Last Wednesday would have been my dad’s 95th birthday.
I had recollections of being with him at baseball games, on fishing trips, at Chiefs games and on the golf course.
Also saw him and mom leaving us with grandma Mary as they set off for a dinner date at the Hidden Acres club in Joplin.
And lots of flashbacks of him as an engineer on the Kansas City Southern.
I celebrated this mostly by listening, throughout the day, to the low-frequency diesel locomotive OOMMM of infinity coming from KCS freight trains. This along with their rumbling, clanking, groaning, clickity-clacking, grinding, tooting and tromboning around the rail yard and in and out of town.
I’ve developed something of a “trained” ear for this as I’ve been doing it since boyhood — when I not only listened for dad coming and going on the KCS but also sat cross-legged up close to the tracks as Santa Fe freights curved through the Republic of Frontenac.
For instance, if you listen closely, you’ll discern that, sometimes, before a freight train pulls out, you can hear it back up to compress the couplers, then move forward so it can start out pulling one car at a time. The first car moves and takes up the slack with the next car and the following cars repeating this, which results in coupler sound effects rippling down the line of cars.
Engineering was a love / hate relationship for dad. He’d gripe about the crazy hours and strain on his sleep schedule … but swell with pride telling stories about being Lefty the hoghead of the steel on steel grumble and rumble of a long freight alternately highballing and meandering through Joplin, Neosho, Noel and Lanagan to a layover at Watts, Oklahoma.
He was especially proud if he made the run south through the Ozark hills without getting any drawbars (pulling couplers and knuckles completely out of a car, causing them to have to stop and set the car on a siding).
This was no small feat given the cumulative slack on a mile long assortment of cars. Not mention the fact that an average freight train weighs between 10,000 and 12,000 tons, with “unit” trains moving one commodity, such as coal or grain, tipping the scale around 16,000. These figures do not include the weight of each locomotive, at around 200 tons each.
His favorites runs were the “Southern Belle” a passenger plus to Kansas City and back the same day; leave the depot at 7th and Michigan in Pittsburg around 8 a.m. and get back around 6 p.m.; and the “Flying Crow” north at 5:30 a.m. and back at midnight.  Maybe go to a show, or an Athletics game in K.C.
Part of what got me focused on trains last week is that I’ve been learning “City of New Orleans”, the folk song written by Steve Goodman describing a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans.
The song, which describes the run, is beautiful, bittersweet and nostalgic. It was Arlo Guthrie who brought the song to national attention when he recorded it on his “Hobo’s Lullaby” album.
One line in the song hit me right in the heart: “And the sons of Pullman porters  / And the sons of engineers  / Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.”
I drifted back to 1961 and rocking to the gentle beat on a free pass — with dad the engineer — to Kansas City to see All-American Jerry Lucas in an NCAA Final Four basketball game at Municipal Auditorium.
Then, on the way back home, an old, cranky conductor growling for me to behave as I headed to the lounge car, swaying like a seaman on a rolling deck, as I passed through the passenger cars with their perfume of diesel, cigarette smoke, sweat, and sandwiches.
There I sat, in the very last car, listening to dad sound the horn as we approached the crossings, followed by the flashing lights and clanging bells as we rambled past the headlights of the stopped cars.
Oh man, I’d love to ride that train again. But, it’s not to be.
As Steve Goodman prophesied in the last verse of “The City of New Orleans” back in 1970: “And all the towns and people seem / To fade into a bad dream / And the steel rails still ain't heard the news. / The conductor sings his song again, / The passengers will please refrain / This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.”

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, & Consulting Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or