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The Romance of the Rails and the Pleasure of Remembering

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On Saturday, May 22, a miscellaneous group of about thirty people gathered at the Mount Pleasant Public Library in Pleasantville, New York to hear author Joseph Schiavone talk about his book, More of 'The Old Put,' his second book about the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad.

Anyone who has attended a library program recently knows that thirty people is a big crowd. We weren't club members, and we weren't old friends who decided to show up to support our library or possibly our friend, Joe. A few people were there because they had worked for a railroad, and a few were there because they lived near the area where the Putnam line used to run (from Brewster, N.Y. to Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx). But the majority of us had chosen to come simply because the topic sounded interesting. It was a beautiful day; we could have been out gardening, but instead, we chose to hear about a train line that hasn't run in sixty years.

Certainly part of the allure of the program was the romance of the rails. Steam engines, the type of train that ran on the Putnam line, are particularly intriguing. The imposing look of the huge black engine, with cow catcher in front and smoke and steam billowing behind, is so iconic that a photograph of one lets us almost hear the blare of the whistle and the clackety-clack of the wheels as we imagine the train rolling by.

Joe Schiavone set the atmosphere by wearing an engineer's hat, and he shared with us stories of the hard work these engines required to run properly. At regularly scheduled stops, railroad employees cleaned out the furnace, added water to the tank, and loaded coal into the coal car--all the steps necessary to assure that the engine could create steam power in order to run. In addition, all the gears had to be wiped down from the smoke and soot that the engine spewed out. (When diesel engines started being used, workers were let go or reassigned as the new engines required so much less maintenance.)

The prime focus of the talk was a film Schiavone had acquired from a friend, Frank Schlegel, who is now deceased. Frank, a New York commuter as early as the 1940s, was a hobbyist filmmaker who adored the steam locomotives that ran on the Putnam line until 1951 (passenger trains) and 1958 (freight trains). In pursuit of his passion, he spent many hours of his commute to the city hanging out a train door to film the passing scenery, and his film revealed a much more rural Westchester, with some train depots that still stand today and many that no longer exist because a road or a highway runs through the area. Weekends, Schegel would ride north for more film or get his wife to drive him so that he could get distance shots of the trains he loved.

Over the course of the 90-minute program, we learned a good number of facts from Joe Schiavone:

• The Putnam line ended in the Bronx, opposite the Polo fields which were quite near where the then NY Giants (baseball) team played.
• The commuters disembarked from the Putnam train, ascended a set of stairs and crossed an open walkway to connect with the Hudson line or to take the elevated train the remaining distance into Manhattan. In bitter weather, Joe pointed out that this couldn't have been a fun or pleasant transfer for the commuters.
• Each engineer felt very possessive of "their" favorite engine. Rail crews and passengers who paid attention knew which engine "belonged" to which engineer.

As I left Pleasantville, I found myself thinking, "What brought this disparate group here, giving up their Saturday morning to hear a program about an old train line?"

I write and speak about America's past, so I have often tried to identify the magic that grabs people's attention and puts a smile on their faces when I tell them about the grand movie houses of the 1920s, remind them how their grandparents would have customarily gone for Sunday drives in the country during the 1940s and 1950s, and talk about days when people used to dress up to go to the airport--as recently as the 1960s.

One thing is for sure--people don't long to "go back." I don't think any of us at the Mount Pleasant Library felt that traveling on trains pulled by steam locomotives was any more comfortable or any more fun than Metro North is today. Nor do I think people (not even Rand Paul) would like to go back to 1951 before the Civil Rights Act, or before planes could fly across the country in five or six hours, or before the days of really good automobile (and train) air conditioning.

But observing Joe Schiavone may have given me the answer.

I think we were all there because a talk like this promises something special.

Early in his remarks, Joe Schiavone pointed out a railroad crossing sign in the film, and he turned to the audience and said these special words:

"That's where I used to ride my bike to sit to watch the trains go by."

To an adult audience, that's as good as, "Let me tell you a story..."

We don't want to go back to those days when life was almost certainly harder, but it's awfully fun to "dream back" for a little while to an earlier time.

In our dreams, we are momentarily on our own bicycles, wherever we grew up, and doing whatever it was that we loved doing during some of those blissful childhood experiences. We could live only in that moment, oblivious to the fact that we would soon return to "real life" with its inevitable challenges and our growing responsibilities.

Taking time to "remember when" is a beautiful thing--a luxury we should allow ourselves more often. The process is guaranteed to take our thoughts to a pleasant place in the past, and put smiles on our faces.

I know Joe Schiavone's talk did that for me. Though I grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, along the foothills of the Rockies where commuter railroads have never run, I still enjoyed being in Pleasantville and "dreaming back."

Visit my website and "dream back:"