Tuesday, March 2

The Last Train Home – by Janie DeVos

                                                              

         Last week, I lost a friend, and though he lived to the ripe old age of 92, still, we’re never quite ready to let go of those we love even when we’re well aware that the sand in the hourglass is rapidly running out. 

Calvin Hall was a treasure, and not just to my way of thinking, but to the entire community. He and I met in our Rotary Club back in 2010, and he was our club’s oldest and longest-standing member having joined the club the year I was born: 1959.  Needless to say, he was a cornerstone of our club.  

Calvin and I got to know each other better when I was doing research for my first novel, BENEATH A THOUSAND APPLE TREES, and because my story was about a town set in the Appalachian Mountains—a town which curiously resembled Spruce Pine ;)—I sat down with Calvin on more than one occasion to pick his brain about his family’s stories since they had been in this area for many generations. And, it was on his front porch, as I raptly listened and rapidly scribbled down notes, that a friendship was born.  But, Calvin didn’t just enjoy talking to people about the history and the building of our blue-collar train town, he enjoyed showing them, as well.  

His house was located on a hill at the back of a deep property, a property that had consisted of many acres at one time, and it was on this property that he had an unwanted Clinchfield Railroad caboose hauled in.  The caboose was frozen in time, with everything in it just as it had been decades before, and each time I climbed aboard, I half-expected the whistle to sound and the conductor to shout out the usual, “All aboard!”  As if the caboose wasn’t enough, Calvin had a reproduction turn-of-the-century general store built near the caboose; as well as a church, post office, and a barn full of antiques that included an iron lung that undoubtedly had kept countless people alive during the polio epidemic.  The things that barn held would make the men on the show “American Pickers” weep with the wanting of them. 

Schools made field trips to his place, and amazed tourists quickly pulled over who were lucky enough to have just stumbled onto “Calvin’s Antique Acres”, as it was affectionately called.  And, on any given day, Calvin could be found sitting on his front porch, watching the world go by, and patiently waiting for the next interested passersby to come pulling up his long driveway, hoping that they might be able to at least look into the windows of the buildings and caboose.  Instead, they found a welcoming host who had the keys to all the attractions at the ready, and was only too happy to let them venture inside.  

Several months ago, I stopped by Calvin’s to talk about the building of the railroad through this area in 1907.  I’m working on a manuscript about train hopping during the Great Depression, and I wanted any information Calvin might have on the subject.  

“Well,” he began, as we sat on his front porch once again, “there used ta be a work camp jus’ off Wise Road, down near that ol’ closed-up restaurant at the top of the mountain.  Fellas workin’ on the tracks stayed at that camp.  I got a few pictures, if ya’d be interested in seein’ ‘em.” 

Needless to say, I was, and Calvin slowly rose from his chair, aided by his walker, and led the way inside.  “See them notebooks on the shelf there?” he asked, pointing with his finger that had grown thick with arthritis.  “Pull out the ones that say ‘Railroad’ on ‘em.”  

In a tall cabinet, placed against one of his living room walls, was shelf upon shelf of notebooks, neatly lined up and alphabetically arranged, covering any number of subjects about our town and its people. I brought the requested notebooks back to the couch and opened them up, and, there, staring back at me, were men in yellowed black and white photos from well over a hundred years ago in various stages of working on the train tracks or being on the trains themselves.  Along with page after page of fantastic pictures (complete with a description at the bottom of each photo, as well as the date), were newspaper articles and handwritten notes of the entire history of the building of the railroad through this area.  As I gazed at the pictures and articles in amazement, Calvin commented on each, giving me that much more insight into the degree of work it took to bring the railroad through these Blue Ridge Mountains.  To say it took a near-miraculous feat of engineering is no exaggeration.  But, the courage, need and determination of a community that was often cut off from the world simply because of where it was located was the impetus in making such a seemingly impossible dream a reality.  Many lives were lost as the men blew holes through the mountains to lay the tracks and carve out the tunnels, but, with the risk came the promise that in the end, it would be worth the necessary sacrifices. 

After asking Calvin if he minded, I grabbed my cell phone and started taking pictures of the pictures.  “You can borrow the notebooks, if ya care to,” he generously offered.  I humbly and gratefully declined.  I didn’t dare take a chance in being responsible for such a rare and historical record.  In my mind’s eye, I could just picture my two year-old Basset finding the plastic and paper of the notebooks a delight to chew on.  

“Instead, I’d like to come back again soon and we can talk some more,” I suggested.  We’d been at it for over two hours and I sensed my friend was getting tired. 

“Why, shore,” he kindly drawled.  “You come back anytime ya want to.”  And I promised I would.  But, I never did.  

Over the next few months, Calvin grew increasingly frail, and last week, I got the call that our Rotary Club’s foundation had just lost its greatest cornerstone.  I thanked the person who called me, then softly laid the phone’s receiver back in its cradle.  I had lost a beloved friend.  And the town had lost a great guardian of the histories of those things that didn’t just build Spruce Pine, but gave it a beating heart, a strong spine, and a resilient soul.  

I have no doubt that when that heavenly train came for Calvin, and the conductor cupped his hand around his mouth and shouted out, “All aboard!” Calvin was more than ready to take the last train home.  The only trouble was we weren’t ready to see him off, and we never would be.  Instead, we'll just have to hang on tightly and gratefully to our memories of him, and the legacy of love he left behind in order that we should never forget.


 

12 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tribute and, even more, what memories that go along with a cherished friendship. Thank you for sharing this, and my condolences and prayers to all those who mourn Mr. Hall.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Liz. He was such a blessing in my life, and in so many others.

      Delete
  2. Oh, Janie, this is a lovely story about a fascinating man. How I wish I could see his museum and take a look inside those notebooks. You're so lucky to have gotten to know him and hear his stories. My heart goes out to you and all the people of Spruce Pine who knew and loved him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When y'all come down (which we need to start talking about), I'll take you to his place.

      Delete
  3. A beautiful tribute to your friend. I hope his notebooks full of the local history of your area have been preserved. That history so lovingly recorded needs a special place of honor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm talking to the Rotary Club about finding such a place. It'll take some doing, but I think between his family and our club, we'll git 'er done!

      Delete
  4. What a lovely story. There a lot of "old-timers" that have left us and stories like this keep their spirits alive and a look into the past!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, JoAnn. It was a pleasure and an honor to know him. Our "old-timers" are such treasures and we need to cherish them both in life and in death.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Beautiful blog. So heartfelt. I didn't know Calvin personally, but he was always so well spoken of. I'm sorry for your loss of a dear friend, Janie.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Our friends are precious treasures, and you are a gem!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for sharing this with us. I was totally drawn in by your writing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Pastor Rick! Coming from you, that's high praise.

      Delete