Railroad Country

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Back in the mid-1970s, it was my good fortune as a very junior editor on this magazine to be able to help our founder Oliver Jensen prepare a book on a subject that had interested him all his life. The American Heritage History of Railroads in America . Toward the end, like any other book project, it fell behind schedule, and Oliver and I had to put in some late nights. I remember, deep into one of these, standing beside him at the layout table while he tried to decide between two photographs: a big Mikado-class steam locomotive and a first-generation diesel.

Oliver looked up. “There once was a man from Moline … ,” he began, and unfurled a limerick about an inventor who devised a sexual-intercourse machine (it wasn’t called that in the poem), only to find it unsatisfactory.

I must have gaped with astonishment, because he said with a trace of irritation, “Don’t you see? It’s no good if it’s a machine .

” Then I did see. He was talking about that diesel. Every economic consideration mandated that it and its kin would supplant their steam-driven predecessors; but the process smacked of murder. Anyone who has ever seen a steam engine at work understands that it’s a living thing.

And it’s a creature Americans have been mated with from the start. In its infancy, it remade the country far more quickly than any e-thing is doing today, and the hammerblows that finished its transcontinental expansion at Promontory also planted the seeds of what America would become in the twentieth century.

Americans apparently have some kind of blood memory of this. The November issue of GQ carried a story by Mary A. Fischer, a young woman who, following millions upon millions of laborers and romantics, transients and bums, sneaked aboard a freight train. She wasn’t going to harvest ice up on the Lakes, or out to Oregon to pick apples; she was reporting on a recreational trend.

It was overhearing somebody at a party talking about this diversion that spurred Dale Wasserman to write the article about hoboing in this issue. I think it’s a remarkable story, because Wasserman was the real thing: He spent his growing-up years hopping trains, following an American pattern already a century old, one with its own vocabulary—language, actually, full of terse, efficient eloquence—its murderous perils, its exhilarating rewards. I think his story might remind us that during the current celebration of the generation that fought World War II, we would also do well to think about other common national experiences that are now at the far boundaries of living memory. Of these, perhaps the most vital is that of the brother- and sisterhood that ran (and stole rides on) the railroads when internal combustion was a jejune competitor and air travel a mere novelty.

Dale Wasserman bears witness to that era in a most intimate, eloquent, and arresting way. Naturally, he was skeptical about the prosperous kids who today are following his youthful footsteps up the grab irons—40,000 of them a year, to hear GQ tell it. Of course, I deplore their illegal, suicidal pastime (which I would never have been brave enough to try). But as an editor of this magazine, I find I warm to its reckless practitioners, because I think that with every jump onto the sill of a boxcar, they are, knowingly or not, paying the most energetic tribute to an immense national tradition.

Richard F. Snow