Chicken with a Freight Train

Beyond the vanishing point over the horizon, the wind blew a faint train whistle up the tracks. The train was saying hello to the Houston House–the best place for fried chicken when I was a kid. As the engine rolled past tiny Newburg, tucked in a deep Ozark valley five miles away, the train began a half-hour chug up a long steep grade to catch me.

Walking the tracks is an art easily mastered by an eight-year-old. Confident, I mounted a rail and tightroped for a mile toward the oncoming train, still only a sound fading in and out with the wind. I knew I had time, even as the faint rumbling grew louder. As it chugged up Newburg hill, deer and dogs and even a fast kid could outrun it.

I turned my back to the sound, and walked between the tracks toward home, a mile away on the edge of a blue-collar neighborhood called the shoe factory district. Moving faster, I stepped on every other tie and then every third tie as the train crested the hill, still out of sight around a curve, barreling toward my back.

The engineer leaned on his hornwhistle nonstop as he approached busy Rolla traffic, where battalions of impatient drivers shrank from the last-second temptation to ignore flashing lights and crossbars and jump across intersections.

The train roared round the Rolla curve and showed itself. I turned to face the beast. Crushing its railbed, the engine thundered toward me, hissing, headlight rolling and flashing. I stood in its path until I felt the wind shoved from its giant face, and its hornwhistle tore at my eardrums. Then I jumped from the tracks, slid down the railbed and rolled to a sit, to watch the train hurtle past, full of sound and fury.

The engineer shook his head as he passed. Then he waved. He always waved. He knew I respected him, unlike the cars that would try to beat him at those intersections ahead.

I waved back. He doesn’t know that once, as his train inched up Newburg Hill, I crawled between a moving boxcar’s wheels to reach the other side.

Don’t tell.

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4 Comments on “Chicken with a Freight Train”

  1. What years did the Houston House serve up their fried chicken? My grandparents tried to take me there in the late 1980s and it was all closed up at that time.

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