A Long Shadow
Railroad short fiction by Chuck Brite, ã2005

Charles loved trains.The eight-year-old boy found everything about them fascinating.Thatís why he always looked forward to going to Norlina.

The North Carolina town was barely more than a wide spot in the road, a reason for traffic on U.S. Route One to slow briefly as travelers hurried to more important places.  It was, however, a railroad switching center, and for Charles that made it special. 

The Seaboard Railroad mainline from New York to Miami passed through Norlina, and if you got there at the right time, you could see the Silver Star or even the Silver Meteor stop to pick up passengers.  The Seaboard also had a branch line running from Norfolk, the Virginia seaport, to Norlina, where it joined with the mainline running north and south.  Several times a day, trains from various points would arrive in Norlina, providing plenty of opportunites for an eager youngster to watch.

On this particular summer evening, the boy and his uncle arrived about eight o'clock, just as a train from Norfolk pulled in.  While passengers were getting off, the eight-year-old watched with great interest as a switch engine coupled to the rear of the train.A brakeman detached the last three cars, and soon the rest of the train departed, while the switch engine pulled the three orphans onto a sidetrack.

It wasn't long before Charles saw a white light in the distance, and soon another train arrived.  The Sunland, as the train was called, originated in Richmond, Virginia, and ran daily to Florida.  During its brief stop in Norlina, the three cars from Norfolk would be attached to the rear of the Sunland for the trip south.  When the train returned from Florida, the process was reversed, and Norfolk passengers could complete their trip home.

The passenger train pulled into the station, and the boy and his uncle watched as the Sunland's huge F3 locomotives passed them.  The baggage cars followed, and then the passenger cars jolted gently to a stop.  Some people left the train, and others got on, wrestling their suitcases up the narrow steps.

But Charles hadn't come to watch the people; he'd come to watch the trains.  There were lights down the track, as the Norfolk cars, having been switched onto the mainline, slowly approached the end of the waiting train.  A brakeman was hanging off the side of the first car, his lantern swinging back and forth, as he signaled the engineer of the switch engine.

Another brakeman stepped onto the tracks behind the last car of the Sunland, grabbing the heavy, foot-high steel coupler.With a grunt, he dragged it to the center position, assuring that it would line up correctly, then deftly stepped away just as the new cars reached him.

The first brakeman's lantern moved in a circle, slower and slower.  Finally, with hardly any noise at all, the cars came together.  Both brakemen crawled into the gap between the cars and began to hook up the air hose and electrical connections.  In less than a minute, they were finished.  The two men exchanged a few words as they emerged from between the cars, then one mounted the Sunland, and the other hurried back to disconnect the switch engine.

The trainís conductor emerged from the station and pulled a big pocket watch from his vest.

"'Board!" he called, encouraging the last of the passengers to get on the train.

From up and down the platform, Charles heard doors slamming.  A late-arriving passenger ran up.  The conductor moved aside to let the man climb aboard, then picked up the wooden footstool and placed it on the train.

Moving to where he could see the locomotive, the conductor waved his lantern back and forth, signaling the engineer to proceed.  His signal was answered by two short blasts from the diesel horn.  The conductor hurriedly got aboard, then lowered the floor covering the steps.

In a few seconds, the train started to move.  The conductor was about to close the door when he happened to notice the boy watching.  His face softened, perhaps remembering another wide-eyed boy, and he waved.  Charles grinned and waved back.

"Gee, Uncle John," he said as the train disappeared into the darkness.  "That was fun.  Can we come back tomorrow?"

The sixty-year-old man chuckled and put his arm around the boy's shoulder as they walked back to the car.  "Maybe so, Charles, we'll see."

* * * * *

Now as I stand here once again, it seems like yesterday, when in fact it happened more than sixty years ago.The Seaboard abandoned its Norfolk line in the late 1950's, and Norlina became just another station stop along the way.The dates are a little fuzzy now, but sometime around the late seventies they discontinued stopping at Norlina altogether.  Passengers had to go to Henderson, eighteen miles away, to catch a passenger train that only stopped once a day in each direction.

The citizens of Norlina made the station a historic landmark, and each time I returned home over the years it was a reminder of days past.  But the station burned down, and today only pieces of the concrete platform remain.  Weeds grow up through the cracks, and dead leaves cover the area where passengers walked so long ago.

Over to my right, a gravel roadbed is the only trace of where the mainline used to be, for the track from Norlina north was torn up in the late eighties.The remaining track, from Norlina south toward Raleigh was abandoned in 1995, and the steel rails lie rusting in the weeds.

As I walk back to my car, my heart is filled with an immense sadness, because some cherished part of me is gone forever.  No matter how often I come back here, the feelings--and the memories--are clear and sharp.  So clear that I can almost reach out and touch those men working between the cars.

It's funny how things that happen when you're a child can cast a long shadow into your adult life.  I had Lionel model trains, and later half a basement full of HO scale trains.  Now I have several train simulators on my computer.

My wife and I enjoy riding the train, and last fall we took the Amtrak Sunset Limited out to Los Angeles.We've ridden the Southwest Chief, the Capitol Limited and the Crescent, too.

 

I guess trains will be a part of me for as long as I live.

 

- - - - -

 

Author's note:  

 

My trip to the train station happened about 1950, and, as the story indicates, my memories of the event hold a special place in my heart.  Any time I return to the area, I always stop at the train station.  Often I'll get out of the car and spend some time wandering through the weeds, looking down at the broken concrete and the rusting rails, remembering with a touch of sadness the events of long ago.

  

It was one such visit to Norlina that inspired me to write this story.

 

About the picture: In this picture, taken about 1990, I'm standing on what used to be the Norfolk line. The rails end in the weeds about 100 yards behind me. The last time I visited Norlina, in 2004, the weeds in the track were knee-deep.

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