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When the train left, the fun paled

For a small town boy in the mid-1930s, the appearance of the Central of Georgia’s mixed train on Saturday morning was the biggest event of the best day of the week

CofG500
Central of Georgia’s 500-series Consolidations possessed good lines accented by interesting detail: visored headlight, capped stack, serif numerals, striped sandbox, generous cab.
Classic Trains collection
An alligator crosshead moving back and forth on its greased guides to the dictates of a hot piston rod; the hurried, hollow sighs up the stack as a pair of air pumps breathe life back into the train line; coupled, flanged driving wheels with an overlay of Walschaert beginning their counterweighted, spoked revolutions: these are beautiful things. I first saw and heard them in a little county seat in the heart of Georgia through which four mixed trains passed a day. The town was Monticello, the railroad was the Central of Georgia, the engines were 500-series Baldwin Consolidations, the time was Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term.

Small boys, alas for them, don't grow up in Monticellos anymore. The nation has civilized and urbanized its way up and away from what we called fun. Like digging your toes into the hot, bubbly, black stuff laid down by the jets on the rear of the Mack chain-drive tar truck, or running alongside the yellow road-scrape, or or watching the hogs being slopped behind the Jordan place. Fun was a rubber gun (i.e., a revolver-shaped piece of wood with a clothes pin on the butt and a knotted slice of inner tube for a bullet) and an American LaFrance fire pumper in full, unmuffled cry and an afternoon of John Wayne for 15 cents.

The most fun, for me anyway, was the railroad. Even a small boy knew instinctively that the railroad was not local, not a resident. The rails came over the hill from Athens, and they curved through town and vanished toward Macon. Monticello was simply a black dot on a map, a 6-point line in the Official Guide, a depot, and sidings. We had the courthouse, a Confederate monument, the bobbin mill factory, a sawmill, a cotton warehouse — they were ours. But not the railroad. The 2-8-0 and its mixed train paused, yes — but they did not linger.

The mixed train made an enormous impression upon a sensitive 8-year-old in swishy corduroy knee pants and silent tennis shoes. The 10:30 appearance of the southbound run on Saturday morning was, without question, the biggest event of the best day of the week. I suppose a whistle or the sight of smoke alerted me to its arrival — it's been so many years ago now that I can't quite recall. One tends to remember instants rather than the entire sequence. What I recollect is how suddenly the locomotive was rounding the mountain of sawdust at the mill, loping downgrade to the tangent that began at the stock chute, then rolling straight for me as I stood beside the bay window of the rambling frame station. It seemed to me that the elderly, white-haired, bespectacled operator always waited until the last possible second before picking up his bamboo hoop with the green tissue orders and walking out to the approaching engine. Then, too suddenly and too enormously for a small boy to digest it all, the 2-8-0 was upon us. It took place all at once the big, high boiler thrusting by on clanking rods; the Negro fireman down in the gang way thrusting his clenched fist through the proffered order hoop (one of my "jobs" was to retrieve it for the agent); the lurching, complaining freight cars behind perceptibly slowing as determined brake shoes grabbed at the shiny steel treads of their wheels; and finally a confounding noise, total silence, then an explosion of air. The mixed had arrived.

You could almost touch the tension in Monticello. For the town waited on the train and not the other way around. Monticello had all day to pack peaches and bale cotton and sort letters and talk about Gone With the Wind and get a haircut but the mixed train only tarried 20 minutes to a half hour, and if you were riding down the line to Round Oak or picking up the mail and express or meeting your cousin, why, you'd best be down at the depot at half past the hour. The obligation was doubly important for a small boy. I remember peering into ventilated boxcars at watermelons stacked double on straw, being delighted when the engine lost her feet on some weed-obscured siding, staring in wonder at the engineer, and trying to see my face in the varnished wood of the coach.

Then all too soon the Consolidation had her train together and was moving off to Macon.

The bystanders vanished uptown, the depot went back to sleep, the rails became still and empty.

When the train left, the fun paled. Oh, the agent might translate the mysterious clicks that occasionally erupted from the sounder next his telegraph key or let you help him unload l.c.l. or allow you to accompany him uptown to collect on waybills. But the mixed was the living thing, and once it had gone you might as well head home for dinner and contemplate whether you should spend your pocket money on John Wayne or jawbreakers and a Butterfinger candy bar.

Even then, deep in a depression and remote in the red clay interior of Georgia, I was aware that other and grander locomotives than our 500s existed. The engine in the awesome Association of American Railroads grade crossing poster tacked on the waiting-room wall bore down on a foolhardy motorist so rapidly that the spokes in its drivers were blurred. And the older boys whose fathers drove them over to Jackson to pick up the Atlanta newspapers flung off the Southern Railway told of huge green engines making incredibly fast speeds through the night.

My Dad, though, was the highest authority and the most respected. He, too, had loved engines as a boy — strange engines painted crimson and blue and yellow and "black with red lining," engines with inside cylinders and no bells or headlights — English engines. He'd even been an apprentice at the Crewe Works of the London & North Western before entering the ministry. He bought Railroad Man's Magazine each month and helped us spike home American Flyer empires all over the attic and told us of other locomotives — Central Hudsons, Pennsylvania K4's, and Seaboard 4-6-2s.

Dad tolerated my Central of Georgia. On the face of its red and blue timetable was a system map in the palm of a hand and beneath it the caption, "A Handful of Strong Lines." That amused my dad; he'd laugh and say, "That's just about it, too a handful." I was told that the 500s were all right in their way, though not nearly so sharp as the 400-series Ten-Wheelers beyond my memory which had pulled regular passenger trains through Monticello when he'd first come over from Athens as a guest pastor. That was in pre-depression days, before the banks closed and the CCC crews showed up and the National Recovery Adminsitration stickers appeared and the CofG acquired a receiver.

Still, for years, the only locomotives of my acquaintance that weren't in his conversation or on a printed page were CofG 500s — the only exception being when a Mikado showed up, which was seldom (indeed, only once in my recall). In retrospect, I suppose a 500 was a reasonable machine to first impress the image of steam upon the mind of a sensitive youngster. She wasn't an eccentric like a Shay or stamped in a singular cast like a Pennsy H10 or ugly because of some deformity like inverted cylinders. Instead, a 500 possessed good lines accented by interesting detail: visored headlight, capped stack, serif numerals, striped sandbox, generous cab. You couldn't ask much more of an example of America's most prolific wheel arrangement.

Not, as I say, that it made much difference, because 500s were all that our branch saw anyway. On the exciting day in peach season when the two morning mixeds had a meet in Monticello with an extra — why, all three engines were 500s. And when an engine spread the rail on the house track behind the station, she was a 500. (She looked big enough that day with her rear drivers dug down in the dirt, and you should have seen her rock perilously back and forth when the hogger eased her back over the frog onto rail again. There was no John Wayne on that Saturday.) Why, we even had a man who was to the 500s what Bob Butterfield was to the faraway Hudsons on Lionel's radio program. The depot loungers called him Whistlin' Dick, said you could hear him rolling clear out across the swamp. He was running a 500 the night a brakeman was crushed between two cars in our town, an event which in some strange way enhanced his esteem among the younger generation.

They say that once you leave a town like Monticello, as my family did at the start of FDR's second term, you should never go back. I say horsefeathers to that. I've been back more than once, too. Once a trio of tired FM H15-44s were switching around the boarded-up depot; then — after Southern had taken over the Central — a pair of brand-new little U23Bs were coming to grips with a mile of huge woodchip hoppers. And uptown, the monument's still standing tall: TO THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS OF JASPER COUNTY, THE RECORD OF WHOSE SUBLIME SELF-SACRIFICE AND UNDYING DEVOTION TO DUTY, IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY, IS THE PROUD HERITAGE OF A LOYAL POSTERITY. "IN LEGEND AND LAY, OUR HEROES IN GRAY, SHALL FOREVER LIVE, OVER AGAIN FOR US."

I like that last line in the inscription on the stone flanked by the statues of CSA infantrymen. " . . . shall forever live, over again for us." I have an accord like that with my 2-8-0s, the 500s.

First published in February 1982 Trains magazine.

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