Midnight Train to Georgia
Remember the song by Gladys Knight and the Pips called “Midnight Train to Georgia?” When I was about twelve years old I had a dream relating to that song which set the direction for my future at least a decade before it ever happened.
Imagine the early 1970s. No mobile phones, no video games, no social media. The highlight of my life was collecting and listening to the latest rock albums. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a new Elton John, Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith album and with the deep purple of black-lights illuminating my room, I’d drift to sleep listening through my Koss headphones. Hours later, I’d wake up with the headphone cord wrapped around my neck and songs embedded in my brain from hours of listening.
In the winter, sunrise came late and sunset came early, sometimes before 4pm. The house smelled of woodsmoke thanks to the wood-burning stove in the basement. It worked well heating the house, but every time my dad opened the stove door to add another log, a huge billow of gray smoke would fill the cinderblock room. To save on the electric bill, mom liked to hang our freshly washed clothes on a line by our ping pong table not but a few feet from the wood stove. The heat dried the clothes pretty quickly, but I remember I always smelled of smoke during the winter months.
When I awoke in the morning, it was usually to my mom’s voice yelling up the stairs, “Breakfast time…get up, you’re gonna be late for school!”My two siblings and I would shuffle down the stairs and into the kitchen where my mom would have the radio playing and an assortment of dry cereals lined up on the counter. Each of us would usually grab an extra box so we could build a privacy fort around our table setting. Shielded from one another in a small, walled cage of Corn Flakes, Apple Jacks, King Vitamin or Shredded Wheat advertising. It seemed that the more unhealthy the cereal, the more coated with sugar and artificial ingredients, the brighter the box color, the more unique the artwork, the better the cheap prize which rested inside. I remember it was always a battle over who got to stick their arm through the box in the hopes of claiming the junky piece of plastic.
Being that my mom worked as a guide at a nearby farm, we got all our milk for free and fresh from the cows. There was no pasteurization, the milk was literally, straight from the cow and after it had sat in the refrigerator awhile, the cream separated from the milk, forming a layer of richness about 3 inches thick along the surface. Mom and dad believed this stuff was good for us, so we were encouraged to drink/chew it regularly. Chunks of cream on top of the cereal was not very appetizing, but I like to think it gave us character and hopefully not heart issues.
When it was time to leave for school, the first hints of color were showing in deep blue and yellow along the horizon. Mom gave us each a kiss before we left. A scarlet brand of love left on the forehead or cheek, that each of us would be wipe clean before we made it halfway down the driveway.
I clearly remember the school bus trips and I truly hated them.
Our driver was a very short older man. He was bald with a mustache of hair above each ear. He had a very deep and rough voice, probably from smoking. During those cold winter months he wore a really cool wool jacket of red and black squares along with an old cap that looked like something he found at a rummage sale.
The creaky windowed door opened and I made my way into the dark hell ahead. Once inside I could smell cherry cough drops that some kid was eating like candy. There were forbidding looks as I carefully walked down the aisle, trying not to stumble as the driver started moving down the road. Kids can be really mean. No matter how much room was available, I can remember that each kid had moved to the edge of the isle so I could not sit down.“Can I sit here please?” I pleaded. “No way, I’m saving this for my friend,” would be the response. By the time I made it to the back of the bus, the driver was squawking in his hoarse voice, “Sit down, sit down!” I could see his eyes watching me in the rearview mirror. He knew I couldn’t find a seat. So, I eventually just sat on the very edge of an unwelcoming classmate’s seat for the 20-minute ride to school.
Some kids loved school. That really wasn’t for me either. I mean, I loved what I learned, but I hated the bells, the being late if you forgot your locker combination, the forgetting your lunch money and of course, all the homework. But, it wasn’t all bad. I had a crush on our drama teacher who wore short dresses and had beautiful legs. The hot lunches were usually always great, especially on the days when they made us pizza! Recess meant playing horse with classmates in the open gym. Challenging each other with shots over the backboard, reverse throws from the free throw line and one-armed catapults from the other end of the gym.
The only time I liked hearing the school bell was for lunch or when it was time to go home. And when you boarded the bus again, you were carrying a slew of new books and new assignments that would envelope your freedom and opportunities to play before bedtime.
There were going to be record lows that night. My mom had put an extra blanket on the foot of my bed and I wore socks under the covers in the hopes that I’d stay warm. It was dark as coal outside. I looked out the window next to my bed, trying not to breath and fog the glass in front. Trying to see the moon or stars in the winter sky and thinking that someone else, somewhere else, where it was warm and green, was watching the same view above. The tree limb outside my room jerked with a ragged motion. I could hear the wind whistle along the roofline and feel a cold breeze along the edges of the window. On this night, I’d forgo playing records and just listen to a disc jockey spinning the top hits on WZUU or WKTI. The room illuminated by only the green light of my stereo dial, it didn’t take long for me to start drifting into sleep. The last song I heard with my conscience mind was that of Gladys Knight and the Pips - taking that Midnight Train to Georgia.
As my semi-conscious state slowly submerged into the deep depths of blue below me, as my breaths became slower and more relaxed, I could gradually see through the black and blurriness which had obscured my vision.
I was inside a dark railroad car. It was still night and it was very, very cold. Blue light steamed in through the many cracks and openings making up this wooden cage. I was freezing and in an attempt to stay warm, I took the scraps of the last haul - dried corn ears and stalks, and tried to cover myself. The train rocked and the icy air seemed to cut the nerves of my face. I closed my eyes again, wishing to be far away. Far away from this cold, this lonely feeling, this sadness.
Through out the night I awoke to the rough and very uncomfortable ride. My backend numb from the steel base underneath me. I would open my eyes long enough to realize it was too cold to move and I need not get up. Drifting in and out of a second layer of sleep inside my dream.
There was a time many hours later when I did not feel the sting of cold on my bare skin anymore. With my eyes still closed, I could smell a wonderful fragrance of morning field grass. The pollen smell almost overpowering with its alluring waft over my senses.
I opened my eyes cautiously. The light was streaming into the hold again. But now it was warmer in color, the blue was gone and the rays formed straight lines like those in a notebook ready for writing. What was my mind going to write today and where would this journey end?
I grabbed the rusty metal handle on the cargo door and slid it to the left with all my might. Brightness slapped me across the face. Blues, beautiful blues of a clean and fresh morning sky. Rolling hills with tall almost iridescent field grass, the tops glistening with the moisture of dew. Wherever I was, it was where I wanted to be.
I jumped from the open door, flying in the air for what seemed like minutes before coming to a rolling stop about 20 feet from the train car. Surrounded by field grass, laying in a soft hole created by my fall, I cautiously peered over the tops of the green vegetation. I was completely alone. The train moved away growing smaller and smaller into the distance. The warmth of the sun rays, like a pat on the back from an old friend, encouraged me to continue on.
Walking through the bright green field, I climbed a small hill which would give me a better view of the surroundings. At the top, I could see the edge of a forest and in front of that, a small pond with a dock.
I could also see a dirt road which led into a nearby woods. So, I took off down the hill and made my way to the pond and the road.
There is something wonderful about sitting on the edge of a pier. Rolling up your pants and just dipping your feet and ankles into the cool water. Small fish swimming around your dangling legs, coming to the surface to grab a small bug and causing a ripple that would spread throughout the calm water. On the top branches of one of the trees surrounding the pond was a meadowlark, singing proudly, with yellow and black markings like medals on a soldiers chest adorning it’s white breast.
Time seemed to move so slow here. I would not be late for class, not trying to find a seat on the bus here. Only this sun-warmed dock beneath me along with all the varied sounds of crickets, grasshoppers and frogs. As I sat there, wanting and waiting for nothing other than more of the same, I heard rapid footsteps along the pier behind me. Turning quickly in surprise I saw a golden retriever making its way toward me.“Hey fella,” I said as he pushed up against me, his head leaning into my body and a fresh spot of dog drool dropping onto my jeans. There was no collar on this dog, but it seemed very friendly and acted like this was a regular part of the morning walk. As rapidly as he came, he left. I watched him follow the dusty road around the pond and into the woods beyond. I wondered where he was going, but decided to enjoy the serenity of the pond for a little longer.
The clouds began to change as the day moved onward. They started out as a rare sight. A fragile almost dainty pillow of white cotton floating gently in the sky above. But, I noticed that their numbers had increased. Blankets of shade could be seen moving over the field grass, becoming more and more prevalent until there was only shade.
Now the sky was dark, rumbles of distant thunder sent warnings of a storm which was on its way. Following the dirt road, I watched the dog tracks wander as dogs do from one side to the other. Sometimes wandering off the road completely and into the woods to smell out a scent worth exploring, and returning again a few yards ahead.
The wind began to blow and inside the woods it became almost like night. The once obvious tracks in front of me became hard to see. The creaking trees and blowing wind gave me unrest and a sense of urgency to keep moving.
Up ahead, I could see light shining through windows of an old house. Was this a lighthouse for my ship in distress? By now, large drops of rain were randomly falling. Hitting the dry dirt road and causing craters in the powdery earth. It seemed like I was being guided, so I walked up the porch, under the shelter of the overhang and knocked on the gray, wooden door.
There was a long pause. And when the door finally opened a short man with pure white hair and round, coke-bottle style glasses peered out at me. He was dressed in clothing of a different time. Perfectly shined black shoes, overalls with a vertical, faded blue/gray stripes and a curved, wooden cane in his right hand. The room behind him seemed rather dark; lit by oil lamps and a fire, the light flashing as the wind blew into the room from the open door. And there was the retriever, curled up and sleeping on an oval rug at the base of the fireplace. The old man welcomed me inside. His voice familiar yet I had not met him before. Taking my damp jacket, he called into the kitchen, “Maryann, we have a visitor from far away!”
He gestured me to sit in one of the chairs lining the permitter of the rug and facing the fireplace. “You almost got soaked out there. I think the crops will get that rainfall we have been needing.”
An older woman appeared out of the darkness of the hallway. Half of her body was lit by the light of the fire, the other half still in the shadows as the orange light reflected off her glasses. White-haired like her husband, almost formally dressed with a broach closing the collar of her outfit at her neck. A small smile came to her face, “Welcome,” she said. A good hostess, in her hands she carried a plate full of homemade cookies. The plate looking antique with a faded red design similar to what you would see on a Currier and Ives illustration.
The three of us sat there in front of the fire. Enjoying conversation and the feeling of warmth not only physically from the fire, but also spiritually from the voices of these two older people. I could hear the old grandfather clock ticking behind me. And every so often the dog would lift its head and stare at me. Making sure I was still there and then going back to sleep as the evening wore on. I imagined being the dog. I imagined my eyes closing in front of me and the warm heat on my fur…
The next morning I awoke in my own bed in my parents home. It was a Saturday morning and because there was snow on the ground outdoors, my room was filled with bright and white, reflected light. I could smell pancakes and could hear cartoons on the television downstairs. I looked around my room. The stereo was still on but now the yellow/green dial was overpowered by the daylight streaming through the frosty windows. Fresh in my mind, I was wanting to remember where I had been the night before. I didn’t want it to be covered up with useless memories, indiscriminately erased and fractured by new experiences. I wanted to remember this old couple and the golden retriever who never really existed but in a way, did.
So, before I left my room, before I saw a living family member, I wrote the memory down on a piece of paper in the hopes of keeping them alive in my mind.
In 1986 I moved away from the North. I didn’t leave at midnight or take a train, but I went to a place that was far away and much warmer. I went to South Carolina and eventually to Georgia. But, that move changed my life forever for the better. And today, when I hear that old song, Midnight Train to Georgia, I think of the old couple and their dog from a long time ago.