A Railroad Runs Through It

May 9, 2017

I live in a small town in south Mississippi.  When I was a little boy, my Grandmother said we would  “go out to Brookhaven.”   She lived in the country, nearly an hour away.  We didn’t go out to Brookhaven very often.

I still recall my first trip to Brookhaven.  We moved here.  I grew up here.   Then, the summer after graduating high school, I tried to escape, first by going to college and second by moving to the big city to experience bigger and better things of the “bigger world.”

Twenty years later, I moved back, this time with a wife and three young boys.  My wife and I made sure the boys grew up in a small town in south Mississippi.  I will be forever grateful.

Brookhaven straddles a set of railroad tracks.  There is an east-west railroad and a north-south railroad.  At one time, there was a train moving through town almost every hour of every day.

I watched Army tanks headed south to New Orleans and on towards a place called Viet Nam, when I had my own fears of going to the same.  I watched “them newly imported cars from Japan,” chained down on railroad cars coming out of the port of New Orleans,  headed north to mid-America.

I watched the trains haul a hundred million sticks of pulpwood towards Natchez, to be made into paper, back when America produced paper.  Different trains hauled  another  hundred million board feet of  Yellow Pine lumber somewhere north of here.

There’s no way to know the number of box cars, tank cars and hopper cars that passed by me as I sat at a rail road crossing, late for school, late for a doctor’s appointment, late for something.  Millions and millions, I would guess.

And, there were the passenger trains.  They all stopped in Brookhaven.  Each and every one.  They had to stop.  It was part of the deal old Milton Whitworth made when he deeded land to the railroad.  “It’s yours to use as long as every passenger train stops in Brookhaven.  If you stop stopping, the land comes back to me and my family.”  Old Milton has been dead for a century or more.  But the agreement still lives.

I missed seeing the steam engines.  The old timers talked about how they would come chugging and hissing through town.  Pulling into the depot,  belching smoke from the coal, making noises unlike anything else in the little town.  When the train stopped, the oilers would jump off, running around the engine, spraying oil on the moving parts, checking one thing after another, like a pilot checks his airplane before take-off.

My first passenger train memory is a big Illinois Central Diesel Electric, blowing a horn that pushed my hair back off my forehead and caused my ears to ring for a half hour afterwards.  That horn was so loud my body vibrated if I was anywhere downtown when it blew.

We’re going to move away from Brookhaven, closer to the grandchildren, hopefully to escape the loneliness of growing old.  I’m going to miss the trains and their whistles every night.

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