Williamstown Branch


“Well, now,” Mr. Webb went on, taking his proper seat behind the throttle but leaving room in front of him for me, “you set down and pretend you’re the engineer. Take that throttle in your hand—it won’t bite you. It only bites bad boys.”

I took hold of the lever, feeling Mr. Webb’s strong hand beside mine.

“All right,” commanded Mr. Webb. “Pull back on it.”

I did this, aided and restrained, I suppose, by the engineer. The old locomotive breathed deeply, snorted, and then, slowly responding to the throttle, moved toward the turntable.

“Gosh!” I cried.

Mr. Webb laughed. “That’s the way I felt, the first time,” he said. “Easy there, easy now.” I felt my hand go forward again as he closed the throttle and the engine stopped. Mr. Webb gazed at me thoughtfully. “This turntable is what you might call a delicate apparatus,” he observed. “It goes off the rails pretty easy. That’s why we come up on it gentle, the way we’re doing tonight. You take somebody playing with that turntable that don’t know how it operates, and chances are they’ll do damage to it.”

He seemed to wait for me to speak. “Uh-huh,” I said.

Mr. Webb was silent while he inched the locomotive upon the turntable, and the fireman, already in his proper post, turned it round.

“Runs like a sewing machine,” remarked Mr. Webb, “since that wrecking crew come up the other day and oiled it.”

“Uh-huh,” I agreed.

We slid down toward the roundhouse where the ancient engine spent its nights.

“It’s a tough life, being an engineer,” said Mr. Webb as he climbed slowly down. “How old are you, Robbie?”

I told him.

“In eight years you’ll be old enough to be a fireman,” Mr. Webb continued, inspecting me carefully. “You’ll be a good chunk of a boy by that time. What do you want to be when you grow up, anyhow? How much of a damn fool are you?”

“An engineer,” I replied breathlessly. “I mean—”

Mr. Webb laughed. “Just like I thought,” he said, “solid maple from ear to ear. Well, I’ll tell you, Robbie, if you want to be an engineer nobody can say you can’t. If I’m still running eight years from now, I’ll take you on as fireman and teach you all I know. You’ll be sorry, though.”

“No, I won’t, Mr. Webb.” I found my voice at last. “I’m sorry about the turntable. We all are. I won’t ever do it again. We all won’t.”

“Sure,” said Mr. Webb encouragingly. “Sure you won’t. And so far as I’m concerned, you never did.”

“If you’ll take me,” I went on bravely, “I’d like to be your fireman. I’ll exercise and get real strong. I’m going to be an engineer, Mr. Webb—like you.”

Mr. Webb came near purring. I’m glad I said this to him, for I suppose it made him feel like a success in the world. What more success can a man have than doing something that makes a boy want to come along in his footsteps?

The stuff that dreams are made on

If there were not so many other witnesses I should think I dreamed the town I seem to remember. Surely I dreamed part of it, and a part of it was real. What my brother and sister remembered, I did not wholly remember. What I remembered, and have been trying to tell, may never have been wholly in their memories at all.

It is true, however, that the Williamstown we each knew, in our various ways, in 1898 is not there any more. It was the stuff that dreams are made on and it has now been undreamed, and another sort of morning has come other than the mornings we knew.

The town and village as I knew them seemed permanent. I thought, without ever putting the thought into words, that we were fixed in time and place and nothing would ever change very much; we youngsters would never grow up; our parents would never grow old and die; the past and future were stories and make-believe.

Merrill Linton said one day that his father had said, “This town pretty near broke up last year.”

I was startled. I asked how a town could break up. I hadn’t noticed anything coming loose.

Merrill shook his head wisely. He didn’t know the answer. What I now suppose is that this was partly the tail end of the depression of the 1890’s, from which the Spanish-American War and, as we Vermonters, big and little, mostly saw it, the noble and wise policies of the Republican party, had helped to lift us.

It may also have been suspected, even then, that it would be better to haul granite by rail into Barre and Montpelier than to lug it by road or rail into Williamstown. What made Williamstown the most prosperous as well as the most cosmopolitan of small towns was the granite business and the people it brought.

Whatever exists seems natural to a boy. It would snow in January and December, and between those months, about midway, there would be a little warmth —too much, sometimes. But the climate wouldn’t change, even though Mr. Ainsworth did once remark during a long dry spell that maybe it was the Lord’s will never to let it rain again. Nothing would change. Williamstown, Vermont, 1898, was a finished product the way I looked at it, the way all we boys looked at it. Who can ever believe in the future? There isn’t any future.

We therefore looked at our town, not knowing much of it was transient; and at the stone-sheds, the particular feature of our town in 1898, not knowing that they would pass like the insubstantial cobwebs of a dream.