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Big Chuck

December 5, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Waiting for a friendly wave that never came

My earliest recollection of taking a train ride was when my dad would take me and my brother, Jim, and sister, Fran, on the train from Sidney down to the Afton Fair. Mom would greet us at the crossings along the way with a baby in her arms and a big wave to the four of us.

My Sidney was a big train town. I remember watching the long trains screech their way through downtown. I'd stand at the crossing gates and watch the sparks fly under their steel wheels as my hair would whip around wildly from the seemingly breakneck speed they were going.

The loud clicking and clacking, the ear-piercing scream of the whistle, the monstrous locomotive. It is an IMAX-like image from my youth that can be called immediately to the fore.

And then, the big finish. The caboose!

We knew it was coming. The little red caboose would finally appear around the bend by the old freight house. It would pass by me, just inches from where I was standing.

An old gent was standing at a little wrought-iron railing at the rear of the caboose. He was dressed in greasy overalls with a denim cap pulled down around his grizzled face. Our eyes would connect. And then he would wave. Just a slight movement of his gnarled hands. Sometimes he had a pipe in his hand as he waved, creating dancing smoke trails that wafted over the tracks. But a wave it was. And I'd wave back like a fool until he disappeared from sight.

Recently, I was in downtown Sidney. As I approached the Main Street train crossing, the bells started dinging and the lights started flashing and the long gates slowly began to descend. My heart raced. Certainly we have all sat in our cars as a train passed in front of us. But when was the last time you were actually standing at the crossing gate as a train roared near you? It hadn't happened to me in 40 years.

I edged up to the clamorous crossing gate just as close as I could. I heard the screaming of the whistle out of sight but getting closer. I felt my blood rushing as I stood my ground and gripped the gate. I was going to stand firm and relive my childhood once more.

Yeah, right.

The train came barreling around the bend at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour. Just as the locomotive passed directly in front of me, the engineer blasted the whistle. It sent me back a good five feet. The cold wind was thrashing through my clothes and hair as the cars whizzed by me.

The flashing lights and bells of the crossing gate, the whistle ringing in my ear, the rocking of the huge freight cars as they raced by me. It was sensory overload. But I stuck it out to the end.

I couldn't wait to see my old friend. My affectionate apparition from the 1950s. The caboose.

After what seemed like an hour, I sensed the train was almost finished passing me by. I courageously moved back up and gripped the gates. I could see daylight way down the tracks where the last car was. Here it comes.

Closer and closer I got to seeing my old friend. My youthful memory was about to become real again. And then there it was. The last car.

I started waving like a fool. Like a 62-year-old fool this time. I wanted the man in the caboose to see me waving at him first. The last car flew by, and I stuck my arm up and waved it with all my being.

Nothing.

I was waving at a little flashing red light stuck on the last freight car.

No grizzled old codger waving at me with a pipe in his hand. No denim cap. No little iron railing. Just a dumb old flashing red light.

The train disappeared and I stood there as gates went silent and started to rise. Traffic started to slowly move down Main Street.

Sheepishly, I lowered my hand and put it into my pocket. I hoped nobody saw me fervently trying to be a kid again.

I found out later that for the most part caboose cars are a long-gone thing of the past. In the 1980s they were replaced by some boring thing called FREDs (flashing rear-end devices).

Did a "flashing rear-end device" ever wave back at you?

Didn't think so.

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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