Every man’s memory is his private literature. —Aldous Huxley
When you live a piece from your childhood home you seldom see reminders of your early years but when you do it’s a revelation. Just one word can jump-start a string of memories with nothing in common but that word and you, the memoirist.
One word. That’s all it takes, and the brain’s mystifying chemistry swirls the remote past, recent past, and present into that amalgam, that medley of moments you call your life. In seconds phases of your life pass before you in a faint case of schizophrenia.
We’re rendered different people as we navigate life. Ten years old, twenty, thirty, fifty, sixty … foolishness, dating, marriage, children, dissolution, grandchildren, death, disappointment, jubilation, and God knows what else lays it hand on you. Many life events unfold, major and minor … We spend our whole life ranking our experiences, exploits, and escapades. Sometimes we can’t believe what we did, who we married, how we acted … but we did. We remember and we forget, but there’s a catch 22 at work here. What we forget makes us as much who we are as what we remember.
A few stones’ throw from the capital in Columbia stands a historical marker. It explains how Lincoln Street got its name. That sign ferries me across the river of time to 1960 whenever I see it. “Lincoln.” That’s the word. I see it and I travel back through the decades.
At the corner of Gervais and Lincoln I see my fifth-grade teacher Helen Turner leaning against her desk in Lincolnton, Georgia. She’s reading a letter from a fifth-grade class in Illinois. She wears black-framed glasses, a white blouse, and a red skirt. She laughs and snorts and crosses and re-crosses her lean, arresting legs as she reads. “These northern students,” she says, “can’t believe a county and town in the Deep South took their name from Abraham Lincoln.”
Of course they had it wrong. We laughed at these Yankee kids daring to think a county in Georgia, no less, would name itself after Honest Abe, the fellow whose general, Sherman, had scorched Georgia’s heart and soul. The very idea.
The sign at Gervais and Lincoln explains that Lincoln Street takes its name from Benjamin Lincoln. I know the story well. When a Southerner comes from a county with the name Lincoln he better know the details. I did, I thought.
Well damn. It turns out Benjamin Lincoln was related to Honest Abe. President Lincoln descended from Samuel Lincoln. Benjamin Lincoln descended from Thomas Lincoln. Samuel and Thomas were brothers.
General Benjamin Lincoln was 33 years old when Lincoln County became Georgia’s twenty-fourth county. Counties in Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Vermont, and Main took on Benjamin Lincoln’s name as well. Columbia and Savannah named streets after him. Thus do I come by my reviver of memories.
This glorious commemoration for Benjamin Lincoln who was a bit of a bureaucrat surprises me. His claim to fame is receiving General Cornwallis’s sword of surrender at Yorktown, Virginia at the Revolutionary War’s end. Stick out your hand and grab. We like to honor men for doing little or nothing in this country do we not?
All this General Lincoln business aside Lincoln Street is my favorite street in Columbia. For one thing it’s bricked and that gives it a quaint cobblestone-like appearance. It feels a bit like Charleston. A good seafood restaurant, the Blue Marlin, reinforces that impression. It sits where the old Seaboard Air Line Passenger Depot sat, once upon a time a train station/restaurant. That old diner, a scene out of the 1940s, looked rather like an Edward Hopper painting. “Please pay when served” two signs over the counter beseech.
I’m fond of Lincoln Street also because it’s given me memories, some a mixed bag. For several years running after a painful divorce I would go to the Blue Marlin alone on my birthday. I’d order shrimp with stone-ground grits and contemplate what I thought was a wreck of a life. Just down the steps outside was where I boarded the Silver Star. That had been a ways back, a happier time.
In 1984, having lost confidence in my ’74 Audi 100, I made my way down to Lincoln Street one night and walked into the old train station to buy tickets. It would be my only train trip in the states. Later that evening, morning to be truthful, a fun-loving blonde named Linda and I boarded Amtrak’s Silver Star at 12:15. We were going to Deland, Florida. More to the point we were going to Orlando to a wedding, a ritual I would lose my taste for.
Nightriders, we were excited but unsure what to expect. We took our seats. A few other travelers—“nomads” come to mind—joined us. A connection of rolling steel we pulled out of Lincoln Street and crept through town slowly building speed. We eased past an out-of-place building where the word “ADLUH” glowed red, a place where men mill flour and cornmeal, occasionally giving away free biscuits city mornings.
And then city lights were no more.
We hurdled through the darkened countryside swaying side to side in a rhythmic clacking that would be our accompaniment all night. Approaching crossings the train would sing its forlorn song: two long blasts, a short blast, and a final long blast. Percussive clacking and airy weeping goes the night train song: how mournful the horn in the dead of night, how lonely to those in the blackened countryside lying in beds. Perhaps a few envy the travelers invading their night … to what magical venues are they headed? ” We romanticize traveling strangers. Way too often we envy that mythical place “Somewhere Else.”
All the night clacking conveyed me somewhere else all right. I slipped into another time: the days when trains ruled transportation. I had read about those glory days in elementary school, my great reservoir of memories. This train tripping revived as well Steve Goodman’s song of regret, *“The City of New Orleans.” Arlo Guthrie transformed Goodman’s lament into a 1972 hit. A train sounds its dirge-like notes with good cause. It’s a goner.
Darkness, doleful horns, riding with sad strangers … altogether it’s a requiem, for night riding atop steel wheels induces measured sadness. Whenever I hear a train in the dead of night I get the blues. Passenger trains have long been on the way out in the U.S. and when you ride one you’re riding out of—not into—history. Goodman knew this. He captured the forlorn beauty and loneliness of train travel after midnight. Arlo sang to me alone.
Nighttime on The City of New Orleans, changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee. Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning, through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea. 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.
“Feel the wheels rumblin’ ’neath the floor.” The rhythm of the rails is all I felt rocking through the Lowcountry. We swung like pendulums.
We stopped in Savannah and upheaval was on the way. A drunken rowdy redhead boarded the train. She had combed her hair with a firecracker. She went from man to man crying out, “My name is Mandy, and I have sweet candy.”
She said she sang at a local bar in Savannah, this gypsy chanteuse. The conductor put her off at the next stop. And then all grew quiet but for the clacking of the wheels. Sleep was impossible and besides we weren’t in a sleeper car.
Sitting in the dark with nothing to do I recalled reading about train travels in bygone times. Men shot buffalo from trains in the wild, wild West. The conductor would match the locomotive’s speed to the thundering herd … quite sporting.
And then a darker memory came from across the Atlantic. Something like 160 people were routinely crushed into cattle cars with no water, no food, no ventilation … the end of the line was a place called Auschwitz. The buffalo were lucky after all.
Our car seemed more like a rail-riding bus carrying drifters and a Georgia boy with no trust in his car. It was nowhere as poetic as Goodman’s “magic carpet of steel.” There was nothing to do but sit in the dark car and gaze out the window. I saw a blur of ghostly trees and fields punctuated now and then by yellow lights and occasional pale shining water as the Silver Star crossed rivers and swampy lands, and the outermost tips of estuaries. No buffalo, no Gestapo. Perhaps alligators watched as we hurtled through, our diesel breath rattling palmetto fronds and blowing Spanish moss like an old woman drying her hair. Across a large field I thought I spied a faraway interstate but a forest closed off my view.
We slowed then came to a dead stop. Something was wrong. I pressed my face against the window. I saw a gyrating light spinning shafts of light. Swirling phantoms were coming. Suddenly the Silver Star lurched from side to side. Just feet away the Silver Meteor roared by bound for the Big Apple. We had pulled over to a side rail where the train’s shockwave pummeled us.
We resumed our journey, a non-eventful ride from that point on, though memories collided in my head. I summoned forth the twisted remnants of tracks back home, the Washington & Lincolnton Railroad. I remember seeing rusted, twisted rails jutting from reddish gullies. I could envision a locomotive belching smoke and sparks, chugging its way toward the Lincolnton depot. It seemed like a scene from an old Western though that old railroad had no Indians to contend with.
Something called a Whistle-Stop campaign came to mind. Once upon a time riding the rails flourished in celebrated golden days. Before airliners took off, before cars and Eisenhower’s interstate highway system dominated travel, traveling by train was the great way to go. The word “opulence” comes to mind. Elegant dining and well-appointed coaches coddled the affluent. We, however, had nothing to eat as we sped toward the land of gators, oranges, manatees, and murderers but it mattered little. I dreamed of streamliners and famous trains with names like Hiawatha, Ferdinand Magellan, Zephyr, and Chief.
I thought of my father’s 1945 train trip. He rode a troop train from Texas to Seattle to go invade Japan. From Seattle he journeyed to Japan on a troop carrier. Along the way, two atom bombs brought Japan to its knees, and my father didn’t have to invade the Land of the Rising Sun, though it would invade him in a fatal way many years later.
Linda’s journey and mine ended in the Deland depot around 7:30 in the morning. It was there déjà vu took hold of me. Behind the depot and across a large field sat old noble locomotives along with a few rusting passenger coaches. A handsome locomotive, tan and dignified sat out front at a 45-degree angle to a jumbled cluster of retired colleagues. A station attendant explained to me that some fellow was providing a resting place for some of the 1930’s great luxury trains. These grand old trains I imagined had taken luminaries around these United States. Now they rested in a graveyard of sorts and I thought of Goodman’s song again … rusted locomotives.
We went to the wedding and my chief memory is hearing the bride’s father describe the night he found an alligator on his front walkway. We rode the train back to Columbia a trip I have no memory of whatsoever but I know we got off the train at Lincoln Street.
All these memories and more come to me when I see the Lincoln Street historical marker. It’s here that I sometimes work on my laptop in the corner Starbucks, my office away from home. Here I’ve made book deals over café lattes. Here, too, Sherman’s troops took over South Carolina’s capital. Just down the street is the Confederate currency printing plant that Sherman torched. Heaps of memories mound up here, tatters and snips from history classes from elementary and high school and later times.
Lincoln Street. It sounds a bit like a television series, and in a way it is. Every time I go downtown to Lincoln Street a series plays in my mind.
We all have Lincoln Streets. I do. You do. You see a special place, and your brain’s chemistry connects memories buried deep within dust from the here and now and pulls them to the surface, an archaeological dig of sorts. We think we forget but we don’t.
Many years later on an October afternoon I was driving south on I-95 toward Brunswick. I glimpsed a distant trestle over golden marsh. Was that the trestle I once rode across? “My name is Mandy and I have sweet candy.” What happened to the unruly woman from Savannah? Dead I’m sure. And Linda? We went our separate ways in 1987. And all the people who rode the grand old trains in the Deland graveyard? Long dead. And Helen Turner, she of the legs that turned young boys’ heads. Dead. And the glory days of streamliners and Zephyrs. Dead. And the couple we sent off honeymooning? Divorced long ago. Steve Goodman? Dead.
But they aren’t gone. They live on in a place called Lincoln Street and all it takes to summon them up is one word. Just one word. Lincoln.
* The City of New Orleans lyrics ©1970, 1971 EMI U Catalogue, Inc and Turnpike Tom Music ASCAP)