This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
The Rock Island Lines steam engine passenger trains have been silent for more than forty years now, but I can still shut my ears and hear the two-toned whistle (more if you listened carefully). No one could mistake that sound, even miles away, for anything but a train. Even today, its twin notes remind me of why the railroad still haunts our American dreams though it has all but disappeared from the landscape.
In some strange way, a train ride was always two journeys in one. On one of them, we passengers with official, stamped tickets ready for the conductor were carried across the Iowa prairies on straight and solid iron rails toward a destination real in space and time—let's say Wichita, Kansas. We could put our heads back on the stiff coach seats and bob heads in rhythm to the rails in the sure and certain hope of arriving at the Wichita station on or about 7:38 a.m. the next day.
But the sound of "all aboard," as thrilling as "Open Sesame," signaled a metaphysical journey too, in which we became a coach of wayfaring strangers. Half-awake at midnight, or looking out of the window at the star-lit night sky, we became pilgrims on a celestial railroad bound for glory or for judgment at the end of the line, or even lifting off the rails entirely and climbing in a slow curve along the milky way up into the stars. Destination: universe.
It was always surprising to discover that we had ended up in Wichita.
One of our own poets, Carl Sandburg, caught these twin journeys in a short poem called "Limited."
I AM riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men
and women laughing in diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers:
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.