Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Passing of the Caboose

It struck me the other day that our great national slide into insanity and depression started a ways back, with the decision to drop the caboose from railroad trains.  You wouldn't think everything would hinge on such a decision.  But we know from countless examples how one small thing can lead to incredible consequences.  We can see this fact of existence illustrated on the billiard table, and on the chess board as well.  For some reason the science oriented cable channels are stressing the fact that, even as we speak, some small whack given to an asteroid of relatively modest proportions can lead, in a relatively modest amount of time (when speaking of the universe, if not the human life span), to the end of human life on our planet.  And of course as well as bulls-eyes, we can equally contemplate the near misses which sprinkle through our lives, and through history.  Alice Munro writes a remarkable story in her collection "The Moons of Jupiter" which ends with a bickering couple driving home from a party down a road passing through tall corn fields.  Just as they approach an intersection, a speeding car with no lights passes through the intersection.  The couple finish the ride home in a different frame of mind.  Once Libby and I were driving out of West Virginia and observed, some distance in front of us, a Blazer heading in the opposition direction slide around a curve and off the road, into the guard rail which stopped it's progress from continuing in an arcing descent of probably hundreds of feet into the valley.  Had we been thirty seconds sooner that vehicle would have knocked us over that rail.  As it was, we drove past the Blazer to the sight of several youngish lads sitting stock still and looking straight head out the front windshield in rapt contemplation. 

I think that the vanishing of the caboose may be the harbinger of our current times, unnoticed, unremarked.  Here and there you can find a person who loves the caboose.  Some have been adopted as ready made cabins or storage buildings.  A few can be found in museums.  A great lot of these charming break rooms on the roll have no doubt been scrapped for their metal.  You could be riding in a former caboose, or part of one, just as your wedding ring could possibly be composed of Cleopatra's fillings.  Mostly, the caboose has just vanished.  I watched a coal train pass by a few days ago, some eighty cars, all rolling down to a coal-fired electric generating plant which serves our needs here in Chatham County.  It ended simply with the last of the coal cars.  No jolly red punctuation mark, smoke coming out of its little chimney, or the brief glimpse through a greasy window of overalled men standing around a potbelly with cups of coffee in their gloved hands.  Though I will say that the coal, itself, was on the verge of nostalgia, and probably could I have clambered atop a car and stomped around on top of the coal, the old smell from my days of shovelling coal into the hopper in our basement furnace would have brought back many memories, since even remembering the smell as I write evokes immediately that basement and furnace--the pipes and dials, the red clinkers in the belly of the firebox, the wonderful metal tongs I would use to clean said clinkers away, the big coal shovel, hanging at the ready on the wall, and perhaps best of all, the pictures of dinosaurs which my father had painted onto the coal bin door, without comment.  (And my dad was born on a farm in 1901!)

Sometime in the past, between that coal bin door and this moment writing in the kitchen amidst the peak moment of fall foliage in my woods, some men in suits decided that the caboose was unnecessary.  Little did they know the implications of their seemingly unremarkable decision.  The precipice continues to crumble beneath our feet.

Update.  On the other hand, William Rivers Pitts does have a point:

1 comment:

  1. i remember watching for the caboose whenever we were stopped at railroad crossings when i was a kid. i remember waving vigorously from the back of the station wagon, and the engineers would always wave back.

    our house in st. paul is just three blocks from railroad tracks. i love to hear the whistle and the rumble (even though the shaking means that nothing in our house is plumb). but you're right; there's no caboose.