Me, Grandpa, trains & a song that sticks in my head

David Atwood Points of the Compass
Posted 7/19/13

Some songs strike you to the core and stay with you all your life. Some are well known, and there is no mystery as to why you find yourself waking up with them going through your head. Others are obscure and only you, and maybe the songwriter, can …

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Me, Grandpa, trains & a song that sticks in my head

Posted

Some songs strike you to the core and stay with you all your life. Some are well known, and there is no mystery as to why you find yourself waking up with them going through your head. Others are obscure and only you, and maybe the songwriter, can tell why it gets into your soul, rattles around, and appears at random times in your life, uninvited, but always welcome. Such is “Texas 1947” for me.

To my knowledge it has only been recorded once and that by the writer, Guy Clark in 1975. I was big into the Austin, Texas rock-a-billy scene in those days following such artists as Jerry Jeff Walker who recorded several Guy Clark songs, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and others, but “Texas 1947” has stuck with me.

Why this particular ballad resonates is easy to explain. It is a song about my grandpa and me. It wasn’t written with us in mind, but I and he identified with it and understood what the song was saying from some place deep within us. I remember the day I played it for him.

He needed to go somewhere and we had our usual argument involving him wanting me to drive his battleship sized Dodge, or him riding in my VW Bus. It wasn’t easy for a stroke victim like him to step up into the bus, but on this day he gave in when I pleaded, “Come on Grandpa, I got a song I want you to hear.” Maybe it was my eagerness for him to hear it that made him climb into the VW, but it was a fateful decision for both of us.

We settled into traffic and I put the cassette tape in the player, fast forwarded to the sixth track and let Guy do the rest. For the next three minutes and 10 seconds, I drove, singing the lyrics in my head. I wanted Grandpa to hear the song without distraction. He did.

“Can you play that again, boy?”

“Yes sir,” I said, “let me pull over here.” I stopped under some big oaks right inside the cemetery where he now rests, rewound the tape, pushed play, and this time, sat quiet and let the music wash over us and carry us away to different places, different times, with different memories.

For me, the song is a journey as far back as I can remember when our family would visit my grandparents in the east Texas town of Palestine. Grandpa worked for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, which was a big deal in Texas in the late 40s and early 50s. He would come home from work, wash up, and sit to supper that Grandma had waiting. We would eat, and he would open his old pocket watch and say, “Come on boy, let’s go see the Eagles fly.”

I remember my hand in his as we walked the few blocks from his house to the train station to see the Texas Special, or the Silver Eagles come in. Sometimes they would stop, and sometimes they would fly right on past. I liked them both.

One time, Grandpa told me, “Put your ear on the rail boy, and tell me what you hear.”

I did, and could hear a low hum interspersed with louder pops made as the coming train would go over joints in the track. Both sounds got progressively louder as the train came nearer, but it was yet miles away. From then on, every time we went, I put my ear to the rail. Grandma would chew him out for letting me do it and she always knew because she had to wash the black off the side of my face where I had laid on the track.

Often, he would give me a nickel or a penny to put on the track if I did not have my own. I would carry the squished coin home and Grandma would collect them and put them in a jar. I still have some of them around somewhere. The boy in the song did the same things. I could relate.

The song finished and started into the next one on the tape. I looked over at Grandpa and turned the music off. Tears were creeping down his cragged face and I knew the song had taken him back too. I waited, hoping he would tell me of his time. He did.

He remembered the Texas Special that the Katy Lines introduced in 1947, which the song is about, told through the eyes of the boy taken to the rail station to see this great technological feat make its debut. It was the first diesel powered locomotive to run through the state. It and all its cars were painted red with shiny aluminum and it could near fly. I think that’s the reason the Missouri-Pacific line called its trains the Eagles. He remembered it for all the reasons I did, but he had more to tell.

I knew the railroad laid him off when he was 55, but not why. Grandpa was a boilermaker and with the advent of diesel-powered trains in Texas, in 1947, steam locomotives and him along with them were becoming obsolete.

“Play it again,” he said, and this time the song was bittersweet for both of us. It ended, and he said, “We need to get on,” and we did.

There are mornings, like this one, when I wake up singing in my head, “Look out, here she comes, she’s coming, look out, there she goes, she’s gone. Screamin’ straight through Texas like a mad-dog cyclone,” and with her come dreams and memories of a boy and his Grandpa.

David Wilson Atwood is a local writer whose human-interest columns offer a unique perspective.