Archive for Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Life’s little adventures can happen by accident

April 2, 2008

Simple acts sometimes have unintended consequences.

In the 1990s, researchers sought to perfect a new preparation they thought would help with chest pain. It didn't seem to have much effect, however, and they were perplexed when the subjects refused to return the unused pills. It turns out there was a certain side effect. And so the little blue pill, Viagra, was born, adding new sparkle to the eyes and welcome changes in the habits of millions of aging men and giving rise to a whole generation of television commercials advising men to see a doctor if the effects last longer than four hours. Today, 35 million men worldwide use Viagra, whose sales in 2007 amounted to $1.7 billion.

But I digress. This isn't about Viagra; it's about unintended consequences.

I think my main goal that day was just to get out of the house for a while. I was 12 or 13, spending part of the summer with an aunt in Colby, then as now a small town in western Kansas. It was hot, I remember one of those days when rising vapors shimmer in the distance, and old men and women sit and fan themselves in the shade.

Footloose, I wandered down by the Union Pacific tracks in the south part of town.

This would have been 1954 or 1955; the Union Pacific, in those days, was one of the few railroads that still ran steam engines, and one of them was switching back and forth, dropping off some cars and picking up a few as well.

I don't think there is any more fascinating mechanical device than a steam locomotive. Other machines may do more, or do it better or more efficiently, but many of them mask their fascination by covering up the moving parts so that they could just as well be boxes that move. Watching a steam engine is a lot like watching the movement of a timepiece except that in addition to the movement you also have this mammoth, clanking, wheezing contraption that belches smoke and fire and every so often punctuates this display with an ear-splitting whistle that seems to rival all the banshees of hell.

So, naturally, I stopped to watch. Nothing unusual about that I'd done it many other times and I'm sure other boys had, as well. What made this different was what happened next. The fireman, who was on my side of the locomotive, leaned his head out the window and asked, "You want a ride?"

I lost no time in scampering up the ladder at the rear of the cab, into a magical world.

It was strangely dark inside, and the scene outside the windows seemed white-hot in contrast. Flames licked around the firebox, and the heat was palpable, as if it would suck the oxygen out of your lungs. The engineer released the brake, moved the throttle forward, and we moved down the tracks, rocking gently from side to side. I think they asked me a few questions, but I can't remember any of our conversation, presuming that I had the wit to reply. I may well have been struck dumb.

After a quarter-mile or so, the engine glided to a stop and I got off. I waved, then stood and watched as the small train rounded the curve at the edge of town and went out of sight around a small hill.

On a visit to Salina last year, I happened to turn a corner and came upon what could have been that very engine, or its twin, in a park not far from the Bicentennial Center. It seemed small, at least in comparison with my memory.

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