It takes a train to cry

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If I had any idea who settled the city of Auburn, I would write them this letter: “Dear founding fathers: Nice job with that founding thing. But I’d like to ask whose bright idea it was to put railroad tracks right through the busiest part of the city? I mean, were you drinking when you came up with that plan? PS: I’m sorry that you are dead.”

It’s horrible. Woe be unto the driver who gets stuck at the railroad crossing on Court Street or at any of the neighboring intersections. Children have been born in cars while their parents were waiting for a train to pass there. These kids grew into young adults right there in front of the flashing lights and barricades, having never seen the world beyond Court Street.

It’s a little-known fact that Johnny Cash composed his first big hit while driving through Auburn. It went a little something like this:

“I hear the train a-coming. It’s coming round the bend. And I ain’t seen the sunshine, since I don’t know when. I’m stopped at the tracks in Auburn, and time keeps dragging on …”

I hear Johnny’s pain.

It was a sunny afternoon in mid-April. There was action afoot and the latest call came in from Auburn. I crawled through commuter traffic like an amoeba and all was well until I reached Court Street.

I heard the spine-tingling clatter of the barricades going down. I saw the red lights flashing and heard the collective groan from drivers who would soon be backed up into two counties. Several of them abandoned their vehicles and walked to the river, choosing to float to their destinations rather than wait for the 9-mile train passing with the speed of a snail stuck in tar.

Normally, I wouldn’t complain. But on this day, because the train gods were apparently in rank moods, it happened twice. As I was coming back from the scene of mischief, I encountered a second train passing in the opposite direction at the very same crossing. No swear words have been invented yet to adequately express frustration over that kind of railroad phenomenon.

Two trains in 20 minutes during commuter traffic. Way to go, founding fathers. And while waiting for the second one to pass, I grew a full beard and learned the ancient art of origami. I mean, this sucker had at least a zillion boxcars.

Other than this though, I love trains. Trains are spooky the way rivers are spooky. They roll across the landscape, carrying their secrets and memories in silence. Trains and rivers are like grand symbols of time itself, each moving inexorably, with no regard to the petty plights of man.

In another life, I might have been a vagabond, traveling the countryside by train. I would have stolen into box cars under cover of night and joined the legions of hobos who wander restlessly, riding the rails. From Boston to Baltimore to Baton Rouge. From New Orleans to Sante Fe to Phoenix. From Reno to Palo Alto to San Diego.

I’d use a different name in each different town, wandering dusty back roads, working odd jobs before moving on. In Omaha, I’d be Garrison Dark, a quiet stranger with a shadowy past. In St. Louis, I’d be Wilding. Jack Wilding, a young man running from the law and from haunted memories. In Des Moines, I’m Stephen Boone, a hard-drinking bar brawler with a weakness for poker and the ladies.

The beauty of such a fantasy, of course, is that a wanderer never stays put long enough for real-world problems to catch him. All the peripatetic has to do is wait for the next whining whistle of the next cargo train, and he’s off to another place, riding the rails into an unknown future.

It’s an elegant fantasy. And the best part is, once I circumnavigate the country and return to Auburn, the same people who were waiting at the train crossing I left will still be there when I get back. By then, they will have grown magnificent beards and invented new swear words to accurately describe their fist-pounding frustration.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter. His train-hopping aliases are too numerous to list.

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