Sunday, January 6, 2013


Train cars on winter day, New Iberia, LA
After writing 495 blogs, it’s hard to discern whether I repeat myself, but when I have a passion for a certain subject, I’m likely to cover the same tracks again – writings about trains, for instance. However, I usually present a different destination for that subject, often in a poem that better captures the essence of this mode of transportation.

At Christmas, I brought my only electric train out of the hall closet, a gear-driven, powerful Diesel locomotive, complete with light, HO scale freight cars, and a 36” circle of track-- the locomotive is a model advertising my favorite railway, the Santa Fe Railway. I brought the train out for Alex, my great-grandson, to watch. However, it was soon apparent that a nearly-two-year old boy couldn’t just watch this model run on the track that my son-in-law Brad (AKA "Pop") set up for us. Alex kept snatching the cars off as they went by, then he’d run to the controls and flip the switch back and forth when the train stopped moving. “He’s not ready for it,” Brad said, and I had to agree that I could either lose my 25 yr. old model of the Santa Fe or put it back in the closet. Needless to say, Alex returned again and again to the closet, looking for my keepsake. I had difficulty restraining myself from setting the train up again, mostly because I wanted to watch it run!

When I was younger, the sound of a freight whistle at midnight conjured up some overwhelmingly lonely feelings, but as I grew older, the rumbling of wheels and long whoos passing through the night began to incite different feelings, feelings of having a companion for my anxieties and nighttime worries – the sounds sorta’ made me feel like The One Whom None Can Hinder and I were on night watch. Long whistles from eastbound freights stimulated ideas, ideas that seemed to be great revelations, but once daylight came, I discarded them because they bordered on fantasies. But midnight trains brought me through some long night watches.

I wrote about my longest train ride in Iran in a former blog, but the account was sketchy. I didn’t relate that the Trans-Iranian Railway came into being in 1928, and at the time, the work of building a railway that ran from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian, was a difficult task because the workers met with great technical obstacles in the sector that crossed the Zagros and Elburz Mountains. This engineering feat was not completed until 1938. It was financed by the Iranian government from its monopolies on sugar and tea, and Richard Frye, the guru of Iranian studies, said that the story about the building of this railroad would “occupy a book in itself.” The train that I boarded in Ahwaz, Iran ran sleepily through 226 tunnels and crossed 5496 bridges before I reached Tehran, and in several writings, I described my terror at riding on the roof of the world at 7200 feet, looking down at valleys of bottomless darkness on either side of the narrow tracks. I was comforted only by the aroma of shislik drifting through the darkness of that Friday night and sighed with relief when we reached Qum at dawn.

Despite this terrifying experience, I’ve retained my fascination for trains, and one of my midnight fantasies is that of riding the famous Orient Express, the train that provides the setting for an Agatha Christie story. Meanwhile, I watch for Santa Fe Railway cars, talk with friends about lobbying for the return of railway transport instead of the eighteen-wheelers that are the bane of the highways, and write poetry about trains such as the one below:

no covert traveler,
train boiling through high desert,
red, blue, yellow freight cars,
imperatives on landscapes
going everywhere.
In the pinpoint of my eye,
miniature boxes of color
fret empty plains,
make me aware of destinations,
distant mountains
welcoming bleached cloudbanks.
We pass small stations
snoring at track side
while bright-colored cars sway
on miles and miles of track
like ants relocating,
good times left behind,
mirages passed,
and a lonely figure waves
from the engine window,
face turned toward
an indifferent there
                                                            going on forever.

“The Santa Fe Is” appears in my book of poetry, Just Passing Through, published in 2007. The cover is derived from a painting by my brother Paul Marquart.

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