I’ve always been fascinated by trains. I remember standing at the Advance train depot with my grandparents to watch the steam engines come puffing in with black smoke boiling from the stacks and a deafening blast of steam when it stopped.
Texas singer and songwriter Guy Clark describes how it was to be six years old in 1947, when the whole town turned out to see a “mad dog, runaway, red-silver streamline train” whiz though for the first time. Up until then, “Trains are big and black and smokin’ – steam screamin’ at the wheels, bigger than anything they is, at least that’s the way she feels…When they finally said ‘train time,’ you’d a-thought that Jesus Christ his-self was rolling down the line. Things got real quiet, momma jerked me back, but not before I’d got the chance to lay a nickel on the track.”
Coins on the track
When Bob, Claire, Mother and I visited Wittenberg the other day, a slow freight pulled slowly through the town, then came to a stop. I tuned the scanner in my car to the train frequencies and heard the engineer talking to dispatch about stopping for a signal that shouldn’t have been red. While they were sorting it out, I thought about Clark’s song and dropped a penny, nickel, dime and quarter on the track.
Watch the video to see what happened.
Crawling under trains at 10
I’ve been around trains quite a bit and have a lot of respect for them. When I was about 10, Dad had a road-building job down in the Bootheel and had the gravel for the job delivered by rail. He’d let me crawl under the hopper cars to bang open the door that would spill the rock onto a conveyor belt. He told me to make sure I didn’t come out from under the car until he gave me the all-clear, then he would have a bulldozer push the cars forward until the next one was ready to dump. (Just think how many regulations that would bust today.)
Where did my pennies go?
When we left to go home one Friday, I put a row of pennies on the main line, expecting to find them when we came back on Monday. When I rushed to the tracks to find zip, Dad explained that a fast, heavy train will smash the coins as thin as tin foil, then it’ll weld them onto the passing wheels or onto the track. To get good results, you had to do it on a siding or when the train was just starting out.
Kindergarten ride to Chaffee
I did the obligatory kindergarten ride to Chaffee from Cape; I rode the train from Cape to Chicago for a photo seminar right after high school; a train delivered me to Philmont Scout Ranch when I was 15; I took passenger trains to and from college in Athens, Ohio.
Over the years, I don’t know how many “last rides” I’ve photographed as passenger trains dwindled to a passing few. I rode the Silver Meteor from Florida to Chicago through a 100-year blizzard with drifts so high that they knocked out the headlight on our engine. I rode in the engine of a freight train along the east coast of Florida (where I learned that I couldn’t handle the stress of seeing so many cars drive around closed crossing gates with our engine bearing down on them.
In Gastonia, N.C., I saw a train hit a car that tried to beat it to the crossing. A 16-year-old kid died in my arms.
So, I don’t encourage you to do what I did. Still, like Guy Clark sings in his song, “Oh, but me, I got a nickel smashed flatter than a dime by a mad dog, runaway red-silver streamline train.”
Maybe I’ll leave a coin for Dad
Maybe I’ll leave one of the coins on Dad’s gravestone to show him that I finally pulled it off.