Those who never had the opportunity for a romantic affair with the great steam locomotives have missed an emotional experience that is forever lost, for it cannot be produced by anything else, natural or manmade. The great trains were an integral part of the lives of all country people, especially those who lived near a railroad, and the folklore associated with the trains filtered down even to the most remote hamlet.
During 1943 my family lived on Effie Barfield's sharecropper place, about three miles west of Chipley. Our house was situated by the L & N railroad track that ran from Jacksonville westward toward New Orleans, and the front porch faced the railroad. To give an idea of how close we were to the tracks, the fence of our front yard was also the railroad right-of-way fence. This was still in the time of the great steam locomotives, and when one roared by the whole house would shake.
The train whistles in those days sounded every bit as romantic as they are made out to be in books and movies. Many were the times late in the night that I heard the sound of one coming from way off, and would get up and go out and set on the porch until it came by. Every engineer had his own peculiar way of blowing the whistle, and although you never knew the name of a particular engineer, you remembered him the next time he came through by the way that he worked the whistle, sort of like he was talking to his sweetheart.
You would first pick him up over around Caryville, about twenty miles west of Chipley, as he came on with a low, mournful whistle that would build up a little and then fade out gradually. Then he would start again, and build it up a little more quickly and hold it for a moment, then give it a little boost and let it fade out quickly. With two or three of these he had cleared Bonifay and was headed for Chipley, and by that time you could hear the engine itself, Cha cha cha cha, Cha cha cha cha, so fast that only the general rythym would register. Withinn another three minutes he was roaring by the house, and the racing beat of the cars' wheels hitting the joints in the tracks told you that he was moving on. That sound would last for about thirty seconds or so, until the caboose went by, then fade out rapidly. In another minute or so you could tell by his whistle that he had cleared Chipley and was headed for Cottondale and Marianna.
I never missed a daytime train that went by while I was around the house, and always waved at the engineer. Many did not seem to notice, but one day an engineer tossed out a large can of sauerkraut as he whizzed by, and motioned for me to go and get it. After that, about once a month, another can of sauerkraut would be tossed out.
Once, several years later, after we had been round and about and had finally moved back to Chipley, I was walking one day down the railroad track, on past the Effie Barfield place, to the Green Lantern which was about a quarter of a mile on down the track. The Green Lantern was a juke joint, but they had a big swimming pool in the back. You could swim in the pool all day for a quarter, so I would go there whenever I could get hold of a quarter.
On this particular day I had got to a point at about the middle of the trestle over a small branch when all of a sudden I heard a train whistle, and looked up to see the train coming around a curve from the direction of Bonifay. It was barreling down the track at great speed, and I saw immediately that I could not make it to either end of the trestle before the train got there. So I swung off over the side and hung by my hands from a cross tie while it roared by.
If the fireman had picked that moment to dump the coals from the fire box I would have been in big trouble. As it was, I escaped with nothing damaged but my dignity, and was greatly relieved at not having to change my pants.