This I Believe

William - St. Louis, Missouri
Entered on May 28, 2007
Age Group: 65+


The masterpieces at the National Museum of Transport are its locomotives — cast iron memories of eras past in a valley along Barrett Station Road.

The fragrance of dusty congealed grease and creosote surrounds the Behemoths and recalls specters of faceless hordes in khaki on a hot afternoon in the summer of 1944, while we waited in the lobby of Union Station to board for Boston and the two day trip to see grandmother and cousins on the shore where it would take a week of salty air and water to be rid of the acrid smell of the coal smoke and the gritty the cinders which flew through open windows of the Pullman in days before air conditioning.

We creatures of an iron age find a reassuring beauty in the massive symmetry of the old coal burners. In contrast to the automobiles and aircraft of today, with their computerized hearts hidden beneath flimsy sheet metal skins, the locomotives had no steering wheels. They were born of an age when destiny was childishly clear and determined by a musical clickety-clack of iron wheels along rods of steel.

There is nothing subtle about these mammoths. Each part is pure function, and there is comfort in leaning back against them.

Rusting hotboxes on the sleeper cars conjure visions of men with long-necked oilcans in greasy blue overalls with red bandannas around their sweaty necks as they checked the bearings in Terre Haute. How my brothers and I wished we could follow as my mother and sister pretended to sleep in their upper berth. But it was midnight and our grandmother and cousins were waiting.

The bittersweet smell of wet rust and decaying wood is also the smell of burning, but there is no smoke. It is the smell of memories forgotten as these masterpieces of an archaic technology slowly sublime of an inevitable corrosion. Rusting and decaying are to steel and wood what forgetting is to memory, and the fate of these benevolent monsters is to turn to dust.

A sense of melancholic beauty permeates the Museum — another kind of symmetry not unlike the long since forgotten fragrances and images, and similar to the roads of steel that have given way to the meandering automobiles and airplanes with their flimsy skin and artificial computerized hearts of plastic.

There is no comfort in leaning against them.

Last winter I flew to Boston to a funeral. I remember little of the trip or the airplane.