Trains captivate. They are the haunting mournful cry in the night, the horn that seems to call through the darkness for no reason, yet touches our souls. They enthrall us when we are young, we curse them at grade crossing when we are older, we long for them and their mythical destinations through all our lives.
When I was young, my grandmother would travel to see us every Christmas by rail (that is before air travel became more common place). The family would go to the station nearest to our home in Orangeburg, SC, to await her arrival. I would look towards the far distance with anticipation that never resulted in disappointment. The locomotive and the cars in its care would first appear as a pinpoint that quickly grew in size and intensity until it finally arrived, a thing of power and noise and iron carrying my grandmother. From the gleaming stainless steel coach, my Nanny would emerge into our arms and cries of joy to be taken home with us. When Christmas time was exhausted along with the adults, we would return to the station to see Nanny off to her home in Ridgefield, CT. She would climb aboard as I would ache at her leaving, and watch the train depart. Her pilgrimage to us being enacted in reverse. The engine that had brought her to us now took her from us, and we would watch as long as we could. The cars moving down the rails, further from view, getting smaller and smaller as the parallel rails grew closer and closer, until in the distance rails merged, the train disappeared, and the horizon claimed all.
In my young mind, it was at the point in that far distance when all was lost beyond the limits of my sight that Ridgefield existed. The train appeared from that event horizon and returned to it. That was all the proof I needed to draw my maps, to know that distance was not measured in steps or miles, but in the reach of railroad tracks and train whistles.
The fate of being born early enough to witness the miracle of passenger rail service, being born early enough to learn from my mother that I once rode a train with my tiny feet in her face in some cramped compartment crowded with my parents and we their children on an adventure to the Yankee filled north had left an indelible mark on me. Perhaps that memory hung in some primal part of my brain when I attended Clemson as a Mechanical Engineering student and stumbled into a research assistantship with Dr. Harry Law who was at the time a leading railroad researcher. That tingle of rail travel helping me to see not just the science in what I was working on, but the magic as well.
It has been a path that has lead me around the world and into scientific intricacies that have enthralled me for the past thirty years. I have been researcher, supplier, and consultant in this industry and loved every minute of it. Before my wife’s retirement from her successful floral design business, I would happily tell people when asked what we did that my wife played with flowers and I played with trains. As adults, what professions could be more childlike.
This week I am at another rail conference in my career and presenting soon on the latest project to occupy my time and efforts. Such moments never fail to bring me back to what brought me to this industry in the first place. I can’t help but think of my late grandmother, of the rails that brought her to us and sent her home. I cannot help but think of the call of train horns in the night as special to me as the sound of owls that haunted the pines. My career continues as a romance that combines my love of math, physics, and the iron highway. It’s not rocket science, but it is very cool.