Nycrr-freight-yards_1910_east-syracuse
When Trains Ran On Time
by Martin Willitts, Jr.

I rode a bike five miles on the edge of a road
between asphalt and ditch like a tightrope walker
just to see the trains switch.
Pass goldenrod, Johnny-jump-ups, and milkweed.
Among insect whir and truck whoosh vibrating me.

Isolation was my life; a train track narrowing
towards the horizon, the crossing bar lowering
while boxcars and cattle cars vanished.
I could see the man in the switch tower, watching.
Tracks would merge, converge, split
to destinations only a young mind could imagine.
If I timed it right, I could see the passenger trains
and faces blurring by, some waving at me.

The coal cars no longer come here. No cords of logs
like telephone poles. No cars on two tiers. No caboose
with a man waving a red lantern. They are gone.
My father called it, the romance of the rails.
Telling me about hobos riding on top the cattle cars,
being tossed off by enforcers, how the hobos would fall
like split cabbages. Telling me, hobos were escaping
to somewhere and did not care where they ended up.
Some lived for it. How Woody Guthrie learned music
riding the rails, listening to poverty like freight trains,
putting the simplest words to express the sadness and hope.

The trains do not come by here anymore.
I do not look for them, given up long ago
of them returning anytime soon. I am too old and lazy
to ride bikes five miles. The switch tower was removed
as an eyesore. They started removing the rails.
What I knew is disappearing into the horizon.
Ghostly memories of coal-burning train engines,
Steam blackened skies like narrow thunderclouds.
How they had different whistles: one for warnings;
one for All-on-board; one for kids waving like me.

The station is gone: The wooden cart for baggage;
the large clock big as a train wheel; the side-switch;
the ticket booth with a telegraph message; the oak floor
whose slats shined from polishing; the destination board;
the scuffle of feet; the hard benches; the anticipation.
I am an old-timer reminiscing about “back then.”
But I cannot help it, when that is all I have left,
my mind still spinning like a bicycle wheel
with baseball cards held by clothespins on spokes
to replicate the clacking of train wheels on metal.
My greatest fear is someday my memory will depart
towards that unknown distance, like milkweed seed,
and I won’t know enough to wave at the kid outside,
his bicycle tilted, wondering where I am headed.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: As a child, I lived close to a switch yard in East Syracuse, New York, where they had multiple tracks, some converging, and a train depot. I am old enough to have seen both a coal burning train engine and a “modern” train engine. I still live relatively close to the same place. However, I would like to think that this could be any place that trains stopped.  It was like living near a large scale Lionel train set for children. Sometimes, we live in memory as a real address. Too often I find myself referring to “the way things used to be.” When we no longer remember, it is when we stop living anywhere.

IMAGE: “New York Central Freight Yards, East Syracuse, New York (1910).” (Onondaga County Public Library collection.)

martin-willitts-jr

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Martin Willitts, Jr., has seven full-length collections including national ecological contest winner Searching for What Is Not There, and 28 chapbooks. His poem, “I Am Tired of Waiting” will appear in his forthcoming full-length collection, God Is Not Amused with What You Are Doing in Her Name (Aldrich Press). He won the one-time International Dylan Thomas Poetry Award for the centennial.