The Train Rolls On
Whenever the freight trains comes through Grady, Arkansas, where my maternal family originates, the windows, tables and kitchen tops shake as the locomotive makes it way. The noise could be so deafening conversations television shows are interrupted by the rat-a-tat-tat of the engines. More than once the train woke me while I was sleeping at Aunt Freddie Mae’s house.
When my sister Chung and I were small children, we spent the summers from 1974 until 1983 running around barefoot on Grady’s red dirt roads playing with dozens of our first cousins. Going down South meant riding 412 miles from St. Louis to Grady to where Mama grew up.
As the crow flies, Grady is 22 miles south and east of Pine Bluff in the middle of Lincoln County, a town of 523 souls. Cotton gins and John Deere tractors litter the landscape. Cotton, rice, and soybean fields claim more than three-quarters of Grady’s land, an atmosphere where rats and snakes always thrive. Chung and I were so busy playing with cousins and partaking with the feeding of pigs, chickens and cows, I never realized just how tiny Grady was.
But it was always the train that arrested my attention.
The train’s thunderous vibration revealed something in my sister’s brain. At about 6 years of age, she’d stick an index fingers in each ear and run down the road. My cousins and I chased her, early signs of mental illness.
Routinely the freight trains stopped on the railroad tracks preventing our family from getting to their jobs in the fields or at the saw mill in Pine Bluff. Aunt Louise told me that in the 1950s and 1960s she and her siblings often crawled underneath the train to get to the school bus.
My grandfather, Roy, got so irate at the train once, he climbed up waved a revolver at the conductor and yelled: “You’ve got five minutes to move this goddamned train out of the way.”
The train moved.
Cousin Travis told me that once he was dreaming of wrestling with his dead grandfather when the 3 am came through. In the middle of the confusion, he jumped through a window and woke up outside covered in blood and glass.
My family had learned to live with the train’s racket. Sometimes conductors waved.
We stopped going in 1983. Aunt Freddie Mae died in 1991.
In the early 2000s, the federal government extended Interstate 530, effectively cutting Grady off the map. Nearly everything closed – the schools, furniture stores, bank, even the gas station closed for a while.
As the town died, Grady became a place to attend funerals. My grandparents, great grandmother, Aunt Freddie Mae, Aunt Verla, and several cousins died. The relatives who remained alive most of them have moved away. My sister moved into a care facility for the mentally ill.
The further I get away from those Grady days, the more I long for the boy running after his sister who was spooked by the train. At family gatherings in Dallas and Atlanta, we all stand around talking about how life was in Grady.
In February 2011, I dreamt I was standing on the dirt road in Grady, Arkansas, and I heard a loud voice say, “The trains will no longer ride through Grady.” Two days, my beloved grandfather died at 94.
Perhaps the saddest train story happened to my uncle Arvan, the third oldest of the boys of my mother’s eight siblings. In late November 2013, he was trying to make it over the track when the train clipped his car, killing him. On the day of his funeral, the train company parked a single red engine to park outside Damascus Missionary Baptist Church.
In the summer of 2014, I took a video camera and smartphone to capture these images of the train and the town. Grady hovers over death but won’t cross over, yet the train keeps coming through each day.
In ‘Two Trains,’ the late poet Tony Hoagland writes:
What grief it is to love some people like your own
blood, and then to see them simply disappear;
to feel time bearing us away
one boxcar at a time.
Samuel Autman, "The Train Rolls On" Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place and Nature. Issue 7: DAWN (2022)
In the making of this video essay, Samuel wishes to thank: DePauw University’s professional development for their support; and Berkeley, California-based StoryCenter.org for their guidance.