You thought I could pass up this National day of importance? Trains were a big part of my childhood because they were a big part of my father’s childhood and carried him all the way into his old age. He built an electric railroad under our home in the Oakland hills. Not in the rumpus room (we are now clearly in the 1950s), but actually under the house in a “sort of basement.” And he built everything from kits, the engines, the model cars, and everything else that wound its way up and down the dirt and around foundation pilings.
In honor of National Train Day, I’ve posted my review of Key System Streetcars. I used to think it was cheating to call streetcars trains, but I’m all grown up now and realize the error of my ways. If it runs on a track, has a whistle (electric or steam), a ticket taker or person who hangs onto the train before it moves and shouts, All Aboard…… Hey, it’s a train in my book.
It’s easy for children to love trains. Their literary world is full of them: Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine; Van Allsburg’s Polar Express, Piper’s The Little Engine that Could, E. Nesbitt’s The Railway Children, Warner’s The Boxcar Children (yes, I know it was only one car and didn’t go anywhere, but it still called out to adventure), San Souci’s Kate Shelley Bound for Legend, and thanks to Rowling, todays kids have the Hogwarts Express from Harry Potter.
Trains are found in adult literature, as well. Trains can become characters (The Orient Express of Ms. Christie) and present exciting settings as found in Tolstoy, Hawthorne, King, and Dickens. Trains are an irresistible setting to play with – with the different classes of cars, the dining car, lounge car, lavatories and sleeping cars, they’re a perfectly heightened and concentrated microcosm of the bigger world, writers have the fun of playing with all those intersections of class and story and a highly contained, rigid setting with a constantly changing landscape. And because this is a book blog, I’m purposely omitting the relationship between films and trains.
What is it exactly that compels us, if not to love, to at least acknowledge the admirability of trains? For starters, they’re big. Very big. And they’re polite, they announce themselves with whistles and bell clanging gates that prevent us from getting in their way. And when you sleep on a train, in a Pullman car, they really do lull you to sleep when your head hits the pillow: cliickety-clack, clickety-clack.
Trains are almost imaginary things, but also happily real. They can soar as well as any Boeing, can move us at our own personal mach speeds, they are both ancient and new again. From dining room chairs set up by children (in my case, cousin James L. Warsher) to make a train through one’s living room, to the to the eye-popping look on my son Lukas’ face as the California Zephyr approached the Martinez Amtrak Station, stopping to pick up his sister on her way to college; trains are a very singular means of transportation. They can take us to someplace or back to another. We don’t even have to have a ticket; all that’s necessary is to hear or read those fabulous words, All Aboard. . . .