My first memory is living in a cabin on a hill overlooking the old railroad tracks, miles off the beaten path in Southwest Georgia. I was about 4 years old at the time, a shy, freckled-face kid with my head in the clouds. Our nearest neighbors were sharecroppers on the other side of a cornfield with a little girl my age. We were the best of friends and stuck together like glue.
Many afternoons she and I sat on my rickety steps and listened to the rumble of a Southern Pacific freight train speeding down the tracks. In seconds, it changed from a far-off vibration to a clickity-clack, thunder-like noise 500 feet from us. In passing, the train whistle would toot as the conductor waved to us in an instamatic blur of speed and L&N boxcars. With our hands clasped tightly over our ears, we wouldn't move a muscle until the red caboose disappeared out of sight.
Thinking back, that's when I felt the first stirrings of restlessness taking hold. Even then, I wanted to climb aboard that smoke-belching locomotive and ride the rails to exciting distant places. But my friend wasn't a dreamer like me, she wanted to play. We would sit on the ground and share a cup of "tea," which was actually water from a nearby spring. In my own little world, I'd pretend I was all dressed up in a satin gown on a train bound for unknown adventures.
Dreaming aside, sometimes old hobos, unshaven and dirty, would hop down from the train and wander up the grassy slope to our back door in search of a tiny morsel of food. My mother would oblige with a cup of hot soup and a chunk of cornbread, looking past the ragged clothes to a hungry soul down on his luck. Her Christian belief was that no one should go hungry in this land of plenty.
In 1956, after my sixth birthday and before I started first grade, my cousin, Annie, came to visit. She rode a passenger train all the way from Riverside Junction, not more than 20 miles away, although to me it seemed like a hundred. Man, was I impressed! Annie was old, in her 20s. When she was ready to return home, I, being the youngest of three siblings and considered the "baby," threw a tantrum because I wanted to go with her, and I finally got my chance to ride the train.
We crossed a trestle high above the Chattahoochee, snaking its way southward between the Alabama and Georgia state lines. I pressed my nose against the win¬dow and gazed down at moss-covered oaks and clumps of sycamore trees hugging the banks of that muddy river. I remember a lonesome whistle and the pungent smell of the coal-burning engine.
But if I were asked today what I did on my first trip away from home, I couldn't say. I do recall arriving back home safe and sound, bubbling over with stories to tell my friend. To this day, her name escapes me, yet I'm still fascinated with trains.
On a recent trip to Missouri, my husband and I stood in line at the Branson Scenic Railway, with a crowd of enthusiastic tourists. I stared at the silver Kansas City Southern, and heard the conductor shout, "All aboard!" We climbed on and settled down in the dining car as the train rumbled its way over a trestle high above the Ozark mountains. I looked down at the rocky valleys below and realized I was a long way from the south land and my first train ride across the Chattahoochee. And just like that old river back home, I'm still a restless spirit winding my way through the twists and turns of life.
Silver Springs, Fla.
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.