TRUE STORIES — Clickety-clack to Kansas City and back

J.T. Knoll
The Southern Belle, "sweetheart of American trains."

I got the diddley scared out of me when I learned, a couple weeks back, that the Kansas City Southern Railway Co. was likely to be taken over by the Canadian Pacific in the near future.

As my dad worked his way up from shoveling coal in the old steamers to engineering the massive diesel electrics I have a deep connection and many, many heartfelt memories about the KCS — especially of riding the Southern Belle and Flying Crow between Pittsburg to Kansas City.

I rode the rails with my friends to watch Mickey Mantle play center field at the old Municipal Stadium and, afterward, eat at the Forum Cafeteria downtown. Also, up to see the Ice Capades and NCAA final four games in Municipal Auditorium, catch a Cinerama movie at the Empire and, some days, just walk around and gawk in the bustle of downtown K.C.

Around it all was wrapped the boyjoy of ambling up the aisle, rolling and stutter stepping to the rock-a-bye of a massive passenger car fifteen feet above the ground. Highballing north on a full-tilt through the flashing lights and sounding bells of crossings, the chickaduh, chickaduh, chickaduh, clickety-clack of the wheels on the track to the big city and back!

Then the arrivals and departures at Union Station and jostling through the grand hall with the red caps wrangling luggage and the announcer calling out a continual echo of tracks, trains, departures and arrivals to the throngs of people hustling along beneath the massive chandeliers and giant clock.

Getting back to the KCS merger, what distressed me most was the thought of the KCS losing its name (to become the Canadian Pacific or a combination of initials like the BNSF Railway). Also its colors; the experience of speeding along, parallel to the tracks, just 100 feet away from a vibrant red and gold behemoth KCS diesel engine on Highway 171 in Missouri; or watching an engine ease into the yards through Pittsburg’s 7th Street crossing where the KCS passenger depot once stood.

As the week went on I learned that after the Canadian Pacific made their takeover bid ($25 billion), the rival Canadian National Railway made a higher unsolicited proposal (33.7 billion) to the stockholders.

The reason? Whichever Canadian railway wins out, it would extend their rails south into the U.S. Gulf Coast region and add more than 2,500 miles of main and branch lines in Mexico, giving its customers access to new markets.

I did find some solace when I discovered, on the internet, that, should the merger proceed with Canadian Pacific, KCS would keep its name and Kansas City, Missouri would serve as the operating headquarters for the combined operations.

Merger or no merger, one thing that won’t change is the train song that plays 20-plus times a day as freights move north and south through Pittsburg. I’m in love with that sound. It brings tears and laughter, grief and exultation — like a good poem.

While discussing passenger trains and the magnificent old stations in our Talking Heads gathering last week, Bert, who came an went through Tulsa’s Union Depot, marveled, “You know, walking into that station was like walking into a cathedral, a sacred space.” Indeed.

In closing, here’s a railroad piece I wrote about a cold, pre-dawn walk around my neighborhood last January. (Note: Lauds, which means praise, is the early morning call to group prayer in monasteries.)

As I circle Lakeside Park an outbound Kansas City Southern freight train trombones loud, and I mean LOUD, a horn song that enters and passes through me as it echoes through town.

Echoes? Yes echoes. How does it do that? I’m in Southeast Kansas. We have no canyons, no arroyos, no valleys. But it does. And then, boy-oh-boy, it sounds and echoes again … and again … as the diesel engine ooommms and growls, dragging its cargo through town and on south to Joplin, Sallisaw, Shreveport and Port Arthur.

This is my morning monk call to Lauds,” I think to myself. So I chant — in call and response with the horn — “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me.

Our prayer pulsates and swells to a crescendo … then slowly descends and fades to silence as the train gathers speed and rolls on out of earshot. In its place, the drone of a single engine plane somewhere up above.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net