Life Viewed from the Caboose

“It’s good to finally meet you.  I know exactly where you grew up; I was in your front yard a couple times a week, for many years. I worked on the Soo Line, and spent a lot of time in the caboose.”

Few words have rattled me as much as those spoken by a nice fellow called Red, he then a member of a central Wisconsin city’s council that I was covering for the first time.

It took plenty to concern me during those years. Somewhat fresh out of the Marine Corps and at the age when young men think they know much but often are too foolish to realize how much they don’t know; I was charging forward into my journalism career with a new job at a daily newspaper. The newspaper was the perfect fit right then, its base city only about 15 miles (as the crow flies) from the Veefkind farm where I was raised.

The work I was to be doing at the newspaper focused on state and regional news and features, most often taking me out of the office and onto the soil I loved. But I also occasionally would be pitching in to cover some city issues and meetings.

It was at my first city council meeting where I met Red, a fit-looking fellow of about 60 in age with a slight wave in red hair that was shifting to silver-gray. He was pleasant from that moment, always greeting me with a smile from that evening we met until age faded us into different realms.

Everything about Red was pleasant, except for those first words he spoke to me – especially the “spent a lot of time in the caboose” part.

I waited for the hammer to fall; for Red’s eyes to darken into crimson and for his jaw to set before he set me straight about things he’d seen me do during my childhood. I’d have deserved it.

The Soo Line railroad had a spur line of about 30 miles that ran through central Wisconsin farmland, marshes and woodlots between Marshfield and Greenwood. It ran smack through our farmyard, our family’s farm built at the hand of Henry Veefkind, my great-great grandfather. A small community with a general store, post office and a couple mills had popped up there along that spur line, that unincorporated place dubbed Veefkind.

The lumber mills, general store and post office were only memories held by the older folks by the time I arrived on the scene, the post office having been saved and moved a few yards to house the chickens we kept on our dairy farm.

And though reasons for the spur line’s train to stop at Veefkind were gone, the line remained active during my childhood with the train passing through a few times a week to make its deliveries and pick-ups at the Spokeville feed mill five miles down the line and at the small cities of Loyal and Greenwood where farm-country commerce still thrived.

The railroad line only was about 50 yards from our front porch. It was part of my life, bordering on being part of my DNA.

It occurred to me that I might have stopped breathing for a few seconds while waiting for Red’s next words. There was a somewhat awkward pause before I forced a smile and uttered a jumbled introduction.

“Yeah,” Red continued, “we always got a kick out of how you’d flip your yardlight on and off when we came through at night; we made sure to blow the horn a couple times to let you know we’d noticed.”

A sigh of relief might have joined my breathing-now-returned. It seemed Red truly was ready to recall the good memories he had of seeing me and the other Veefkind farm-neighborhood hellions coming of age along the spur line.

I certainly did often run to the yardlight switches in the house or barn when the train passed through during darkness. Though in the countryside, the train’s engineer was compelled to blow the train’s horn when approaching the crossings angled across our driveway and the road a couple-hundred feet up the track. The engineer was kind in adding two or three extra honks of acknowledgement when the light was flashed.

That acknowledgement was grand for a youngster who was more apt to know about ways of cows, hogs, chickens and the soil than about the other-worldliness a train engineer might have found in what was sure to have been a lifetime of broad travel and adventure.

The blinked yardlight was a child’s signal that he’d need to see and learn about many places to help him understand his place on the rural soil; those two or three extra train-horn blasts were approving nods.

Red and I went about our business that first night. He’d occasionally revisit matters about the spur line during the next years when we’d see each other professionally or socially.

Red would ask who was on which farm along the way, whether the Loyal cannery still would be operating that season; whether the Spokeville feed mill and country store were in operation. He’d cast a few memories about the Veefkind general store or the long-gone Spokeville cheese factory.

Red never mentioned the matters that made me so nervous during our first meeting at that city council meeting.

The coming-of-age boys from farms along a couple miles of our gravel roads were plenty and of good imagination. Those imaginations included that the man sitting in the train’s caboose needed to be harassed.

Daisy Red Rider BBs lobbed lazily from sniper positions in farmyard trees and haymows rattled against the caboose’s outer walls as the train passed, the young shooters being most careful to assure no BBs would hit and damage the small windows of what the boys called the caboose’s crows nest where the caboose-man sat in apparent mid-summer day slumber.

Apples green and ripe were heaved and thumped against the caboose – when throwing the apples seemed boring, the boys contrived massive bicycle-tire-innertube slingshots anchored by oak-tree branches. The slingshots could fling apples hundreds of yards, making for accuracy and effectiveness against the passing train.

Had Red known those assaults were being made against the train and its caboose, and was such a polite fellow that he never saw fit to bring it up? Or, did the boys’ ambushes against the train not have the effectiveness that could be part of 11-year-olds’ imaginations?

I wondered whether Red ever looked out of his caboose-window to see shiny metal on the tracks, where boys had taped heaps of pennies onto the rails to see how many pennies could be stacked and effectively crushed to an unrecognizable flatness under the train’s wheels.

Had he seen the little 6-year-old boy at Veefkind sitting, relieved, on his farm’s small Ford tractor after nearly running into the slow-passing train because the boy wasn’t heavy enough to effectively step onto the tractor’s brakes? Maybe Red even knew that the boy hadn’t told his parents that he was driving the tractor across the tracks and the road to check on cattle-tank water in the heifer barn.

I considered what Red might have thought when he saw the wild farm boys around Veefkind burst from the right-of-way brush to yell goofiness as they ran to chase the train – never thinking about what might have happened had the engineer decided to stop the train.

But Red never mentioned any of those matters; for that I don’t know whether I should be grateful or ashamed.

I’m OK knowing that the fellow in the caboose seeing a young man who’d grown up and who was happy to share the good memories about life along that track and the countryside that surrounded it. He saw a young man who’d grow to know the importance of his actions that night and since.

The rail line was shut down many years past. But the lessons of the track and of a guy folks called Red will endure.

Red helped me realize the importance of seeing the world from a train’s caboose.

— Scott Schultz

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