Unlike many other children of my acquaintance, I never had a problem knowing what I was going to be when I grew up. My parents had unwittingly fueled this choice by providing me with a book that began, “Chuggety-chug was gay little train / that traveled in sunshine and traveled in rain . . .” Each page was connected to the next to open out to form a standing, die-cut train that I could pull through the kitchen.
And at night my dad would sing a lullaby to me: “Clickety-clack, ka-thump, ka-thump / The train is coming, ka-chunk, ka-chunk / Get out of the way! There’s no time to stay! It’s coming from many a mile away. / It sings a clickety-clackety song, / A rickety-rackety clackety song . . .” This rousing ballad would thoroughly wake me up rather than put me to sleep, so excited would my dad get imitating all the train noises; and he’d have to come up with quieter songs (like “All Through the Night”) to try to undo the damage.
And so almost every clear evening, around 5:30, my mom would pop me into my metal maroon-and-cream stroller with the hard seat (borrowed from the Dormodys) and begin the half-mile march to the train station. In Wilmette, the train rode on an elevated embankment, making it even more impressive to me, looking up at it.
Train after train stopped at the Chicago & Northwestern station, disgorging hot, tired men in dusty gray flannel suits and fedoras; but I wasn’t interested in them. I was waiting for the 610. It rolled in around 6:00 p.m., and the engineer-god always waved to me, to my joy and ecstasy. He wore thick gloves and a high hat with a small bill, both made out of dirty cream-colored cotton with pale blue stripes, like the (cleaner) mattress ticking on my bed. In my eyes, he was noble and blessed, as he drove these huge dragons belching clouds of coal smoke and steam every day! What a dream-come-true that would be!
The god usually descended and conferred with the fireman and the conductor while the passengers disembarked. Then he swung back up into the cab and gave two long screeching toots of the whistle. Looking back out the window, he would see the conductor yell, “‘Board!” in a rising tone. Then the conductor would lean out from the steps and wave an arm to signal that they were leaving.
The big brass bell would start clanging, white steam would spurt from the tank and black smoke from the smokestack, so the engineer would have to lean out of the side window to see where he was going. Then the big drive wheels in front of the cab would laboriously begin to turn, followed by the smaller wheels at the front of the engine.
The proud cowcatcher leading the way near the front wheels, the train would give off its first “Chunk!” followed by another “Chunk!” Then in rapidly accelerating succession, it would say, “Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk”! And the coal-car and passenger-car wheels would slowly begin to clickety-clack as the massive engine pulled the whole clanging, smoking, steaming lot out of the station. The passenger cars would briefly make a hollower sound as they passed over the Wilmette Avenue crossing, where boards were placed between the rails, to prevent automobiles from getting stuck. I don’t think I ever breathed until the engine was gone and only the passenger cars were racing past us (at 30 mph!) In a little while it would be “going like 60” or “a mile a minute,” as my dad would say.
No doubt about it: the greatest thing next to being Apollo (who drove the horses of the sun across the sky every day) was to be an engineer on the Chicago & Northwestern line!
I vaguely knew that the engine would spend the night in a roundhouse somewhere (with the engineer, too, who apparently lived in the engine cab). But they would be back the next day to see me, as that was clearly the highlight of their lives.
Mom patiently endured this ritual (I think she liked trains, too). As train after train passed, however, she would become a bit embarrassed. The neighbor men would nod to her as they began their homeward walk, but she was left, apparently “abandoned” at the station, as my dad didn’t take the Northwestern to work. Eventually Mr. Dormody would appear and take pity on her, and the three of us would promenade back to Fifteenth Street.
Sometimes at night I would wake up and hear the faint sounds of the train passing, mostly the clickety-clack of the cars racing by in the dark far away, and I’d know all was well with the world.