I wanted to be an engineer. My grandma told me, "Louie, that's wonderful, you'll build great things. How grand!" I let her believe it. But my father knew what I meant. I wanted to drive a train.
I watched trains, played with trains, sang songs about trains. Trains roared and chugged and puffed through my imagination, as real to me as the coal smoke that blew from the tracks across the street into our screenless windows.
On summer evenings, my father and I would cross the tracks and walk, hand in hand, down to the corner to get the late paper, a Red Streak. On a good day, we’d stop for ice cream at the Greeks.
That night, on the way home, paper in hand, my father spied an engine parked close-by on the side track, a new diesel. Unlike the noisy giants that woke me nearly every night, spitting coal smoke from their stacks and steam from their wheels, this little engine sat idling quietly. Pungent oil fumes shimmered from its short stack, the little flapper on top jiggling up and down. The engineer I wanted to be sat high up in the cab, in washed out coveralls and a gray striped cap. He smoked the ever present cigarette of the generation as he waited for the main line to clear.
The track was just a grimy city siding. The train wasn't moving. The engineer was middle-aged and bored and flabby. It was sheer magic. I stood agape, staring up in awe. My father struck up a conversation and soon the engineer beckoned and we were aboard, asking about this dial, that lever. I absorbed every rough word he spoke.
“About 10,000 horsepower ... The diesel powers electric motors at each wheel... No, I’m never gone overnight but my son takes the Super Chief out to California every second week-end.”
My father listened, too. A working man, not used to special treatment, it took courage to ask, "Any chance you can give the boy a ride?"
In 1949, humanity trumped liability. The engineer reached out and lifted me into his lap. He placed my hand on a shiny lever and said "Push. Not too hard, now."
I pushed, just enough, and the engine came alive. The idling throb became a grumble, then a steady whine. The cab shuddered and at less than a mile an hour we crept ahead toward the red signal guarding the main track about a hundred yards away.
A hundred yards was a continent. I flew past cattle and people and dogs at 80 miles an hour. I loaded grain in Cedar Rapids, coal in Omaha, water in Denver. I chugged up the Rockies to the Great Divide. With a hand on the throttle and an eye on my watch, I ran flat out across the Mojave. The track was mine alone. By the time someone intruded, easing my hand and the throttle back toward his pot belly, the sharp hiss of air brakes announced my arrival in Los Angeles thirty minutes ahead of schedule.
The engineer pointed to a steel mushroom next to the throttle. “Ready for some noise, son?” he asked. "Press it, hard, but just once. Go ahead." High pressure air raced through a tiny silver horn with a blast, challenging the great steam whistles of my imagination.
We said our thank-yous, climbed down the ladder and headed for the Greeks. At the curb, I reached up for my father’s hand. It was one thing to cross a continent alone, but quite another for a seven year old to cross a street.