October 4, 2004
A lady writes us from a farm in central Minnesota: “. . . By 1939 I was spending a lot of time sitting near the track, our house was the 5th one from the track. I read the boxcars. My dad encouraged me to do so, he said that when I was old enough to go someplace I could have a lot of choices about my destination. Alas, I live exactly 2 miles from that site today. I also read the frozen fish boxes on the sidewalks in front of all 5 grocery stores, I read the ‘show bills’ inserted in glass on each side of the theatre doors and read all the posters on the post office and depot walls. I was very well read by the 2nd grade. Then I sort of fell into books. But there was something so soothing and promising about reading boxcars.”
I spent some time myself reading boxcars. Both the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific ran through our town, a rural stop on their very straight lines from Fargo and Grand Forks up to Winnipeg. The evocative graphics of the Heart of Dixie, the Rio Grande, the Lackawanna, the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Pere Marquette, the Nickel Plate Road, the Wabash Cannonball, the Soo Line, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul & Pacific; they couldn’t help but stir a small town kid. I pictured the leafy home trackage of the Southern Railway and the Cotton Belt, and the long sunblistered grades of the mighty Union Pacific; the green foothills of the Pennsylvania, the Boston & Maine, the Monon; the orchards along the rails of the Orange Blossom Special. And the tough Duluth Missabe & Iron Range, running from the red minepits to trestles flung out over ore boats on Lake Superior.
I liked the elaborate giant scrollwork of the New York, New Haven and Hartford; and the big bold Santa Fe, Route of the Super Chief. Which was, hands down, the country’s greatest passenger train. I learned that later, and in fact worked for the Santa Fe as a surveyor one summer. Before that I worked a couple of summers on the Northern Pacific, and I say nothing blunts the romance of railroading like the reality of laboring on a section gang.
Both of those and a few other favorite roads are now merged into the colorless and monolithic Burlington Northern. Too bad. The AT&SF was a name so rhythmic Johnny Mercer wrote a song about and it was a big hit for Judy Garland in 1946; it won an Oscar for the Best Song from the musical, “The Harvey Girls.” We kids would sing that song, just for the fun of chewing on the syncopated tag line: "On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe."
The bluesman Yank Rachell wrote a terrific song that Albert King recorded and which got some air time on a local station here in the seventies. It was titled "She Caught the Katy"; the Katy was the flagship passenger train of the MKT, the Missouri Kansas Texas. The first line says, “She caught the Katy - she left me a mule to ride,” and Albert was never real fussy about his diction. I worked in an office with a young guy, rosy cheeks, fresh out of college, who was taken with that tune. One afternoon he said to me, “I really like that one song they play, the one that goes: She’s complicated, she left me a mule to ride.”
In fact the old songs are about the only place you can find those old railroads, or any railroads at all. The tracks are hidden away these days and one seldom gets to wait at a crossing and read the cars, which may be why they don’t bother much with the graphics any more.
The present equivalent in rolling billboards would be the sides of semis, but they are seriously lacking when compared to the old railroad cars. They are either plain white, like ours, or they say things like “Dedicated Logistics' or "CRST," “Walmart,” “Schneider,” or “Yellow,” or “J. B. Hunt.” Generally done in block letters, they evoke nothing more than the image of a two-story office attached to a six-bay truck shop sitting at the edge of a giant paved lot full of trailers. (Schneider semis are generally bright orange - their drivers refer to the home yard in Green Bay as the pumpkin patch.) Now and then you see an owner-operator with a good name, like Hair of the Dog Trucking or Alimony Enterprises, and sometimes a dramatic rig owned by a NASCAR racing team. And you see the occasional colorful splash of groceries or dry goods on a trailer, but none of it makes you want to get out and explore the country. Not like those old boxcars could.
Now I’m not implying the railroads are to blame for my restless nature, or that they drove me to buy a highway truck or any of that. That was all on me. If I were to write a self-serving folk song portraying myself as the innocent victim of a railroad conspiracy to create wanderlust among the easily influenced youth of the fifties, it would be a flimsy hoax. Curiosity is pretty much a universal affliction, not only among us humans but out there in the animals as well. Curiosity is in fact a biological necessity, and without it there is likely to be no next generation. The railroads were more the result of curiosity than its cause. But they did make it more interesting.
Moving on to current events: These days I get asked, “How’s the Semi True book doing?” and I have to say I dunno. There was a good review of it in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a review written probably better than the book was, in fact, but that was about it. The publisher shipped a bunch to various distributors and after that I’ve heard nothing. It might not cost that much to put small chips in books and when one left a store a little light would go on at the author’s computer. He could add it to a running total. I’m offering this idea free; I don’t intend to patent the concept and I won’t sue for royalties. All I ask is that they name it after me, call it the russ chip or something, so I might enjoy the gratitude of future writers everywhere when they find themselves wondering if they need to take out another loan or not, or if they should open up one more credit card account.