“Pufferbellies” was my teacher’s name for the little trains. They were cute and winsome as the wooden ducks and chickens we pulled along behind us on strings. Day by day they traveled through my imagination until one day, while the world’s back was turned, they broke free and chugged off into reality. No longer arrayed in neat little rows, no longer subject to station masters and drivers, no longer dependent on children to pull them along, the Pufferbellies began to roam the world.
I was certain they were roaming my neighborhood, and I knew I ought to be able to catch one, like a firefly or a grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon I headed off toward my school, thinking perhaps I could find one in the schoolyard.
It didn’t take long for my dad to catch up with me. “Just where do you think you’re going?” “To find the Pufferbellies.” Silence wafted between us like steam. “The what?” ”The Pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.” Dad thought it over for a minute. ”Can you sing me the song?” Of course I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.
When he finished laughing he said, “I know where the Pufferbellies live. Want to go see?” Later that afternoon we bundled into the car and drove to a place I’d never been. He called it The Depot. It was a place where people became passengers, boarding trains for such far-flung destinations as Des Moines, Omaha and Iowa City.
While we sat outside on a bench, waiting for something to happen, I learned that the name “Rock Island” had been applied to far more than the city where my aunt and uncle lived. It also was a railroad, with its own symbol and its own song.
Pufferbellies were cute, but the Rock Island line was exciting. Hearing the low moan of the whistle, feeling the vibration of the tracks with my hand and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes that stopped the engine in front of me, I knew I wanted to be a passenger, too.
My first trip came some years later. After weeks of wheedling and whining, my parents decided to allow me to accompany my dad to a football game in Iowa City. Today’s Steampunk afficionados would have loved it. The open windows, the flying cinders, the rough, bristling seat fabric and burgundy upholstered walls seemed to call for waistcoats, high-button shoes and bustles.
Like everyone else, we carried our lunch in boxes. We peeled hard-boiled eggs and gnawed on chicken legs, and I giggled at the men pulling flasks from their vests pockets and jackets. While they enjoyed their little nips, I fell into sleep, lulled by the rhythmic clacking of steel on steel.
Today, we speak of dog people or cat people. In the 1950s, there were train people and airplane people. Our town lacked an airport but it had a lot of tracks, and I was a train person. The Rock Island became my favorite line mostly because of familiarity,, but it wasn’t the only line that crossed our state. Freight cars at crossings bore exotic, memorable names – Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt; Wabash.
No longer content to sing about Pufferbellies, I learned a clutch of new tunes. Many, like the Wabash Cannonball, were sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie. The Wreck of Old 97 was grounded in railroading as a way of life and served as an over-the-top celebration of the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors and engineers who worked the yards. The hobos rode for free, and sang their own songs.
As my increasing years brought greater independence, I walked the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we dared the clunky afternoon freights to arrive ahead of schedule. Visiting a roundhouse with my grandfather, I was awed by the engines and their turntable. On road trips, I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening, parallel tracks, and in the rich, jasmine-scented nights of summer I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear the mournful whistle dissolve away into the dark.
Eventually, I began to ride trains. Strangely, the more often I traveled on trains, the less I traveled to trains – to look, to listen and to experience the poignant longing they evoke. Yet if the romance faded, it never entirely disappeared. A fragment of song, a 3 a.m. whistle, the sound of switching cars carried south on a perfect wind could make me pause, shifting about like a placid housecat who suddenly remembers her lineage and sniffs the freedom of the wild.
Decades later, photographer Tom Parker posted a remarkable image on his blog, Dispatches from Kansas. He’d captured UP844, the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific, rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Harlingen Texas. Her 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, UP844 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 and wave to the crew who made it possible.
Listening again to my favorite railroad song, Sara Carter Bayes’ Railroadin’ on the Great Divide, I pondered anew the world of divides in which we live. Beyond the divides of politics, race, gender and economics running through our social and cultural landscape, an even greater divide appears to exist, one separating the world in which I grew up from the quite different world emerging today
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.
For many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide, a divide overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly there was manipulation in that spike as well, and not a little greed. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding ”iron horses”, people journeyed from places like 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. I suspect others share my view. 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 move, to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration, reaching across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel and grit that made this country work.
As long as UP 844 and her kind keep rolling, as long as the people who love and sustain her survive, as long as the whistle sounds 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. There’s always the chance we’ll get lucky, and land on the Great Divide.