Friday, December 29, 2006


Last Train to Erwin

The Christmas season always reminds me of the last trip our family took together from Longview to Erwin. Like I said earlier, Erwin has got to be one of the prettiest towns in America. Snuggled in a valley almost completely surrounded by the Smokey Mountains, technically, the Smokeys are only in the national park area. The town was almost in a time warp from 1956 until 1973, the next time I would visit Erwin. It was not until the mid 1980’s that Erwin became a modern town…a McDonalds and a small shopping mall. The biggest crime, however, was replacing the old limestone courthouse and building a new, soulless, glass and steel box. They did leave the monument to the "Erwin Seven". Erwin is still a small town, but in the 40’s, it had a population of less than 10,000. In World War II, there were seven US airmen, all from Erwin, from different planes captured and were in the same German prison camp, thus the "Erwin Seven".

But, back to the last train ride from Longview, Texas to Erwin, Tennessee. It was almost Christmas, December 21, 1956 to be exact, when we boarded the Missouri Pacific "Eagle" in Longview. This year was the 50th anniversary of that journey. It was after dark when the train left the station in Longview. We had already eaten, so we were in a sleeper car. The Eagle was a typical passenger train of that era, coaches, dinning car, baggage car and at night, sleepers. I really miss that mode of travel. It is still popular to take the train in Europe and they still have sleepers. Sleeping on a train is a sure cure for insomnia. The beds are narrow and short, but so was I in 1956. I was about 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighted about 170 pounds. A railroad car sways slowly from side to side as in goes down the track. The sway is not from centrifugal force going around a curve. The sway is caused by the rail going down on one side of the track. This is caused by the ballast being washed away a little under the tie. If the erosion is severe, there could be a derailment. There is also a rhythm of clicks as the wheels pass over the expansion gapes in the rail. These two things amount to about the same thing as being a baby in a crib being rocked by a loving parent. It was a very good nights sleep, probably helped along by exhaustion. The next morning, we went to the dinning car for breakfast, where we would also have lunch and dinner. We spent the day in the coach just looking out at the bleak winter landscape, It was about a 24-hour trip by train. If you went by car, it was a good two-day trip, usually spending the night in a motel in Birmingham, Alabama.

We had to switch cars and roardnames somewhere in Tennessee, probably Memphis. The MoPac didn’t go through Johnson City, Tennessee, which is about 11 miles from Erwin. I expect we probably changed to the Southern Railroad because I know they had an interchange with the Clinchfield Railroad in Johnson City. We rolled into Johnson City after dark on December 22nd. There were, of course, relatives waiting on the platform for us. My aunts and uncles gather around Mom and my two cousins, Bobbie and Lynn, were busy chatting and giggling with Toni, my sister. I was the oldest of the grandchildren and my sister and Lynn were 11. I believe Bobie was 10. I was the only male grandchild of a surprising small group of grandchildren. My granddaddy Stultz only had 6 grandchildren even though he had 8 children…4 girls and 4 boys. I was kinda being ignore by the group on the train platform, probably because I was 15, to young for the adult group and too old, and the wrong gender, for the younger group. That was OK, I had an important job to do. I keep looking back at the baggage car, which was my only concern. I keep starring until I saw 4 porters open the baggage car doors, remove the casket, place it on a cart and rolled it into the station. I could go now; Daddy had gotten off the train.

I remember very vividly the days leading up to the funeral. I can still see faces and remember conversations in Granddaddy's house, even though I was not directly involved in any of them. I guess it was probably because of that damn age thing again. I guess nobody knew how to approach me, as a child, or as an adult, so they didn't. The funeral and burial was probably on the 26th, but maybe it was on the 27th. I know it was not on the 23rd or the 24th because I went out for a "run", actually, I went out a lot for "runs" while we were there. I was still playing basketball. My "run" was out the door to the funeral home where I would just sit quitely in the room with the open casket. I remember that it was cold and raining the day of the Erwin funeral and burial. It was a Shriner’s funeral. Dad also had a service in Longview before we left. The memory of the events that transpired from the day Daddy died, in the early morning on December 20, 1956, until he was buried, are vivid and forever burned into my mind; but I have no recollection of what happened after that for a period of al least 6 months. I don’t know how or when we returned to Longview. I do hope that I got a hug from Grandmother and Granddaddy, because I would never see them again. Granddaddy died the following year and Grandmother passed away in 1969. I also don’t know if it was the suddenness of my Dad’s death, or my age, but I have never gotten over that horrible event. It is as real today, 50 years later, as it was in 1956. It's like there is a VCR in my head and somebody probably presses "rewind" and "Play" every year around Christmas.

Maybe my Christmas memory of 1956 is one the reason that I always get sick around Christmas time. This year, and many many other years, I have a horrible cold or the flu. Last year I had emergency surgery and was in the hospital on Christmas day. It is hard to believe that it has been 50 years and my Dad would be 100 if he were still alive. I have so many things to be thankful for, I saw my two children graduate from college and get married. I have a wonderful granddaughter and soon to have another. I am so glad for the bonus time I have had to witness these wonderful events with Sharon. Next year will be our 40th anniversary. My Dad and Mom only had 16 anniversaries.

Beautiful post, Pete.
I still haven't gotten over the death of my grandmother. It was on Mother's Day, and my uncle who lived in the U.S. and didn't get to see his mom more than once a year was coming for the occasion. He was greeted at the airport with the news. I still think of all this around Mother's Day and never fail to tear up whenever I think of my grandmother. She died suddenly one day. Nobody expected this.
You got me Dad. At first I thought it was a nice post. I was thinking, "I never knew that Dad went to Erwin in a train, I thought it was always in a car." Then the casket. Can't imagine having to be THE man at 15. I still had so much growing up to do.

I wish I would have been able to meet your Dad.
You got me Dad. At first I thought it was a nice post. I was thinking, "I never knew that Dad went to Erwin in a train, I thought it was always in a car." Then the casket. Can't imagine having to be THE man at 15. I still had so much growing up to do.

I wish I would have been able to meet your Dad.
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