The vibrancy with which life is lived when young becomes dulled with age. The senses lose their depth and timber and resonance over time. They become flat and one dimensional, and without feeling and spirit. This flatness of perceiving the world influences everything about living.
I sensed the truth of this in the summer of 2013 while on a nostalgic visit to a small central Texas town where I lived during my preteen years. This small town was built on a railroad (or the railroad routed through the small town just because it was there), which was not so much a demarcation line separating people in the town as it was a symbol of commerce. Most of the locomotives had been converted to diesel fuel for the energy needed to move the behemoths with their long tails that stretched sometimes for a hundred lengths or more. I remember a few of the last “pufferbellies” (steam locomotives) with the smoke puffing high into the wind as they passed through town. Ocassionally a train would pause long enough to drop off and pick up cars filled with cotton, the primary commodity of the area’s agriculture; cattle were primarily transported by truck. All of this, of course is the remembrance of a once preteen boy.
But one memory that is not just nostalgia but is deeply rooted in real sensory experience and brings back those idyllic childhood days is the smell of the wooden creosote soaked ties that fills the nostril with a pungent stinging odor. I loved the smell when, riding my bike from home to the shops and stores that lined Main Street, I would cross the tracks and inhale that wonderful perfume of the railroad.
I said this has something to do with a visit back to that small town from which I had moved with my family in the fall of 1952—and it does. While on that trip, I drove around the small town trying to match my memory with the places I used to haunt. Such was not entirely possible because my rambling about town then was on a bike, now it’s inside a hermetically sealed car.
I crossed the tracks. They looked not unlike they did when I rode my bike across them 60 years before. I drove on trying to cover as much of the town as I could. I went by the school. The two schools in the town, the elementary and senior high stood next to each other. I remember my last year in town. We kids walked from temporary school buildings, relics of WWII, which we had been using following a fire that had consumed the old elementary building, to a brand new building. It was a proud day. When I saw it on this trip 60 years later, it wasn’t so new anymore. I had to update the mental image of that place.
Not only did I have to update mental images—all that was left of the hospital was a chimney, the Texas Ranger Station was a nondescript motel, the tired old bank now looked prosperous, the movie theater no longer existed—but I also had to recalibrate the color palette of the town. At the end of June—perhaps that has something to do with the color—the grass was brown; the trees, though they were alive with leaves, looked brown; the streets were dusty brown; the railroad ties, once shiny black and creosote soaked, had turned a gray-brown.
And that brings me back to the one bit of nostalgia that was as vivid to my nostrils as my 11-year-old boy’s experience remembers it. I was ready to drive out of the town and on to Fort Worth and Dallas for more nostalgic visits. I had stopped in at the bank and talked with the president (I’ve had a checking account at that bank for over 60 years). I had been by the church where my dad pastured a loving, vibrant congregation. I had to cross the railroad one last time to get to Main. Streeet, which was also the highway out of town. As I approached the tracks crossing the street in front of me, I had a sudden urge to see if crossing the tracks still smelled the same. I pushed the button and the window slowly sunk into the door and immediately the hot dry air pushed the cool, clean conditioned air away somewhere. The tires rumbled across the tracks and for a second I thought I smelled creosote, but I wasn’t satisfied.
I pulled off to the side of the street, raised the window so my dog Paco, who was with me, wouldn’t decide to jump out, and walked back toward the railroad. Sure enough, even though the ties were old and dry and dust covered I could smell it. I walked on. When I got to the tracks, I wondered why I wasn’t riding my bike, I looked down the street toward “home” (1949-1952) and saw the heat rising in wavy lines above the asphalt.
About that time, a boy came flying past me, bumped over the tracks and sped on down the street. I looked behind me to see if Lowell was following him, but of course he wasn’t. Lowell would be 75 years old by now. I had crossed the tracks by this time and walked a space longer before turning back to rescue my dog from the quickly rising temperature in the car.
I walked through the pungent smells experienced by an 11-year-old-boy and was suddenly aware that it wasn’t only the smells that had been conjured up from the past but it was a boyhood of the 1950s that had come to life.