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WOSTER: The call of the lonesome whistle brings back railroad dreams

When the grain harvest hits in South Dakota, a good supply of rail cars at the right time can make all the difference.

I suppose I knew that when I was a kid hauling wheat to Shanard's Elevator in Reliance. I used to see the cars lined up on the siding, waiting for the grain, for sure.

I didn't pay much attention to the financial end of the rail/grain business as a youngster. The cars were always there when the wheat hit the elevator. Why wouldn't they be? That's how the crop went to market. That's how the world worked.

I loved railroads as a kid, don't get me wrong. I thought about them a lot, just not in the way of wondering if they'd be around forever. I thought about them in the sense of adventure and mystery.

The sight of a long train rolling its way across the trestle bridge south of Chamberlain always stirred me, as did the low, distant moan of a train whistle ("The midnight train is whining low'') in the dark of a still Lyman County night. I was a reader as a kid, a compulsive, non-selective reader. I was also a hopeless romantic about far-away places and strange-sounding names and train whistles across the prairie and hoboes and boxcars and steam locomotives and Jack Kerouac and Casey Jones and even "The Wreck of Old 97,'' which I first heard on a Johnny Cash album.

"They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia, saying, 'Steve, you're way behind time. This is not 38, this is Old 97. You must put her into Spencer on time.' ''

I had no idea where Monroe, Va., was or how far it was to Spencer, wherever that was. But I came to know that it was a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville, and if a high-balling train lost its air brakes on a three-mile grade, nothing good would come of it. I suppose for a young boy, the danger was part of the romance.

Johnny Cash did some of the best train songs ever. In fact, his "Ride This Train'' album, which came out just about the time I was finishing my sophomore year in high school, had one of the all-time great openings. I quoted it in the newspaper when I was privileged to be assigned to a story on the 10-year anniversary of South Dakota buying a rail line. The opening goes: "Ride this train up and down and across a strange wonderful land / It's almost like a fairyland when you to think about it.''

The album came out about the time I was running track and cross-country for Chamberlain High School. We didn't have a lot of over-training in those days, not at all like today, but a couple of Saturdays, Roger Miller and I ran across the river on the railroad trestle, hopped some fences to get back to the road near Al's Oasis and then ran back over the old highway bridge to town. It was decades before the movie "Stand By Me'' came out, but I used to worry sometimes that we'd be caught out on the trestle in mid-river with no place to run, no place to hide and a locomotive bearing down on us with smoke and whistles.

We -- South Dakota -- bought a railroad back in the early 1980s because the companies were abandoning line right and left. Gov. Bill Janklow convinced legislators we needed to preserve a core line. On the 10-year anniversary, I got to ride from Sioux Falls to Garretson, right up there beside the engineer.

We didn't high-ball it quite the way Steve (33-year-old Joseph A. Broady, according to Wikipedia) did in Old 97. We rolled through the countryside near Palisades at a gentle clip. I had to wait part of a day past my originally scheduled departure time (on-time was relative compared to the old ballads like "Please tell me if you can, what time the trains roll in? Two-ten, six-eighteen, ten-forty-four.'')

My train ride was far too short for a farm kid who never really outgrew his love affair with rails and whistles and hundreds of marvelous songs.