As seen from the window of a speeding locomotive, the world is a blur like a fast-moving river.
Up close, a train passes like a flickering shadow.
Looking into the distance, rails converge, then vanish.
What can the heart remember?
Endless streams of coal trains coursed in and out of my childhood in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley, the largest coal-mining valley in the world. Though the huff and chug of the coal-burning steam locomotives ended before I was born in the 1950s, still the coal trains thrummed by day and by night. Diesel locomotives pulled and pushed long strings of coal-bearing gondola cars up the steep grade out; railcars returned empty. Growing up in that place, I knew that a century before I was born, anthracite coal and iron from our ground was extracted to make the steel rails that crossed the nation, that sent coal-fueled locomotives up and out, carrying coal to industry everywhere. I knew that our valley had five railroads. I remember coal-filled black iron gondola cars and spilled black diamonds lining every rail line, road, and byway. What I remember most is how trains ran over and over like an endless loop of film.
Over and over, running like a loop of film
Trains and film have an intertwined history. In River of Shadows Rebecca Solnit writes of Eadweard Muybridge, whose photography experiments led to cinema. Muybridge worked under the patronage of Leland Stanford, the nineteenth-century multi-millionaire railroad baron. Stanford owned the Central Pacific, the western end of the transcontinental railroad whose iron rails were united with the East in 1863. He employed Muybridge to photograph the West in its wildness to draw tourists. Stanford also provided Muybridge the expertise of a mechanical engineer from his railroad—an engineer who could design a timed sequence of cameras around a racetrack to further Muybridge’s work with motion photography.
Success came in 1872 when Muybridge produced a series of photos — almost silhouettes — of horse and rider that, when slipped into a candlelit zoopraxiscope, became moving pictures — the first cinema. Solnit writes of Muybridge, “It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run over and over again.”
Trains pass like shadows.
Half a century beyond my childhood, in a new millennium, I miss the passing coal trains of my childhood. The people I loved. They exist for me in shadowy images of memory and in old photographs where they are brought to life.
When Louis Daguerre in 1839 produced what is believed to be the first photograph, he said, “I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.” The exposure took seven minutes and captured both the still objects — buildings and streets in Paris — and the objects in motion: the shoeshine boy, a blur whose presence is indicated by the shoe of the man who has hired him — a man who appears as smudge, as shadow. Other blurs and shadows in Daguerre’s photograph are meant to depict people and carriages in motion, but are too difficult to capture. The living, breathing, moving beings are, for the most part, invisible.
Here, come see the women in my family said to me when I was a child. Here are pictures of your people. Look at the pictures so you can remember them they’d command. And I looked at images of people from before my time, posed outdoors against rose bushes as they faced the sun for the best lighting, their world rimmed in soot of locomotives.
This photo collection showed the technological history of family photography. Nineteenth-century sepia images showed great-grandparents posed in formal clothes. These echoed the miniature sepia studio portraits that could still be found on headstones in the cemetery, encased in disintegrating, yellowed cellophane. The children of the Great War posed in backyards in sailor suits, their photos taken by amateur family photographers. Photos were mostly absent from the Great Depression era — when getting enough to eat was the most important and all-consuming task — but reappeared with black-and-white portraits of family members in World War II uniforms: commemorations of enlistees and draftees who might never return. By the time of the mid-twentieth-century, our photos were high gloss, black-and-white, bound into thematic booklets of everyday life in the yards and on the Little League field and indoor flash photos taken for each birthday, church sacrament, and holiday.
Remember? the women would say to me, holding a photograph. Do you remember this person? When the weight of the question bore down, the imperative changed. Look at this photo; remember, they commanded, and, in the shadow of the command the words echoed: Your people left so many of their people behind in Europe before the 20th century; these photographs are for you and your children in the next century.
And then, their stories would pause, a shudder of film at the end of a reel, the bright lights flicked on too quickly, a blankness on a screen, as they spoke the present: How I wish I could see him again; her again. I wished then to caress the sepia faces, pull them from the shadows as over and over the words from my elders dropped like beads unstrung: How I wish…
In the river of time, what does the heart remember?
I felt that way about my dad. All I had to remember him by were photos.
When my dad died, I was eight years old. I was there beside him as he sat down in a chair, began to shake and sweat, as the light in his eyes went into shadow, as his brain flooded with blood and shut off all his senses.
And then he was gone.
I looked at photos, with longing, wishing I could make him reappear.
After his death, I stayed at the house of my dad’s brother, Uncle Bill, a railroad engineer, the guardian assigned to me at birth. A man whose laughter bubbled out of him like water from a deep and powerful spring. He made me feel all was well in the world. I was in awe of Uncle Bill, the engineer. And each time I saw a Lackawanna Railroad locomotive passing by, I looked for him.
Voices swirl in my memories. Look, there’s the train coming up our hollow. Come out on the porch. Look! Maybe it’s Uncle Bill in the cab of that switching engine. There! He’s blowing the horn — he sees you!
I grew up in a house, a neighborhood, a city with trains, running over, around, down, through,
like an endless loop of film.
lassoed by trains; a necklace of railcars like a choker. I couldn’t go anywhere without crossing tracks — even when I progressed from my rail-encircled neighborhood elementary school to the junior high in the valley, where we had to cross a mainline at lunchtime. Look, we all said on the other side of the tracks as we heard the sound of the tritone triad horn echoing off the brick factory buildings. Bad timing! There go the crossing guards. That train is coming full–speed upgrade. Four locomotives in front. You gonna cross? You gotta cross. You’ve only got five minutes to run up that hill and then get up to the third floor of that junior high. You’ll be late for science.
I search my memories of being with my dad, but they are sparse. He was a firefighter who worked a strange rotating schedule, living and sleeping away from home for days. Then when he was at home, he slept while we were awake.
Imprinted inside me is one of the last photographs taken of my dad, Ben. I see him in his black T-shirt in our long, grassy, mountain yard terraced into the dumped tailings of nineteenth century steel rail smelting — a backyard built upon rust ashes. In the photo, he stands beside the rock wall separating the next yard uphill from ours, the yard much taller than he. Every spring, as land pushed downward, a different portion of the rock wall tumbled, and my dad tried to put the immense black rocks back in place. I remember him struggling. It was rare to see a photo of my dad looking at the camera, but in this one, he looks directly to some unknown future.
Sometimes I wonder: What does a photograph capture? How can it capture anything at all? Is it a snare?
In my high school years, cameras aimed at me were snares on a trap line. I felt snagged, tagged. In my teens I knew I no longer wanted to be frozen into photos. I didn’t want my picture to be pointed at in parlors for posterity. I couldn’t imagine having posterity or wanting it.
My adult brother photographed trains. In his childhood he had seen the coal-burning locomotives turned into scrap metal, the end of coal for locomotion. He raced by car along back roads, along circuitous byways, to catch the straight-lining diesel locomotives with their cars in tow, grinding against gravity. He photographed them as if they were beasts and the camera gave a rare opportunity to capture them in the wild. They were an endangered species. We did not want to admit this. It would have meant our era would be gone; that we, the valley of coal, the valley of railroads, the place where the steel rails were once made, would have no reason to appear on any map because all of the industry and people would be gone.
Railroads made cinema possible. Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies were funded by a railroad baron. Rebecca Solnit writes of this: “It was the first time photographs had dissected and reanimated actual motion, it was the foundation of cinema… And motion pictures change the relationship to time farther; they made it possible to step in the same river twice, to see not just images, but events that have happened in other times and other places, almost to stop living where you were and start living in other places or other times.”
Shadows converge and pass.
When I was a child, the only motion pictures available to us were in theaters. No one I knew had a motion camera, a Super 8, to make films of family — until I was in high school visiting faraway cousins and was upended by a few moments of a motion picture in which my dad reappeared. A film I never knew existed.
In the silent flickering colors on the basement rec room screen, all of my maternal cousins and I flashed past the camera in our swimsuits, jumping, flinging ourselves through space, slipping down a yellow plastic water slide as we rode the slippery track, each of our smiles as wide as the horizon.
All at once the scene moved upward to my parents standing in the background, their gestures caught on film. I watched, frozen, as the film moved on.
In a flash, my view of reality changed. My dad had been a real person. He had died. My father was not an image in black and white, immortalized looking away from the camera. He was a man in a black T-shirt standing in a world of summer green with children’s joyous shrieks moving through his thoughts. He stood with his arm around my mama’s shoulder as she, smiling, folded her arms across her middle, her shy gesture against being seen. Caught by the camera for just those few seconds through the silent colors, Ben was, for me, alive again as he turned his head.
What can the heart remember?
To remember is to come into the mind again, as previously perceived, known, or felt; to have renewed apprehension of. To put back the limbs and make whole. To think of again; to recollect. Re-collect.
I remember when my dad passed, I spent a lot of time with my cousin. My brother, more than a decade older than either of us, was already out in the world. In his childhood, my brother saw the things that my cousin and I would never see: coal burning locomotives, and our city still holding promise. Wrapped in his own work and adventures, he couldn’t understand my sense of loss, what it was like to be a kid whose father was gone.
My cousin was the brother I chased after. Five months apart in age, my cousin and I were practically littermates — puppies playing together. We shared the same neighborhood: a hollow at the base of a mountain, traversed by rails, dirt roads, and a creek. We went to the same church down in the big valley, to the same schools. We shared the same decrepit, deteriorating neighborhood pool. When there was no one else in the family to teach me to swim, my cousin showed me how to put my face in the water for the dead man’s float. We shared all the same stories. I would have followed him anywhere.
But my cousin’s inner world was different from mine. While I played fairy-child and princess-needing-to-be-rescued, my cousin was forever fighting an unseen foe, or he was a cowboy wanting me to be an Indian. When trees and bushes were removed from the lot next to his house and all the bedrock smashed to shattered slate, my cousin belly-crawled over the shards up to the rim, with me crawling close behind. In his imagination he was immersed in a world war like my dad had fought in, the one his dad was too young to enlist in.
We both knew World War II through photos: eight-by-ten photographic portraits of my dad, Ben, and his next younger brother Bob, in dress uniform. The photos, unusual by their size in our family collection, were a focal point in our grandma’s house. They showed both men, muscular and clean-shaven, their eyes pale in the tones of black and white, their smiles, broad. Surely, that was before they went to battle; before they returned home with the light in their eyes dimmed; before beers at the tavern to forget. It was long before anyone knew that they were both slow-dying casualties of a world war; that they would pass when my cousin and I were children.
But no one could predict that their youngest brother, my locomotive-driving uncle, would be gone before his son finished high school. No one talked openly about cancer then. We just watched, feeling helpless as he became weaker following each operation, spending more and more time in the hospital where my cousin and I were born, where I worked as a candy striper. I knew all the halls, the rooms — I knew it as a place where people came to die.
When that time came for my uncle, he asked for me to visit. All his bubbling laughter had drained away. He lay skeletal in a hospital bed holding my hands, telling me he didn’t want to die. He begged me to please, please, hold him.
After my uncle passed, my cousin and I didn’t see each other for many years.
I asked my brother once, what exactly a railroad engineer does.
He told me that the engineer has his hand on the throttle, reads the signals, and keeps the foot on the dead man pedal — the pedal required to keep the train running — the release of which would stop the train.
Dead man pedal. How many men now gone, I wonder, kept the foot on the pedal, kept the trains in motion, hauling coal, coal, coal, and freight?
The heart races.
In the family I create, I scramble to take photographs with print film, documenting the birthdays and life-changing events of my own children, carefully pasting the printed photos into large sketchbooks, allowing me to write stories. But then, technology moves on. Photographic film becomes scarce, and there’s no one to print it. I succumb to looking at digital photos on screens. Still, with images come the stories. Stories I didn’t know were in me arise, and I remember: I put things back into place from before they shifted in the motion of the world. I wonder sometimes, is telling my story like stringing coal cars together for a journey about memory and rivers of shadows and rivers of trains all in motion?
All at once, I want to see the land I knew as a child in color and in motion because it is so much gone. I want to see the trains of my childhood again, and the power of their movement.
I trawl the internet trying out the names of the railroads from my valley, one after the other searching for trains crossing the coal places I knew in the 1950s and ’60s. I search YouTube for the Lackawanna Railroad, the one my engineer uncle, Bill, worked for.
And I find one.
The video is posted as Lackawanna Freight 1958. A good find: the year of my birth. The color film has no sound. It begins with a scene at a station — not the one in my city, but one along the same lines. An older engineer in overalls, striped cap, and black kitbag climbs up into one of the awaiting gray-and-maroon striped diesel locomotives, its cone-nosed round-face bright yellow. The heraldic colors of the Lackawanna Railroad, my uncle Bill’s railroad. So familiar. A few moments later, a younger man similarly dressed, climbs aboard. The film alternates scenes of the locomotives with their freight cars in tow with that of scenes from inside the cab. The train passes similar yellow-and-gray locomotives hauling freight and coal. Along the way, the journey clearly shows the land that I knew as a girl — the blue rounded mountains in the background, the dark ground of coal along the silvered tracks in the scene bordered by russeted trees. Scene after silent spliced scene the film progresses to give the sense of the journey from the engineer’s point of view.
At about 10 minutes into the 13-minute video, a viaduct, an arched span appears ahead on the straightaway. Banks of black stone and beds of spilled coal darken the scene. When the camera shifts back to the cab, there is a smiling engineer at the throttle — but he is not the older man nor his son. His hair and eyes are dark. He turns slightly and nods. (What a beautiful face! And there’s something about it…)
I go back and watch it again. Three seconds of the man in profile. He nods. A shudder of film, then two more seconds, and then he’s gone. He doesn’t appear again in the video. (There’s something familiar about that face — he actually looks a little like my brother when he was younger. He looks…)
By now I feel the tightening in my chest. After sixty years, could it be Uncle Bill?
The world blurs. What can the heart remember that the fast-moving mind cannot?
I pull my box of photos from the upstairs closet. I find the envelope that contains the remaining black and white frill-edged, square childhood photos torn from their booklets. Me as a baby in my dad’s arms standing out in front of our house, my dad shirtless in the summer heat of 1958. And then a picture from my family’s parlor, a dark-haired man in a light-colored suit holding a baby in a lacy christening gown. Uncle Bill, my guardian, smiling down at me. And I, the newborn, must be staring at that face.
As seen from the window of a speeding locomotive, the world is a fast-moving river.
I watch the film again. Surely the scenes outside the locomotive are October. The ribboned maroon-and-gold pattern painted on the gray locomotive echo the colors of late fall. It must be October, the month my cousin turned one. I would have been six-months old. Both of us were surely carried in the heart of Bill, the engineer, newly married, in love with his work and young family, speeding through river valleys lined with coal.
I hesitate a moment before dialing my cousin’s long-distance phone number. The grief over his mother’s recent death is raw.
Cuz, I say to him on the phone, I was looking at some railroad videos online. I pause, then say, I think I saw your dad. I’ll send you the link. Is that OK?
I wait for him to look. I tell him, Try 10 minutes 12 seconds. It’s only a few seconds long, I say, reaching into the silence that follows.
Before I can ask what he thinks, my cousin speaks from his experience as a detective. He has already skimmed the video …but, that man was not at the beginning or end. It looks like those seconds around 10:12 were spliced in. Then there’s quiet on the line, and when he speaks, it’s with resignation in his voice. I think it’s him. He was always smiling, my cousin tells me. He loved his job. He loved his life…
As if our thoughts trail along parallel rails, I can almost hear him thinking, how his mom would have wanted to see this video. And then he says, There’s probably no one we can ask.
Cuz, I say to him, maybe my brother would know. I’ll call him. Let’s see if he agrees. I’ll call you back.
The answer comes within minutes.
Sis, my brother says, strange you should ask. I just watched that video two weeks ago. I thought it was Bill.
Yes, of course, I think. Uncle Bill would smile. His son, just a year old. The world swirling by. Home soon.
Here is a line. In River of Shadows Rebecca Solnit draws it, and I connect the dots. The line runs from coal to iron smelting to create the rails. Rails run across the nation, trailing photographs of places passed through. Rails create channels of motion where time is regulated; time is captured, while motion is held in photography and cinema. Recorded for all time.
I’m afraid to look at the scene in the video again, but I do. It’s a kind of voyeurism, isn’t it? But it’s only an impression in light and dark. With a click on the computer I could choose to see that impression of my uncle again and again — and still, his hand is on the throttle; the October landscape blurs behind him in the window frame; he turns and smiles, then turns away again.
Though the film is silent, I swear I know what is said:
Hey Bill – the men say – we’ll film you for posterity.
In profile, Bill makes a skeptical, slight nod of his head. Like in the famous photo of the moving crowd in Daguerre’s Paris, behind him all is the blur of motion.
From the window of a speeding locomotive, the world is like a fast-moving river
Bill, I can hear them say, Come on, smile for the camera. Someday you’ll be famous. You can show your son.
He turns toward the camera, only for an instant, a steady smile — not for the ones holding the camera, nor for some imagined viewer in the future. It’s a smile just for being alive, with his hand on the throttle.
Up close, a train passes like a flickering shadow.
He turns; he smiles just for living as he speeds through time.
Rails converge, then vanish into the distance.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Mobilus in Mobili
This story was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in our special contest issue as one of the top, overall 10 stories.