The memorial service at a little West Tennessee country church was followed by fried chicken, green beans and potato salad. Mixed in between the homemade banana bread and sweet tea were, “It’s good to see you,” “How have you been,” and “Nice to meet you,” many times over. Laughs and stories about those who were and weren’t there triggered a few rolled eyeballs and snickers among the usual devilish and irreverent bunch always and delightfully present at such gatherings. Next, a trip to the home of one of the departed loved one’s relatives and some informal singing. Then, hugs and, “Well, I guess I’d better be gettin’ on home,” and, “Look forward to seeing you again before long, now, alright?”
Tracks 4 and 5
I had asked directions for the fastest way back to Nashville and turned onto the long two-lane road that took me past fields and farm houses on the way back to Highway 45. The album I had been listening to on the way over was playing as I turned onto “45.” In Humboldt, I was to head east, the quickest way to Interstate 40. Then, Track #4, Carl Perkins singing Blue Suede Shoes, began to play. Next out of my speaker was Track #5, Matchbox. Then it dawned on me. Jackson, Tennessee, Perkins’ hometown, was less than 30 minutes away down 45. I decided to head south.
The fact that Jackson is Carl Perkins’ hometown is interesting, but it’s not the real reason I decided on this unnecessary detour. I spent every Christmas and Thanksgiving until I was fourteen years old in Jackson visiting my grandparents and later just Granddaddy after Grandmamma died. Summer vacation weeks there allowed me to make childhood friends in Tennessee in addition to my buddies back home in Mississippi. Jackson, Tennessee has always felt like another hometown to me.
The duck pond and an old house
Mama’s parents, Dewey and Ruby Pittman, lived on Arlington Street near the intersection with Campbell Street when I was a little boy. I drove into Jackson on 45, then Highland, took a right near where The Hut and Georgia’s restaurants used to be and I was on Campbell. I headed toward a landmark I’ll always remember. On Campbell was what we called “the duck pond.” And there it still is.
The duck pond
The duck pond looked amazingly similar to the way I remembered it fifty years before. It even seemed a little bigger. There were some ducks in a yard along toward the back and an old man and an old woman were fishing on the banks. The man was on the north bank, the woman on the west, on the Campbell Street side. “Catching anything?” I asked. She pulled something tiny out of the pond just about that time and laugh/answered, “I think this one might fit in my goldfish bowl!” She removed it from her hook and I wandered along.
Soon, I was a few blocks down on Arlington, looking at the house where my grandparents had lived. It wasn’t the white home it used to be but a kind of off-tan, if that’s a color. Maybe it was the new paint that made it look smaller. Or maybe a ten-year-old’s eyes had made it appear bigger than it really had been in the 1960s. I walked up and down the block and remembered riding my bike along the sidewalks around the neighborhood with my friends.
Then, the tracks began to call. The railroad tracks that still lead into the old building that once housed the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad’s Iselin Shop. Granddaddy was Master Mechanic, in charge of that whole operation. When I was a kid, he would take me to work with him. I became addicted to the smell of diesel fumes, the sound of locomotive engines and train whistles.
I pulled up to where the tracks go into the freight yard, before they connect with others that allowed many a switch engine to pull boxcars, coal cars, gondolas and cabooses around the yard and in for maintenance. The big old building is home to another business now but the tracks and some locomotives and railroad cars were there, oddly silent on a Saturday afternoon. I walked around the tracks, not going into the yard because I didn’t want the video cameras to make some security guard think I was trespassing. But I remembered when I would have been just visiting.
Old crows and dirty nickels
The many times when I was welcomed as “Mr. Pittman’s grandson,” in The Shop, as Granddaddy called it, flashed into my mind. His secretaries Cecelia Bennett (affectionately called “Ceelie,” by everyone) and Miss Yetta Barhanovich always had candy and hugs. Mr. Buck Kitchins kept his rifle in the trunk of his car and he would take me out to shoot crows off the top of the building. I don’t remember him missing a single crow. On the other hand, I don’t remember hitting a single one. Mr. Buck really took chances that all of the windows would still be intact at the top of The Shop by letting me take my shots.
I was a young engineer looking out the window of a switch engine.
A crusty old wrench-turner named Mr. Smith had a heart of gold that probably matched the tooth always shining when he smiled. He was one of my favorites and Granddaddy always made sure to find him for me. Usually, he could be found in a big pit underneath a grease-dripping locomotive. He seemed to welcome the diversion of cutting up with the boss’s grandson.
“Son, you want a dirty nickel?” Mr. Smith asked every time I saw him. “Yes sir!” I would gleefully answer. After reaching way into his overall pocket, his rough workman’s hand always pulled out the greasiest, blackest, oil-stained nickel that ever existed and handed it to me. At first glance, there was no sign that Thomas Jefferson’s image was heads and his beloved Monticello was tails under the grease that covered the coin. But for me, those dirty nickels may as well have been hundred dollar gold pieces.
The right track…
Still hoping I choose the right track.
It is true that railroad tracks “run both ways.” After walking over them and looking toward the old GM&O Shop and reminiscing, I knew it was time to look the other way, follow them out and head home. Often at times like this, I reflect too philosophically. But as the afternoon sun got closer to the iron rails heading west, I reviewed some of the tracks I’ve taken in life. I wonder if I ever really know which tracks are best to follow at the moment when it’s time to release the brake, sound the bell and the air horn, notch the throttle up and go. Which rails should I take next? Maybe I’ll have to wait for my own memorial service to find out if I am on the right track.
Click this photo to hear Les Kerr sing the train song “The Little Rebel”
Text and photos copyright 2018 by Les Kerr.