There are small miracles within writer’s block.  The whistle of a train can cut the silence.  Long and low across the night, its rumbling, creaky progress echoes, until, with a layering of staccato beats, it accelerates and passes out of town.

I, too, pass, and speed above the fast hum, a rhythmic clacking and my spirit snaking behind me.  Cool air stings my face.  To be the light on a train’s black engine: cutting, strong, and determined beacon.

My great grandfather was an engineer.  I can see him sitting high above the track, striped cap peaking from the engine’s window.  Surely he notices the world out that window, the birds careening the sky and the trees blurring a piney green below.  Surely he is mesmerized watching the clouds, the winds, and the seasons as he slides through them, humming.  I bet he saw the sun rise and set and the moon rotate its turn.  The train striking out solitary under a pressing quilt of stars must have lent a poetry to his life.  Such a visionary position, to ride the rails.

I want a romantic in Great Grandpa James Delahanty, but, in truth, the romantic is in me.  Aside from an affinity he shared with my Nana for the movies, the story of his life speaks only of hard work and hard living.  Born in Ireland in 1877, he died of lung cancer in America a scant fifty years later.  Irish and Catholic, Grandpa boasted a family of three sons and two daughters, a penchant for stopping in at the Pine Tree Tavern daily, and a proper shock of red hair.  A man more easily found good-natured at a bar stool than pensive on the night train.

His strength was legendary.  After a track switch, he would swing off the train and lock down the lines.  Few that followed could budge that lock.  It’s said that straining engineers could be heard cussing “Delahanty!” up and down the line from Trenton to Columbus.  He pounded metal and he shoveled coal.  He ran across the top of the cars in a low crouch.  On vacation, he hunted bear in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

Grandpa was the engineer, but I’m the one who craves the high speeding vantage.

As the train’s whistle fades and the words cease, I realize I could learn from him.  I’ve long thought that the real question, asked as the train brakes scream and the cliff corner narrows, is “Are you on or off the train?”

But maybe it’s really about accepting the train as a fixture in your life.  Going to it to work hard, to sweat and groan and strain.  Developing muscles of steel to wrestle that snaking beast and hold it to the track.

Sure I seek out the steep grades, but how many times have I shoveled coal?  How many times have I swung down from the engine and locked the lines?

© Jennifer S., February 29, 2000.
© Jennifer S. and harvestliberty.net, February 29, 2012.


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