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Saturday, June 25, 2011
Personal Reflections ...

In my virtual strolls amidst the wandering pathways of the world wide web, I came across a muzu tv video from a couple of young British guitar women who call themselves “The Smoke Fairies”. What caught my eye and inspired me to give a listen was not so much their pretty blond hair and fetchingly subtle fashions and mannerisms, as the name of their song: “Erie Lackawanna”.

Erie Lackawanna!!!! That’s the lid of a treasure-trove of memories for me. Ah yes — the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, which ran trains over the various tracks that criss-crossed the neighborhoods of my youth (even behind my grandmother’s apartment). Back in my youth, we geek-loner types didn’t have the wandering pathways of the virtual network, but we did have wandering pathways of steel rail and wooden ties. I was a kid who just didn’t fit the mold in my high school, so finding friends was not easy. But there was the Erie Lackawanna Railroad just down the street, which became my friend. Once in a blue moon a crabby railroader or cop would come along and chase me out, but most of the time I was free to roam and watch and ask questions.

There was the Rutherford station agent (the late Jim Allen, a very mellow guy who wore a cardigan and smoked a pipe), the gate crossing guard (the late Steve Viterito, really nice fellow once he realized that I wasn’t another wise-ass kid trying to break stuff) and the switch tower with the switchtrack lever guys (especially the late George Stanton, an old guy whose whole life was with the RR, and Art Erdman, a friendly young guy whose whole life with the RR was still to come) and the crotchety old man who fixed the electro-mechanical gizmos (the late John Hanley, of blessed memory), and they would often let me visit.

Then there were the passenger trains in the evening that ended their runs at Carlton Hill, and while they were switching themselves into position for the night, the conductors might talk with me (and then there was Conductor Chicarelli, a great guy who would let me ride on the coaches for a few feet while being switched back and forth). And also the daily switching freight, which puttered to and fro all afternoon, placing boxcars and tank cars into their rightful spots at factory doors (with crewmen Bill Campbell and Bill Kehoe, more great guys).

There were even more railroad people that I got to know over the years, as I was allowed by my parents to go further and further with my bike and eventually with my first car (a 1961 Rambler of questionable reliability – there were some scary incidents with that old bomb). I was given some pocket money to ride on the passenger trains (and buses, when needed), so as to see more and more railroad territory. And get to know more railroaders. (Including the late Ron Wallace, a station agent at Kingsland and later Orange and a railroad fan himself, who I still owe $15 in cash and more for all his unrequited generosity).

Eventually I found out that there were other guys who liked trains and were hanging out and taking pictures of the trains. So I got a camera and started doing the same. Eventually we formed a little “gang” (back when “gang” innocently invoked “The Little Rascals”, and NOT things like the 341 Tre Gangsta set of the Bloods or Crips). And then, during the summers of my college years (including the summer after graduation from high school), the EL gave me a real job paying real money, as a temporary switch tower operator. I became a railroad guy myself – an ERIE LACKAWANNA railroad guy — if only for a few months.

Me and my train-photo buddies eventually got to know other railroads and other places and people outside the Erie Lackawanna network. But the EL was still home. Unfortunately, it was a home that was dying. During the first years of the 1970s, the east coast railroads were needed less and less for hauling freight, and the EL lost a lot of money. By 1976 it became too much, and the federally sponsored Conrail organization took the Erie Lackawanna over. Given the continuing decline of “smokestack” industry in the eastern US and the growing Interstate highway network, Conrail needed to cut out many rail lines, and the Erie Lackawanna tracks and yards and stations were often the first to go. Some of it is still around today, especially on the commuter passenger lines operated by NJ Transit here in Jersey. But it isn’t at all like the good old days. My friend from high school and college years, when almost no one else wanted me around, is but a distant memory now.

So, how did two pretty young British musicians find out about the EL? Their song is NOT about trains and railroads, although there are brief references to a “whistle at night”, a “New York train” and “pennies on the track”. (Yes, we did that too in the early years; the squashed copper shapes could be used as guitar picks – wonder if Jessica and Katherine know that?). I couldn’t find the lyrics to “Erie Lackawanna” on any search engine, but there was this brief note: “Titled after a briefly successful but doomed New Jersey railroad, this rumination on aging is the most beautiful part of a beautiful record [album].”

Well, for the official record – the EL stretched from New York City to Chicago, so it was more than a “New Jersey railroad”. And as to its ‘brief success’, the predecessor lines of the EL started running trains in the 1850’s, years before the American Civil War. So it was a bit more than “briefly successful”. But yes, it certainly was doomed. And I still think about it sometimes, perhaps while on the way to work on a cloudy morning or driving late at night, with bittersweet melancholy. The Smoke Fairies managed to capture that mood, that feeling that I sometimes get all these years later. My best friend from youth grew old and died, and now I’m getting older too. But thanks for the thought, Katherine and Jessica.

P.S. — the Smoke Fairies also have a song called “Strange Moon Rising” (amidst many other nice songs of theirs). Now, for any American Baby Boomer who was anywhere near a radio in the early 1970s, that song title can’t help but make you think of CCR’s “Bad Moon Risin”. “Bad Moon” came out in 1970, and I remember thinking back then “this song is saying something about the Erie Lackawanna situation”. Things were already starting to go downhill by then. A “bad moon” clearly was on the rise over the Erie Lackawanna rails, even as I worked those night shifts and collected my pay checks at the Rutherford train station during the summer.

And of course, “Bad Moon Risin” makes you think instantly about the famous mis-interpretation of the refrain due to John Fogarty’s mumbly elocution; i.e., “there’s a bathroom on the right” in lieu of “there’s a bad moon on the rise”. Allegedly, Fogerty sometimes sang the ‘bathroom’ line during concerts. You’d like to think that Jessica and Katherine too will one day give the audience a wink, and somehow slip in a line about a “bathroom on the LEFT”. Strange moon, indeed!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:16 pm      

  1. Jim, Nice reminiscences of your young years. Amazing that you remembered all those men by name; you really must have respected them.

    I have to say what amazes me lately is the fact that railroads seem to be coming back–in a sense. There is talk of a “high-speed” railroad in Illinois, going to several cities, even to states in the “region”, that is, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, maybe Minnesota, and, of course, originating in Illinois.

    Then too there is increased ridership on railroads due to the gas prices. I find also that here in Illinois they are also talking about “rebuilding” old rail linea that had been torn down maybe 40/50 years ago; cars were the thing then. But now they want to bring back those lines for transportation between and among the suburbs.

    When I received the notice to renew my driver’s license recently, there was a flyer in the envelope urging people to use the improved/increased/newly built(?) lines that offered transportation to various cities in Illinois. Who knew? I had no clue till I read the flyer.

    So it may be that the railroads as a means of transportation–maybe not cross country, but shorter distances, say cross state/s–are returning. And then recently the accident of an Amtrak train in Nevada, which originated somewhere either in the Midwest or East; not sure about where it originated. But it was cross country transportation for people. I am not sure I knew that one could get a train say from Chicago that went “out west.”

    I found myself thinking when I saw the flyer of the new lines that have been established in Illinois, that it might be nice to take a trip just to sit back, relax, and enjoy the view out the window. After having commuted by rail for 24 years in my working life, I know the joys of sitting down, putting on some personal music, and either doing some work or just watching the view out the window. Trains are a good means of transportation vis-a-vis buses and/or the “el” (lower case) (for the elevated) as it’s called in Chicago. And oddly enuf, even when the “el” in Chgo goes underground, it is not called the subway, it is STILL the “el”–but not the EL you were speaking about. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 26, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

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