Darkness and distance can not contain a locomotive’s horn. On summer nights blazoned with stars and fireflies, as citronella candles flickered from the back deck where the adults gathered to drink and joke, the sound of the horn would come charging over the countryside. A line of tracks, an old Pennsylvania Railroad corridor, runs where the Susquehanna River mades a deep and wide scar on the countryside, a good three miles from my boyhood home, far enough we could not see it, but close enough to hear it clearly.
Train horns serve as a warning. Adhering to them could save your life. The decibels reach just below a police siren, telling anyone who listens — freight train coming, 60 mph, 10,000-tons, watch out.
My father was a railroader, 42 years of track work from the dense thicket of tracks that is northern New Jersey to a straight old Wabash line of rural southern Michigan, and about a 1,000 mileposts in between. It defined him both as an employee and as a Dad.
“As far as I know,” he told me when I was a teenager, “I started in the same rail yard as my Dad and his Dad before him. Petty cool, huh?”
I determined I wasn’t going to start in that rail yard or any rail yard. While attending college, during boozy nighttime crossings of campus to find another party I could hear a nearby passenger train blare its horn, I chose my own path away from railroads. Newspaper journalist. Sorry Dad, but this is me.
“Son,” he told me over the phone almost weekly after I graduated and started my career. “You oughta put in a resumé at the railroad. Pay’s good. Can’t beat the benefits.”
It was always the same frustrating line, even if he was right. What was implied — that I couldn’t earn enough as a newspaper writer, that only one career destiny, that of the railroad, would save me — burned me hotter than a steam locomotive’s fire box. Let me be me, I would think but never say.
One October when I was 31-years-old, I did stand in a rail yard wearing a shiny new white hard hat, next to a man who would teach me more than anyone about what it meant to work in railroads. We watched as a long line of freight cars backed up a hill before one-by-one the cars decoupled and rolled independently down the opposite slope. A switch at the foot sent each car onto one of a score of parallel tracks, where countless other rail cars waited.
The yard crews were forming trains in this hump yard, the squeal of the brakes and the violent slamming of coupler into coupler a symphony of industry.
“So it’s just gravity?” I asked. “They push the train uphill and then let ’em roll back down?”
“That’s it,” my new coworker said, a smirk running across his face. He knew there would be more, much more to the job of media spokesman for an oft-hated, loud, disruptive industry. But on my first day working for a railroad, he wanted to start me at a place where trains come, they’re broken apart, and then put back together.
Just like me. Two years earlier, I’d been laid off at my newspaper job. I struggled as a freelancer, tried TV news management for a short while, and then, reluctantly because I was afraid to prove my father right, I applied for a PR job with the same railroad that employed him.
I got the job. It was his proudest moment as a father, and I tried to keep my despondency hidden from him.
My turn to fulfill the family line of railroaders had come. It arrived as my wife and I expected our first child, a son, and I feared I would create the same home life my father had created for me and my siblings. Dad was on call for any rail emergency, running off unexpectedly on weekends or at baseball games to go repair a stretch of track broken by a train derailment.
The beeper on his belt pulsed electronically. A knowing look thrown at my mother. I gotta go, he’d say without saying.
Now I would do the same. A few times each month, after our son was born and his brother two years later, I would be absent, called on my cellphone, off to some locomotive shop or fiery, neighborhood-evacuating derailment.
If you meet a railroader, one of the first things they’ll tell you about is their “territory.” There’s no king to a kingdom quite like a railroader to his territory.
“Well, my territory pretty much runs between Harrisburg down to Port Deposit,” Dad would tell everyone he met when I was a kid.
I inherited a territory too. “I’ve got sixteen states,” I would tell everyone one I met after I began working for the railroad. “I pretty much cover every media market between Chicago and New England.” It never failed to impress. It gave me a sense of worth that began to fill the emptiness of losing my newspaper career and being away from my family.
I began to understand my father.
Working as a railroader opened up more insights into my Dad. As a child, if I did nine out of 10 things right on homework or chores, he’d point out the tenth. As a railroader, nine out of 10 things done right means the tenth could seriously hurt, even kill, a fellow railroader. Safety as paramount, all boxes must be checked, so was accountability; everyone deserves to go home after work, so look out for your fellow railroader.
It’s what my father knew every day for 42 years. It informed his way of parenting. “If you ever get arrested, I ain’t comin’ to bail you out,” he told me as a teenager. “You’ll spend the night in jail and learn your lesson.”
“But what if it isn’t my fault,” I asked him. “What if I’m falsely accused.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just means you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s what we call, ‘guilt by association.'”
To strongly nudge me out of newspapers and into the railroad as a career, it was his way of sounding a locomotive horn, to protect my life, to make sure I earned enough to live well.
Late one night, at my home office as my wife and children slept, I began looking deep into the past. Beyond my father, I wanted to know the truth about this railroad legacy. What had I become a part of? Did it begin with my great-grandfather, Benjamin W. Pidgeon Jr.?
No. It was much greater than that.
They arrived in America from Ireland beginning in the 1870s, filling the ranks of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in the Derby City. They took jobs as locomotive engineers, in the repair shops, as fireman shoveling coal into the burning belly of the steam engine. One died, crushed by a moving train in a rail yard. The others lived and built a new home, far from the dewy checkerboard fields they tilled in County Tipperary, toiling 12- and 16-hour days, earning and striving to make it in America.
The 1891 city directory for Louisville illustrated just how the line ran. Thomas Pidgeon Sr., my great-great-great grandfather, a widower whose wife passed away a year before he arrived in America, worked as a locomotive engineer for the L&N. He was 76 years old.
My role as media spokesman for a railroad company meant I was the sixth consecutive generation of my family to work train, track or administration. Before my time ended, I felt something I never thought I would, never as a child on those star-and-firefly summer nights hearing the distant locomotive horn in the dark or on campus as a college student or on the phone with my Dad as a young adult.
I was proud of this railroad legacy. I was proud of my father’s part in it. I understood him better.
Today, my daily commute to the office takes me on a highway running parallel for a quarter-of-a-mile with a stretch of passenger rail tracks. Later, I cross a series of bridges running over the busy Harrisburg Line and finally a sprawling intermodal terminal with its green, white, and orange trailers sitting on flat rail cars.
These are places I once frequented but can no longer enter.
I steal quick glances of the tracks and the yards whenever I pass them, and something aches, a little less every day, but it’s there. I left the railroad after five-and-a-half years because it proved too much for my family to endure, too many days away, too many late night calls from a dispatcher letting me know about a derailment, too many demands we move to work in a city we didn’t love as much as the home we made in Pennsylvania.
But I still hear that horn.
I remember a day I stood outside South Bend, Ind., along the busiest rail corridor in the United States, the Chicago Line, where every 10 or 20 minutes a massive freight train would pass moving east or west. I spied the locomotive lights burning in the distance, heard the horn sound two long, one short, one long as it approached every road crossing, and then it would whoosh past me, pulling the air and shaking the ground, so close could I stand, the train becoming something elemental, as if it was part of the earth itself, a tectonic force charging forward, before leaving everything calm again.
Like my career.
I feel it still, the memory of that day by the Chicago Line. Like many of my previous generations, I too left, although some like my father retired after lengthy careers. We eventually find our own track to follow, and I’m grateful to say, over time my father understood me as much as I learned to understand him.
When we’re children, everything appears massive compared to our small scale. We’re awed by adults and cars and parks and buildings, by anything towering over us, which is everything.
We lose that perspective as full-grown humans, except in my experience for one thing. Trains.
Standing next to a train gives you the feeling of a child again, so massive is its bulk, so powerful and miraculous are the engineering and physics, it leaves you awed and ebbed.
And I feel that way whenever I’m next to both train and family legacy.
Dave Pidgeon is a former railroad spokesman who writes about solving mysteries in family history and the humorous-and-poignant experience of contemporary parenting. This post is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors In 52 Weeks challenge. This week’s theme was “Favorite Discovery.” You can email Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org