Surviving and Thriving on the Bayou

Before words become language, we experience them as sound and rhythm; only later do those sounds fill with meaning, giving substance to memories that endure throughout the years.

Reading the phrase ‘teddy bear,’ I remember my own stuffed childhood favorite: its limp paws; the worn brown plush on its left arm ; the missing faceted, jet black button-eye. But if those words are spoken with a bit of a lilt, emphasizing the rhythm and rhyme, I hear again the sudden slap of summer jump ropes; the girlish giggles; the hissing intake of breath as I struggle to match my movement to the words.

Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Touch the ground.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Turn around.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Show your shoe.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
That will do.

Childhood rhymes rarely are lost; flowing beneath the surface of consciousness, they occasionally erupt into bits of verse or snippets of song that serve as fodder for the word play so many of us enjoy. Reading about Hurricane Ida’s incursion into Louisiana’s bayous and talking with a friend whose home miraculously survived, I thought again about two natural features of bayou life: alligator scutes and garfish scales. The sound of their names brought to mind a pair of verses as familiar as my jump-rope rhymes:

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,
that’s what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.

‘Snips and snails’ sounded so much like ‘scutes and scales’ it was impossible not to transform the latter into ‘suits and sales’ for a new  bit of doggerel.

What are city folk made of?
Suits and sales and ‘lectronic tales –
that’s what city folk are made of.
What are Cajun folk made of?
Scutes and scales and crawdaddy tails –
that’s what Cajun folk are made of.

Cajun country — south Louisiana’s intricate web of salt marsh, bayou, and swamp — is populated by a complex mixture of Houma and Chitimacha tribespeople, Cajuns, and Creoles, not to mention the assorted Germans,  Spaniards, and Czechs who showed up, liked what they saw, and stayed. But beyond nationality or ethnicity, anyone who loves or lives in Louisiana has a fair portion of scutes, scales, and crawdaddy tails in their makeup. The fun lies in discovering what that means.


Crawfish may be the most widely-recognized of Louisiana’s critters, as well as being the totem of La Louisiane. Some call them crayfish or crawdaddies. Others know them as mudbugs, but in Louisiana they’re crawfish. A mainstay in gumbos, etouffees, pistolettes and pies, crawfish crawl onto every gimcrack imaginable: tee shirts, mugs, key chains, beads, beer-bottle openers, sun visors, bikinis, playing cards, and plastic bibs. “Ubiquitous” hardly describes it.

For the good people of Breaux Bridge, Thibodaux, or Houma, Tualatin, Oregon can brag all it wants about having the oldest crawfish festival in the country, but in the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capitol of the World, when they throw their annual festival celebrating the iconic little critter, les bon temps tend to rouler with a vegeance. There’s Cajun and Zydeco music for dancing crawfish races, crawfish royalty and enough crawfish piled onto the tables to satisfy even the most voracious appetite.

When someone meets a heap of boiled crawfish for the first time, there’s often a delicate, barely perceptible shudder, and you know what they’re thinking. Yes, crawfish live in the mud. Yes, they look more like a bug than a lobster, and, yes — to fully enjoy that pile of savory goodness you do need to pull off the heads. But if you can get past all that, you’ll pass a good time, as they say on the bayou, and get a fine taste of culture along with your food.

While crawfish burrow deeper into the mud to avoid becoming dinner, a different critter roams the bayous with dinner on his mind: the American alligator.

Everyone knows the strength of alligators — especially the damage their teeth or tails can inflict — but hidden beneath the surface of their skin is a marvel of evolutionary engineering. Embedded bony plates called ‘scutes’ or ‘osteoderms’ not only serve as protective armor, they also help to regulate the reptile’s body temperature. Filled with blood vessels that collect and distribute the sun’s heat, scutes function very much like a collection of solar cells.

An alligator scute

Seen from the outside, the elegance and effectiveness of the scutes’ design is obvious. By raising the skin of the cold-blooded alligator into rows of tiny ‘mountains,’ scutes increase the amount of exposed surface, allowing heat to be collected more efficiently. As is so often true in the swamps, it’s what’s under the surface that counts.

Meanwhile, more shy than its namesake and somewhat reticent, the fish known as the alligator gar lives much of its life half-hidden from view. Because a buoyancy bladder connected directly to its throat gives it the ability to breathe air, it can bask just below the surface of the water; in midsummer heat, it often lazes away the afternoon in the shadows of docks or pilings.

Despite its size — as much as several feet long — the gar’s tendency to hang motionless in the water can make it difficult to spot. A huge splash and roiled water often are the first signs of its presence. When a garfish decides to surface and roll, offering a look of primordial contempt in the process, it seems as though prehistory has come to visit in the form of a fish that already populated rivers during the Cretaceous Period.

Rickey Verrett, known on Bayou Dularge and beyond as Bayou Fabio because his long blond hair reminded people of the actor, is one of the few who capture, clean, and sell gar commercially; over the years, he’s honed the process as sharply as his knives. Many consider the fish’s firm, mild meat to be quite tasty; if you have a gar in your cooler and do a bit of browsing, you can find online recipes for garfish cakes, gar nuggets, deep-fried gar, and gar balls.

Scaling the fish isn’t easy. Interlocking, diamond-shaped scales provide an armored protection that equals that of alligator scutes. Used by Native Americans as arrowheads, they’ve also been incorporated into jewelry, Christmas tree decorations, and various sorts of bayou souvenirs by artists dedicated to fashioning delightful bits of beauty from an arguably ugly fish.

Crawfish, alligators, and alligator gar: each continues to survive — even to thrive — in the midst of a changing and precarious world. Perfectly adapted to their environments, they reside at the world’s edges and interstices, where time flows easily and clocks have no meaning. In the swamp and along the bayous, their time is measured by the rising and falling tides: by the ending of the seasons, and by the seasons’ unending return.

Occasionally some smart and sophisticated city-dweller, newly arrived on the bayou, decides to share an opinion or two: crawfish are disgusting, alligators dangerous, and gar unbearably ugly. What they think of the wetlands in general, or their people in particular, can be equally unflattering. But while the city folk chatter and chirp, the sounds and the rhythms of the swamp-song continue to flow.

Shadowed beneath the surface of the moonlit marsh, the garfish hangs suspended in its pool. Patient, the alligator watches and waits, parting the smooth cordgrass with his snout. And where the water meets the land and the land dissolves away, the life of a people goes on. Scooting around obstacles, scaling walls of prejudice, living out their lives with ingenuity and verve, they tell one another tales of blessings piled higher than the crawfish on their tables. Scoots and scales and crawdaddy tales – that’s what La Louisiane is made of.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Some of you might enjoy “The Ballad of Bayou Fabio” by the New Orleans group Dash Rip Rock.

To Rise, to Stand, and to Live

 

Lingering at the breakfast table, an hour or two of chores already completed, my grandfather folded away the newspaper before turning to smile at the small, barefoot disturbance running into his kitchen.

“Are you done, Grandpa?” Glancing toward the oversized cup resting next to its saucer on the table, he said, “No, not quite. Do you want a turn?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed back his chair as I hopped from one foot to the other, filled to the brim with impatience.

Carrying his cup to the stove and refilling it with coffee from the dented aluminum pot simmering on the back burner, he turned and eased into his chair before carefully pouring a portion of the dark, fragrant liquid into the saucer.

Accepting the saucer from his hand, I tentatively rippled the muddy, steaming pond with my breath. If the coffee remained too hot for drinking, I would continue, breathing across the bowl until my lips no longer burned and I was able to sip. Then, my child’s share taken, I handed the saucer to my grandfather. “Perfect,” he’d say with a smile, finishing the cooled coffee in the saucer. Refilling it from the cup, he drank again: pouring and filling and drinking until the last of the coffee was gone.

Later, I learned a phrase that described this way of taking coffee: ‘saucered and blowed.’ However old or widespread the custom, it perfectly described our custom and our comfort: a ritual as much a part of our mornings as the reading of the obituaries.

His coffee gone, Grandpa always reached again for the newspaper, unfolding it carefully as he looked over his glasses at me and said, “Let’s see if we’re still here.”

Always, we were the lucky ones. Mrs. Gasparovich had departed after taking a tumble and dying of her injuries, and the nice Andersen boy who came through the war without a scratch had been killed in a tractor accident. Mr. Flanagan, who lived two blocks over and worked in the mines, died of lung problems related to the coal dust, and eighty-nine year old Sadie, famous for her cookies, simply had faded away. They were gone, all of them: but still we endured.

“Well, Sunshine,” Grandpa would say, refolding the paper a third time as he prepared to get back to his chores, “We’re not goners yet.” He always grinned, and I’d smile right back. It was a new day, waiting to be lived.

My grandfather’s sanguine approach to obituaries, so typical of the time, made it easy for me to view death with a certain bemused acceptance. I tended to think of death much as I thought of the ne’er-do-well neighbor who’d moved away to Nebraska. I didn’t expect him to show up on our doorstep, asking to move into the back bedroom, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had.

That was the way death arrived in our town – unannounced, unexpected and often unremarkable. No axe murderers or arsonists roamed our streets. We had slate falls in coal mines and accidents on farms. Now and then a child was thrown from a horse, or a hitchhiker hit by a car. Measles killed some, while others died of scarlet fever, pneumonia or undiagnosed illnesses that surely were cancer. Tuberculosis and polio thrived, and smallpox scars were familiar.

After the war and during my childhood, things began to improve. The mines became safer. Pencillin became more widely available, and polio vaccine arrived. Measles became rare, while the number of old folks increased. Over time, even the ringing of the telephone lost its ability to evoke anxiety. Long considered a death knell, its sound became ordinary and ubiquitous, part of the cacophony of modern life.

By the time my grandfather’s death knell sounded, life was changing. Rituals I cherished as a child began giving way to the less delightful routines of adulthood. Constrained by schedules, pressured by obligations, I carried my coffee in saucerless styrofoam and rarely took time to browse the obituaries. Death still wandered the back roads, but I paid him little mind. I was on the highways of life, and I had places to go.

Still, the pull of the back roads remained strong, both for the solace they offered and for the mysteries they contained. Anticipating a first foray into the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana, I hardly appreciated the depth of those mysteries: how easily beauty conceals the threats of the world, or how quickly the distracted and inattentive can be shown the error of their ways.

As we threaded our way through the steaming landscape of Acadiana on narrow, water-lapped roads — Grand Cailliou, Little Cailliou, Montegut — my traveling companion exclaimed at the herons and egrets fishing the bayous, and admired the great, unnamed grasses reaching to the sky.

As late afternoon sunlight began painting the grasses and birds with a deepening glow, we stopped to walk the narrow, vegetation-choked bank in search of vantage points for a photo. When the grasses parted, roiling and crackling, flailed by some tremendous unseen force, we caught only a glimpse of the slapping tail half-concealed by thick, heavy shadows, or the ripples it sent streaming over the bayou.

Stunned at first into silence, my friend finally spoke. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Was that an alligator?” Probably, it was. Or perhaps it wasn’t. At the time, it hardly mattered. We backed away from the bayou with pounding hearts and trembling hands, sharply aware of being terribly alone in the midst of a world we barely understood.

Laughing about the experience some months later, I said we’d been street-smart but bayou-stupid. Eventually, I discovered Mary Oliver had turned to poetry to express similar feelings about her own sweet foolishness with an alligator.

I knelt down
at the edge of the water
and if the white birds standing
in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.
I drank up to the very moment it came
crashing toward me,
its tail flailing
like a bundle of swords,
slashing the grass,
and the inside of its cradle-shaped mouth
gaping
and rimmed with teeth–
and that’s how I almost died
of foolishness
in beautiful Florida.
But I didn’t.
I leaped aside, and fell,
and it streamed past me, crushing everything in its path
as it swept down to the water
and threw itself in,
and, in the end,
this isn’t a poem about foolishness,
but about how I rose from the ground
and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.

And that, of course, is the gift: to see the world as it really is. If it takes a second time, or a third, or a tenth, hardly matters. What matters is finishing the coffee, folding the paper, and rising again from the table or ground to affirm the wonderous, incomprehensible truth: we’re still here.

Despite our ability to engage in every sort of foolishness, our obituaries aren’t yet written, and the world is waiting. As Grandpa liked to remind me, every day is new: filled with beauty and challenges. We’re certainly free to insulate ourselves in the service of an illusory safety, just as we’re free to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear or swept away by rising tides of irrational hysteria. But we’re also free to claim a different freedom: the freedom to rise, to stand, and to live.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Moon Lake Legacies

Moon Lake Casino Pier ~ Featured in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, a few miles north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena, Arkansas bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Far from a typical bed-and-breakfast, Uncle Henry’s Inn and Restaurant provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view over the lake, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude. Not every lodging encourages sitting and thinking, but, whether by accident or intention, Uncle Henry’s did.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was purchased in 1933 by a local named William Wilkerson. Known as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living, and assorted illegalities: primarily forms of gambling. Connections to the Chicago mob led to a loss of respectability, but locals eventually cut those ties, and the Club prospered as a family destination for dancing, dining, and swimming. 

In 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Bates Wright, and became Uncle Henry’s Place. In time, the Club seems to have passed out of the family’s control, but in 1986 Sarah entered into litigation that led to her reacquisition of the property.  After extensive renovations, she and her son, George Jr., re-opened the restaurant and inn, maintaining Uncle Henry’s name in honor of her step-father.

By the time I arrived, the place had become a little shabby and quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. A combination of dust, torn draperies, and the occasional skeletal mouse quietly fading away behind a sofa made it easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a prototypical Southern Lady: temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

Obviously, Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. As guests gathered for dinner, the room filled with regular customers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking, politely: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Somewhat later, when I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, they stopped eating and grinned. “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” one asked. When I allowed as how I’d not only stopped but had lingered for a few days, the other man said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But it’s a whole lot more interesting.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I called for a reservation after a late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival. Every motel had been booked for weeks, and most had waiting lists, but when  I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.”

After my arrival, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “so be sure you’ve got the right one. And don’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down through the ceiling into the dining room.”

Despite the less than perfect accomodations, I was willing to adapt, since Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — it had played host to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, another pair of Mississippi boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to head to the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult — sometimes sharing time there with Williams — but Tennessee Williams’s connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped him transform the Club into the Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, re-reading Williams’s plays and pondering what it must have required for him to transform this sleepy Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I happened upon quite a different piece: an essay titled, The Catastrophe of Success.

An addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag, the essay originally was published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, three years after the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and during a time when Williams finally was receiving recognition as a serious playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant — not only because I was in the playwright’s own country, but also because his words resonated with all the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

Most of us hope to succeed in one way or another, but Williams did succeed, and did so marvelously well. As he reflected on the circumstances of his life and career in the essay, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable, and worth considering.

Plantation bell ~ Uncle Henry’s Place, Moon Lake, Mississippi
The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading Williams’s essay today, I imagine the scent of dogwood and azalea, the dark, moody flow of the great river, and low murmur of mist-shrouded voices.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores along the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like riffs of breeze across the Delta.

Rocking in the early evening gloom, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning toward creation, while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and life begins anew.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Today, George, his mother Sarah, and many of the locals who contributed so much color to Uncle Henry’s have passed away, and the Moon Lake landmark no longer is in operation. Needless to say, the memories remain.

I Hear That Train A-Comin’

I’ve never before posted a public service announcement, but that’s precisely what this is.  UP4014, the Union Pacific “Big Boy” locomotive that recently re-entered service in tandem with UP844, is back on the rails, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion with a last run through several states, called The Great Race Across the Southwest.

After a tour through the midwest, the engine returned to the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming for maintenance. Currently located in Los Angeles, it will move on tomorrow to Beaumont, Indio, and Niland, California. For the next month and a half, it will make stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado before returning to Cheyenne at the end of November.

The complete schedule can be seen here. My own plans are to see it arrive in Hondo, Texas with friends, catch it on the move between Flatonia and Eagle Lake, and then make a stop at Houston’s Washington Avenue Station for an up-close-and-personal look at a bit of living history.

Many of you will have read my previous post about UP4014 and UP844 titled “Double-heading to Cheyenne.”  This fine video, showing a portion of the current tour, is only one of many produced by people who already have had the privilege of seeing the locomotive at work. I wish all of you could see it in person, but for those who live anywhere near the route, I suspect even the briefest glimpse will be worthwhile.

Comments always are welcome.
To follow the progress of UP4014 both graphically and by Twitter posts, please visit the convenient Union Pacific tracking page.

 

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.