As I watched the flickering red light vanish down the track an aura of melancholy filled the air. Kind of odd but somehow I felt cheated, much like the sensation one gets after foraging through a box of Cracker Jack and discovering it has no prize inside. The scene conveyed more than just the end of a passing freight train, it brought to mind the demise of an indelible feature of the American landscape.
It seems that with every technological advance, another nostalgic element of Americana disappears from our culture—the caboose is just one more victim of progress. This storied railroad icon has been displaced by a small flashing signal box mounted on the last car of the train consist. The pathetic little box bears the very unromantic moniker of the EOTD (End-of-Train Device.)
Today the fabled caboose is nothing more than a novelty, a block of deeply rooted history sewn into the makings of the great American quilt. It joins a growing list of obsolete elements that had once been an intricate part of life in America—like the stage coach, the steam boat, the old movie palace, and the Route 66 roadside diner. I miss the caboose. I miss those days of innocence.
While my granddaughters probably couldn’t tell the difference between a gondola car and it, the little red caboose will forever be etched upon my memory. I recall those times of being stranded at a rail grade crossing in my dad’s car. While signal lights flashed and crossing bells rang, my little sister and I wrestled for position at the door window. We each wanted to be the first to spot the little red car bringing up the rear of the train. Its appearance was cause for celebration.
But beyond the inconvenience of delay, it also brought a sense of the unknown. Where had it been? What tales of adventure could it spin?
There were mysterious railroad legends attached to those little rolling cabins, like the sightings of the Ozark Phantom Caboose that hurtled silently down the track, all on its own. Or the Maco Light story about signalman Joe Baldwin who had been decapitated when a speeding passenger train slammed into Joe’s disabled caboose. His ghost supposedly walks the rails at night, waving a lantern while searching for his missing head.
I often wondered where the trains were heading. How cool would it be to climb aboard and view the sweeping American countryside from the caboose’s distinctive cupola. Like a king on his throne, I’d have a ringside seat to an epic journey. We’d pass mountains and forests, canyons and deserts. I’d discover the Great Plains containing huge grassy expanses filled with grazing cattle. Maybe the dark of night would display shooting stars and distant thunder storms, maybe even the Northern Lights.
A long panographic portrait of America would evolve in my mind as we rolled past farms, small towns, and places of industry. My eyes would be opened to contrasting scenes of wealth, poverty, and unfamiliar hardship.
I would be exposed to other Americans who lived a way of life foreign to my own, and who spoke with strange regional dialects. Maybe I’d begin to fully grasp the metaphor “melting pot,” and discover just how little I actually knew about almost everything.
My experience would surely attest to the magnificence of God and His multifaceted creation, bringing to mind the words of David in Psalm 19:
“The celestial realms announce God’s glory;
the skies testify of His hands’ great work.
Each day pours out more of their sayings;
each night, more to hear and more to learn.
Inaudible words are their manner of speech,
and silence, their means to convey.
Yet from here to the ends of the earth, their voices have gone out;
the whole world can hear what they say.”
Psalm 19: 1—4 (The Voice)
My life has been much like a train ride—there was and still is something ahead waiting to be discovered. People came onboard that I learned to love, some exited far too early, a few have remained for the entire journey.
Whether I want to admit it or not, I do occasionally anticipate the end approaching. It doesn’t scare me. Instead, I am counting on there being an angelic caboose bringing up the rear, taking me to a place so magnificent, I can’t begin to imagine its beauty.