Williams column: Nothing roars past Barber Junction anymore
By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
Since our father worked for Southern Railway, my brother Joe and I grew up enamored of the railroad. After Joe began driving, he would take me along on brief excursions down to the Salisbury train station to watch passenger trains roll in, then roll out. The railroads, however, even in their greatest heyday as conveyors of the public, have always carried much more tonnage of inanimate freight than that of human, and still do, despite recent increases in the public’s “tonnage” on an individual basis (author included, upon occasion).
Sometimes, in our railroad jaunts of the very early 1960s, Joe and I would also visit the railroad station at Barber Junction. Its architecture has that particular look, which even without sign says, “railroad station.” It always reminded me of a train station of the Old West (its “west” being that of western Rowan County).
At this railroad station, Joe’s friend Ed was the station master. Even though the station was much smaller than the magnificent “gargoyled” structure in Salisbury, Ed’s title of “station master” was impressive to me, implying his controlling sway over that prominent point of the town of Barber.
I still have memories of Ed’s office “decor,” design dictated more by the logic and organization of a railroad office than by the fancies of personal taste. A prominent part of that office consisted of a geometrically laid out series of wooden cubbyholes, some full, some empty. The centerpiece of this decorum was a large radio set accompanied by a nice-sized mounted microphone, which to me, kind of gave Ed the same aura as that of a radio announcer, minus his turntable (although there was, and still is, one more suited to Ed’s line of work in the town of Spencer, but ill-advised for use by a disc jockey).
I remember Joe and me visiting Ed several times, but one aspect of one visit seems to stand out, not for something major, but something minor. In that scene, my attention was caught by a shaft of afternoon sunlight passing through a window into the station. The light stood out then, as it still stands out in my memory now. In that slanting solar ray, not very far from the coming of night, steadily floating dust particles were brightly lit, seeming like seconds and minutes of time taken form, measuring our visit with Ed more solidly than those regularly marked empty spaces passed over by the hands of the station’s clock. Beyond this “floating time,” through the window, could be seen a view of the much more solid rails outside, also glistening in the late afternoon sun..
Joe and I once walked with Ed down the tracks to where he “handed-off” written orders to the engineer of a passing train. The device used was a long, forked pole with a string across the top to which the orders were attached in a sealed envelope (I want to think “manilla”). The engineer successfully “retrieved” what had previously been carried on foot, and continued its carrying on wheels (really powerful wheels), giving that scene the appearance of an extremely lop-sided relay race.
One night, we went to Barber Junction to witness a steam train. The engineer of the special excursion didn’t seem to reduce his speed even the slightest for his passing of the little station. Certain occurrences, earlier in life, become the definitions of particular terms in our minds; and when something similar in nature occurs later, we think back to that original, defining mental “snapshot.” For me, the term “barreling through” has always been defined by what I saw that night at Barber Junction. The steam engine “barreled through” — in fact, “roared through” (another phrase in my mind, also coupled to that train) — so quickly that there was only time enough for my mind to take the briefest, subliminal of snapshots, but the picture still remains clear to me: the engineer, illuminated only for an instant by the station lights, his outstretched illumined hand given in visual greeting to the excited crowd below. After that brief lit second, he sped on into just as deep a darkness as that from whence he had just emerged, while the crowd remained illuminated in the station’s lights, talking among themselves about what they had just seen.
Nothing “roars” through the Barber Junction Station anymore, except for the cumulative clamor of the juvenile feet of multitudes of schoolchildren on their class field trips. Years ago, Southern Railway’s old “office” in the town of Barber was moved, in one piece, to the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer. The little train station resembled something from the past, so it appropriately became part of a museum.
Due to the inherent nature of the curators of such places, I’m sure that the inner space of the old train station is still preserved exactly as it was when in use, even though the external view from within that particular window is different since its move from the town of Barber. In that respect, the building is not unlike those ambulatory creatures who experience the changing vistas of their ongoing lives, while carrying within themselves the static, remembered scenes of their past.