M is for the massive freight trains that rumble through my neighborhood dozens of times per day. Our house is in the very middle of a long block. Up at the east end of this street is a wide boulevard laid out a hundred years ago, on which there still big, graceful Victorian mansions. That is the direction we go when we want to walk to Carroll University to hear a concert. Up the hill takes us to chatty old neighborhoods with gardens, leafy trees shading quiet streets, ivy on retaining walls, people walking toddlers and dogs.
At the west end of our block is the train tracks.
Thanks to my cousin-in-law Dave who knows a huge amount about railroads – we know that our train track is called the “Waukesha Subdivision”. It’s a 158-mile line of track built in 1886 between Fond du lac, WI and Chicago. It is a heavily-used line. The trains at the end of of our street haul oil and coal from Out West to the Midwest; haul plywood and sheet-rock. Often there are long lines of tanker cars as well as double-stacked shipping containers emblazoned with Chinese COSCO and Sinotrans, with Danish Maersk, as well as Union Pacific and Canadian companies.
I try to not count the cars – that way lays madness! But, well, once in a while I can’t resist. Most of the trains are two to three red and black Canadian National engines pulling more than a hundred cars.
This is America. This is Carl Sandburg. The tracks at the end of my street carried the railroads that supplied Chicago as it became “HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders”
When we first looked at this house our Real Estate agent said, “If you don’t like trains, this might not be a great place for you.”
Len and I smiled. We love trains!
Trains are both exhilarating and soothing. They are too big. They weigh as much as villages clacking down the tracks. Disrespect them at your own risk.
But also they are as rhythmic as anything people have invented. That clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack becomes incrementally louder and then recedes. Your ears learn the algorithms of sound.
Because we are close, we also feel the heaviest trains; the earth hums as they hurtle past. In the night I feel the trains along the side of me resting on my bed; I’m like an old dog whose eyes flutter when the letter carrier drives by in his jeep. I hear and feel the train moving through town; I know what’s out there.
Not often, but sometimes – trains fall off their tracks. This also occurs to me as I watch and feel 50 black tanker cars filled with flammable shale oil from the tar sands of Canada. Yet this set of tracks has been here 131 years; my house has stood since 1921, the foundation is still just about plumb. Old infrastructure often feels more secure than what’s new. I tell myself to trust those old Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants of the 1880’s. They made America once and we are still here.
I don’t much like suburbs with their cars and garages, and whizzing sprawls of highways. I am not fascinated by the numbing miles of concrete airports, with jets teetering in and out of the sky.
But I do love trains. Big, heavy, purposeful trains with one job to do. They rumble down the track, blow their whistles and sound their horns, as they haul what’s needed back and forth across the continent.
And so much of it goes past, just down my street.