By Tom Rodriguez
When I was a young boy, at night after all the lights in the house were turned off, my brothers and I would stay awake talking. Just before sleep hit us near the midnight hour, we would listen to the sounds of the long slow freight trains that passed by each night a block away on First Street and hear the muffled sound of the mournful train whistle far in the distance. It was a comforting sound to me, and it always made me wonder where the trains were going. I often fell asleep dreaming of one day riding one of those trains out of Topeka, Kansas, maybe to California. I never did, of course, but my friends and I did ride on lots of boxcars during our period of gathering left over wheat from empty boxcars parked on tracks near the I-H Flour Mill. Sometimes while we were inside the boxcars, an engine would hook up all of the cars and we would be forced to jump off of the moving boxcars with our sacks of wheat. It was an exciting but dangerous activity that often resulted in bloody knees or elbows. A couple of times we rode the freights out to the WIBW-TV hill, about 6 miles from our neighborhood. The train slowed down near the hill and we jumped off and walked the long way back along the Kaw River, which was always an adventure. Another time, we rode a freight car as far as Lawrence, Kansas, about 20 miles from Topeka, and rode another freight car back. Even now, these many years later, I still remember those wonderful carefree days and almost always experience strong feelings of nostalgia whenever I see a long freight train passing by while driving on a lonely highway. Somehow, in a sad and melancholy way, the trains connect me to my childhood and to the bedroom I shared with my three brothers growing up, when we would talk late into the night and fall asleep listening to the mournful wail of trains going somewhere.