D.E. Steward

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Railway Express

The Fort Riley truck bombers’ havoc viciously unleashed on lean Oklahoma City spreading metropolitan over its northbank North Canadian River hills

Low redbrick atmosphere inside the sprawl like a western Baltimore or southern Winnipeg or northern Ciudad Victoria, north bank North Canadian River ungainly named confused Canadian River drainage that has nothing at all to do with Canada

North-south Canadian nomenclature mixup

Toponomy of ranging métis voyageurs and Andalusian conquistador Cíbola stunned who knew only that they were a full world away from the Holy See out in the open plotting, if at all, with shaky astrolabes and quill scratch accounting of marching days

Landmark site to landmark site out where from Canadian plains to Oklahoma plains the landmarks and the Indians and the weather each looked alike

Red rivers, Canadian rivers, Cimarron prairie rivers with oxbow meanderings and crumbling banks and sloughs, rivers brown from the red soil they carry down away

Unity of rivers on the plains

Staked out, stark-eyed, awed, shaman sensed transhumance

Like the transmigration explorations out of Latin Europe before the ultimate owners came from Massachusetts and Ohio pushing out with their surveying teams

The land gridded east and west, north and south, Louisiana Purchase, Homestead Act, later the county roads, state and national highways, and eventually the freeways and interstates

Oklahoma City set there on the north bank of the North Canadian River

Rounded north bank hills, a good place to make a city on the plains with all its freeway bypass patterns, oil money, jet port and glass and concrete office building monoliths

State capitol dome crouched hesitantly on a hill where the blocks of red and green marble-faced office blocks are strung over dark black asphalt streets abruptly breaking off into brownfield lots near the railroad and the riverfront

We accepted that the truck bombers must be Islamists or that it was narcopolitics because no American, no matter how wacko, could have let the ends justify blowing up a daycare center with kids inside

But it was gun-hugging Gringos, anarchistic rural ultra-patriots who got their hands on enough bulk fertilizer

Once in the 1940s scoop-shoveled load after load of bulk fertilizer onto a Nash stake-bed truck from a boxcar left on a siding

Ammonium nitrate because it was round gray granules and it stank, took three and a half hot days, two of us, we were thirteen  

Shoveling inward from the boxcar’s door against that prodigious bank of it that reached up in the gloom almost to the hot steel roof

A job that would eventually get us toward first understanding of what a job really meant, what work is about 

Not how much you make or how much you dislike or enjoy it, but getting it done

Jumping down onto the siding every evening, eyes bloodshot from the chemicals

There was a sinister sense around boxcars then so soon after the deportations and the German camps, newsreel impact was strong

We imagined people huddled in the boxcar’s corners every time we climbed inside the one we worked, with tough, impassive soldiers standing outside on the ballast with dogs on long leads

Shoah and Holocaust were not known words but we had heard what had just gone on

We were unloading a Norfolk & Western boxcar that came to our siding as a remnant of a system started in the years before the Civil War

That for nearly a hundred years had carried everything and everybody everywhere

In the railroad way it was possible to go from one Portland to the other, from Bangor to Barstow, Seattle to Tampa, and on your way dine from bone china, crystal and heavy flatware morning, noon and night 

Trains went everywhere

Memphis to Vancouver, Toronto to Phoenix, you could name it, do it, Halifax to anywhere, think of it, far Halifax to anywhere, Cleveland, San Diego, into Mexico, even far down into Central America

National route maps from 1920 look like a plant colony’s roots with the central organisms in the domed terminals of Seattle and San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis and Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Baltimore 

Steel on steel, gondolas-flatcar-tankcar clanking, boxcar sway

Wheels set on bright steel rails lifting friction, attenuated friction that spanned the continent back and forth, in a common and cooperative understanding of the energy and purpose involved on out across the mountains and the high plains 

Those who waited for sleep listening to freights run through their valley, village, country town or wooded canyon switchback pass grating brakes down hill run knew without thinking exactly what they were hearing 

Nighttime train sound reveries made dreamtime fantasies to which the present way of being alone on asphalt in serial files of cars and trucks with our automotive electronics and lonely vacant night parking lots does not approach

It was possible to ride a day coach away to the city or from town to town to go somewhere, to visit, to school, the military, to go away, just to go, and then come home

In sooty plate glass-windowed railway cars, maroon, brown, green Edwardian with stuffed horsehair seats, brass and polished wood

Riding quietly reflective sitting in a railway coach watching the familiar in the rush to grade crossing signals clanging down wagon carriage truck car wait

Until the fleeting glimpses of known creeks crossed on Howe bridges, until the porches and hills and trees and farms and finally the people were familiar as the train slowed enough to swing off to the platform before its jolted stop

And you were home

Those going farther hanging at the windows, you between them and the people on the platform, you between the motion of the train’s coming and its going on, from your arrival, from your getting off

Stopped, home, there, and in a minute or two the conductors signaled the engineer and the train began to move again, creaking, heading down the line

The call of engine whistles made people squirm to go, induced them to run toward the tracks to see the trains roll through, to flush their dreams of going soon themselves wherever trains were going, or from where it was that the train had just come

The sounds, whistles, the steam, the switching engines’ chuffing bumps, the screeching bangs and clanks on the sidings and in the shunting yards, all of it was part of it  

The crunch of hard coal roadbed cinders trackside underfoot

The hurried fast-creaking sound of the steel-tired hickory-spoked wagon wheels of Railway Express freight wagon baggage carts tugged along the platform to load and to carry back what was thrown on and off the baggage cars

Done in fast magic, the railroad era’s exact equivalent of race car pit stops

Splintery oak planking of the baggage carts’ decks set high to meet the level of the mail and baggage car floors 

Cast-iron bumper edges, the long horn-beam tongues the Railway Express agents would leave pointing upward by the brown or mustard painted clapboard station trackside wall

A post office clerk would meet the trains to collect the gray canvas leather-belted grommet-heavy mailbags from the platform and dispatch other bags, pushing them up to the mail car door to heave aboard

Smooth-sliding nickel steel chuted letter slots on the mail car’s side eye-high for mailing cards and letters from the platform

Inkpad postmarks stamped as it was sorted and dispatched en route upstate downstate trans-state cross-continental transcontinental, or dropped off on a station platform just down the line

Exotic packages and crated objects on massive bulbous-legged oak tables in the Railway Express office down the roofed platform from the station offices and waiting room

The sound of chicks peeping away from within four-compartmented boxes, beaks appearing from the quarter-sized round air holes of the corrugated cardboard sides

Small train stations were the centers of their towns and villages and were legion, in the tens of thousands

Young men boarded for the training camps before Antietam, the Marne, for Normandy and Tarawa

Stations were where kids caught their first awareness of the outer world, where people left for college, honeymoons and trips, where packages and crates arrived, where caskets came to be slid out onto the Railway Express carts  

These stations were politicians’ campaign stops, where nefarious and generous deeds were done, where lovers and generations parted, and strangers conversed  

The great city terminals hulked like the Baths of Caracalla and were the haunts of immigrant peddlers and shoeshine boys, the rich and poor, were the beginnings and the ends for so many  

Train stations were dead-center everywhere and now they are in the main no more

Gone, most demolished, some boarded up, others converted to restaurants, quirky shops or coffee bars   


D. E. Steward mainly writes months with 385 of them to date. Most of them are published, as is much of his short poetry.