When I was a young boy in the sixties, steam trains were still in use.
I can remember lying in my bed at night, hearing the steam trains as they shunted the carriages back and forth. I felt a strange comfort knowing that all this activity was going on, while I was sound asleep in my bed.
Since the early Gold Rush hit the Witwatersrand in 1886, the Germiston Station was a hub for passengers as well as for goods trains. Germiston, a town only a few kilometers east of Johannesburg, serviced the many mines and industries in the area. Tons of goods such as coal, iron ore and steel were stored, loaded and unloaded, through the network of shunting yards and sidings.
Shunting yards were used to match each carriage with the correct train, so it arrived at its intended destination. The same way passengers disembark from one train at a station, to board another that is heading for a different destination.
The cool thing about shunting back then was, it was mostly done with steam engines. Massive black and red metal beasts that stand 10 meters tall. They hiss and spew out steam from shiny copper valves and move like mountains. I remember standing next to one of the wheels, its size so intimidating. It was bigger than me! I’ll never forget when the train driver stuck his head out the window, he looked so tiny and so high up. I was mesmerized.
There is a nostalgia for steam trains, for an era that has passed. I’m sure that is true.
Today, when I hear a train, any train, in the distance, late at night, as it blows its whistle, I am taken back to when I was small, lying in my bed. Then, for a moment, I think about the train driver, in the front of the train. I zoom right in from a distance, into the cabooses, and consider the passengers and where they are going. I ponder how they each have a story, a life and an existence that I know nothing about. That they exist and live a full life outside of mine, I’m faced with my own significance, or lack thereof.
There is a complex and unknown world, and I’m humbled by my ‘smallness’ in it all.
We could look to the stars or to the birth of a baby to test our significance. I get that. For me, the sound of a passing train at night, is another chance to reflect with gratitude, my place in this cosmos.