Danny Boehr/Al Tuner - The Muse From Here Archive - 1998-2000
Last Update: Novmeber 8, 2003
Saturday, April 25, 1998The Altoona Railroaders' Memorial Museum - what is it? Oh, I have been there. And you should go see it too, now that its new facility has been opened and completed. At the Grand Opening, as I sat next to the director while viewing his Excellent Film, chatted with the People in Charge, staff, friends, Board members, funders, politicos, railroad sponsors, volunteers, I kept asking this question in my head: A memorial of what sort? to whom exactly?
Is it a memorial like the graves of my family and friends that have passed on? I have visited those places as the respectful son, greeted the inhabitants of cemeteries, and been welcomed by stoney, cold silence. That kind of memorial?
Or, perhaps is it a memorial like the Memorial we celebrate at the end of May, with beaches, beer and baseball? We ask each other did we "enjoy the holiday" rather than the "have fun on Memorial Day?" we are thinking silently. It sounds too weird to ask straightforwardly. The museum is that fun kind of memorial?
Maybe it's like the now-five-year-old Holocaust Memorial museum, though I didn't place my face in my hands and weep, or feel the dead hand of unmitigated loss on my shoulder as I left the building. So, it's not that kind of memorial either.
The Altoona museum staff has made it clear what it intends to memorialize - the railroad town, its citizens and their accomplishments. This is not a museum extolling the technology, so much as the technologists. Happily it does not exude political correctness. It tells an industrial tale through post-industrial eyes. Though engaging multimedia methodology, the tale is simple and refreshing. Thank you for that.
The story of this railroad town is so intertwined with what was done there, the momentus ways in which it was done, and the rolling stock that was produced as a result, that it is a difficult task to emphasize man over machine, souls over soot, yet the display succeeds in doing so. Absent is the explanation, beyond Mr. Diesel's Better Way, as to why the modern scene is in such variance with the preceeding decades highlighted in this building. Not celebrated is the current operation, the freight car building, the locomotive assembly, the passing trains of today. Is the work of the current machinist less noble than his ancestor's toils?
This absence of placement within the context of today, makes it feel less a memorial than a bookmark placed somewhere in the tale of this city, its roots, and its industry. The story continues daily, as new locomotives and cars are launched from erecting bays, now with heretofore foreign liveries about to adorn them. The museum lightly recognizes its subject in a greater continuum.
The museum is in memory of a life and a regional flavor now deeply and profoundly metamorphosed. It tells an important story that is indeed worth listening to, and watching and sometimes actually feeling. It is also a wonderful reflection of its conceivers, implementors and erectors. They have achieved their success, much like all have in this valley before them - through sweat and dogged determination. And like those they revere, we all benefit from their labors.
Another memorial is a few miles further west, where today's railroaders move today's commerce over those ancient mountains. They follow the course laid down by those individuals extolled in multimedia in town. Every train that ascends Horse Shoe is confirming once again, that this is the path to take. Follow me! Every load and empty exclaims a preference for travelling this way.
Playing Bach well, both memorializes his genius, and preserves the work for future generations to enjoy. Repetition is flattery to the originators, the designers, the builders. It confirms the wisdom and the worthiness of the efforts of those who have come before. The screaming of the locomotives, the loud protest of flanged wheel against the curved rail is the Te Deum sung in this mountain memorial.
May it always be sung in this place. And may the custodians of the new chapel in town, and the custodians of the main sanctuary in the mountain manage their assets to preserve them for future generations as well. Amen.
September, 1998After a fine day of watching trains on my favorite mountainside, the late afternoon shadows begin to emerge. Many of the people have gone home, and there is that serenity in the atmosphere one feels as the day begins to organize its own demise.
There are a couple of hours left, and time to see yet more traffic. Already I can note my first observation of the latest intermodal vehicle from TTX, the TTRX all-purpose well car, and a host of cars stenciled for NYC. The bright shiny "Gondola Connection" cars are re-stenciled for their new owner, and a few BNSF trailers now assigned to the Hub Group have been noted.
But taking my head away from my notes, the sky remains deep blue, the trees green, and the slim breeze has quickened its pace as evening approaches. It seems I have befriended a woodchuck this afternoon. On a few occasions he has crawled up the hill from his burrow to munch on the grass, always deferential to the presence of a human, but rather bold about where and when he munched. I guess he sized the minimal danger I represented (the possibility of my yelling if I ran out of ink) pretty early. It was his twitching that alerted me to the three deer ambling along the mainline, until they found the appropriate path to the thirst quenching Burgoon Run below. Dinner time on Horse Shoe. Norfolk Southern's Horse Shoe Curve, if you will.
Will I get used to the latest appellation for this place? Probably, but I abhor change. The Burlington Northern in Arizona, CSXT in Massachusetts, Union Pacific running over Tehachapi and now Norfolk Southern here. Perhaps since these are all mergers, would I have preferred Conrail in Jacksonville, or the Pennsy in Roanoke, the Water Level Route in Nashville, perhaps the Santa Fe in Oregon? Probably not.
I guess those last names sound weird, because of the classically American vision of the spoils accruing to the victor. And so we call things by who wins them, not what they intrinsically are. To me, this place is as much Norfolk Southern as the Broadway Limited or the Phoebe Snow was. In other words, not at all. Did the Twentieth Century Limited run over CSXs main line across New York State? No need to reply.
So to say that both the running of a Rail Diesel Car with jet engines affixed to it and a famous race between a steam locomotive and a horse, occurred on CSXT rails is true, but definitely not true also. But we do say that the Northeast Corridor is Amtrak, not Pennsy's. Yet it was the Pennsy that built and conceived it, no different than the New York Central's dalliance with jet powered RDCs, or the B&O's loss to a horse.
And what then was Conrail? Well for one, it was the partial answer to the question "What would Penn Central have done if it could have unburdened itself of its passenger operation, low volume rail segments, and the stringent economics of rate regulation?" But was it really Conrail's Horse Shoe Curve, and was the Conrail shop in Altoona the birthplace of the GG-1 or K4?
I have, of course presented a riddle. The truth is, in this life, you call things by how you first learned to name them. Then perhaps slowly with time, you might consider changing. For me to call this famous stretch of mountain main line as Norfolk Southern's probably is going to be quite weird for awhile, but no weirder than suggesting that riding a Metroliner is taking a ride on a Pennsy train. The movie continues on the screen. I guess it's a question of when you arrived, what part they were up to when you sat down to enjoy it.
So the mountains remain silent testimony to the ages here. And the deer and prairie dogs seem oblivious to most things as they seek food, water and shelter, as the animals always have in this valley. In this place of timeless constant, its lesson to me is quite clear today. Accept change.
November, 1999The old sixties tunes are the background. The headphones are strapped to my ears loosely so as not to interfere with the sounds of the crunching leaves underfoot. A bit of Dylan, a bit of Havens, and some Van Ronk, for spice - the audio recipe chosen to enhance the moment.
Walking purposefully to my destination, focused but not in a terrible hurry, I proceed through the neighborhood. A warm fall season manifests itself with the sweat gathering below my jacket. The time of the year dictates my thoughts, my moods, my feelings, and yes, my attire, but not the particular temperature.
Getting closer now to my turnaround point on this afternoon's walk, the sun's rays become elongated. My favorite time is now. The golden brown of the sun meets the colors of the trees and adds fuel to their individual fires. It lasts an hour or so in the morning, and again in the prematurely early pre-dusk. If you could hear color, what a chorus of song this would be!
Fall. A time of golden end to a warm season, an apprehensive premonition of winter's potential future unforgiving wrath. Perhaps yet too young to be concerned with "golden years," but close enough to make the seasonal connection with the golden leaves beneath my feet, I walk on.
Halfway point? The local mainline tracks. Not a headlight at the moment, but age has taught me some modicum of patience. Tough time. Sweaty brows in control centers, nervous operation directors. The dreaded third quarter of the year. Pre-Christmas merchandise traffic, high levels of pre-holiday manufacturing (everyone is back from vacation), utilities with their endless maws open for winter stockpiling, and those golden waves of grain, safely ensconced inside covered hoppers waiting for transport.
Got all the summer track work done on time? Ready for the ravages of winter? Locomotive fleet in the best shape? Leased units abound .... if it runs, and it can pull, it's out here running. Bonuses for working. Fattened paychecks for upcoming shopping trips. Senior officials looking at weather forecasts, hoping for just one more week of good weather before life gets even more complicated. Thoughts of last summer's fishing trip quickly fade into the hard toil of the time.
Pressured by shippers not so far amused by the fruits of mergers and dismemberment, stockholders continually voiced skepticism about the new business that was supposed to finance acquisitions, but clearly hasn't arrived. Only a brief reading of claims made in STB briefs, versus the reality of the day, indicates the problem. While our British friends ponder the effects of their privatization, we can consider the effects of our centralization, and begin to see some disturbing parallels, at least in the disappointment department.
Deep thoughts vanish with the appearance of an eastbound. The familiar sound and fury of tonnage in a hurry, still stirs deep reaction within. I have seen this scene over and over, and it has the same effect every time. The day it doesn't will be the day that I join the falling leaves in this gentle breeze, disconnected, losing color and about to be swept up in the coming winter's broom. Though beat about a little, and stressed in recent years, the railroad appears healthy. First, waiting for the winds stirred by the train to settle, then waiting for the disturbed hoards of leaves to regain their quiet, it becomes time to walk back home.
Challenges ahead. Winter beckons. Some industry promises that still need to be kept, and quite soon. Neighbors making efforts to remove the leaves from their still-green lawns. A dog barks to gain some attention from its owner, who is doubtless watching a football game inside that house over there. I reach home and look to the skies where the first purple fingers of evening begin to stamp out the golden glows of Fall. Dylan sings in my head "How Does it Feeeel?" It feels OK, but not without some work ahead. See all these leaves on the lawn? But thanks for asking.
January, 2000I am not exactly sure when it hit me. Perhaps it started on that crisp morning when I stood at Santa Fe Junction watching a KCS grain train clang across the Kansas River bridge. While a track crew maintained the maze of switches outside the tower, headlights brightened from a slumbering warbonnet, and it soon veered right, eastbound, towards the passenger station, with its Hyundai containers piled doubly high.
Shortly thereafter, while I was standing on the platform at the station, I came across a three hour late eastbound Southwest Chief. Consisting more of express than passenger equipment, it waited for omething to happen (of unknown origin) for it to proceed to Chicago. Perhaps a crew, or train orders, or something. Whatever it was, no one eemed terribly concerned with a streamliner, sidelined. The Union Pacific transfer freight, powered by two ex-CNW units seemed to have more purposefulness, passing westbound through the station. The three Amtrak units, fresh from exploits over Cajon and Raton sounded impatient at their lackadaisical owners.
I never did see #4 leave (too many moving trains to track down), but the station was strewn with paper, hand scrawled "out of order" signs and no posted arrival or departure information, so that if you did want ride a train, you could know where it would take you. The glorious former depot stands aside the current rail station. The former grandly calls a time that has passed, the other is a reflection of the present day state of affairs. It is not often you can see the two opposites of a continuum in such close proximity. Surely, it is the past that appears to be telling the more appealing story. One exudes pride, the other ethos.
Perhaps, it was at that spot along the Kansas River just west of Argentine where four shining ATSF tracks on the south side (on various alignments) and two Union Pacific tracks on the north side, recalled memories of Pennsy mains (on various alignments) bestride the equally majestic Susquehanna in Harrisburg or the UP and BN along the Colombia that breathtaking gorge, or the P&LE/B&O and PRR yelling at each other across the industrious Ohio west of Pittsburgh.
Watching the local switcher do its thing in Lawrence, while enjoying s micro-brewery festooned college town. Alas, the passenger station is out of town, and so placed out of mind. Topeka, namesake of a railroad when railroads' names bespoke of regions and destinations, not corporate consonants, strung together in unpronounceable ways, signifying nothing. Still home to a substantial car and locomotive shop, I stood in the shadow of the state capitol and watched the handoff of a 13,000-ton coal train from the UP to the Santa Fe, on its journey from the mines of Wyoming to the utilities of Oklahoma.
Perhaps it was the high fills and wooden trestles over the Sand Creeks, and the Walnut Rivers supporting the right of way beneath the intermodal parade through the undulating countryside that I enjoyed most. Or, it could have been that moonlit night, full of winter's crispness in Emporia, with the occasional heightened whine, or accelerated pulse rates expressed by the locomotives as they were fed and watered in the service tracks. The sounds of the night orchestrated my own thoughts.
Then there was the eastbound intermodal, adorned with Mr. Hunt's ubiquitous containers charging through the station in Wichita that frosty morning. ATSF 93, parked on the adjacent track in all its splendor, a now silent witness to the sounds of commerce. Maybe it was visiting those towns named after the master tailors of these rail threads that bind this country's vastness together, like Holliday, and Strong City, with their neatly appointed depots, that I will remember best. Named for the pioneers of the industry, and still witness to the thinking of their trailblazers. Like the Willards and Garretts of the east, true champions that are still winning the game today.
Maybe it was the long eastbound snaking through Mulvane, changing sub-divisions and tracks but not losing its focus on the goal - the giant intermodal lifts of Corwith. It could be my pacing the lowly, pedestrian, Union Pacific local, riding on Santa Fe's rails between Mulvane and Winfield. Here, this anomaly, bouncing and rocking over curve worn rail and battered joints, where before nocturnal varnish raced sleeping passengers between the Lone Star State and the Windy City. Then, passengers slept soundly despite the high speed. Now covered hoppers rock madly from side to side, holding on for dear life despite the slow speed. All in my lifetime.
Or perhaps it was those crisp, windless, mornings, with the fields shrouded in an icy shimmering blanket, until the warmth of the sun stored their golden glow against the powerfully blue sky. At El Dorado, trains race by passing genuflecting oil wells and munching livestock. A small rise overlooks an enormous landscape of endless fields and universal sky. No wind, steamy breath, and you are cognizant of your own heartbeat. Then like a cracked whip a train flies by you and the ounds of the railroad accelerate your own pulse. Places like Arkansas City (whose pronunciation is a litmus taste of your regional loyalty), Newton, Osage City, Udall, Olathe and Lanexa - places where trains must pass before reaching Long Beach, Ft Worth, Houston or Chicago.
Less known perhaps to most, not often thought of in a dot.com world, it of no less importance, because you have to go through there to go somewhere else. The railroad and its railroaders understand this more than most. One doesn't arrive in the big places, without passing through some of the littler ones. It is not so much the destination, as the visages you encounter on the way. One just needs to take the time to understand that.
Thank you Kansas. I have learned your lesson well. I will remember. I promise.