Walter Sanders greets a passing Union Pacific manifest freight near Benton, Illinois, in March 2014.
When I was growing up, my Dad would occasionally tell train stories.
The farm where his family lived was located outside of Benton, Illinois, next to a branch of the Missouri Pacific that ran from Gorham to Benton.
He would stand next to the tracks as a boy and wave at the passing train.
A crew member noticed him and began throwing him a newspaper every day, a copy of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Once a week, the crew member – who might have been the train’s conductor – would wrap a candy bar inside the paper.
Dad read that paper religiously. It introduced him to a world well beyond the hardscrabble existence that he lived in Franklin County, Illinois.
That interest helped to motivate him to become the first member of his family to attend high school.
His two older brothers used to watch for that train, too.
They would walk down the track to meet the train before it passed the family farm.
They would climb aboard, throw chunks of coal off a hopper car and go back to retrieve it.
The train crew might have known what they were doing. But it was the depths of the Great Depression and life in rural Southern Illinois was tough even before the economic downturn.
So if they knew they looked the other way.
Eventually, my dad graduated from high school and joined the Navy. World War II was well along and military service was expected.
He would board a Chicago & Eastern Illinois train in Benton to ride to Chicago to report for duty.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard him talk about riding that night train and how it would just seem to get up to speed when it was slowing down to stop for the next town.
After the war, my dad became a chiropractor and established a practice in Mattoon, Illinois, which is where I was born.
After I moved to Cleveland in 1993, I would travel by rail to visit him in Mattoon.
In March 2014, I made one last trip to Mattoon on Amtrak. Dad was moving to Arizona in less than two months to live with my sister.
I offered to drive him to Benton to visit the cemetery where his parents are buried and to swing past the old farm where he grew up.
No one lives there now. The house he lived in is long gone. The property is lying fallow.
The railroad tracks are still there, but today are part of the Chicago-Texas route of Union Pacific that bypasses St. Louis.
We knew that this visit would be the last time that my dad ever saw again the place where he grew up.
I was hoping a train would go past during our visit so I could “recreate” that scene that my Dad played out many times more than eight decades earlier.
As luck would have it, I heard a train horn and a westbound UP manifest freight rolled past.
Dad walked to the approximate location of where he used to stand to watch the train go past as a boy. I imagine, though, that he stood closer to the tracks back then.
The locomotives had already passed by the time he got into position. So the recreation wasn’t ideal. It was close enough, though.
That is an iPad that he is holding in his left hand as he waves at the train.
We later used it to make a video of him standing here and talking about how he used to watch the trains go past.
We once rode over these very railroad tracks. The St. Louis chapter of the National Railway Historical Society held a Southern Illinois circle trip back in August 1995.
The trip covered a portion of that old C&EI route that my over which my Dad traveled during World War II and the line that went past where he grew up.
This week my Dad celebrated his 90th birthday. We held a surprise party for him earlier in Arizona at which time we also celebrated my sister’s 60th birthday and her daughter’s 30th birthday.
Dad and I spoke by phone and I teased him about being officially “old” now.
No one in the Akron Railroad Club has ever met him and it is unlikely that anyone ever will.
Dad was never a railfan but had a passing interest in railroads because he is from a generation in which the railroad used to play a major role in their lives.
He, of course, knows of my passion for railroad operations and history. He has a copy of every railroad history book that I’ve published.
So, happy birthday, Dad, and here is hoping that you have many more.
Article and Photograph by Craig Sanders