I lived in five different states while I was growing up: different schools, different friends and Scout troops, even different accents when I talked, but there was at least one constant. No matter how far the drive, we spent one week every summer at Granddaddy and Grandmother’s house in Hamlet, N.C. Granddaddy was my namesake – Grandmother always called him by our first name, Eugene – but the men he worked with on the Seaboard Airline Railroad for over fifty years knew him only as Pee Wee.
I believed Granddaddy completely when he told me the reason he was bald was that all his hair had burned off shoveling coal into the fierce throat of those monstrous steam locomotives. He worked his way from fireman to engineer and ultimately flew massive diesels from Raleigh to Columbia SC, a leg of the Orange Blossom Special and the Silver Star. We would go downtown to the Hamlet station to see him off, maybe eat ham and grits and biscuits in the Purity Café at 5 a.m. In those days Hamlet was the hub of passenger and freight lines – you could actually call it “downtown.” Dad and Bob and I would wait along the tracks to wave goodbye while the porters helped people aboard. I’d always jump about five feet whenever the air brakes released. Never got used to it. Then Granddaddy would nudge the throttles, and the diesel growl would rise from basso to baritone. The brakeman would make one last inspection, jump up and grab a handrail, each car would clang in succession as the couplings took up the slack, and the line would begin to move.
When I turned thirteen Granddaddy figured I was finally man enough to ride with him in the engine. Seventy miles an hour through the Carolina night, headlight flaring down the rails and gyrating light sweeping alongside to catch a deer as it leapt across, side door open while summer rushed past, I couldn’t even talk it was that intoxicating. Did I get to sound the horn? I can’t remember, but I do know Granddaddy let me pee out the side door when there were no crossings ahead. That was 1966, the year before Granddaddy retired. I’m not sure my little brother ever got to make the trip.
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My Dad (Eugene Wilson Jr.) still goes back to Hamlet for Seaboard Festival every October. The one year I joined him I bought the Seaboard belt buckle I’m wearing as I write this. My old HO set is in boxes in the basement. It’s been years since I last danced along the ties to follow the tracks below our house out to the edge of town. But every once in a while I take Saul downtown in Elkin when the switcher is swapping out big hopper cars of wood chips for ABT or Weyerhaueser, of corn for Wayne Farms or Perdue. We listen to the throaty rumble as the big diesels wind up, we hear the whine of the wheels as they lean into a curve and the clunk as they cross the points. The engineer fires us a short blast of horn when we wave. Man, there’s just nothing like a train.
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This poem by Scott Owens closes his book, Country Roads: Travels Through Rural North Carolina. It’s a collaboration with photographer Clayton Joe Young; every poem, every image evokes memories in danger of fading. As Scott writes in Reading the Weather: These are the simple truths. Not nostalgia, not a maudlin attempt to memorialize something that never was, this book just shows us who we are and how we got here. If you’re lucky Scott has still got a few of these books. Call him today and buy one.
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Every child should have one, a pair, really,
a matched set, set apart just the right width
so that one foot pressed against each one
leaves you stretched out about as far
as you can go, unable to move, feeling
almost trapped, almost actually in danger.
And every child should walk them as if
that’s what they were intended for,
leading out of town, around the curve,
along the river, revealing the backsides
of people’s homes, clotheslines and refuse,
the yards you weren’t supposed to see.
And every child should learn to balance
atop the railhead without the constant
unsightly tipping from side to side,
should be able to step exactly the distance
between the ties consistently, almost
marching without kicking up ballast.
And every child should have a bridge
they go under to hide and look
at dirty magazines and smoke cigarettes
and place coins on the rails to flatten
and see if this could be the one
to cause the train to leap the tracks.
And every child should know the lonely
distant sound of late night travel
when bad dreams have kept them awake
wondering where they come from, what
they bring or take, and where when it’s all
done they might return and call home.
© 2011 by Scott Owens, from Country Roads: Travels Through Rural North Carolina. A Collaboration Between Photographer Clayton Joe Young & Poet Scott Owens
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Scott Owens has undoubtedly written another poem in the time it took you to read this. Or else he has taught another workshop, planned another poetry event, posted another online journal. Does he ever sleep? If he does, I am certain that he dreams in verse. Scott’s poetry covers faith and agnosticism, abuse and parenting, alienation and existentialism, loneliness and collaboration, entrapment and liberation, personal relationships and self-sufficiency, the disappearance of a rural American South characterized as both pastoral and violent, and the possibilities of redemption as his characters attempt to make sense of an often seemingly senseless world. Check out his blog, read the journal he edits, buy his books . . . tell him Bill says “Hi.”
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