I took Mark's train post to heart and ordered All Aboard ABC for the store. Thanks, Mark! It sure is an odd mix of grainy stock photos and those hurried train detail shots, some with the little red car that Mark talked about. Sometimes finding those little oddities and wondering about the photographer with the rented car can give a parent a little something extra when s/he's on the thirtieth reading of "Grade Crossing."
Right around three years old is when a lot of kids get into focused (sometimes obsessive) interests -- and there are lots of books that cater to the big ones. You Can Name 100 Trucks is one of my favorite titles in that category. Forget about plot, let's just get to the lists. A lovely combination of 100 train cars, beautiful art, and good writing is Crossing, this poem by Philip Booth illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. It's many pages of paintings of a 100-car freight train winding through the countryside. And yes, you can count them with your kids and sure enough, there are 100. The link is to Alibris -- the book is out of print, alas.
All this thinking about train writing turned my thoughts to my father, your grandpa, who was of course a writer. His professional writing was direct mail: letters that sold mostly books. In 1974, shortly before he left American Heritage, where he had worked for many years, he wrote a letter selling a history of trains. I thought I'd invite grandpa's ghost to be a guest blogger, because he sure could conjure up a train:
If you're old enough and lucky enough, you can remember lying in bed as a child and hearing, far off, the whistle of a steam locomotive as it pounded through the night. The wail was hoarse, mournful, inimitable. And once upon a time it was a siren song for any youngster.
You could imagine the engineer, red bandana round his neck, eyes riveted on the gleaming rails ahead, wind-blown and ruddy in the glow from the open fire door. You envied oh, how you envied the impossibly glamorous travelers in the spruce train behind, eating five-course feasts in the spotless dining car, ice tinkling in their wine buckets. Or snug in their berths behind swaying green curtains in the long Pullmans, each car lettered with its name. "Someday," you told yourself, "Someday..." It was magic.
Someday, lackaday. Such high-style overland travel is almost gone, as someone has said, with the wind. But as all of us who remember can tell all of us who were a bit too young, railroads were once magic carpets for Americans. The miraculous iron horse changed our modes of life more radically than any mechanical device before or since, from steel plows to airplanes.