I Don’t Like Trains
An old man recalls his dire railroad birth.
AUDIO: one blast of a steam train whistle
I don’t like trains.
AUDIO: another blast of the whistle
I was born on a train but it was a rude and crude way to come into the world. It surely was. (PAUSE) It was 1893 and even though Mama was round and ripe with me, she was travelling up to Russell to see her ailing brother Thomas. The train was a mile and half out of the little town of Marshallville and Mama had a big bathroom urge. To her dismay her water burst and she squirted me out like a bar of wet soap. In those days when you used train toilets, your leavings went right out onto the tracks. Well, I landed under the train with the cord that connected me and Mama still attached. I was dragged along under the train over the cinders until the cord got broken.
I was cut up pretty bad and bear the scars to prove it. This red gash on my forehead and below my right eye, that’s my tattoo from being dragged face down til the cord broke.
My whole right side and my back looks like a road map from being cut up by sharp cinders.
The doctor in Marshallville, his name was Doc Wensel, he heard about my desperate birth. The doc got in his horse and buggy and hightailed it to the train. Doc Wensel staunched up my bleeding the best he could, tended to Mama and made the train engineer agree to keep the train stopped for an hour. Thay way, me and Mama could get over the shocks of the day in a warm car before he took us to the little hospital in Marshallville.
(WISTFUL) If I’m very quiet, I can still feel the first warm hands that held me. A conductor named Gus lifted me off the cinders and placed me in a linen tablecloth from the dining car. I was bloodied and bleeding. He dried me off and I can remember feeling the heat from his big warm hands.
(PAUSE) Well, that was what the first minutes of my life were like. Luckily life got better. (PAUSE) Mama told me all this and ever since, I’ve had a great story to tell that always begins with I don’t like trains.
AUDIO: steam train whistle as at start
AUDIO: steam train whistle as at start
Another true story from the history of Shoal Lake!
In the 1890s just outside of town a baby was born as presented in the story complete with the doctor hurrying out to the train to tend to mother and child. The child lived a long life thereafter and I wanted to capture him as an old man with still-vivid memories of his birth. The first warm hands thing is pure fiction but the rest sticks to the facts. Marshallville is mentioned again.
The old guy has lived every day of his many years with evidence of his terrifying birth writ in scars on his flesh, on his face! The scarification on his body is severe. A large, red scar on his face looks like the number 3 and goes from above his left eye to a peak below his eye and continues around his mouth onto his chin. The scar is wide and thick; it is the defining characteristic of his face. You can’t miss it.
His body is even more severely scarred. As he was being dragged along under the train, the needle-sharp cinders minced his right side and all of his back leaving deep ragged furrows that still redden occasionally eighty-odd years after they were made. They healed in such a way that there are three perfect interconnecting circles that run diagonally across his back from his right shoulder to his left side, a bizarre fragment of order amid a chaos of disfigurement. All his life he has carried much shame about his body and only once appeared shirtless in company. On that occasion, a woman fainted when she saw the grotesque scars on his torso.
What a way to arrive in the world! He’s a little nuts and speaks in a strange gnarly voice, but he is thrilled to be able to relate the story of his gruesome birth yet again. He tells it with some humour, great familiarity and odd phrasing and tone.
There is much room to generate sympathy and my old buddy Mitchell Johnston did just that, creating a memorable character.
Every weekend during the spring, summer and fall, the Prairie Dog Central plies the rails between Winnipeg and Grosse-Isle, Manitoba. The train consists of an 1882 steam locomotive with five passenger cars and caboose dating from 1901 to 1913, all fully restored and operational. A ride on the Prairie Dog Central is one of the premiere tourist events in Manitoba! As a fun excursion for the whole family, I highly recommend it.
To capture the footage, I leap-frogged the Prairie Dog Central along Highway #6 one Sunday during its run, shooting crossing to crossing along the way. I shot more footage in Grosse Isle as the train navigated the wye. The old train is a visual treat and just being near it hearkens one back to a comfortable and simple time.