Season 7, Episode 4
May 1, 2022
One of the meanest things that I ever told someone was that their father, an engineer, didn’t do real work. I will never forget it: I am sitting at one of the rectangular brown cafeteria tables during middle school lunch. Somehow, I begin raving about my father growing up on Vandever Avenue in Wilmington, lauding his successes as a resident of “fight central.” Those words still strike me as incredibly awkward and cumbersome, supersaturated with earnestness. Cringe-worthy is an understatement. But of course I said something like that. I was a middle school nerd, devoid of confidence, with no respect from guys and no interest from girls. Trumpeting my dad’s tough guy, blue collar bona fides was my attempt to take on that piece of him as a cloak. For a moment, I could pretend I was him: the guy who spent his days sweating, cursing, working on train engines.
My dad’s main job was as a boilermaker for Amtrak. At least, I think that was his title. What I usually tell people is that he worked on the engines in the Wilmington shops. To be honest, I’m still not exactly sure what a typical day was for him. James and I went down there a handful of times but I barely remember it. I was dwarfed by the buildings, by the railcars. It was loud and I was not meant for it.
But my dad spending day after day breaking his hands to keep the trains running gave us all of the freedom that the Northeast Corridor allowed. We rode for free up and down the Atlantic coast, heading up to New York around Christmastime, down to Washington for one of James’ birthday parties. And allow me to briefly rave about the Auto Train, which welcomes not only passengers but personal vehicles as cargo. Its route begins in Lorton, Virginia and continues for roughly 17 hours before terminating in Sanford, Florida – just under an hour north of Orlando and Walt Disney World.
All of this has given me a deep appreciation and love for our national rail system. Airplanes are for crossing the country with speed, cars are for getting into our land’s nooks and crannies, but the train is for contemplation. Watch as you hurtle past graffiti and industry; gaze upon pastures and homes; break bread with businesspeople and families. The train is the most romantic way to travel.
Its romance, in part, comes from its history. Amtrak, the quasi-public corporation responsible for managing many of our country’s passenger rail services, began operations on May 1, 1971. However, its origins are in the myriad railroad companies operating across the United States in the 20th century. Rail travel was the main method of getting from one city to another in the early 1900s, but decreased in popularity after World War II due to competition from buses, airplanes and cars. With railroads facing financial collapse, various proposals were made to preserve services. The Rail Passenger Service Act, passed in 1970, created Amtrak. While initially predicted to fail, popularity with riders and income shortfalls have kept the trains a federal program, and I am forever grateful for that.
All aboard for episode 4 of Community Radio, season 7! Our theme is railroads.
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