Valley of Dry Bones: A Meditation on Change by Howard Bahr

In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.

Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.

Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.

But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.

In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.

Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.

Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.

Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.

When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.

With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.

And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.

Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.

And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.

Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”

Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.

Flip the Bird

The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen species of the genus live outside Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.

Mockingbirds are sleek and noisy, accustomed to human company, and an iconic bird for zones 6 and below, but speaking as a seventh-generation native, I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our four Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird–which, I might add, is arguably the meanest bird for its size on the face of the planet–but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a bird so at home in the air it’s said that “Only two powers of nature can defeat the wings of a Mississippi kite. One is rain, the other darkness.” These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in summer, tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.

Another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay, and you can be damn sure some legislator from the Delta will throw a duck in just for the hell of it. The ultra-conservative Democrats who represent me in the Mississippi legislature–for whom I voted, mind you–would never endanger their lucrative political careers by proposing a new state symbol—they’re even complacent with the racist flag and song—but I’d like to think we could have a bird of our own.

God help us, and give us that, at least.

A Mississippi Flag Primer

Most state flags were adopted between 1893 and World War I. Texas is an exception, her flag a holdover from the Republic of Texas (1836-46), but the Lone Star was itself adopted from an earlier flag, the Bonnie Blue flag of the Republic of West Florida. After a failed rebellion against Spain in 1802, American settlers in the coastal South revolted successfully in 1810. The Republic of West Florida was organized, a constitution adopted, officials were elected and application was made to President Madison for admission to the Union. Madison declared the republic a part of the Louisiana Purchase and ordered Louisiana Governor Claiborne to take possession. The Republic of West Florida’s flag had a blue background bearing a single white star that in time became known as the Bonnie Blue Flag. This flag flew over Baton Rouge, Pass Christian and Pascagoula for a short time and reappeared as the Lone Star in the flag of Texas.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, the Bonnie Blue was widely recognized as the unofficial flag of the Confederacy; it was raised over Ft. Sumter as well as the capitol building in Jackson. On January 26, Mississippi officially adopted a state flag which included a canton with the Bonnie Blue star and a magnolia tree in a white center field with a red border. This flag, usually depicted without the red border but with a red bar on the right, is now widely known as the Magnolia Flag. The Bonnie Blue remains an icon of the Confederacy, an image that while lesser-known in our day was just as emblematic as the battle flag to contemporaries. Take note that Scarlett and Rhett had their daughter baptized as “Eugenia Victoria Butler”, but she was called “Bonnie Blue”.

In November 1861 the Confederacy adopted an official flag, the “Stars and Bars”, a flag so closely resembling the Union flag that in the Battle of Manassas in July, 1861, Confederate forces fired on their own troops. General Beauregard, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a change must be made and in cooperation with General Johnston and Quartermaster General Cabell, they issued a flag designed by William Porcher Miles, a broad blue saltire on a red field, bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen five-pointed stars. This design became known as the battle flag, and was later incorporated in flags adopted by the Confederacy in 1863 and 1865. The Magnolia Flag remained in use as the state flag of Mississippi until 1894, when a new one with the Confederate battle flag in the canton and a field of blue, white and red bars was adopted by the Mississippi Legislature. The only change since then has been the addition of a white border separating the canton from the blue and red bars; the original specifications were vague, and the flag was made in versions with and without the border until Governor Fordice issued an executive order requiring its use in 1995.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled that state legislation in 1906 had repealed the adoption of the flag in 1894, so what was considered to be the official flag was only so through “custom and usage”. Governor Musgrove appointed an independent commission that developed a design replacing the Confederate battle flag with a blue canton containing 20 stars representing Mississippi’s status as the 20th state admitted to the Union. The proposed flag, with the exception of a single undistinguished star in the inner circle of six signifying the state’s membership in the Confederacy among five other sovereign nations (the others representing France, the Republic of Mississippi, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States), had no outstanding symbolic reference to the Confederate States of America. On April 17, 2001, a non-binding state referendum to change the flag was put before Mississippi voters. The new design was defeated in a vote of 64% (488,630 votes) to 36% (267,812).

A Basic Gazpacho

One soup you’ll never find in a can is gazpacho, a king of cold soups, and an easily-made, refreshing and somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Older recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture (I simply don’t like the texture), take it from someone who crumbles cornbread over just about any soup, bread is a great addition, and any well-textured bread will do.

Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet banana pepper works best. I don’t recommend hot peppers; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing, not pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well. Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. You might want to add some liquid, in which case I recommend a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Refrigerate overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper, and top with a slosh of olive oil. Serve in chilled bowls with crusty bread.

 

Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

While you can buy watermelons year-round, it’s just not a good idea to purchase a melon in the winter. Chances are, these melons are the tail-end of a second-field crop from Central America and will look and taste like pink cucumber. I’ve gotten decent melons at the tail end of May, and I’ve even had a few November melons from the Missouri boot heel that were really good, but as a general rule, melon season in the American South corresponds quite neatly with our hurricane season, which runs from June through September, with August the peak month. It’s also not a good idea to buy seedless watermelons because watermelon seeds release an enzyme that promotes the ripening process. You’ll find people who’ll tell you a seedless watermelon can taste just as good as one with seeds, but in my personal experience this simply does not hold true.

Buy a watermelon that is proportionate; do not get one that is narrow at one end, because the smaller end will be unripe; the stem and flower scab should both be in the very center of their respective ends of the fruit. Another good sign of a ripe watermelon is a yellow bottom, sure evidence that it has ripened on the ground. When it comes to thumping a watermelon, don’t thump it: knock on it; take your knuckles and rap on it like you would a door. Listen for a hollow sound, not a tight sound. It should be firm and heavy for its size.

Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

Fry or broil lean bacon until crisp. Season with freshly-ground black pepper, break into pieces and sprinkle over chilled, cubed watermelon along with pieces of feta (you can also use a blue cheese for this). Sliced chilled cucumbers are a nice option. A little fresh lime adds zest to the flavors.

 

Peach Pavlova

June means fresh peaches in Mississippi, where we get the best in the world. The early varieties are usually cling, meaning the pit adheres to the flesh of the fruit, while later varieties are freestone, with a pit that’s easily removed. Chilton County, Alabama peaches enjoy a vaulted reputation in Mississippi, but north central Mississippi growers, particularly in Pontotoc and Lafayette counties, have in recent years provided the markets with wonderfully succulent fruit.

A pavlova is meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit, a dessert, light as a ballerina, and this patronym is the only thing about the dish that’s agreed upon. Australians claim that it was invented in a hotel in Perth, but any respectable Kiwi will bristle at the thought. Then there are those who will tell you that a pavlova meringue should have a soft center while others insist it should be dried and crisp throughout. Suit yourself.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. The egg whites mustn’t contain a bit of fat, so make sure no yolk remains, and don’t whip them in a plastic bowl. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. Vinegar or lemon juice helps stabilize the froth, and don’t add sugar until the soft peak stage. See? What’d I tell you? Not tricky at all.

Chinese gooseberry—renamed the kiwi fruit by New Zealanders in a brazen attempt at origin status—and passion fruit are “original”, strawberries and blueberries are traditional, but any fruit can be used. Pavlovas can also be made with chocolate and caramels, candies and nuts. We’re getting in the best peaches of the year now, which make a beautiful pavlova.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. parchment paper. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft. Gradually add one cup confectioner’s sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the whites are glossy, then gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract and lemon juice and two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top or layer with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios and/or almonds are a nice touch.