Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of Trains and History, of Wanderlust and Home

My father worked for the railroad as did his father before him. Grandfather came to the US from the UK in the late 19th century. He was on his way to Australia to be with cousins because there were no jobs for him in England. The future for him was only in the Empire. But Grandpa’s trip over was traumatic and he refused to get on another ship. Even a small boat on the lake would make him ‘white-knuckled’. So he wound up in Iowa working for the Burlington-Quincy Railroad. He was a surveyor. He met his wife who was the daughter of the owner of a boarding house for railroad workers.

About 100 years ago he joined the Santa Fe Railroad centered in Chicago. My dad grew up in suburban Chicago and when he graduated in 1927 he too went to work for the Santa Fe as a surveyor. Dad worked for the Santa Fe most of his life. During the Great Depression he was laid off for about 6 years but as soon as the economics began to recover, he returned to the Santa Fe. My mother’s mother too ran a boarding house for railroaders. My parents were married in Topeka, KS. Both my brother and I were born in Santa Fe railheads. Our lives revolved around the movements of passengers and freight. As with younger families, Bob moved many times in his childhood. Dad had moved up in the office by the time I came along. But we did move to Ft. Worth when I was young as a result of a Santa Fe new position.

I watched throughout my youth the decline of the railroads and the end of passenger service. I was well into my twenties before I ever flew. When we visited grandmothers, it was always by rail. But by the 1970’s I was no longer on my dad’s pass and Amtrack never held the thrill that riding the Texas Chief had had.

So it was with great delight to find when I move back to Ft. Worth that the new offices of the combined Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe were just down the street from where I live and many BNSF employees attended the church where I go. Last week an officer of the company and a docent of the building took my family on a tour. What a delight and a joy to relive those childhood memories with Bob (who had also worked for the Santa Fe during his college years). We saw not only the beautifully constructed building that is secure from takeover by terrorists, is designed like the old car barns of the early years of train travel, and has the most complete collection of western art of the 19th and 20th centuries that is one place.

My friends shared their own enthusiasm for the company in its new configuration and with pride showed us how the operations were carried out, shared some of the ways that they were looking toward the future and most of all shared with us the history of the various organizations that had made the US. We toured through walls that were hung with huge renditions of the calendar art that were the tour posters of the 19th and early 20th century. For us Santa Fe folks it meant wonderful painting of the Grand Canyon, First Nations peoples in folk dress, and in some cases actual paintings of the trains in great detail. I grew up with those calendars and longed to go to those places in Arizona and California. I am sure it conjured up the wanderlust that I know to this day.

Since this tour I have been caught up with how much my family was a part of the Western Movement that has marked the history of our nation. My mother’s people were part that began in the 17th century when farming Scots began to branch out from the enclosures of Scotland and spread into New England and Virginia and finally migrated to Missouri by way of the Erie Canal and the Appalachian Trail. They came by railroad and packet boats. They came first to farm but also to bring the newness of the railroad. I remember just how sleepy Texas towns were when we moved here following WWII and just how different and yet how the same they are a half a century later.

I am thankful for the kind of dream that the railroad provided for me. That calendar art said I did not ever have to be stuck in a place where I could not breathe or be creative. Yes, my family has stayed in specific places for generations, but we have never stayed in a place just because it was our home. We had the ability and the vision to branch out if we needed to.

Ft. Worth is experiencing a boom like it never has. I believe we are growing faster than any city in the South. I am surprised at how many of my high school classmates have returned to Ft. Worth after having spent most of their lives, like me, elsewhere. It isn’t as if Ft. Worth is the nirvana of TX. It may just be that all the mobility of my contemporaries’ adulthood has said it is time for the idea of ‘home’ to predominate. I certainly find it so.

I am so glad to find that the corporation that gave me the wanderlust is headquartered here in my hometown. I can go and look at those great pictures that sent me on a life-time of moving and can still come home. They are great memories. I feel as though I have been a part of a great picture and part of a history that has made this nation what it is. There is a certain sense of pride that that is not about a single individual but about families that slogged through hardship to make this nation great. This is about as ‘red, white and blue’ that I ever get, but it is tinged with the Orange and Red of the Santa Fe and the Green and Blue of the Burlington. The sounds of train whistles in the night are still the music of comfort, security and home.

1 comment:

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, and did you realize in my trip out here to see Elizabeth, my journey started at the La Plata, MO depot, which I'm sure you know is also on the Santa Fe...and in Macon, that used to be the intersection of the Burlington and the Wabash ( later the Norfolk & Western...)