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Friday, 27 April 2007

The Man Who Thought He Was a Train

By Susan Fisher of Suzzwords

This is a true story, or at least as true as I can remember. My girl friend and I first became aware of the man who thought he was a train during a shopping trip to downtown Jacksonville, Florida, in the early 1950s. We needed gloves and hats for a luncheon. Luncheons were big in those days as we learned to become proper young ladies.

There were several hat stores in town and we were just coming out of our second when here he came, dashing past us so fast we weren't really sure of what we had seen. We also heard him. The shop owner must have seen our startled faces as we jumped out of his way and back into her doorway.

"That's the man who thinks he's a train," she explained. "Right on time, too. Comes past here every afternoon about this time." Our teenage faces must have given away how startled we were. The man could have been anywhere from 25 to 55, dressed in faded blue overalls and plaid shirt, and atop his head a grey-and-white striped engineer's cap. He was pulling a clattering "caboose" - a red Radio Flyer wagon, smiling and nodding as he flashed past at a brisk trot.

We soon learned the man who thought he was a train lived nearby, but no one knew exactly where or even his name or why he thought he was a train. He appeared about noon coming through Hemming Park, past Morrison's Cafeteria, past the Presbyterian Church, then on to Jacob's Jewelers where he rounded the huge pedestal clock and made a left toward Kresses, then several blocks later, a right at Walgreen’s to circle past the Imperial Theatre, past the First National, finishing up across from Penny's and disappearing into the residential neighborhood just east of the post office.

He was a legend in downtown Jacksonville and delighted most people with his familiar "whoooo whoooo" to let those in his path know he was coming their way. He also made chugging noises that became most audible when he occasionally had to stop for a red light. He was a free spirit, always smiling even when chugging and whoooo-whoooo-ing. There was even a brief article about him in the local paper.

Fast forward four years and, with high school diploma in hand, I went to work for a downtown insurance company. On the third day at my new job, just as I was leaving the building for lunch, there he was – hat, caboose, sound effects and that radiant smile. By then he had acquired the name of "Train" and was greeted warmly by many friends along his route. He just smiled and nodded, gave a friendly "whoooo whooo" and kept going.

Later, with several more years away for college, I was back in town and working for the same insurance company in the public relations department. That first day I couldn't wait to hit the street at noon to see if the man who thought he was a train was still around.

I headed for the sandwich place with a view of Train's route. Just as I was finishing up the best pastrami on rye in the area, there he came! Slower now, but with the familiar “whoooo whoooo”, what looked like a new cap and his Radio Flyer caboose.

He had added a small lantern to the back of the wagon and a small dog atop a pillow inside, ears flapping in the breeze. I saw him a number of times during the next few years before changing jobs and moving away.

I suspect by now, some 56 years later, "Train" has gone to that great switching yard in the sky, but his memory lives on. Although no one knew who he was or where he came from, he was accepted, loved and appreciated for the smiles he brought to weary office workers. Even now, after all these years, when I hear a train whistle, I think of the man who thought he was a train and the joy he added to the lives of so many people.

So, Train, where ever you are, here's one for you: whoooo whooo!

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Nowadays, some investigative journalist would have to follow him home, and google his address and otherwise stalk him until they found out who he was and why he did that. Or someone would be offended, and would start a petition to have him referred for counselling.

I remember "Train" well. Growing up in Jacksonville in the 50's, everything was downtown..stores, doctors, dentist, etc. We kids had to ride the City busses for everything. We loved "Train" and were not the least bit afraid of him, nor did we snicker at him. He was sort of a landmark downtown. Everybody smiled when they saw him coming. Today, a man acting that strange in public would be arrested, if he had not already been institutionalized years before. Our Country has lost its' innocence...how sad.

What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing.

Great story Susan...you can't make up wonderful memories like that if you tried.

Our town had a guy named "Lightning". He was a savant, who could look at the side of a building and tell you how many bricks were in it. On the other hand, he didn't know enough to get in out of the rain (he sold newspapers on the street). People like these add so much color and interest to a town!

When I was little we had a neighbor in his 20's (he lived with his parents) who used to run through the sprinklers like a little kid, and crow with delight when a truck went past. I wasn't scared in those days either. Now I would probably move! It's sad that I've changed.

What a delightful charming story. I do think that was a time, especially in smaller towns, when there was more tolerance for harmless people we all knew and accepted as just local colorful figures. Probably someone somewhere knew your "train" had a family and was cared for.

In other communities people of that sort who were more than just eccentric, sometimes received special assistance, if needed, but basically were allowed to live their lives undisturbed. I think maybe we've all unwittingly changed in our attitudes toward folk of this sort.

"Train" was obviously a very special person. What a memory he has given Jacksonville folks!

Most will forget who was mayor in such and and such year, but I bet no one who knew him will ever forget "Train".

Train appears to have been an unsung hero, until today. It would be nice to think that someone in his family or who knew him personally could read your story. Still, the fact that Zana was reminded of Train after all these years does make your telling the story that little bit more special.

My family resided on Herschel Street in the Riverside region of Jacksonville during the 1940's and I remember the Train Man occasionally coming past the house as he headed west. I do not recall a wagon, but he did have, or else he made a whistle that sounded like an old steam engine. He was just running steadily along at a moderate jog. Some of the kids on the block would run along with him , but not for long.
Someone had said he went all the way to the Naval Air Station, but that may have just been boys talking. I don't know how far he went, nor do I remember seeing him running the other direction - back to town. Maybe he took the bus ; it only cost a nickle back then. But perhaps the Train Man secretly had a chauffeured limousine like the Bat Man; you never know with those eccentrics.

Susan, in our town it was Chicken Man. He wore a chicken on his head and other character apparell. He walked in the streets and was catered to and tolerated by all. The story I got was he was the sole survivor of a house fire. His father, who was not home, blamed him for not rescuing other family members and called him a big chicken. He was killed while walking in traffic. There are pictures of him in photo shops and art galleries around town to this day. Thanks for sharing your story. It wakes dormant stories from the landscapes of our past.

I think every small town had their own eccentric. Ours was a man named Willie. He was supposed to live in a cave in the mountains near Colorado Springs. Willie always wore a long overcoat no matter what the weather was.

We children thought it a great honor to walk by Willie's side when we were fortunate enough to be on the way home when he was walking toward Manitou.

Now Willie would probably elicit suspicion as a child molester because he attracted children. Too bad.

I wonder if this train man was the same one we called "Choo Choo". The description fits him perfectly. He would come by our house on US 90 heading west quiet often. We always looked forward to seeing him and thought he was something special. HE WAS, to bad the children today would not think of him as a special person. So many of them would throw objects at him and make fun of him.

I grew up in Jacksonville and now reside in Auburn, AL. I am participating in a program called "Writing Your Life". Our assignment for next week is to find a story (real preferrably) about the home town of our youth. Susan, you have made my day much easier since I have gone back to teaching (after a 6 year layoff). I have a final to give today to 31 graduating seniors. Since graduation is Saturday they will be rather anxious to know their grade. Also I am leaving early tomorrow to spend a long weekend with oour grandson.
Fred

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