The Last Train
by Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson
When I was growing up in the Mississippi Delta, stopping for a train to pass was almost an everyday occurrence. In fact it was an actual pastime in some of the more rural villages. Folks sat on their front porches counting literally hundreds of freight cars as they anxiously awaited the prize at the end -- the caboose. People from two to ninety-two could hardly contain themselves as that dusty red car came into sight because they knew what was coming was worth the wait. The wave. Just a simple lift of a hand from the man in the last car of a long train gave such pleasure to everyone, but now our children hardly know what we are talking about.
I remember the last passenger train that stopped in Cleveland, Mississippi. The newspaper reported that the passenger rail line would end, leaving many people aghast at the thought. My daddy was one of them.
"Well, I'll be. No more passenger trains," he mumbled.
The memories of those years spent flagging down trains to ride to Greenville or Clarksdale or Memphis or even just to Cleveland or Shaw flooded back as Daddy sat reading the article in the Bolivar Commercial. From that time on, there would only be freight trains coming through our little hamlet.
The newspaper and other media sources warned everyone early on about the demise of the passenger train, and that gave Daddy plenty of time to think about it. He made the decision to ensure my brother and I experienced at least one train ride in our lives. Thank goodness he did, because otherwise the only train experiences we would ever have would be watching the freights go by. (Daddy never really expected my brother or me to leave Cleveland!)
Daddy waited for the last day and purchased round trip tickets for himself and his two wide-eyed children. Mama couldn't go because she had to work that day. Anyway, we stood on the tiny depot deck with what appeared to be hundreds of other people there for the same reason -- to ride the last train to Greenville (no, not Clarksville as a later song would immortalize).
Finally, the rumble of the train could be heard in the distance, and we craned our necks and stretched as high as we could to catch a glimpse of history in the making. And then there it was!
The engine pulled into the station with screeching brakes and stopped. After a few minutes a man in a uniform bellowed, "All aboard!" and the rush was on. Daddy led my brother and me into a car and also into the past. There before us was a relic that still stirs my senses after forty-plus years. Deep red, worn leather seats bore the scars of years of heavy, sweating passengers and their bored children who scratched their names into the window casings or scuffed their Buster Brown oxfords against the edge of the seat. There were two seats per row that faced each other, and Daddy made sure I sat facing forward because I was prone to motion sickness. He and my brother sat across from me, and I caught the excitement in Daddy's face. He would have as much fun as his two children that day!
After what seemed an eternity, the engineer blew the whistle, and with a lurch and a jerk the train slowly moved away from the depot. The cars full of passengers began to sway back and forth in a rhythm that was foreign to me. Daddy lowered the window next to our row, and the smell of rich Delta earth mingled with the old leather of the seats. The familiar sights between Cleveland and Greenville were somehow changed into magical scenes as Daddy pointed out landmarks to us.
Greenville is only thirty-five miles from Cleveland, so the trip did not last all that long; however, we would have a one-hour layover before the next train headed north would pick us up for the return trip.
As we disembarked at the depot in downtown Greenville, Daddy suggested a milk shake. We walked a couple of blocks to a drugstore with a fountain and talked and laughed and drank root beer floats and milk shakes to help pass the time. In fact, we enjoyed ourselves so much that when Daddy finally noticed the time, we had to run to catch the train back to Cleveland. Puffing and panting, we stepped onto the platform just as the conductor yelled, "All aboard!"
Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson, a Mississippi Delta native, now lives in North Carolina, where she teaches English. She writes: "As an English teacher I have spent years reading other Southerners' writing. I finally decided to gather my memories and put them on paper so when I am too old to recall anything, I’ll have a hard copy of my memories!" Write Lonnye Sue at DeltaMiss2002
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