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Gary Borders: Train whistle is the soundtrack to an East Texas newspaper career

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Newspaper offices and trains have gone hand-in-hand throughout my checkered career. This current gig is no exception.

We moved our office downtown last August, on my birthday. It was not my intent to celebrate the final year of my sixth decade on this planet by sweating profusely and risking back injury while moving desks, filing cabinets and the like. But that is how it worked out. Football season was set to begin the following Friday, and I wanted us settled in our new digs before that commenced.

My office is just behind the front counter, so I can hear most everything that is going on between the customers and the staff, as well as most of the phone conversations. That is the way I prefer it. But sometimes if I need to make a call I’ll take my cellphone outside for both privacy, and so I can hear. When we have two or three customers inside placing garage sale ads or renewing a subscription, it gets a bit noisy.

Invariably, not long after I have engaged in a conversation outside, here comes the mournful whistle of the train winding down the tracks that run along the eastern edge of downtown. Soon I am back inside the office, since the engineer feels obligated to lay on the horn from somewhere around the chocolate factory to where the overpass crosses Hwy. 49 by Walgreens.

At the Lufkin paper, where I occupied the publisher’s office for five years — again right up front where I could keep an eye on things — the train track was across the street from my office, about a sand wedge shot away. If I was on the phone when train came barreling through, on the west side of downtown in this case, all conversation ceased. The whistle would make my office window rattle so loudly I often worried the glass was going to pop out. This happened about a dozen times daily.

After Lufkin, I meandered north back to my hometown of Longview, where the train track ran behind the building. I quickly learned to avoid all southbound streets out of downtown except for Green Street, which was where the overpass was located. This track and I go back to 1968, when I ran a paper route through downtown and the neighborhoods nearby, riding my bicycle. Often I was stuck by the train, a 13-year-old kid watching the cars go by as I waited with a bundle of newspapers in a cloth satchel, its strap cutting into my shoulder. Whenever I saw a railcar transporting vehicles stacked three high, I used to daydream about somehow a nice Ford Mustang slipping gently off the railcar and into my possession. Unsurprisingly, this never happened.

What did occur at the overpass quite often and continues to this day were trucks not noticing the sign warning of low height clearance — just 10 feet – and shearing the top off the cargo compartment. A couple years back, after voters approved a $52.6 million bond issue, the city shut down the street and worked on lowering it so as to raise the height clearance. But best-laid plans and all that, and crews encountered foundation structures that could not be removed. So, after 16 months of work, the clearance was increased a mere 14 inches. And trucks continue to plow into it, as recently as March.

While I was in Lufkin, then owned by the same company, we sent our truck up to pick up a printing job. Our drive also rammed the overpass, much to my chagrin.

At least that overpass provides plenty of photo opportunities for the paper, especially if the train is speeding by, its whistle drowning out everything within earshot. Some things never change.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.