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Mack Williams: Steam chasers (just one more 611 story)

Some are “storm chasers.” Others are “steam chasers.”

My brother Joe called again, saying the Norfolk and Western No. 611 would be heading back to Roanoke from Spencer, following fundraising for the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

This time, few people showed up at the old Danville train station. However, the previously attendant, red-haired, 10-year-old boy whose “railroad speech” and demeanor placed his age around 40 was present.

He makes me think the “Greatest Generation” is a recurring phenomenon and skips a few generations. If he is representative, I have no fear of his group running things, certain they would know what to do if either Hitler, Tojo or Mussolini, came back — singly, or together, as before.

It amazed me that he remembered my singing at a graveside for a World War II veteran here in Danville over a year ago. If this boy’s generation truly is the next “great” one, then that man laid to rest was, in a sense, his fellow “comrade in arms.”

Like many of the other 611 “regulars,” the boy had his cellphone, complete with train radio app. I’ve seen more rail fans with these “app” phones lately than with scanners and attendant antennae protruding from back pockets. (If anything sticking out of someone’s back pocket can have an “aura” about it, the scanner of the railroad buff can.)

Just before the 611 was scheduled to arrive, a freight train pulled up and stopped, obstructing our view of the opposite track where it would be traveling.

Expletives were shouted and contained, but still visible in the eyes, as a frenzy of motion began! Everyone made mad dashes toward their cars to relocate to another crossing with clear view.

This frantic motion, coupled (no railroad “pun,” I swear) with our comparative minuteness of size relative the great boxcars made me think of the time I picked up a big rock in my boyhood yard on the Old Concord Road. Ants, previously in shadow, seemed driven crazy by such shock to their world, behavior comparable to that of those who had waited, and would possibly be cheated out of their view of the Norfolk and Western No. 611.

One couple headed north to Tippet’s crossing, saying the 611 might take on water there. (I later learned water had already been taken on in Reidsville.) Other Danville crossings were mentioned, but a few of us tried our luck with the next southern one, still within sight of the old Danville train station.

Our luck was tried and proven true, for the freight stopped before reaching that crossing. There, I met a nice young man with nice railroad shirt, nice railroad hat, and very nice camera! He said he had been following the 611 that morning, and when I inquired of his home base, he said, “Spencer.” I excitedly told him of growing up in Salisbury-Rowan and my father working at the old Spencer yard office.

I asked him if he read the Salisbury Post, and he said, “Yes.” I then asked, “Have you ever read the Sunday column by that old man named Williams?” He said, “No.”

My countenance fell, and today I have an appreciation for the travail of the unfortunate R&B-pop singer Brandie, who recently burst into song on the subway, only to find that no one recognized her.

Well, at least the nice young man’s negative comment was directed to his never having read me, instead of having read, but not liked.

Walking a ways down the roadbed, I saw how big the granite gravel really was (railroad roadbed, as compared with a graveled country road, reflecting the difference in size between boxcars and automobiles). At a distance, in railroad hopper cars it looks small; but around the tracks lie nice, palm-sized varieties of granite, some even pink (but no Balfour). I pocketed a few, because there is no such thing as too much granite (whether it be rock, school or town).

I started to end today’s column by saying, “The 611 came and went as before,” but truly can’t, because every “run-by” and all associated with it seems different. I’m starting to think the 611 is alive!

Perhaps, in this case, a two-way street exists: as we receive the engine’s soot, something of our lives is likewise deposited on it.

Having written three times now of the Norfolk and Western No. 611, I probably won’t write of it again (at least not until after the next telephone tip-off of its impending arrival from my brother Joe).

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