly able to conceive the sort of losses that time inevitably brings, I only remember being on the side of the poet. If old age were to bring the loss of the world and its delicious possibilities, rage seemed a perfectly reasonable response.

As I matured, my understanding of life’s seasons changed. However wondrous spring’s delicate beauty, no matter how verdant and rich the bounty of summer, even winter’s exquisite bleakness revealed unexpected treasure. Through days of slowly encroaching darkness and nights of gentle loss, when every bare-branched, autumn tree stood as a memento mori, I found it extraordinary that nature herself refused to rage against the thin and dying light.

In her latter years, my mother became as fragile as those autumn leaves. Her translucent hands trembled as though stirred by some mysterious breeze, and her once-vibrant color began to fade as her connection to the world grew thin.

Tired after seasons of growth, spent from a lifetime of production, ready at last for rest and release, she often would laze in the fading afternoon light, peaceful as a silent wood. “What are you doing?” I’d ask. “Waiting,” she said. “Come here and sit for a while.” Older, able to understand her meaning at last, I sat.

Looking back now at the Red Bench, vibrant and shining among the wildflowers; remembering the rickety and cobwebbed Fairview chair, empty beneath its tree; thinking once more of the Red Chair I named hanging in a gallery or home, I remember as well that simple chair where my own mother sat, gazing toward the horizon.

However well or poorly spent her life, she felt no need for rage as the end approached, no compulsion to “rave and burn at close of day”. Her way of leave-taking, quiet as a falling leaf and gentle as the day’s last light, required nothing more than a chair — red, or otherwise — and companionship.

Recently, realizing I hadn’t seen the Red Chair in the paintings destined for the upcoming Principle show, I asked Gary about it. He said he’d originally intended a hiatus for that group of works, but reconsidered, deciding to include one of his own favorite Red Chair paintings in the show as a nod to its importance in his oeuvre.

When I saw the painting and learned its title, I couldn’t help being amused. Whatever the virtues of Rockport’s Red Bench, this pair could prompt some interesting speculation. Its title? Familial Bond.

Familial Bond ~ G.C. Myers

 

Comments always are welcome. You can follow Gary at his blog, Redtree Times.

Double-Heading to Cheyenne

Union Pacific Steam Engines 4014 and 844 exit Weber Canyon, headed to Ogden, Utah (Bob Kise)

For three years, Union Pacific’s Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming, undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. The last of the company’s steam engines, produced in 1944 by the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, the so-called ‘Living Legend’ never had been formally out of service, but age takes its toll, and the need for maintenance was obvious.

The locomotive began rolling again in 2016, traveling first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day run to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, took UP 844 over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho.

Eventually, she traveled to the midwest, then on to Texas. Stops along each route allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.

Recently, UP 844 has been ‘double-heading’ — traveling in tandem with Union Pacific’s Engine No. 4014, affectionately known as ‘Big Boy.’ The pair made their way westward to Ogden, Utah to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, and soon will be back in Cheyenne. In the coming months, Big Boy 4014 will travel other parts of the Union Pacific system, allowing even more people to experience a piece of living history. That such a thing is possible — Big Boy back on the rails and able to tour the country– is something of a miracle.

UP No. 4014 leaving Evanston, Wyoming, headed to Ogden, Utah (Greg Brubaker)

During World War II, Union Pacific operated some of the largest and most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Known collectively as the ‘Big Boys,’ they were designed to solve a particular problem.

Seventy years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the mountains of Wyoming and Utah continued to confound Union Pacific. Moving heavy freight over the mountains often required multiple locomotives, which meant a need for more workers and more fuel. The climb over the Wasatch mountains between Ogden, Utah and Green River, Wyoming was particularly difficult. According to William Pearce:

The 176-mile stretch of track started out at 4,300 ft (1,310 m) above sea level in Ogden, climbed the Wasatch Range to 7,300 ft (2,225 m) at the Aspen Tunnel, and then dropped to 6,100 ft (1,859 m) at Green River. Occasionally, up to three helper engines were used to assist heavily loaded trains over the Wasatch mountains.

In 1940, the railroad’s mechanical engineers sought to solve the problem by designing a new class of engines which came to be known as “Big Boys.” Twenty-five were built, each measuring 132 feet long and weighing 1.2 million pounds. Because of their length, their frames were articulated, or hinged, allowing them to negotiate curves. Their wheel arrangement (known as a 4-8-8-4) included a leading set of four pilot wheels to guide the engine, two sets of eight drive wheels, and four smaller following wheels to support the rear of the locomotive.

After delivery to Union Pacific in 1941, UP 4014 joined the other Big Boys in helping to move millions of tons of war supplies. According to steam historian John E. Bush, “Without the Big Boys, the Union Pacific never could have moved all that material for the war effort.”

UP Big Boy 4012 hauling freight through Green River, Wyoming, November 1941
(Otto Perry image via Denver Public Library)

Union Pacific used the Big Boys until 1959, then replaced them with diesel-electric locomotives. Most were scrapped, but some were put on display: in St. Louis; Dallas; Omaha; Denver; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In 2013, Union Pacific announced that it had re-acquired a Big Boy from the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona, California, and hoped to restore it for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Many expressed scepticism; even the machinery needed to create replacement parts would have to be redesigned and reconstructed. But in the end, the goal was accomplished, and UP Big Boy 4014 is rolling again.

During my childhood, I found the poetry and romance of steam enticing. In the classroom, teachers told stories of strong, indestructible iron horses, or taught songs about winsome little creatures called “pufferbellies.”

In my naiveté, I believed that pufferbellies were roaming our neighborhood, and thought I ought to be able to catch one — like a firefly, or grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon, I headed off toward the schoolyard, determined to find one of the creatures. Before long, my dad caught up with me and asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”  “To find the pufferbellies,” I said. Silence billowed between us like steam. “The what?” ”The pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”

He asked if I could sing the song for him, and I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.

By the time I finished, he was laughing. “Sweetie, I know where the pufferbellies live. Why don’t we go see them?”

Later that afternoon, we bundled into the car and drove to a place he called the depot. At the depot, while people boarded trains for such exotic destinations as Des Moines and Omaha, we sat on a bench, waiting for a train to arrive. Hearing the low moan of the arriving train’s whistle, feeling the vibrations in the ground, and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes, I came to a conclusion: real trains were far more exciting than pufferbellies.

Rock Island Depot ~ Newton, Iowa

I began riding my bike to the depot to watch the trains come in, and began reading the names on freight cars at crossings: Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt.

I learned new songs, sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Wabash Cannonball, The Wreck of Old 97, and Paddy Works on the Erie weren’t pleasant fantasies; they were grounded in railroading as a way of life, celebrating the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and engineers who worked the yards.


In time, I began walking the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we tempted the afternoon freight. Once, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, where the engines and their turntable delighted me. On road trips I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening tracks, and in the rich summer nights I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear  mournful whistles dissolving away into the dark.

Decades later, photographer and friend Tom Parker captured UP 844 rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne to Harlingen, Texas. The Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.

Like a giant pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP 844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel. From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops, and country crossings to witness the historic journey.

UP 844 steaming through Kansas ~ Tom Parker

At a crossing southwest of Houston, waiting for one more glimpse of the great locomotive, I found myself pondering the world represented by an outdated but still compelling technology.

In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond, rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.

In a world marked by divisions, it’s worth remembering that, for many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide: an obstacle eventually overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly manipulation and not a little greed were part of overcoming that divide. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding iron horses, people journeyed from Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.

Today we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch.

Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration: to reach across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel, and grit that made this country work and to witness the proof of a challenge well met.

As long as UP 844 and UP 4014 keep rolling; as long as the people who love and sustain them survive; as long as the whistles sound and the firebox glows, there’s railroading to be done. There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity; high plateaus where the winds blow free and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.

Children will love their pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups: for people willing to pick up and roam; to work beyond exhaustion; to trade security for freedom, and speak with integrity.

Of course there will be difficulties. No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming downgrade acceleration, or the jumped tracks. But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne — or anywhere else for that matter — and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. Today’s railroaders would agree.

Comments always are welcome.
Thanks to Tom Parker, Aaron B. Hockley, and Daniel Lipinski for images used in my video. Thanks also to Hal Cannon, the Deseret String Band, and Okehdokee Records for permission to use the group’s version of “Railroading on the Great Divide.” This previously published post was re-written and expanded to include some history of the Big Boys, and acknowledge the introduction of UP 4014 back into service.
 

Messages in a Bottle

Flannery O’Connor with editor Robbie Macauley in 1947 (Wikimedia)

Even among the literati, mothers can be difficult to impress. In a letter written to author Cecil Dawkins in 1959, Flannery O’Connor congratulated Cecil for being paid $1,000 for a story — a figure that more than doubled Flannery’s current top payment of $475. Somewhat wryly, Flannery added:

Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly.  It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home. 
The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked, instead of the kind of thing I do write.  Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, a LOT of people like? 
This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc.  All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

I still laugh when I read that passage. Shortly after my first computer arrived, my mother began nosing around it like a wary dog circling a snake, asking questions of her own. “What are you going to do with it?”  I didn’t know, and said so. “Well, how much did it cost?”  I did know that. Despite reservations born of experience, I told her. The disapproving silence thickened. “You spent all that money for something, and don’t even know how you’re going to use it?” 

Clearly, she regarded my computer as nothing more than the newest version of the hula-hoop or Mr. Potato Head, and I was her idiot child, consumed with a child’s breathless longing to possess the same toys as my friends.

As the months passed and my mysterious toy began demanding ever more time, her perplexity increased. She’d come to understand the practicality of email and the profitability of eBay, but the hours spent on my new blog confounded her. “Why are you still on that machine?” she’d say, peering over the top of her knitting. “Who reads those things, anyway?  Why not do something productive?” 

Since she refused even to sit at the computer, I began printing out occasional blog posts for her to read. She’d murmur some nice, motherly compliment, but usually ended by asking the question that would have made Flannery O’Connor’s mother proud: “When is somebody going to pay you for all this?”

Equating dollars with quality is natural enough. The first and only local writing group I joined once published this food for thought in its newsletter:

“Never give your writing away. If you don’t receive payment, your writing is worthless.”

Everyone in the group believed that, and for months I fussed over the issue, unable to refute either the logic or the assumptions of members who kept asking, “When are you going to start doing some real writing?” The question of worth was everywhere, and many of us in an online writing group recognized the dilemma expressed by Becca Rowan as our own:

 I find it all too easy to sink into pessimism about my own writing. “What’s the point?” I sometimes find myself thinking. “Who cares what I have to say? Why bother struggling to find just the right word, to come up with the perfect idea, to create an evocative image?  What difference can it possibly make to the world?”

Reading Becca’s words, I sensed her effort was justified, as was mine.  I remained convinced  my writing was worth the hours stolen from sleep; the decisions to forego evenings out; the end of television and social media. I simply didn’t know why.

Eventually, I found the beginning of an answer in an off-handed remark made by a woman with decades of experience in the classroom. “Teaching is like throwing out words in a bottle,” she said. “Sometimes you’re lucky, and the bottle reaches shore.”

Her metaphor seemed apt: as much for blogging as for teaching. Like a message in a bottle, each post is tossed into the currents of the great cyber-sea to bob, tumble, and drift about until safely reaching shore, or being broken and destroyed on the rocks. 

For blog-bottle throwers, of course, letting go is everything. Whatever the content of the bottle’s note, its words and images will have no opportunity to touch people, to clear their vision, to bring comfort, to elicit a wry smile or a sigh of satisfaction until the bottle is set free to travel.

It does take time for bottles to bob their way to the beaches of the world.  It takes even more time for someone to find them, and sometimes it requires pure luck for the message to be plucked out and read. Today, I can’t help being amazed by how many of my own metaphorical bottles have been pulled from the surf and preserved in one way or another.

A woman in Salisbury who’d put her own writing on hold felt an implicit challenge in one essay, and began writing again.  A St. Louis executive found a lesson for the workplace in Godette’s choice of inspiration over competition.  Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head in Clarksdale, Mississippi reprinted some reflections on their Juke Joint festival in one of his newsletters. The Moon Lake Improvement Association included my story of a visit to Uncle Henry’s roadhouse in the history section of their site. An astronomer added The Comet Watchers to his links.

Each of these connections pleased me, but nothing represents the satisfactions of blog-bottle tossing as well as my experience with “Search Pattern,” a poem written in response to the death of Roger Stone.

Safety Officer aboard the sailing vessel Cynthia Woods during the 2008 Regata de Amigos offshore race from Galveston to Veracruz, Roger lost his life while saving five crewmates from death after their sailboat capsized.

He was well known in the local sailing community, and while I’d never met him, I was deeply affected by his death.  While the Coast Guard conducted their search and rescue mission, and during its sad aftermath, there was little else I could do, so I wrote a poem titled “Search Pattern.”

Due north from south
then south again
the heart flies,
anxious in its unexpected space,
winging over absence
with an osprey’s climbing curl,
unfettered but forlorn.
From east to west
frail rising hope streams light
across conviction’s shattered hull;
love’s fruitless oars, adrift
beyond this longing reach
float half-submerged,
splintered as the fragments of a dream.
What life remains,
preserved through night’s long tumult
to wash, exhausted, onto shore?
The osprey climbs.
The oars drift on.
The heart resumes its wheeling flight
due north from south,
then south again,
across a bowl of tears.

After writing and posting the poem, I moved on. Then, nine months later, I found this comment appended to the poem on its blog page:

Hi,
I am Roger Stone’s widow. I ran across this poem just now, and I want to thank you so much for it.  The introduction was so touching, too.  If I would have seen this before his service, I would have loved for you to have read it. 
I miss Roger every day, and seeing this at this time touched my soul. Thank you again.
Linda Stone

That she had found the poem at all, that she had been kind enough to comment, and that the one person I wished could read the poem had, in fact, done so seemed extraordinary. In the brief correspondence that followed, I gave Linda permission to use the poem as she saw fit.  At the time, she intended to enlarge and frame it, and then to hang it in Roger’s office in their new home – the office he never got to use.

Somewhat later, on the Mitchell Campus of Texas A&M University at Galveston, Linda Stone once again described events of that tragic day as she accepted the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal on behalf of her husband. The medal, established by Congress in 1874, is awarded by the Coast Guard Commandant to any person who rescues, or endeavors to rescue another person from drowning, shipwreck, or other peril of the sea.

Roger and his medal ~ U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Petty Officer Patrick Kelley

Watching Linda receive the award on behalf of Roger, envisioning my poem gracing the wall of the office he never used, and still astonished by her improbable discovery of my blog months after the loss of the Cynthia Woods, all I could think was, “Some worth can’t be calculated.”  

I still believe that. Not every cause has an immediate effect, and not every hour invested brings immediate return. Only a willingness to take the longer, less calculating view of things allows any artist to keep tossing bottles into the sea ~ bottles filled with treasure that one day, some day, will wash onto a receptive shore.

Comments always are welcome.