“Little red caboose, chug, chug, chug” — remember that? I was stuck waiting for a freight train to go by at Coles Crossroads one day and as the caboose-less rear end passed by that little song popped into my head.
My mother would sometimes say “Get your caboose on in here” when calling me for something. That phrase usually meant she’d already called me several times and I hadn’t come yet. Sometimes she’d say “You’re always the caboose,” meaning the last to get somewhere like out of the house or into the car. If I said that to one of my grandkids today they’d probably say “What’s a caboose?”
As the barricades lifted and I drove on down the Pamplico Highway, I thought about my first train trip over thirty years ago. I’d had a month’s worth of frustrating days at work. I needed to escape from phones, typewriters, and people piling more work on my desk.
After giving it some thought I made plans to take a vacation day. I’d never been on a train before…
Early one morning I drove to the train station and bought a same-day round-trip ticket to Savannah. A sandwich in my pocket and a murder mystery in my purse, I anticipated a no-stress restful train trip to Georgia and back.
The platform was crowded with what seemed to be seasoned travelers, some with small children in tow, some with shopping bags at their feet. I tried to figure out which track my train was on — I didn’t want to get left behind. When the conductor called out “All aboard,” most of the crowd headed toward the same track. Were we all going to Savannah?
I maneuvered up the aisle looking for an empty window seat. The train car was half-full already and there was a noisy hum of adult voices and a few wails coming from unhappy toddlers.
We got underway slowly with jerks and clangs and a bit of a wobble, and the noise level increased considerably. Some of the older children traded seats, friends sitting with friends instead of parents. Some adults exchanged greetings and others continued a conversation obviously already in progress.
I just kept my eyes glued to the window trying to determine which streets we were crossing. Soon we were leaving the city limits and picking up speed.
“Tickets please, have your tickets ready.” The uniformed conductor was punching our tickets. What would he do if somebody doesn’t have a ticket? I wanted to ask him but I simply handed him my ticket, then closed my eyes and tried to tune out the other passengers. It wasn’t quite as quiet in the compartment as I had anticipated. The rhythmic clack-clack of train wheels on tracks became a little song in my head to drown out the “people” noise.
A few minutes later we were slowing down. What’s wrong? I wondered. Train wheels squealed to a stop and the conductor moved through the car again, this time calling out “Lake City, South Carolina.” Lake City? We’re stopping in Lake City? Even before the door could open some folks had gathered up their belongings and squeezed their way toward it.
I had neglected to ask the ticket clerk an important question: Is this train non-stop to Savannah? It wasn’t.
Between Lake City and Kingstree I read a few pages in my novel, but mostly I looked through my window, wondering who lived on that farm or what crossroads was this. I didn’t have to wonder about some places — the sing-songy conductor announced every small town and a few country crossroads as the train stopped every few miles. This train was a local.
Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t be quite as restful as I’d thought, I told myself, but it was certainly interesting. I tried to imagine why my fellow passengers were traveling, wondering if any of them had as strange a reason for their trip as I did.
It was easy to tell which of us were new to this train-ride business, we were all doing the same thing. But most of the passengers seemed to be old-hat. They had picnics in those shopping bags. Cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, fried chicken legs, boxes of saltine crackers and vanilla wafers, even milk jugs of grape or orange Kool-Aid.
Foodstuffs were pulled out and passed around between seats, paper napkins and paper cups serving as dinnerware. When it neared my normal lunchtime, I pulled out my own sandwich and munched half of it slowly as I tried to read.
That’s about when we entered the low country, and somewhere between St. Stephen and Charleston the tracks lost their level. The train car tipped sideways a few degrees and I found myself gazing into swamp water as we crossed a trestle.
Clinging to the seat in front of me for dear life I glanced at my seat-mate with a nervous question on my face, but the business-suited gentleman wasn’t fazed in the least. “Don’t worry, this doesn’t last long,” he reassured me with a smile. One of the old-hat bunch, he was very familiar with this section of the line. He was right, within a minute or two we were as upright as ever and I tried to relax.
When we arrived in Savannah I had to change trains, obviously. I didn’t want to wind up in Jacksonville. Exiting the compartment I got up the nerve to ask the conductor if my return trip to Florence had to be on a local too. “Check inside” was all he said, so I did. To my considerable relief my north-bound train made stops only in Charleston and Florence before heading on to other points.
It was an uneventful ride. I took the low-country sideways section calmly, as if it was no big deal for an entire train to cross a swamp tilted on its side.
To this day I can’t tell you what the reaction was from my family when I arrived home that evening. I doubt if the pile of paper at work was reduced any but my attitude was certainly improved.
Whenever anybody added to my stress level, I just hummed my little clack-clack song, tuned them out and wondered where else the train went to and back in a day.