Monday, October 02, 2006

Fiction: Train on I-65

At 5:14 pm, Interstate 65 was bumper to bumper at 45 miles per hour. I was startled from my rush hour reverie by the amazingly loud sound of a train whistle. I looked in my rear view mirror and the train was puffing a cloud of steam right behind me. Without much thought, I hit the right turn signal and pulled over on the side of the road. The train and 60 cars (yes, I counted them) passed me by – right there on Interstate 65 as I was coming home from work.

Finally, I closed my mouth, stared at the train track and wondered why I was losing my mind right now. Last week would have been a more appropriate time. Last week, I quit my job right after the personnel manager told me that I was certainly mistaken that the sales manager had grabbed my left breast in the hallway of the Furniture Market. Last week I discovered that my ex husband and his new wife were moving to Mobile to operate a bed and breakfast – a dream I’d had for years. Last week my doctor called and said my pap smear was abnormal and could I come in for another check.

A tapping on my window stopped my review of last week. The Incident Management Assistance Patrol (what a name!) driver was asking if I needed help. Well, yes. But, he couldn’t give me the kind of help I needed. What I needed right now was to get back on Interstate 65 and get home. So, I thanked him, rolled up my window, looked at the ash on my windshield and turned on my left turn signal. Finally someone slowed down long enough for me to get back into the line of traffic, and I drove home on what, moments before, had been a train track with a steam engine and 60 cars on it.

Life went on. Nothing else unusual happened to me. I got a job that paid about the same as I had been making in a company that didn’t seem to have too many dorks. And, I love my work. I’m a public relations person, specializing in diversity issues. I was still making the same commute every day, but, at least, I could choose who squeezed my left breast (and my right one, too). The second pap smear and examination were clear. My ex did indeed move to Mobile, but they were managing someone else’s property without an option to buy – and in the hot summertime, too.

After a couple of months, I chalked up my “vision” to overwork, tiredness and anxiety.

With all the Spanish-speaking families moving into our area, I was working with a bank on how to attract these families to open a checking account when they don’t have a social security card, are afraid of “institutions”, and don’t make much money anyway. As I was driving home on Wednesday of that week, I was deep in thought about places where we could develop trust with the Hispanic people.

A blast of steam whistle, repeated in staccato fashion, blew me out of this century. The train was behind me again. Cursing, I pulled over on the shoulder and almost ran over an 18 wheeler. The driver slid slowly to the ground between his truck and the train and sidled back alongside the trailer. I motioned him to the passenger side of my Rav 4, and he got in.

We didn’t speak at first, but when the train and its noise were past, we both exploded at once. “So I really did see a train?” “What the hell was that?” We tried to both talk at once for a few sentences. Then silence reclaimed us. We stared incredulously at the train track. Then, it clicked with both of us that the industrial park on the other side of the interstate was gone, too. A few scrub trees and lots of grass covered the rolling hillside.

“Where’s the road?” he asked. “Who are you?”

“I don’t know where the road goes, but this happened to me once before – about three months ago – same place, same time.”

The IMAP man was tapping on my window again, and he had a puzzled look on his face. “Are y’all okay?” he asked. “I’ve found somebody pulled over on the shoulder right here every day for three or four months. And, they always look stunned.”

“Do they ever tell you why?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “they just say they must be tired, and they’ll be okay.”

“Well, it’s the same for us, I guess.”

After he left, we stared at one another for a few more minutes without saying anything.

Then, “Well, I’ve got a deadline to meet,” he said as he opened the car door. “See ya round.” And he was gone.

My head was clearer than it had been. Now, I knew that I’d really seen a train; I wasn’t just day dreaming nor was I tired. The steam locomotive and its cars had been right there on Interstate 65 at 5:14 pm.

“Must be its regular time,” I thought.

As I drove home, I thought about all the train people I’d known when I was doing the newsletter for the C & G Railroad before they went under. Many of those old-timers were dead, but maybe Roger Coulter….

“Roger, this is Anna Salamon. You remember me; I used to do the C & G newsletter back in 1975. Yeah, that’s me.”

After a few pleasantries, I told him I had some more questions about trains and arranged to visit him in Columbus on Saturday. We agreed to meet at his house; he said he didn’t get out too much any more.


Roger’s wife had made the tea I like and had some cookies to refresh me after my four hour drive. We talked about people we’d known and how the world had changed. Then, Roger said, “Anna, you sounded bewildered when you called. What is bothering you?”

“Oh.” And, I told him the story about the “phantom” train on I-65 complete with its 60 cars and the sounds of the engine and the way the track looked and the lack of an industrial park.

“I love a mystery,” he said. “When I studied physics back in the Neanderthal age, they talked about time warps. And, Madeleine L’Engle wrote about tesseracts (wrinkles in time) in the books I read to my kids. Now, I wonder if that’s what you’ve encountered.”

We plotted some facts that we’d need to know, divided them up, and planned to meet again in two or three weeks. I was to discover all I could about when that landscape changed from rural hillside to suburban industry. Roger would get on his computer and find out what he could about train schedules in that area and what companies operated back in the days when steam locomotives were still used. However, neither of us could do much research on time warps, but I was hoping that my college physics professor would help us out or know someone who could.


“Mr. Carson, this is Anna Salamon. I took physics from you in 1964.”

“I’m surprised that you remember me.”

“Oh, the questions I asked. Well, I have some more stupid questions to ask. Yes, I know there are no stupid questions, but these surely do feel stupid.”

“I’ll be over in a few minutes. Thank you.”

Alexander Carson lived in a retirement home about three miles down the road from my apartment; so we met in the library there. I told him about my experiences with the train and about my conversation with Roger.

“Anna, did you take LSD when you were in school?”

“No sir, why?”

“Well, this train could simply be a flashback from some drugs. But, I don’t remember you as being that kind of teenager. Now, there’s been a lot of research lately into what you’re calling time warps. I’ll try to track down some info for you. I’ll call you when I have something.”


“Jake, I need to leave work early today. I have an appointment at 5:14.”

And, with that announcement, I left the building, drove as slowly as traffic would allow along I-65. I pulled a good ways off the road at about the same place the 18 wheeler had been. It was a risk. I could be rear-ended by whoever ended up in front of that train today, but it was a chance I had to take.

And, I didn’t have long to wait. Traffic got heavier, until, just at 5:14 a black Honda suddenly pulled off the road behind me. As I walked back toward the car, a strong wind twirled me around a couple of times, and then I was in the midst of the steam trail from the train. The wheels were whistling all too close to my feet as I edged over to the Honda. The door was unlocked and I just got in without an invitation.

“Are you part of this hallucination?” she asked.

I could tell from the tone of her voice that this was not the first time she’d seen the train. “No,” I said, “I’ve seen the train twice, once alone, and once with a truck driver.”

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” She was incomprehensible for a few seconds. “We’re all losing our minds.”

“No, I don’t think so.” And, I told her about Roger and Mr. Carson and what we were doing. “I think the train is in a time warp at this particular place and time every day. And, someone gets caught up in the time warp because traffic is so heavy.”

I took her name and phone number and promised I’d call her as soon as we knew something. Then I drove straight to the library. In the corporate section, a history of the area had before and after pictures of that Westinghouse plant that disappeared every afternoon at 5:14. The area had been a simple rural hillside with cows and scrub trees and grass until 1949. Then Westinghouse had bought the land to build its factory. Other factories and related offices had sprung up in the late 50s and early 60s.

Two weeks later

“Roger, look at this photo of the area. That’s exactly what it looks like when the train is gone. Today there’s a big Westinghouse plant and an access road and the International dealership just beyond. But, this picture was taken in 1949 before the plant was built.”

“Well, Anna. That matches what I’ve found. The Chattnooga Railroad Company operated an afternoon freight from Kingston, Tennessee to Chattanooga for about five years – 1947 to 1952. It was a small company so they used steam locomotives that were fueled with coal. That’s why you had ash on your windshield. No diesel for them.”

So we waited to hear from Mr. Carson. Then, one morning I read the obituaries. Mr. Carson was dead. Our connection to the science of tesseracts and time warps was gone.

It’s been two years now since I first saw the train. Roger and I found pictures of the train in a Chattanooga newspaper. It was decommissioned in 1965 and set up in a park. When I called the Chamber of Commerce to find out about visiting the train, they said it had been dismantled about three months before.

Last week, I stopped at 5:14 just across from the Westinghouse plant. No train appeared, just trash caught in the weeds. As I wandered idly along the side the road – attracting stares from commuters – I picked up pieces of paper as they blew about my feet. Then, I looked down at a 5 x 8 piece of yellowed paper.
The Chattanooga Railroad Company
Bill of Lading
The date was July 22, 1950. I folded it carefully, got in my car and went home. When people ask about that framed railroad souvenir, I just tell them I used to do some newsletter work for railroads. (copyright Margaret Moore)

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