My dad awakened, as he did most mornings, at four o’clock. His alarm clock would ring, and a few minutes later, his back-up alarm, a rooster, would crow.
Every morning, at the crack of dawn, the neighbor’s rooster welcomed the sun out of the East, and my dad out of his bed.
I would hear my dad’s footsteps downstairs. Before long, the smell of coffee would drift upstairs to my bedroom and I could hear the steady cadence of the percolator. Before he left home, Dad would stoke the fire in our coal stove for good measure, to help the unburnt coal burn.
It was the day before Thanksgiving. My dad had worked hard the entire day as a punch press operator at the National Cash Register in Dayton. The work was tedious and demanding, and he returned home tired. He cherished his down time at home. For that reason, we were surprised when he agreed to take my mother’s brother, Robert Waldren, to the train station in Xenia after a long day of work. Uncle Robert was heading to his new job at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mohave Desert of California.
My parents, sister Rita, brother Kevin, Uncle Robert and I hopped into our old Plymouth and headed toward Xenia.
As we pulled into the Xenia depot, a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing Uncle Robert’s train would be about an hour late.
Exactly one hour later, with a long blast of the whistle, the big diesel locomotive finally lumbered into the station. The train exterior was dark with grime from the hard miles accumulated from the cities and towns of the heartland. Places like Nashville, Louisville, and Cincinnati lay behind; while Columbus, St. Louis, Omaha, Denver and days of demanding travel lay ahead.
Inside, the cars were aglow with people. I was close enough that I could see the pleasant faces of the passengers. Most were well-dressed. The men were wearing suits and ties, and the women were in attractive dresses and tasteful jewelry.
As I peered through the large windows of the train, I saw one young woman with a small child in her arms talking with a porter, while a few feet away a man was sitting at a table smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. Then I noticed a couple was eating dinner while in the midst of spirited conversation.
My uncle shook my hand and told me to be a “good boy” as he boarded the train.
As I stepped back from the tracks, the train whistle blew and the big engine slowly trudged out of the station.
There were hundreds of stories on that train, I thought to myself. Some were of domestic tranquility, others of business dealings, and many were about the bright lights of home and the impending Thanksgiving holiday.
I pictured the man in the dark suit detraining in Indiana, while mother and child rode on to the plains of Nebraska, and some, like my uncle, were traveling all the way to the west coast passing through one small town after another.
We waved goodbye and watched as my uncle and the train disappeared across the railroad trestle on its way westward.
Soon, we were headed home. As I crawled into bed later that night, I could hear Mom downstairs in the kitchen preparing the Thanksgiving meal for the next day.
For whatever reason, I couldn’t sleep. Then, suddenly, I heard it. It was faint and fading. Although we were about twenty miles away, the distant train’s whistle blew clearing and crisply through the cold night air of Xenia.
The next evening, after the family had left and the dishes and leftovers had been put away, my dad and I drove to Wilmington. We turned onto East Sugartree Street and made our way toward the Wilmington railroad depot.
As we approached Doan Street, the flashing lights on the crossing arm came down and a diesel locomotive came ambling through the crossing. Within seconds the lighted dome car came into view, and just as quickly disappeared into the night.
“Remember the Thanksgiving we took Robert to the train station in Xenia?” Dad would ask over the years, usually on Thanksgiving Day. “That was a nice memory of those trains of long ago, and the anonymous people riding in them,” he would say.
Like many families, our family has grown smaller over the years, and we have had our share of trials. Yet, Thanksgiving is a treasured time for us. We never fail to thank God for His many blessings.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11: 28-30).
Happy Thanksgiving from the Haleys.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.