Railroad Stories: Felt Calling of Lonesome Whistle

Train's lonesome whistle called to her as a child.

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From the time I was a child, I felt the mournful sound of a train's lonesome whistle in the night, calling me into the unknown. I had a secret dream.

I traveled the rails at an early age, because my dad commuted from New Jersey to New York City, and he sometimes took me with him. At that time, two railroad lines went to the city. The Pennsylvania went under the Hudson River directly to New York. The Jersey Central stopped on the New Jersey side of the river and discharged all its passengers, who then had to take a ferry. The ferry ride was the icing on the cake. One time, Daddy let me choose which train we would ride. Not realizing there was a difference, I chose the Pennsylvania and almost cried when I figured out we didn't get to ride the ferry.

In July 1951, at the age of 18, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and took off for basic training in San Antonio, Texas, not on a plane, but by train. It was my first time away from home. The other girls and I boarded amid bells, whistles and shouts of II All aboard."

We chugged out of the station, barely able to contain our excitement, and began to get acquainted. Dinner-time came, and armed with government vouchers, we settled ourselves in the dining car. After ordering from the menu, we stared, fascinated, at the scenery.

After surviving basic training, we boarded another train on our way to Belleville, Ill., for radio mechanic's school. Seven months later, now a radio school graduate, I was boarding a train bound for Tacoma, Wash. This time, I was alone. We were required to travel in uniform, so it wasn't hard to strike up conversations with people who were curious about a girl in uniform, which was relatively rare in the early 1950s. During this two-day trip, as we clattered along, I witnessed scenery I had seen only in pictures.

I miss my former life on trains, but I'm thankful to have such wonderful memories. Years ago, when I started teaching music in Arkansas, we sang a song about trains. Curious, I asked the children how many had ever ridden on a train, and it saddened me to see not one hand go up.

Nancy J. Knight
Fayetteville, Ark.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.