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?