The Other Side of the Tracks

img_9607Arkansas Freight

Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.

Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.

Even the tracks provided entertainment.  Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
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At Seventy

aboutselfieA shadow of my future self

Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy the wisdom and dry wit of May Sarton, a woman whose books — particularly Journal of a Solitude, The House by the Sea, and Writings on Writing — have joined my collection of literary touchstones: volumes I find myself reading and re-reading multiple times.

And yet, another of her highly-praised books remained on my shelf for years, unopened and unread. It seemed appropriate to save it for a particular and quite special occasion.  From time to time, I found myself thinking:

One day, I ‘ll be seventy. Then, I’ll see what May has to say about the experience in her book with the tantalizing title: “At Seventy.”

When the much-anticipated birthday came, I celebrated with a trip to the  Tallgrass Prairie bottomlands, where I took my first, shadowy selfie.

Then, in the late afternoon, with bees buzzing about in the late gaura and goldenrod, and the Burlington Northern rumbling both south and north, I opened Sarton’s book. Continue reading

Ringing Out the Old, Ringing in the New

bells

Church bells. School bells. Sleigh bells. Cow bells. Dinner bells and bicycle bells.

Poe captured their variety and vibrancy perfectly: that tintinnabulation that rang and clanged through a different, non-digital world. Generations were introduced to onomatopoeia through his rollicking, unforgettable verse:

Hear the sledges with the bells,
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars, that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

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Followed by a Star

starseeker2

Perhaps she noticed my absence. More likely, she felt a draft from the partly-opened door and came out to investigate. Whatever drew my grandmother onto the porch that cold Christmas night, she discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Well, for heavens’ sake,” she said.”What’s the matter? What are you doing out here?” “I don’t want to go home,” I said. “Of course you don’t,” she said, sitting down next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to look at her, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children. “I wish it wasn’t over.”
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Henry Longfellow Considers Christmas

longfellowHenry Wadsworth Longfellow ~ Chromolithographic cigar box label, Heppenheimer & Maurer, ca. 1880

Long ago and far away, in a world still accepting of rhyme and meter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow committed the crime which made him poeta non grata to later critics: he became popular with the reading public. By the mid-twentieth century, Longfellow’s accessibility had become, as Indiana University professor Christoph Irmscher puts it, his literary equivalent to the mark of Cain.

A century after publication of his most memorable works, Longfellow not only continued to be accessible, he had become ubiquitous.  By the time I graduated from high school, I’d read dozens of Longfellow poems and memorized others, either in part or in whole.  Some still linger: “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls”; “Paul Revere’s Ride“; “Evangeline.”
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How To Bribe A Bison

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Once on the open range west of Matfield Green, a turn to the north on M Road, followed by another turn west to 60 Road, will lead you to Cedar Creek, the ghost town of Wonsevu, and autumnal ditches filled with partridge pea.

Stop to admire the flowers or the rust-colored grasses sweeping over the hills, and a glint of light might catch your eye. From the road, it’s hard to determine the source. But this is open prairie, unfenced and accessible. Wade into the grasses and climb the hill, and you’ll discover a life-sized, perfectly detailed bison: a sculpture conveying all the strength and solidity of the iconic prairie animal.

Although the name of the sculptor remains a mystery, and I haven’t yet learned who commissioned the work, I like to imagine a rancher placing the bison on its hillside: perhaps as a tribute to early ranchers in the American West who helped to save the bison from extinction. Continue reading