I love trains. During the late 1950s, my brother got an electric Lionel trainset for Christmas. It was a black locomotive reminiscent of those early ones with large smokestacks on top. Jim’s train came with some type of burnable oil in a glass bottle.
He used a dropper to place a few drops of this liquid into the stack. An electric coil inside the stack turned oil to smoke. Jim found that the more oil he dropped in, the more smoke it produced. With Dad having asthma, it wasn’t long before he confiscated the bottle.
My brother discovered other ways to use his train. He removed metallic silver icicles or tinsel from our Christmas tree and laid them across a track. They’d glow cherry red until completely toasted. That creativity was quickly banned, although when our parents weren’t around, off came a few more strands.
With only so many feet of track, all he could do was make a small circle. That’s when the real cost of owning a train came in. He’d use whatever money he could scrounge to purchase longer sections. I even chipped in my meager allowance money on occasion.
We lived in a trailer during this time so the outcome wasn’t good. After Mom tripped on the caboose, Dad told him to take things outside.
Jim sat his train up underneath the mobile home on a sheet of plywood. My father even gave him back the container of oil. From that point on, wisps of smoke drifted out both sides like the place was doing a slow burn.
We remained there steadfast watching Jim’s train go round and round while breathing toxic fumes. All was fine until the smoke coil eventually burned out and AC/DC transformer took a dive. Everything was scuttled after that with the plywood most likely retained to make a bicycle jump ramp.
Although no trains roll through Lake Havasu City, Arizona I don’t have to drive far to see them. The late, John Ballard, told me there was close to 100 a day passing through Needles, California. John would know, because like his father, he worked at BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) for several years.
I’ve clocked some BNSF trains moving at 70 mph. I’m told they go even faster. Some of these freight trains are two miles long. My favorite spot to watch them is near Happy Jack Road, across the I-40, at a railroad bridge that crosses Sacramento Wash. It’s best to have an all-wheel-drive vehicle to get there because loose sand in the wash makes it easy to get stuck.
On occasion, I see black smoke coming from the locomotives. They’re diesel powered so that makes sense. If the wind isn’t blowing, this smoke goes straight up into the air and lingers like a cloud.
The other day, my wife and I were driving to Kingman. As usual, I was searching the landscape for my beloved trains. Joleen normally has our Sirius satellite radio tuned in to some holiday channel on these longer trips. She loves Christmas music. Only able to tolerate Mel Torme for so many minutes, I politely asked if I could switch to the 70s channel.
Ironically, Long Train Runnin‘ by The Doobie Brothers was playing. Off to our right in the far distance, I could see black smoke from a BNSF freighter headed most likely to Los Angeles. It was loaded with rectangular “Conex” shipping containers. This song along with that visual were enough to joggle my memory.
On Friday, July 20, 1973, The Doobie Brothers were doing a one-night-stand in Anchorage, Alaska. Tickets sold out early, and to be truthful, it’s doubtful I had the $5.50 to even attend. This event was being held at the Anchorage Sports Arena which was basically a large metal Quonset hut style building. Flat track motorcycle races, car shows, and hockey games were often held there. Acoustics for music events were as lousy as it gets.
I was with three good friends that night riding bicycles. Cathy Cook, Michelle Giroux, Jeff Thimsen, and myself decided to venture over that direction and listen from the outside.
Standing directly behind this building where the stage would’ve been, I touched a steel wall and could feel the bass guitar and drums vibrating it like crazy. Long Train Runnin’ had just been introduced that year, and of course I liked it for title alone. The harmonica solo within this tune reminded me of a train whistle, and the overall tempo was fast like a runaway locomotive.
Waiting around for this song to begin, a security guy stepped out the back door. Thick blue smoke followed him. With no intent on hassling us, the guy was merely seeking fresh air.
After several songs played including my favorite, we rode our bikes out front to where the arena entrance was. Smoke was so thick that all doors were open to help clear it out.
The joint (pun intended) appeared to be on fire. What’s amazing, is that concertgoers elected to remain inside!