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Sunday, 1 August 2010

Penny on the Tracks


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Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

View at twilight in a departure yard at C & N.W. R.R. Proviso yard, Chicago, Illinois; brakeman is signaling with a red flare and the train is going by during exposure: photo by Jack Delano, December 1942 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



Train whistles in the night at the western margin of the sprawling meatpackers' metropolis of the Plains. O common child's lonesome midnight monody of imagined distances, grand mythic romance of spaces undivided and free. That's the mournful cry of the Four Hundred passing a level crossing on the run to Bensenville, or from the Proviso yard the annunciatory declaration of a long freight going over the Hump.



Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

General view of one of the classification yards of Chicago and North Western Railroad, Chicago, Illinois: photo by Jack Delano, December 1942 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



Saturday mornings as soon as the boy is allowed on the North Western commuter alone, there begins his enthralled sojourning to the six great cathedrals, the major terminals, vast sheds of ingress and egress. The incoming locomotives breathing steam along the busy platform with wheel housings snow- and ice-encrusted, he could approach and touch the exotic grey sludge which bespoke the storms of Ohio and Michigan, Kansas and Nebraska. A tactility to inform the night visions of Burlington and Battle Creek, Ogden and Kenosha.



Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

View in a departure yard at Chicago and North Western R.R. Proviso yards, Chicago, Illinois: photo by Jack Delano, December 1942 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



The lyric, epic, tragic but never Arcadian American wilds....Between reality and dream lay the big sweeping corn country beyond Clinton, Iowa, a fat feed bin reaching all the way to Omaha where the squalid slaughter factories of the gimcrack emperors Cudahy, Hormel and Armour provided a steady flood of animal blood that engrossed and sustained the city of big shoulders -- heartland always a misnomer in that region which boasted appetite aplenty, horse sense, practicality, material rapacity and capacity beyond the world's guessing, vast muscle to lend the nation, production, consumption, everything, in fact, but sweetness and a gentle mind.



Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

General view of a classification yard at Chicago and North Western R.R. Proviso yards, Chicago, Illinois: photo by Jack Delano, December 1942 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)



A boy's way of stamping self-conjured geographical heraldries into an object that could be kept as their talisman: to place a penny upon the rails, not far from home, and huddle in concealment in the wayside ditch until the train goes by in a frightening rush of noise and steam, headed west toward the switching yard at La Grange. And in the quiet wake, retrieve the iron-flattened void copper disc, a fresh-minted dream emblem, coin of the realm of the faraway, shiny tablet upon which to inscribe, with a sharp metal tool meant for bicycle repair, one's name.



Image, Source: digital file from original transparency

Illinois Central R.R., freight cars in South Water Street Terminal, Chicago, Illinois: photo by Jack Delano, April 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

10 comments:

Curtis Roberts said...

Tom: Thank you for taking me on this journey. I love it all, but particularly the section that begins “The lyric, epic, tragic but never Arcadian American wilds” and includes the phrase “heartland always a misnomer” and the examples and conclusion that follow.

Learning the new (to me) train nomenclature (classification yard, departure yard) and seeing the Delano photographs is a revelation. The Pabst Blue Ribbon sign is incredibly beautiful; they don’t make them like that any more.

TC said...

Curtis,

I'm so glad you too like the Delano work. I suppose I'm not completely objective, as I remember all these scenes, so there is a personal interest. But the formal quality in the compositions and the capture of the atmosphere of the industry and the place and time and weather are all remarkable.

I too love that magnificent Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

Hail the FSA photographers (and Kodachrome)!

And by the way...
the penny trick is still practised, it seems.

(And from the lad's accent I am almost tempted to think this particular form of youthful insanity may have something to do with the luck of the Irish; the luck, that is, to survive the trick.)

Curtis Roberts said...

I love the Delano work and I also love Chicago in the winter, which I've been told makes me crazy, but there's something about the crystalline quality of the air and light that has always attracted Caroline and me to the city during that season. (Also, being literally blown down the street from time-to-time needs to be experienced to be believed.) The good looking Irish penny-on-the-track boy has a lot of presence.

TC said...

Ahh, Chicago in the winter... but of course probably not unlike Siberia in the winter, if it's all you know, it seems like all there is. You don't even think about it.

Among my youthful occupations was an ushering job at public events all over the city. The Chicago Bears played their home games at Wrigley Field, up near the Lake. One of the ushering duties was taking tickets from entering spectators. It had to be done bare-handed. I remember looking down at my fingers, one Siberian subzero Sunday in early December, and seeing these numb blue lumps, with tickets somehow wedged in between them.

As for the kid in the video, his accent reminds me of my grandparents'. Except for the liberal sprinkling of f-bombs, that is. Times (and attitudes) do change.

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

Yes, thanks for such beautiful "heartland" memories, these words themselves a "way of stamping self-conjured geographical heraldries into an object that could be kept as their talisman" -- that copper then, now these words. . . . Those Delano photographs are really something (!) -- the space of the yards, sounds of trains moving, Kodak cold of December in Chicago. . . . Meanwhile, perhaps some resemblance between this "object" and that penny ---


8.1

grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, shadowed green black pine branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

also the same object as that
which appears, how near

that matter was, connections
to this, as possible as

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
wingspan of tern circling up across it

TC said...

Thank you Steve. One good tern deserves another. And

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,

is beginning to seem permanent here too, as though we were were locked in a Trough Diorama.

connections
to this,

temp. 55 degrees F. in the traffic channel.

Old slow day, grateful for the company.

Lucy in the Sky said...

Trains are adventure, discovery, pioneers, industrial revolution, vast territories, a fixed destination, a different point of view, journeys, tunnels, rhythm, swaying movement, whistles, speed, the end of isolation.

Thanks for the ride!

~otto~ said...

Beautiful like time travel.

TC said...

Lucy and Otto,

Both of you would make great traveling companions.

Recalling a Seventies R&B tv show, Soul Train...

All aboard!

TC said...

Yo!

All of you brothers over in Africa,
Tell all the folks in Egypt, and Israel, too.
Please don't miss this train at the station,
'Cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you.

(Maybe this is what Aristotle meant by "universals" -- ?)