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Trains and Planes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Several times a day, airplanes descend over Rock Island, riding the wind down toward the airport, one or two hundred passengers at a time returning home from the world, from Bangkok and Buenos Aires, Fiji and Frankfort.

Some of us haven't quite accepted the big birds in our hearts. We still hear lonesome train whistles late at night or remember going down to the tracks each morning to watch the Burlington Zephyr snake along the Mississippi River toward Minneapolis. 

We kids put pennies on the train tracks not out of disrespect but to be awed by the power of the great engines as they flattened our coins into thin footballs.

From the time we could first sing, we sang songs about trains. Name an airplane that has a single such song. We sang about working on the railroad all the live long day, we sang in antiphonal response about Bill Grogan's goat tied to the tracks for eating shirts, we knew every verse of the Wabash Cannonball, its rumble and its roar. Here truly, was an engine that could. We never tired of Casey Jones who died a hero's death.

In the beginning, airplanes had this same mystique and their own heroes: Amelia Earnhardt, Howard Hughes, Wiley Post, Jimmy Doolittle, but the airlines have gone antiseptic on us. What romance is there in a flight named 5168 compared to train runs such as the Rock Island's Gee Whiz to Kansas City, the Midnight Special, the City of New Orleans, or the Illinois Central's bright yellow Land of Corn? What cold maze of modern airline terminals can replace the rural depot and its potbellied stove or the high arched beehive temple that was Grand Central station?

All this reverie because last night a railroad song came back to me that was obligatory at every campfire I ever sat around. You remember it: the tune was "Humoresque."

Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is standing in the station/I love you.

We encourage constipation while the train is in the station;

Porters have to wait so why can't you?

How many crude verses of that do you know?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.