You're approaching the railroad tracks when you hear the horn and see a train coming down the line. Most people get annoyed by the delay. But if you relax and look forward to watching the train roll by, you're a railroad buff.
condition is probably hereditary. Other writers wax rhapsodic about
playing catch with Dad in the back yard, but I was a youngster in
the last days of steam locomotives during the
When the family was out on a Sunday
afternoon drive, wandering along the back roads and farm towns of
Weld County in the fall, we might see coal smoke on the horizon, or
hear the low moan of a distant steam whistle. Then my dad would
race toward those tracks.
If he got there in
time, we might see a Burlington steamer brought out of storage to
handle the rush of harvest business. Or the Great Western
Railroad's immense and immaculate No. 90, straining to pull a long
string of sugar-beet gondolas to the mill.
the county road ran parallel to the tracks. We'd pace the train,
waving to the engineer, and he'd give us our own toot from the
Those are among my earliest memories,
and though many of the memories concern railroads, not all are of
Once I was walking home from a
Cub Scout meeting after school. At the railroad crossing, an idling
sedan was parked. I heard the whistle of a crack UP express en
route from Cheyenne to Denver, and decided to wait and watch the
train go by.
Over by the sedan, there was a
strange little tower I hadn't noticed before. It looked like a
steel question mark, 10 or 12 feet high. Suspended inside the curve
was a leather bag.
As the train roared by, I
heard a loud "thwack" and saw a metal arm reach out and grab the
bag from its perch. Out of the train flew another bag, which landed
on the ground nearby with a big thud. The postmaster of Evans,
Colo., got out of his car and picked up the
I was curious, but he got to me first.
"Don't ever stand so close when the train comes by," he cautioned.
"That thing's going about 70 miles per hour when they toss out our
mail bag, and if that bag ever hit you, you'd be one dead kid."
After I assured him that I would never again
stand that close to the tracks (a promise I have generally kept),
he explained how the postal clerks worked right on the train,
sorting letters inside the mail car.
cities like Greeley and Denver where the train stopped, they loaded
and unloaded mail at the station. But tiny Evans didn't even boast
a depot, let alone a scheduled stop. The postmaster put the
outbound mail on the hook for the train to grab on the fly, and
picked up the bag of inbound mail the train tossed
It was luridly fascinating, just like the
depot in Greeley, where a telegrapher once let me use his key. Or
the yards in nearby LaSalle, where occasionally we kids would get
cab rides from the switch engine operated well into the 1970s, and
I got to drive it on a winter afternoon - working the throttle,
tooting the whistle, shoveling coal. Or riding in the caboose on a
Great Western mixed train (85 cents for a round trip to Eaton),
sitting in the cupola and delighting in the passing corn
Or just standing by the tracks when a
passenger train roared by, waving at the passengers and wondering
who they were and where they were going, and wondering whether they
wondered about us.
There are people who buy (and
carry) radio scanners tuned to the channels that railroads use, so
they can hear the engine crews talk. Others study the distinctions
between types of diesel locomotives. As with all such American
compulsions, there's an industry to cater to it with trade fairs,
swap meets, videos, books, timetables both original and reprinted -
if it's got a railroad connection, somebody has it for sale and
somebody wants to buy it.