By Kelly Lynch
Posted Nov. 27, 2007
For the past twenty-two years of my life, I have been in love.
And I don't know why.
Affection for a person is easily discerned, as one can often physically trace its genesis and build on it with conversations, embraces, and experiences, but love for a machine, a normally inanimate object? What sense can be made of that? This fondness isn't just for any machine; its certainly not a toaster or an alarm clock, but where some have their hobbyist passions for cars, motorcycles, boats, or planes, I say give me a steam locomotive anyway. Give me the one machine responsible for the creation of America, give me the dragon-esque hero of folklore, the tenacious, unrelenting, pulse-quickening iron horse.
What is it about 400 tons of steel that constantly strikes such precise notes on the heartstrings like the locomotive does?
It must be a myriad of things. I've been content being unable to find the reason why, but the search for the reasons varies with everyone who stands in the shadow of these whistling, breathing, clanking, marching machines. Is the locomotive a charging rocket to the horizon, a classy time machine, or is it the poetic mechanics, the engineering, the smells, sounds, or sights that so entrance the passerby? Is it the adventure, history, or is it mystery?
Incarnate in any reason is the locomotive's tangible sentience; it's living presence. The beige box and keyboard are a far cry from wheels seven feet tall and a whistle louder than Jericho's trumpets. You can see the locomotive's technology as it works, and its core ingredients include no silicon, microchips, or plastics. You can watch it pull past at 100 miles an hour, you can spy the driving rods flash in their methodical swing, smell the coal as it combusts into heat energy that flashes water to steam. You can hear the audible clank of air pumps as they speed up or slow down like blood through a vein.
The locomotive is a machine of the earth, forged from iron, pulsing with water and steam and coal and oil, crafted into a entity of precise equilibrium that roars and flies and pulls cities closer, and invites their citizenry to wave with smiles as wide as the moon. And these latter factors are the real gravitas of why railroads and their iron colts invite us to wonder and work. No piece of the locomotive goes untouched or un-fashioned by a human hand. The engine is a great, wieldy ambassador for the work ethic of an older America, intimidating, but beguiling.
After all, it could be that nothing like it exists in the world. The truth is, they don't make 'em like they use to. They don't make them at all, and for good reason. These beasts need plenty of care to ensure excellence, and the skill necessary to rein these superpower horses are dead, if not dying. They are rarer than antique cars and continually on the verge of extinction. They will eat every hour of the day and consume years of work as they continue to grey hairs and beckon attention.
The love of a locomotive is brimming with stratum. Love will ensure its survival and stewardship, the preservation of its skills to operate, and it will send hands waving and mouths agape and children dreaming as their parents wonder. <b>This is living history</b>, without marginalization in a textbook paragraph, but broken free and storming past your house, saying hello, climb aboard, mind your safety, and watch the world pass.
This is what I'm in love with. All of these things are found in the cold steel and hot fire of a machine used so fluidly for 150 years. This is what my grandfather, and perhaps yours, called a friend, a co-worker, a confidant, and in some cases a curse. It takes two men to operate, and ten to keep in shape, and it takes a few people donating their time, money, and a helping hand on the wrench to keep us on the road, to give us reason to be on the rails. Headaches can pop up anytime, and they are certain to, but they are well worth it to share the love of the locomotive, in all its charm, thrill, and critical position in history.
How many love affairs can keep a man alive like this one? Maybe because I try to live a chapter in my history book, I can justify my living now. I and others are in love with the past and try as often as we can to stand in its shadow, because it is the future we care about.
I am but a freshman in the fraternity of individuals who work steadily in all manners to keep this part of railroading history robust so that more may begin to understand what it means, and why itís important. As a creator of images also, I often have to make the decision on which tool to pick up; the alemite gun or the Canon, the shovel or the Bolex. Each tool can help tell a greater story, and it is through arresting these images that we can use art to create a captive audience that wants to know more. The viewfinder is just as potent as a screaming whistle, but in these days, if people donít see it, it doesnít exist. If they donít see the work, the work means nothing, and if they donít realize the human story behind the work, than the love for the work is stamped with an expiration date that will see it extinguish far too soon.