Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Reader Railroad

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware".--Martin Buber

Have you ever ridden the tracks from nowhere to obscurity? Let's take a ride on the Reader.

Where I come from, the Reader Railroad was about as near as we came to a tourist attraction, if you discount the deer in hunting season, the headless ghost, and the World's Largest Watermelon.

Reader is a town big enough to know its name, but small enough to barely toddle around very well. But Reader is a whale of a town next to Waterloo, a place with more longings then people.

The Reader Railroad bridged the unseen gap between the faded dreams of Reader and the once-incipient hopes of Waterloo. This is all timber country, now, where once it was also small farms and pre-depression hopes.

They used to run the steam train some thirtysomething miles between the towns. By the time I was a kid, there was really no reason to do so anymore. They just ran it for the tourists. You'd ride down the narrow gauge rails, through deep pine woods. Some years, they'd stage a gunfight along the way, with faux western suits and six shooters popping caps.

"Take a Ride on the Reader!" the advertisement would say. But fewer people did. They "revived" it when I was a young adult, and the train ran into the middle of the woods, where they used a circular rail-stand to turn the engine around for the ride home. Now the Reader Railroad's gone.

I like that book "Pilgrim's Progress", where all the vices and virtues are recreated as places or states of being. For that matter, I like "Phantom Tollbooth", where the same thing occurs, only the vices and virtues change a bit.
I think that Reader and Waterloo were places with less directly metaphoric meaning.
But I wonder, sometimes, if I am not on a circuit between them even yet.

The battleground at Poison Springs is not that far up the road. There a Union supply train was beset by an army of Confederates and Indians. Some say the rebels poisoned the springs; others say that anybody who drank water in April after a long walk in military attire is apt to get sick. The historians (and I) tend to the latter theory, but I grew up with kids who swore their great-great-great grandfathers personally tainted the water. No matter what the water clarity, the
fog of death and dishonor hang over that battlefield.

The Confederates, local anglos and Choctaw Indians, ambushed a Union wagon train carrying corn, bed quilts and other personal belongings misappropriated from the local civilian population. At the conclusion of the battle, 300+ men all told had been killed. The losses were far worse than they might otherwise have been, because the southern side denied quarter to the African-American soldiers of the First Kansas regiment. Instead of capturing these defeated soldiers, they killed virtually every one, taking only white prisoners. In their turn, the Choctaws claimed that the First Kansas had ransacked Choctaw settlements during their occupation of Choctaw territory, apparently adding to their "battle zeal". The battle cry of the First Kansas became "Remember Poison Springs!". When I want to see the senselessness of war in one easy lesson, I visit this battlefield in which a few thousand men did discreditable deeds in the name of glory.

The Union wagon train had been bound by Camden, Arkansas, where General Frederick Steele had taken the town from the Confederates, but found himself nearly encircled by Confederate armies. His Brigadier, Frederick Salomon, occupied the Elliott home. My parents live in that house today. James Thomas Elliott built the house, prior to becoming a Republican congressman during Reconstruction and a judge.

In 1916, his home was bought by Albert N. Meek, whom history remembers as a bright young attorney. He died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. His daughter lived in the home for years.

If "Reader" and "Waterloo" represent "Obscurity" and "Nowhere", and
Poison Springs represents "Depredation", what does the home on Washington Street represent?

It's not quite "childhood" for me, because I did not really grow up in that house. I grew up 40 miles away, in a boarding house converted into a single family home, not far from the railroad tracks.

I moved to the house in Camden when I was 15. So it's "home", and yet it's not "home". It's a place where the judge's daughters carved their names in the windows in the 1860s. It's a place where a young man with a family died of the flu. It's a place where the azalea bushes my mother planted when I was in law school still bloom each Spring.

There are tracks behind my parents' home in Camden. The railroad used to run there; I am not sure if it still does. It never connected with the Reader.

In our home now, we have a picture of Swedish children in Stockholm.
They're in little June dresses, standing together, all fun and serene. What metaphoric place do they inhabit? They're just kids, on the way, I imagine, to play. They're on some road from nowhere to obscurity. But the trail looks like great fun. Maybe that's a key ingredient--my participation in the image. I can't look to places to just "be" home anymore. I must create "home" and live "home" and then I am going to find home.

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