When I was writing the Thanksgiving column about Arlo Guthrie I cut out a whole paragraph about his second most well-known song “The City of New Orleans” before making a note to write about trains. Then in the Reader Submission column from last week I removed a part about how my father once told me he always wanted a caboose on rails in his back yard from that list of places where men dream about hanging out in quiet solitude, then I made another note to write about cabooses, thinking for sure I’d be able to find a picture of one in the archives.
Turns out that’s a lot harder than you’d think. But then suddenly I found, from the Dec. 10, 1999, Journal Gazette, this article about Michael Wall of Charleston getting to live out his dream of, yes, having his very own Illinois Central caboose in his backyard. Good to know my dad is such an original guy to have come up with that dream on his own. I kid my old man though; just one look at that photo and even I can’t help but wonder why I can’t have my own caboose.
Now I wasn’t working at the JG-TC in 1999 but if it was anything in the newsroom back then like it is now I can imagine it went something like this: Someone called us up and said, “Hey, there’s an old caboose descending from the sky into someone’s yard,” and before you know it the news team assembled, photos were taken, and boom, there’s a caboose on the front page. Although I really would have loved to be there to see how much fun it was getting that thing off the trailer and into that yard. If it was anything like the two burly guys who tried to get my heavy couch up the stairway and down the narrow hallway to Castle Clint, it was a process that involved many of what Spock once called “colorful metaphors.”
And if you’re looking at that photo and wondering just what kind of mania could possibly lead to such behavior, let me restate, never ever underestimate a man’s innate desire to retreat so wholly and completely from the world and into their own hobbies that they willing to actually crawl inside of them for a few minutes of peaceful solitude where we can pretend we’re in deep contemplation but we’re actually just goofing off.
Cabooses, assuming that’s the correct plural and not something weird like “Cabeeses”, are, along with rotary phones, encyclopedias, and phone books, one of those items of everyday life that progress has essentially phased from existence, although somehow I still have a drawer full of phone books. Young kids probably still know what they are because there isn’t a toy train in plastic that still doesn’t have a caboose on it; but for the rest of us a caboose is something that, some day, when we weren’t looking, just rolled itself into the maw of time. I remember still seeing cabooses when I was a kid in the ‘80s, but at some point you stop staring at passing trains with rapt attention as you’re stuck at the crossing on Marshall Avenue waiting for that caboose to finally appear and then before you know it, they’re all gone forever, replaced by a metal box of electronic sensors stuck on the back end of the last train car.
But Michael Wall remembers, as I’m sure most of us do, the mystery of the caboose. What in the world were they used for? Who, if anyone, was in them? What purpose did they serve beyond giving folks a helpful signal for when they could finally put their cars in drive and get to wherever it was they were trying to go before the blinking lights came down? According to the article, cabooses were essentially the engineer’s eyes and ears for the back of the train, built with sleeping quarters, a stove, and even something called a “cupola” (that raised little tower in the middle, something else I had to look up) so that whoever was back there had a better view of their surroundings.
Imagine that; spending your whole day, and night, I guess, in your caboose, sipping coffee poured from a metal pot and looking out your “cupola” while watching America roll on by. By gum, you might even have time to play some honest-to-goodness solitaire with a beat up old deck of Bicycle playing cards.
Ahem…ok…as you can clearly tell, I’m about one paragraph away from that kind of nostalgia waxing before heading on over to his house and asking for permission to come aboard, a request I’d expect him to decline since the reason you’d want a caboose on in your back yard would be for solitude and to experience a little piece of that nostalgia you crave by taking a nap in it to the sound of wood gently popping in the stove.
Again, I’ve got myself in nearly the exact same predicament as I have before, writing about something in town not knowing if it’s still there are not. I could just as easily jump in the whip and use the investigative instincts I’ve absorbed via osmosis over the years at the JG-TC to see for myself, but then again maybe, like so many other things I find in the archives, I find it better to believe he’s still got that caboose, whether or not he followed through with turning it into an office or not. Either way, I’m sure someone will email me the answer, which works for me since the last thing I really want to do is slow-roll through someone’s neighborhood peering into people’s back yards.
Meanwhile, someday, if you happen to be hanging out at the pavilion of any of this area’s fine campgrounds and find a beat-up old Pac-Man arcade game next to the manager’s office and one of those old vending machines with the big plastic buttons for “Pepsi Free”, please be careful as you slip your quarter in for a quick game. I may be taking a nap in there.