Here is another piece of Trying Montana, the book I never wrote about the time we spent living in the mountains. This particular essay was the first of the things I wrote after we moved north, and I suppose would somehow be chapter one, if this book was more than a phantom.
The Last Caboose
Cabooses were the Holy Grail of my childhood. In those days there were more trains, and red-lighted crossings with their zebra-striped bars and bells, than today.
But the cabooses, in all their colors, were the pinnacle of anticipation. The sea-green and chrome Buick stopped at the tracks. I stand on the bench seat, hand on my grandfather’s suited shoulder. His hand around my ankle, steadying. Excited, I’d vibrate in sympathy with their approaching clack-clack, rumble and roar. Wait, car after car roaring past, to see what was at the end! Each eventual caboose on those long-ago outings was as good as the shiny new dimes that my grandfather carried to bestow on special occasions. He died when I was 12. The bright red ones were best.
I had not given thought to cabooses since my own childhood, until my first-born son began noticing the trains. It is strange that my children, while doorways to futures beyond me, so often take me to my own past.
The Burlington Northern tracks ran along the bluff opposite our place some miles north of Whitefish, Montana. The trains pass several times a day, their calls at the desolate crossing of a Forest Service road echoing across our pasture. The son who sparked these thoughts as I wrote was almost five; trains one of his special delights. Their passage brings him running to the front window to climb up the back of the couch to watch.
The trains pass, but he has recently begun to notice they are rarely followed by a caboose. It bothers me more than it does him. I suppose my feelings are linked to his generation’s obsession with dinosaurs, and the heart-wrenching difficulty parents face explaining death to the innocent.
I have begun to wonder, with some concern, about a future without cabooses and what that means for the generations to come. I toy with the caboose as a symbol of innocence, like the unicorn.
Unless you work for the railroads the creeping extinction of the caboose may come as a surprise. The railroad companies say that deregulation, new computer technology and rising costs are doing away with her.
The caboose’s original purpose has been eliminated, a railroad company spokesman told me. “Before air brakes, trains were stopped with hand brakes applied on whistle signal from locomotive engineers. The more places on a train that brakemen could ride, the faster a sufficient number of brakes could be applied, minimizing stopping distance,” read the material he sent. Now that engineers have automatic air brakes they can apply brakes on all cars of a train almost simultaneously, it said.
The first cabooses were boxcars carrying a conductor’s equipment and appeared in the 1840s. The cupola on top, which made observing the train for safety defects easier, was apparently invented during the Civil War, according to railroad legend, and became standard about 1885. Cabooses once housed the pot-bellied stove used to cook the crew meals, and to provide crew lodging.
The Railroad Lodging Agreement of 1964, which required a railroad to provide bunk rooms or motel rooms for crew to sleep undisturbed by noise, helped doom the caboose. Automatic block signals, invented in 1972, allowed a disabled train to actuate its own protective signals and eliminated the flagman, who rode in the caboose, along with his flags and flares. The use of power switches and radio eliminated switchmen, who rode at the rear of trains. The function of the caboose as observation platform to monitor the train for various defects, the railroads say, has been eliminated by remote detectors. The railroads say the technology is safer — and cheaper — than cabooses and their crews.
Many, if not most, “rails,” as workers on the nation’s freight trains are called, disagree. They say the technology breaks down and that nothing can safely replace the eyes and ears of the men who ride the cabooses.
History is not reality, but the record of the way the dominant society wants the stories told. Imagination spreads the cracks in history and gives us folklore.
Think of the world those new-fangled cabooses, rolling at the end of the trains of the 1800s, witnessed:
The unspoiled land of a nation whose geographic boundaries had not yet been fixed. Oceans of buffalo and Native Americans free of white civilization. Think of childhood train stories, the little engine that could, Casey Jones and hobos.
My son nurtures his fascination with dinosaurs on books now, his mind like a glowing ember, and has advanced to questions of Talmudic intensity about how a meteor can create the ice age he says doomed them. He has begun asking questions about God, questions that make me uncomfortable with the realization that I can’t honestly answer them because I have not answered them for myself.
Soon after we bought the land we lived on there and began building a home, our retriever, Beau, was killed by a car. She’s buried out back next to the trees along the fence line. Her grave sharpened the boy’s questions about death.
Summer in northwest Montana, when darkness doesn’t fall until after 10 p.m., is difficult for children and wrecks parental rules about bedtime. After negotiation over how many stories were required, and several drinks of water, he was settled for the night.
But a train’s long whistle called him to his couch-top window perch.
We sat together. I watched the liquid light of evening reflected in his blue eyes, shining in his blond hair. It was a long freight.
He watched it rumble by, counting the engines, naming the colors of cars, tense in anticipation of the caboose, saddened when it did not appear.
His eyes glistened as the questions began. I fumbled with explanations. I tried to explain how things change, how machinery evolves, and stabbed at business necessity. I raised unions and collective bargaining and ended with: “They don’t use cabooses much anymore, son.”
“Are they extinct like the dinosaurs?” he asked with a yawn.
“Yup,” I said, carrying him to his room. He was mostly asleep as I gathered the blankets around him. Heading for the door, I heard him say into his pillow: “But why do cabooses have to die, Daddy?”
Author’s Note: Grateful thanks are made to the Christian Science Monitor, and to This World, The Sunday Magazine of the San Francisco Chronicle, which published a version of this essay.