Monday, July 07, 2008

Railroads and Rites of Passage

About 3 blocks from my soon-to-be-old house are the railroad tracks which cut through the center of town. If I take the dog out in the evenings I sometimes walk up that way and follow the tracks for a couple of blocks.
As part of my "walking with a purpose" I noticed a couple of the box cars recently had graffiti on them. with the heat of the summer you can smell the creosote from the cross ties and it took me back more than 4 decades to summers I would spend on the railroad - literally.
A brief family history...I should be working for the railroads rather than the airlines. My paternal grandfather was a conductor for IC (Illinois Central). His house was a block from the tracks in the town where he lived and we would stand on the sidewalk and count cars as the trains went by.
Then on my mother's side, her grandfather and uncle were both engineers for IC. Her mother and stepfather worked for GM&O (Gulf, Mobile and Ohio). My step-grandfather ran a crew which painted and repaired trestles in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama - in the back beyond. My grandmother was his cook for the crew.
Because they worked in rural areas for the most part, the railroad made them "camp cars" they pulled to where they were working and leave them on the siding. The camp cars were actually converted box cars made into living quarters. My grandparents had one car. Theirs had a small bathroom, double bed, small storage area and living/office space. then there was a dining car which had a kitchen area and a long dining table with benches. Besides a car to hold the work supplies, there was also a car for the men to sleep in.
This is where I learned to cook when I was only about 7-9 years old. I learned to cook for 12-24 at a time. My grandmother would fix a couple of different meats, 4-5 veggies (all fresh in season), rolls and/or cornbread and desserts. My "job" was to make the desserts and the Eagle Brand Lemon Meringue Pie was the first pie I can remember learning to make. I have to fix at least 1 every summer, if I can stop myself from eating the Eagle Brand milk right out of the can.
But one of those rites of passage we all go through in our lifes involved those camp cars.
There were doors, like regular house doors, on the sides of the cars where normally there would be the huge, sliding doors. And the steps hung from the car itself and for clearance purposes the steps where set up really high, even if you were a kid who was tall for her age. But at the end of each car was another door. I had to open one door, step onto the coupling (the thing which joins the cars), close that door and lean over and open the other door and step in. I knew I was grown up when I could open 1 door, lean over, open the other door and just make one step on the coupling to step over into the other car.
To this day it's harder for me to cook for 2 people rather than 20.

1 comment:

  1. what nice memories- and you tell a story well! enjoyed reading your post- my husband comes from a railroad family too- his dad was a conductor on the Penn. Railroad and his mom was the Station Master for Penn Central in NYC. He too has fond railroad memories.


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