We didn’t live on the east or west side of the tracks, we lived ON the tracks. Or so it seemed.
When Daddy bought the house on Church Street in the early 1970’s, I was horrified. We were leaving our little Hagan Bridge home forever, moving into Hahira. My first visit to the place was at night after Daddy got off work. It was dark outside and he proudly showed the house to me and Mama with a flashlight.
“The oak floors are going to look good,” he exclaimed. “All I have to do is rip up all this ugly carpet and refinish them.”
I only had two thoughts, “This place is haunted.” and “My Daddy has lost his mind.”
While Daddy pointed to the floors and guided us through the maze of doors and dark rooms, the house started to rumble and shake. The floor beneath my feet began to vibrate. Metal started clanging as light darted in and out of the windows in bright white lines and jagged angles. I squeezed Mama’s hand, sure that Hahira was encountering its very first earthquake. Or was it the ghosts in this old house warning us to leave? I thought I heard men’s voices, shouting back and forth.
“It’s just the train,“ Mama said in a comforting voice. She pulled me towards a window that faced the railroad tracks and pointed to the shadowy figure of a man walking through our soon-to-be back yard. “See, the train has stopped, there is nothing to be afraid of. The light you see is just from the railroad worker.”
When I heard air brakes hissing and the train moaning, nothing in me wanted to live in the old house. It was too big, it was old and dark and I didn’t like the train at all. The house was too close to the tracks, the streets around us were paved and we were moving too close to the only red light in town. We might as well lay down and let the train run over us right then and there.
Since I had absolutely no say in the decision, we moved into the Church Street house. Daddy loved the remodeling challenges and he worked tirelessly to refinish the oak floors, repair ceilings and turn an old house built in the late 1800’s into our home. After school, I’d find mama tucked away in a huge room painting walls and scraping windows. Daddy seemed to be so happy and that’s what mattered to me. And for those of you that knew my Mama, that’s what mattered to her too.
The only problem was Daddy’s fascination with the train.
I realized he was truly a nut about the train the first time we were eating supper in our new-old house. We had just sat down to our first meal at a small table in the kitchen. Although a huge, formal dining room was situated in the middle of the house, we felt more at home at the little table. I felt the rumble of the train headed southbound on the tracks. Coming through Hahira, headed to Mineola and then on to who knows where. Coming through the house is what it sounded like, what it felt like. The light over the sink moved back and forth, left to right. The tea glasses on the table started to tremble and tea in those glasses sloshed back and forth, left to right. The pots and pans in the kitchen cabinets rattled together. I put my hands over my ears.
I was trying my best to deal with the long, lonesome whistles that announced the coming of the train. Sad sounding, mournful in the middle of the dark nights. One long blow, two short blows, followed by another long blow. The whistle patterns were usually the same. That is, unless the engineer was different.
If the driver of the train was Daddy’s friend from church, it was one long blow, starting in Cecil and lasting all the way to Mineola. Mr. Jerome held the whistle down for one long blow to let his wife know it was him coming past their house in Mineloa. And to let Daddy know it was him driving the train through Hahira.
That one long whistle blow was the beginning of an eighteen-year race for the water hose. On that first evening, at the sound of the train whistle, Daddy shoved his chair back from the kitchen table, threw down his napkin and ran out the side door into the yard. Once again, I thought we were in danger. The house was shaking, the windows were rattling and Daddy was running out the door.
Mama grabbed my arm as my chair flipped over, and pulled me to the screen door, threw it open and drug me down the brick steps. Daddy jerked the handle on the water spigot to the “on” position, grabbed the end of the long, green water hose and started running to the back of the house.
Something was on fire! It wasn’t an earthquake, the house was on fire!
Well, maybe not.
The train was coming through Hahira, screaming, southbound down the tracks toward us. And there was Daddy, running towards the train with the water hose spraying up in the air. I held my hands over my ears and Mama wrapped her arms around me. Mr. Jerome was leaning out of the engine, grinning and screaming, “Heeeeey J.B!” while Daddy sprayed him with the hose.
“Heeeeee-Yah, I got ‘im!” Daddy shouted out.
Remember, I told you my Daddy was a nut.
He had hit his target and continued to hold the nozzle of the hose on full spray, wetting every boxcar that passed, until the caboose sped by and faded into the evening.
Suddenly, it was quiet as if it never happened. The train was gone just as quickly as it came by. And that late afternoon, right in the middle of supper, almost two decades of fun began between two old friends. One driving the train, headed south through Hahira, and one with a water hose that jumped up and flew out the door of the old house every time the train came through town.
Over the years it became a custom for my family, including all the grandchildren that came along, to join in on the fun. “Granddaddy! Daddy! Buren! The train is coming!” The grandchildren would scream and run to the back door, my brother and sister would shout, Mama would holler out, “The train is coming!” We’d hear that one long whistle blow and knew it was Mr. Jerome, headed through Hahira.
And for almost twenty years Daddy ran out the door and into the yard to grab the water hose. And every time, we’d all jump up and follow to see if he sprayed Mr. Jerome as he sped by, waving and hollering to the top of his lungs, “Heeeeeey J.B!”
After Daddy died, Mama continued to burn leaves and limbs out near the train tracks. Daddy had done that for years and Mama worried that, if the train came by, the embers would be fanned and Hahira would be set on fire.
We started hearing rumors around town that engineers on the Norfolk Southern Line were seeing Daddy’s ghost at night. Some said they saw him in a long white gown, holding the water hose up to spray the train.
It wasn’t Daddy’s ghost at all. It was just Mama, in her housecoat, spraying water on the fire. And sometimes, in that long dark night, she sprayed the side of the train for her man that wasn’t around to do it anymore.