A few years ago, Microsoft discontinued its least popular franchise of all time: Train Simulator. The idea: to put the PC Gamer at the controls of a mile – long freight train. Or an old time steam-locomotive Orient Express. Or an Amtrak Acela on the Northeast Corridor between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Sales were dismal. So dismal, in fact, that Microsoft canned its Train Simulator II halfway through development. It was a PC Game that was not meant to be. Still, I thought Train Simulator was fun. The sounds, especially the sounds of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe GP38-2 diesel electric locomotives, were as “real as it gets,” as Microsoft likes to say. It was like having a freight train in my game room. And I ought to know, because I heard those same exact locomotives enough times growing up through the years. Sometimes after school, and sometimes at 3 a.m.
Our house was 70 feet from the tracks. At that distance, freight trains become part of your life, and a backdrop to a childhood. At least they were for me.
One day when I was about 8, a freight train was stopped in front of our house as I came home from school. Not sure why, really. (The other two times that happened growing up, I knew perfectly well why.) Not wanting to camp in the “borrow pit” – named because it’s the area where construction crews “borrow” the dirt from to build the highway – between the Highway 20 school bus stop and the railroad tracks, I simply crawled under the freight train to the safety of home. While I thought my solution to the temporary blockade was bold, my parents did not share my enthusiasm for my intrepid determination. Not at all. They were mostly just glad I was safe, though.
I do have a life-long love affair with trains that comes from growing up around them. I’m not a trainspotter or anything – I really don’t have that kind of time these days – but I do and always have loved trains. Trains even play a sort of lead role in that 700 page novel I wrote – the book is about a mysterious steam train carrying passenger cars on the freight rails in the middle of the night, and what happens when two young boys hop aboard. I had a lot of fun writing that novel, though the project took over five years to complete. What a lot of people don’t know is that there are nuggets of truth in the novel – my brother really did a hop a freight train and rode it into town for 7 miles one day. And there really was a mysterious Burlington Northern train in the late 70’s that would come through in the middle of the night with these lit up Burlington Northern passenger cars. It was the darndest thing. Of course it wasn’t pulled by any steam locomotive, but the things we do for creative writing. So I would be so bold as to say that over my life I have had something of an intimate fascination with trains of all types. After all, how many people do you know who have flagged down – and stopped – a freight train?
And the funny thing was that it was completely unintentional – we just wanted flags for our forts. You see, my brother and I had this habit of building little “forts” out of giant tumbleweeds – little weed burrows that we could literally burrow into and watch the trains go by at a distance of about 7 feet. The boxcars at that distance feel like skyscrapers rushing by, and you feel the wind of the momentum of the steel beast as she surges by. Amazing we weren’t killed, of course, but those experiences imbued me with a love for the rails that lingers to this day. So one day after school, my brother and I got off the school bus, and here were all of these red flags – surveyor flags, but we didn’t know that at the time – arranged throughout the borrow pit. So, we plucked all of them – undoing weeks worth of surveying work, of course, and stuck them in our “weed forts” along either side of the railroad tracks – about seven on each side. What we didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, was that a series of red flags on either side of the tracks was universal engineer’s code for STOP – EMERGENCY AHEAD.
And this is how it came to be that for the second time since we had lived there, a mile long freight train was stopped in front of our house – this time for over 8 hours. It threw off Burlington Northern’s train schedules for the rest of the week, and they had to run extra trains to make up the lost time. The next day, my parents received a somewhat stern visit from some unamused railroad officials. That was more or less the end of the weed forts. I told a coworker this story recently, and she thought I meant a different kind of weed fort, not the tumbleweed variety. I was like dude – I was like 9 years old……
Anyway, the next time there was a train stopped in front of the house was because a Burlington Northern freight train had sliced neatly in two a Dodge pickup whose driver thought he could beat the train. In a way he did, because even though his pickup was rather neatly disassembled into two even pieces, cab and bed, the driver didn’t have a scratch on him. I have never heard of that happening before or since. It was the kind of freak accident that is a freak accident only because no one got hurt. That was the third and final time a freight train stopped for a considerable period of time in front of our house.
In my novel, twelve year old and nine year old brothers in a fictional town in Northern Wyoming stop that mysterious midnight steam train by placing a flashlight at a railroad crossing. I seriously doubt that would actually work. Neither, in this modern age of satellite phones and radios, and on board communications computers, would red flags along the sides of the tracks. But in the late 70’s, those flags stopped a speeding freight train.
Those flags on the sides of the track would go unnoticed today, because they didn’t register on a computer terminal – the computer says ALL CLEAR AHEAD, and it’s not a simulation.
Maybe it is, all clear, I mean. But I can’t help but feel like there is some small thing lost there – that these days it takes a lot more than a freight train to impress a 9 year old. A very fundamental part of me thinks that’s kind of sad.
My mom used to amuse me as a very young child by playing a Joni Mitchell song sometimes when the trains went by:
“Train, Train, Train Train, goin’ so fast, train, train, train, train, goin’ on past, please don’t tell them what train I’m on so they won’t know where I am.”
I kind of miss the sounds of those trains.