Friday, January 27, 2006

This Week's Nostalgia Post

I bought the latest issue of "Classic Trains" magazine, one of those strange little niche mags, like Cat Fancy or Knitting Digest, that reminds one that there are myriad topics in life about which a person can enthuse (yes, an unaccepted usage for the purist, but my rebellion lives large).

I love this magazine partly because of its subject matter--if you haven't grasped that I'm rather obsessed with transportation issues then you haven't payed the least attention--but mostly because of the era it captures and celebrates. It is a sister publication of the more mainstream "Trains" magazine, which deals with modern railroading machinery and concerns (See? I'm not the only one); but "Classic Trains" celebrates what is thought of as the golden age of railroading, and especially the heyday of steam power, which was followed close-on by the rapid rise and incontestable hegemony of diesel power.

I love the machinery, yes; there is something endearingly brutal about a steam locomotive--they're very nearly a living entity, and their mechanical ingenuity is proudly on display--and that they were once a commonplace is an object of wonder to me. But even more than this I love the reflection of society at that time, and of the heady sense of progress and opportunity that followed the Second World War. This is the time of Art Deco and skyscrapers, of telephonic communications and television, of interstate highways and space travel, of great social upheaval; all of this transformed the world that was into something resembling the world that is. It's the first step back, the nearest stop on the nostalgia train that is just out of my reach. The modes of dress, the designs of the automobiles, the look and feel of period eating establishments, the hokey mock earnestness of advertising. Women with beehives and men with short, flat-top haircuts and narrow ties and birth control glasses. On and on. So many of my youthful memories are tinted with this '60s sense of modernity, and the time happens to correspond to a big change in railroads. So they become a symbol of my own past, and of all that is imprinted on the deepest level of my consciousness. It doesn't hurt matters that so much of the photography in the magazine is in black and white, another of my pointed soft spots.

I remember reading somewhere that our sense of smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. Maybe I'm just fulfilling my own prophecy, but in looking at these photographs it is a collection of smells that comes to mind, and those seem to open up a bunch of other memories and impressions. My house growing up was next door to a grain elevator. Though my father was a dentist, the house was something of a hobby farm, with a small barn and an apple orchard and a few acres of corn that someone else farmed. But we often played at the grain elevator (something that now seems alarmingly dangerous), and had lots of room to play on the farm, or for riding bicycles about the neighborhood. I can still recall the smells associated with the huge corn silos, as well as with our barn attic full of hay, and the bags of oats for the horses. And other things. Squinting into the sun on a frosty morning; the feeling of the sun on my face; the trickling water from melting snow; the crunch of gravel from car tires on the driveway. And I have a quite distinct memory of sun-baked railroad ties with that odd smell of creosote and heavy diesel oil.

I still walk the railroad tracks around my house in Wisconsin, but these photos remind me of the one-way arrow of time, of how we experience things differently in each phase of life, and that no experience is repeated. Each bears the stamp of our passing this exact place and time only once, never to return. Will I still be blogging 40 years from now, and what will I remember about my walks along the tracks in Wisconsin then?


Esbee said...

If you are ever in Cackalacky, Home of Tabacky, you would like this place:

green_canary said...

Wunelle - Go to and click on Darius Kinsey in the frame on the left. His turn-of-the-century photography of trains is right up your alley. Also? All of those photographers' works will get you in a completely nostalgic frame of mind. I've been sort of melancholy for two days since finding the site.

wunelle said...

I have to mouth out "Cackalacky" very slowly to keep from saying something really inane! And yes, I would love a museum like that!

Canaray--thanks for the pointer! I'm on my way over to look around :-)

wunelle said...

Oh yeah. Great stuff. How did you find this site?

wunelle said...

Most of these photos are of logging engines. What is called a "Shay" is a geared locomotive designed to give tremendous pulling power but at quite slow speeds. These were useful in hilly terrain where a regular locomotive could not operate.

But look at the workers! Can you imagine what these jobs must have been like? What one's workday would have consisted of? And the paycheck and the lifestyle it afforded? How much has changed. I suppose it's like being a pilot in that it's a weird skill that rather links one to a small subgroup of humanity. One is in charge of the care and feeding of an expensive and powerful piece of machinery, one doing useful work but where peril lurks around the edges.


Kate said...

Okay I didn't click on the link but if that was the museum in Salisbury, NC, it is sooooo cool. My grandfather worked on the mail trains and they had one there. They had a film that showed how they would hook the mail bags. Later my grandfather, (who actuall went through Salisbury) told me about the first time he dropped a bag and it hit the post and letters went everywhere.

wunelle said...

Silly me, I'm just an 8-year-old kid at heart. But you saying your father worked on a mail train is like saying he was an actual practitioner of magic. I'd love to have talked to him about that job!

wunelle said...

(Grandfather, sorry.)

Kate said...

Trust me, he would love to have someone new to tell his stories too. The man can talk. ;-)

Kate said...

I'm giving up on the grammar tonight. to not too

mango said...

Firstly... I am sitting here yelling "Cackalacky" at the top of my voice! What a most excellent word!

Secondly, "one way arrow of time" - what beautiful prose. Simply marvellous!

Thirdly, will you still be blogging in 40 years? Check out george lazenby commentary (not the actor) - a man in a retirement village, blogging at 94 (or thereabouts)! His thoughts "On growing old" are particularly poignant and excellent reading.

Fourthly (wow, this is getting long) I am currently re-reading Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller... now, there is an author who loves some good railway action. Excellent railway-worship prose, if you are so inclined.


wunelle said...

Kate--I get the "too" thing, since it's kind of built into your comment that we'd both like the conversation! I've always had a bit of regret that I did not pump my grandfather, who was a voluble old chap, for more information about his experiences as a boy & a young man. It's commonplace to say it now, but think of what he witnessed: two world wars, the birth of the airplane, the birth (basically) of the automobile and automotive culture, the advent of radio and then television, space flight, the explosion of medicine! Unbelievable to have existed at just this time in history. His written history of his parents' crossing from Holland is amazing. Alas, I became aware of this all a bit too late, as he died a few years back at age 102.

Mango--I'm checking out George Lazenby right now! And I've never read any Kerouac. I'll have to add him to my ever-growing pile that doesn't get read! (If I blogged less and read more I'd have... more to blog about!)