Monday, December 10, 2007

Take The Night Train

Who doesn't enjoy a parade, especially at this festive time of year?

The family and I attended the local Xmas parade last weekend, down on Main St. in Pineville. We ended up standing right outside the gates of my alma mater Louisiana College, listening to the bands warm up and watching the local motorcycle police officers perform some close-order precision driving as the precursor to the parade. It was some 70 degrees out, not exactly winter weather but it was still a great deal of fun to be there, looking forward to an evening of candy throws and floats full of smiling children.

I spent six years at LC earning two degrees. I was a commuter so I drove under what used to be a crumbling, low, ill-drained rail overpass there on Main St. at least twice a day every day for those six years I was in school. Never once did I see a train on it. The tracks run around behind and alongside the school, servicing the cresote plant there right off Hwy 28. Never once did I see a train while out and about on the campus. At the time I wasn't an avid spotter but I think I would have been struck by something so loud and obvious. Now the bridge is clean and new and fresh, and I pass that way only rarely, but I have yet to see a train on it.

The night of the parade made up for all those lost opportunities.

The parade had just gotten good and under way, the police well up Main St. and the first of the floats making their way into the procession. That's when I heard it. The distant, unmistakable wail of a train horn. I had joked with the family when we first arrived that it'd be quite funny if a train came by while I was standing there with camera ready, and we all had a laugh over that. What were the chances, after all? And I heard it again. That long wail echoing out across the street, carried on the still, humid air.

There's certain sounds in nature and around us that make us feel various ways. Hearing that train horn ring out made me feel excited, yes, because a train was coming, but it also made me feel sad. There was such a lonely emptiness in it, the sort of sound that a wild animal would make when it realised it was alone in the dark. I thought about the conductor and engineer sitting there in the front, the conductor in his chair to one side, the engineer behind his control board, both of them following the bright cone of light cast from over their heads, and behind them the noise and heat of the huge diesel engine, and behind that, stretching off in the dark, their cargo.

Two men, lit only by the instruments in front of them and perhaps a little stray light from the headlamps, alone in the night. I wondered what they were thinking, what they were feeling. Were they tired? Lonely? Excited to be headed toward a new destination or weary at the thought of another night on the road without their families, far from home and hearth. When the first of the three engines appeared on the bridge I couldn't help but ponder: did they pause for a moment in their private thoughts to wonder what was happening below them, there in the street? A whole panorama revealed and taken away again in an eyeblink--a broad flash of golden-orange sodium arc light, and in the streets all coloured lights and movement, a snatch of bright brass horns heard over the roar and groan of all that machinery, the glint of a string of beads tossed from the eager hand of a smiling child perched on a float, caught forever in mid-flight, never landing in that upturned hand forever reaching.

I know many heads turned to watch it pass--did they in turn look out of their windows far above us to see us, a sea of pale ovals, wondering faces turned toward their passage? Did they wonder what we were thinking of them?

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Blogger Nancy Dancehall said...

1. "There was such a lonely emptiness in it, the sort of sound that a wild animal would make when it realised it was alone in the dark."

Great line.

2. Your thoughts about the engineers remind me of REM's 'Driver 8'

...saw a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm.
The power lines have floaters so the airplanes won’t get snagged.
Bells are ringing through the town again,
Children look up, all they hear is sky-blue, bells ringing...
...Southern Crescent, hear the bells ring again...fields of wheat forget them...
...Take a break Driver 8, Driver 8 take a break
We can reach our destination, but we’re still a ways away"

3. Beautiful photo.

December 13, 2007 at 11:32 PM  
Blogger Irrelephant said...

Nancy -

1) I know it sounds sort of hokey and melodramatic but there's something about night that seems to cause things to take on that sad, lonely air.

2) How did I know The Human Jukebox would find a lyric to match?

3) Thank you! I'm trying to plan on a night shoot, tripod and long exposures and all. Should be...informative. *G*

December 14, 2007 at 7:15 AM  
Blogger Jean said...

ahhhh...the night shoot sounds intriguing!

December 14, 2007 at 8:27 PM  
Blogger Irrelephant said...

I can't wait myself, Jean. There's an old photographic technique called "curtaining" that I really want to try with a train. You've seen the photos where a car is framed and seems "still" but the headlights and/or taillights stretch forward and behind in a long, sharp "light line"? That's curtaining...holding the shutter open for a very long time (sometimes several seconds) in very low light, then letting the flash fire at a very short portion of the open shutter time, thereby catching the car (or train!) at some point in the photo.

December 15, 2007 at 9:05 AM  

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