How a Fascination with Trains Helped Me through My Teenage Years
Those of you have been following me through the years are probably aware of my obsession with trains. I always tell people if I hadn't gotten into broadcast meteorology, I would have become a locomotive engineer. My fascination started as a young kid - and actually it was BUSES that I liked first! Transportation as a whole really piques my interest. This intense interest would ultimately help me more than anyone could imagine as a struggling teenager. We will get to that a little later...so, how'd it all start exactly?
Some of my fondest memories as a kid were with my grandmother on either a train or bus. When I was about six, we were in a car accident that really scared her for the rest of her life. She refused to drive again, so we started taking public transportation, which was a HUGE adjustment for her. This was a woman who bought a new BMW or Cadillac every couple years, so it took a lot of getting used to, but I enjoyed it!
I can't explain it, but something really sparked an interest almost immediately. I started collecting schedules and painting cardboard boxes to look like buses. I would crawl around the house pretending I was on a bus route. I think back on those simple times and chuckle. After seeing us ride the same buses time and time again, drivers would start being friendly and talking to us. And as a very inquisitive kid, I saw an opportunity to ask questions. I became friends with many of the drivers, to the point where there were times we would ride a bus just for fun. Drivers gave me bits and pieces of their uniforms, and taught me how to ring up passengers. I would stand there next to the driver and greet passengers for hours. Lots of fun!
We used to take the 551 from Atlantic City to Philadelphia all the time. My grandmother was from the City and loved going back almost on a weekly basis. One day she decided to toss it up, and take the train. That was the first time I was ever on one, and was absolutely enthralled by everything around me. The lights, the sounds, the speed - it was incredible! As the Conductor approached our seat to take our ticket, she noticed I was wearing my bus driver uniform. Of course she started a conversation and asked me a whole lot of questions. She sat down next to us on-and-off through the entire trip so she could answer MY questions. At the end of the ride, she invited us to come back again to visit, so without hesitation I accepted, before my grandmother even had a chance to reply.
We went back that next weekend, and the following, and the one after that. Same time. Same train. Same Conductor. Over time, we became very friendly with her - I'm going to use the name Nancy to protect her identity. She started to give pieces of HER uniform and at that moment my love affair with buses ended, and a new one with trains began. It got to the point that every Saturday and Sunday we'd ride the train with her and her crew. She eventually gave me a key, and let me make announcements and collect tickets. I was her little helper. I'll never forget standing atop the steps at 30th Street Station answering passengers' questions. They were very confused.
My fascination grew on my birthday of that year. I think I was maybe ten or eleven. Nancy asked if I wanted to meet the engineer, who I'll call Bob. We had spoken very briefly in passing as he changed ends multiple times but no prolonged conversations. To me, he looked like a gruff, scary man. Much different than Nancy. I said "sure" and she walked me up to the locomotive. I'll never forget the sound. It was incredibly loud and intimidating. It rattled the station platform and you couldn't hear yourself think. Bob opened the door to the cab and welcomed me inside. He told me to sit in the seat across from him, called the Fireman's seat. I thought it would be a quick conversation and then back to the train. Nope. He asked if I wanted to stay up with him for the entire ride.
Seeing the world go by at 80mph on the front of a rumbling locomotive was one of the most amazing experiences of my childhood.
He let me pull the handle to activate the horn at a few grade crossings, and wave at cars as we went by. Almost 20 years later I can still remember that day vividly. That trip would turn into dozens of others just like it over the years. I became very friendly with both Nancy and Bob to the point they became like an extended family to me. Bob enjoyed talking to my grandmother about business and finance. Nancy enjoyed talking beauty tips and other interests. It was a good two or three years hanging out with them every weekend.
Unfortunately, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, and it was something I never told anyone because frankly I was scared. I was afraid if I said anything I would be taken away by the state, so I kept a closed lid on it. Instead, I learned how to do everything an adult does in order to take care of us both. She stopped going on weekly trips, and I started going by myself. Bob and Nancy always asked about her, but I had an excuse every time. It wasn't until many years after the fact, that I actually told them what was going on.
Her illness advanced quickly. She sold our home and I moved in with my parents. These are people that I didn't get along with very well, people that frankly, I don't think even cared for me. They were obligated to take me in and that's that. I was mentally abused every single day. Straight A student, worked hard to be the best I could be, but for whatever reason the nasty words just wouldn't stop flowing. My younger brother was idolized by my mother. He could do no wrong, even though he was selling drugs and I pointed that out. I was on the receiving end of any frustration that was in the household. All the time. It honestly wore me down. I started questioning a lot of things. I think I suffered from low-grade depression at some point, and it was bad, but I still had my outlet.
No one drove me to the station. At the time I was living in Hammonton. The station was about two miles from the house. I walked every Friday night regardless of the weather. Heavy rain, high winds, snow, sleet, blistering heat - didn't matter. I needed to ride the train and see the only people I really felt close to at the time. One night I'm hopping off the engine, and Bob looks at me and says "In life, you have to play the hand you're dealt." I had no idea what he meant until years later when it all clicked. It turned out that Bob knew what I was going through because he had similar things happen to him in his childhood. One day I opened up to him, and we had a five hour conversation. I felt SO much better after that. From that point forward I decided my life would be an open book. It was good to talk about the things going on in my life, and I realized there were people who would listen and offer advice.
The years of knowing Bob and Nancy really had a positive impact on my life. If I didn't have them as an outlet to visit every week, I don't know where I could have ended up. I remain close friends with them to this very day, and see them outside of their work environment. They are part of a very small group of people who are left that remember me growing up as a kid, and I will forever be grateful for their influence.
Today I keep my love of trains alive. I've always wanted a model railroad, but never had the space. When we bought our home I decided to finally pull the trigger and start the building process. My husband made the table, and I made the rest. I am thoroughly impressed with myself because I never thought I would have the patience to make it as realistic as it is. I wanted to model what I know, so much of it is based off the Atlantic City Line. In fact, I'm building an extension to the original table that models the Atlantic City Terminal area.
I put the table in my office adjacent from my Weather Center computers. When I get tired of looking at model data, I can turn the chair around and run either a passenger or freight train down the line and reminisce on my childhood.
I'm also extremely fortunate to get to play with REAL trains through the holiday season. I volunteer on the Seashore Lines' Santa Express every year, and get the opportunity to don my conductor hat and help kids smile. Visit me this upcoming season from Richland to Tuckahoe!