Along with those major interstates, like the I-10, we lived less than a country mile from. Not more than a Southern style spit away from that freeway was the concrete, steel, and black top’s companion; the steel rails that the Arlo Guthrie song prophesied would disappear.
Guthrie was wrong about the railroad disappearing, but he was on the money about them not hauling passengers.
Those worn steel tracks spiked to the tired timbers buried in the dirt aren’t overly impressive at a glance, but humility leaps into the middle of your soul and belly when the massive engines rumble by plowing the air and rattling the earth, your bones, and teeth.
It was a rare sight for me as a kid to see a train up close. My parents forbade us being anywhere near the train, and not just for the danger of getting hit by one. Those were the days of hobos, and finding hobos gutted by other presumed hobos wasn’t uncommon.
Between the bums, hobos, and reputation of folks on the other side of those railroad tracks, I wasn’t in an all-fired hurry to cross em’… but I knew they were there.
When living in close proximity to the interstate and railroad tracks, there’s one thing you can count on like a sunrise and a sunset, and that was what Johnny Cash called “That Lonesome Whistle”.
I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Cash’s description of a whistle – sounds more like a bellowing horn to me. But the “Lonesome” Cash calls that honking horn, I do get. The haunting sound of the trains call to warn folks up the track of impending danger from the massive steel centipede, plucks a chord within many hearts of melancholy.
A few nights ago while in California a distant train’s one note song rode up from the tracks and onto the damp ocean night air, up the bluff, through the open windows, and landed gently in my ears.
It was the exact same song I’d heard as a kid so many nighttimes ago. It’s impossible to be taken on a journey back in time and not reflect on a life. The fear, the mistakes, the troubles, the pride that caused most of them… and the humility learned, one way or the other.
I believe God can use anything in His creation to help us remember. Not only our shortcomings and how quickly this life escapes us, but also His sovereignty and grace that has us covered more completely than salt water does the ocean floor.
The trains aren’t disappearing and neither are the whistles nor is this fallen world
through which we travel.
The melancholy blues that show up now and then riding on a lonesome whistle or memory can’t choke the life and joy out of a heart where God resides.