In the quiet darkness of night, I hear the comforting rumble of the train as I lie awake in the same southern Illinois town where I grew up. My head rests now on a pillow not far from the cozy bed of my childhood, where the train’s song was a lullaby of comfort, a reminder of perseverance, and an elegant symbol of life’s journey.
As a child, the train that ran through Mt. Vernon watched over me like an angel. Day or night, its approaching sound assured me life was chugging along in a steady rhythm, and I was never alone. My train angel’s steel wings sang a soothing hymn as it flew by my house, school, or secret spot in the woods.
Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’m conditioned to feel peace when I hear the distant sound clattering down the tracks. Even now, the train’s vibration sinks deep into my heart and instantly makes me feel calm and connected. In her poem Song of the Railroad Train Mrs. John Loye wrote, “How grand by night o’er countryside is that wild melodious strain; and music blown at eventide, is the song of the railroad train.”
No child should grow up without reading the American folktale The Little Engine that Could. The 1930s story teaches the value of optimism and hard work. At nearly sixty years old, I confess to finding strength in the little blue engine’s mantra, “I think I can. I think I can.”
Sometimes the rails we ride are long and monotonous. Other times they take us up steep hills, down plunging valleys, and through dark tunnels. Even when we can’t see the light, we find the hope and will to keep going.
Trains are an easy metaphor. We’re all aboard a journey that takes us to different stations in life, some by choice and others by chance. There are love trains, peace trains, freedom trains, runaway trains, midnight trains, and crazy trains. I’ve ridden them all.
Along the way, we’re joined by fellow passengers – family, friends, teachers, loves, children, coworkers, and neighbors – but we all begin and end our trip alone. Sometimes the train takes us right back were we began. We step off the platform carrying a lifetime of lessons, experiences, and memories collected on our sojourn.
On this night, the ambient wail and low blowing horn remind me of a salvation song. I hum a familiar tune by Curtis Mayfield, “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’. You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith, to hear the diesels hummin’. Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” §
“There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very
romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.”