"What a treat to ride a train." said the Old Man across the aisle from me. I was nestled into my window seat, with my legs stretched out and my big, fabulous sunglasses pushed close to my face. I looked at him, with his neatly pressed slacks, a button-down shirt and a nice lookin' Sunday hat, and then I closed my eyes as he talked with his grandkids, using a Southern drawl not too different from the one my memory attributes to my Pop Pop. That sweet, simple statement flipped the gears that were squeaking along in my mind quickly into reverse.
Pop Pop engineered trains for near 40 years, up and down the mid-Atlantic. He started off in the train yards out in Manassas working his way up the ladder as best he could without a high school diploma. The old man was too stubborn to go back to school and get his degree; he just convinced himself that he'd never pass senior year English. Nevertheless, he made a career out of navigating trains up and down the tracks. I'm sure he knew all the old songs (trailors for sale or rent...), and made sure he leaned out the windows and hollered or blew the train's horn as he drove by pretty ladies. Pop Pop had one hell of a wink on him, and the soft waves of his bright white hair made even a young, uneducated Southern man look distinguished.
As a consequence to being the only granddaughter of a train engineer, I fancied myself a train-ridin' princess. Nanny, my grandma, outfitted me in the finest Osh Kosh B' Gosh overall-skirts, and I proudly wore my matching denim striped train hat, with a Southern Railway patch situated right in the middle-front, and a bright red hankerchief tied around my neck. I'd sit on the train and tell the little boys and girls who passed by me that I was the train driver's granddaughter; I'm sure I probably also told them that I owned the train, too. Flights of fancy were my speciality.
There are so many pictures of me standing with Pop Pop and Nanny near trains, on trains or in train yards. I get all choked up whenever I bust through the gates at Union Station on my way to board Amtrak for a quick jaunt to Baltimore. Despite the sleek silver cars and all the modern conveniences, nothing gets me like a dirty train track and an engineer hollerin' ALL ABOARD! When I lived in Switzerland, I rode the trains there as though Pop Pop was by my side, telling me how this worked and that spun and I even imagined him holding out his hand as I stepped off at my stop, steadying myself with a slight bounce and a deep sigh.
Seeing that Old Man on the train last weekend tugged at my heartstrings quite sweetly. Despite the cost and time it might take to visit places via locomotive, I imagine that I will always choose it if I can. Just like a real newspaper or a real book feels steady and safe in your hands, riding a real train keeps me connected to my real self, my ancestors, my roots and the warm and comforting drawl of my dear, sweet Pop Pop.