I’ve Been Workin’ On the Railroad…
When I was a boy, our family lived in a small house on a hillside. Down in the hollow below, which was partly natural, partly manmade, ran The Train. Although it was already there when I was born, its arrival to our area was within memory of most of the older adults. Few had actually ridden upon it but they were nevertheless in awe of it. They knew how long it could take a person by carriage or even foot, to reach even just the next station. In their own lifetimes, they had seen the world shrink by half.
I absorbed their awe.
Each time the train passed through, with the echo of its whistle bouncing up and down the sides of the hills, I would try to imagine all the places such a powerful machine could take me — exotic places where the language and customs were unintelligible to me; where people wore brightly colored clothing and marvelous headdresses; where to sit at a dining table might mean eating unknown ingredients simmered in mysterious spices. I loved books about foreign lands, especially those with pictures. I longed to find myself somewhere other than where I was.
While nobody I had ever met had ever gone more than a day’s journey by train (and for everyone, that was exciting enough!) my own imagination was stoked once I understood that although this track might only lead to the nearest large city, from there you could ride another train, and another train, and then another, and in turn, you could go almost anywhere.
And thus began my fascination with the train.
When I was fourteen, I took myself to the local depot, which was perhaps an hour’s walk down the line, and presented myself to the station master. I offered to do any kind of work he might have available. He must have seen my enthusiasm (which is more than most workers have for their jobs) and gave me a chance. I would sweep the floors, empty the dust bins, haul coal to heat the office and waiting area. I was barely paid more than volunteer work, but I was happy. Whatever I made were contributed to family expenses. It wasn’t much and I might have earned more doing different work, but my parents saw how happy the job made me, and I think they believed, as did I, that I had found my place.
I had the train schedule memorized, reading it the way some folks pore over the Bible. I could tell a passenger exactly when the train would arrive without having to look. I loved seeing those who were lucky enough to ride, dressed in their traveling finery.
I always looked for opportunities to expand my service whether it meant carrying bags, assisting passengers up the steps, even loading and unloading mailbags and packages. I was always reliable, never complaining. The Stationmaster appreciated my value, and would periodically give me small raises.
Eventually, one of the older gentlemen who worked in the back office retired and everybody else shifted up. I was moved into the office where I was put in charge of what I considered to be important administrative and secretarial tasks. I am certain the Stationmaster had never encountered anyone so happy to do filing or counting or adding columns of numbers.
By now, I was able to save a little money from my salary in addition to giving most of it to my parents. It was my travel fund. Someday, I knew, I would get on that train as a passenger and not return for a very long time. Or ever.
It was around this time that I met a girl. Her father owned a small shop in the depot down and he had enough money to occasionally take her into the city for an excursion. Whenever she returned, I’d beg her to tell me all about it. She was happy to oblige. And so, we became friends. She told me of her adventures in the city, and I told her of my dreams of places far beyond. She’d never much thought about what lay beyond, but now I’d stoked her imagine as well.
When I asked her to marry me, she happily said yes, and her family approved. Perhaps I wasn’t as successful as some of her other suitors, but her father saw how she came alive when we were together, and he sensed that I would make it my priority to make her happy. He was correct.
I went to the Stationmaster with my good news, asking for a better position with better pay. He soon promoted me to the ticket window which was a position of great trust since I had to handle and count money. I took my job very seriously and was careful to not make mistakes.
Now I had a reasonable income on which to support a wife, and perhaps eventually, a family.
We found a small house not far from the depot, at a rent that was within our budget. She set about making it a home.
Before long, there were children. Four of them, whom I loved dearly and doted on. I gave them everything I could, but still managed to add a little bit, here and there, to my travel fund. My wife knew of this, and she, too, enjoyed the fantasy that someday, when the children were finally grown, we would go somewhere exotic. The fund didn’t have much, but had I abandoned it, I would have lost all hope of fulfilling my dream. With hope gone, I could not have remained so happily in my job. It was for this reason as well that she never asked to dip into that money. It was mine. It was sacrosanct.
The years passed and I eventually became the stationmaster. In this official capacity, I was able to ride the train for free, but except for going back and forth between termini, there was not much point to it. Once, when they were young, we took our children the city but with the hotel and restaurants, it was quite expensive and we never did it again.
The children grew and started families of their own. I was adding as much as I could to the travel fund so when I stopped working, we could really see the world. It was a constant discussion – how long should we wait? The longer I held my job, the more money we’d have to travel. But the older we got, the more difficult travel would be.
And then one day, the decision was made for us. My beautiful wife became ill. At first, the doctors thought she would quickly recover, but her condition worsened by the week. Soon she grew too weak to leave her bed. And in just a few months, she was gone.
I was inconsolable.
The allure of traveling vanished overnight. Without her, what was the point? I bought her the most expensive, elaborate gravestone I could afford with whatever money was in my fund.
I was still working, but my heart wasn’t in it. I went from home to the station, from the station to home. One night, less than a year after she died, I was waking home from work, lost in my own sad thoughts, not paying attention to anything but my own feelings. I didn’t hear or see the train coming around the curve. And in an instant, I, too, was gone.
In its way, the train did take me to my final destination.