30 years ago, my late father, William Barry Braheny, retired from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific Railroad. I thought I’d bring back an old letter I’d written to him on that occasion to let him know how his job, and trains in general, had impacted my life. After he’d passed away in ’93, my mother told me he’d always cherished that letter. Though re-reading it made me say “I could write that better today,” I resisted a re-write. It was the thought that counted so I thought I’d post it in his honor this Fathers Day. If you’re fortunate enough to have a father who has impacted your life in a positive way, take this occasion to let him know and don’t let the lack of writing skills stand in your way.
Dear Dad, 1979
The momentous occasion of your retirement got me reminiscing about some of the ways that your working on the railroad has affected and shaped my life as well as added to an abundant fund of pleasant memories.
At my birthday party this year, I was telling my friend, Gary White, (who wrote Linda Ronstadt’s hit “Long, Long Time”) that you were retiring from the railroad soon. He said he was a passionate train freak and had a house full of model trains, etc. We got to exchange train stories and it really set me off for the next week remembering my railroad times.
Some early recollections: New Albin IA – along with the sound of an infinite field of crickets, the sound I miss most was the sound of the train whistle and the chug-chug-chugs echoing off the hills and bluffs. For some reason, it was always a safe and reassuring, secure kind of sound, maybe because it was regular and always there every day, no matter what other joys or tragedies happened. The train was always there. The engineers and brakemen watched for us like their own families and we’d all run down to the road to wave.
Mason City, IA – when we lived below the Norquists and you were overseas, it was also a constant. It constantly drove mom crazy, trying to keep Dan and me away from the tracks and thank God she did.
I don’t remember exactly where it was, but I think it was in Mason City where you took me to see an engine that had been derailed. I was very young, but it was nearly a trauma to me to see this enormous, invincible, powerful machine all broken and twisted. It was an early lesson that nothing is permanent.
Ronnie Zellar’s alcoholic grandpa (was it ‘Scratchy’?) used to be an outrageous, jolly and embarrassing Santa Claus but it was always an adventure to look forward to at the Railroad Union Christmas party.
Trips – some of the best memories and ones that I believe had a great effect on my life and personality, were the vacation trips. I realize now how lucky we were that we had those passes. We’d never have been able to take a whole family across country like that without them. As an educational experience, to see all those historical places like Boston and New York & Chicago and Seattle was the ultimate field trip. It contributed immeasurably to my feeling of being at home in the world, to my total lack of fear of travel, to my total love of it, to my great curiosity about seeing new places and meeting new people. Even the saying goodby was a part I never liked but learned to accept. Another valuable lesson. Obviously, all that helped me to prepare in some important ways, for me to be a folk singer. I know neither you nor mom were very excited about that but it was an experience shared by very few in this world and it too was full of life lessons. If I could live my life over, I’d do it just the same. I don’t regret any of it.
Moves – I remember that the move to Sioux City was a trauma for all of us. I mean I had just fallen in love for the first time with Beverly Moline from Holy Family and it was the worst possible time (isn’t it always?). However, in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. Though it took me over a year to recover, Heelan and SC gave me an education and experiences I may never had had in Mason City. I had lots of opportunity to develop my music, acting, and what little talent I had as an athlete. Isn’t it great how, no matter how tragic, inopportune, traumatic, mind bending and heart rending an experience was, you can always look back and see how it was a good thing after all. Forcing you to look at yourself in a new way and bring something out in you that you never realized you had. Those kinds of experiences have all served to make me totally optimistic about my life and future. No matter what happens to me, I’ll learn and grown from it, and feel confident about trying something new.
It’s been a good thing to learn. Your move to Elgin, IL was also good for me. It made me have to rely on myself, obviously one of the best lessons to be learned.
Work – Another thing I’ll always thank you for is getting me my first job on the railroad. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember the section gang foreman’s name but I think it was George Pappas. It was truly a milestone in my life, a step up from mowing lawns and shoveling snow. I worked hard to prove myself on that job and it did fantastic things for my self-image, my body, my wallet and my sense of self-reliance, all of which I needed at that time. It also set me up with the experience I needed to get other jobs, railroad and construction, that helped put me through college. I know you would have been happy to pay for my college but helping me to get those jobs was a much more valuable way for me.
A lot of memories stick with me – riding out in the country on the motorcar early in the morning – sore and painfully growing muscles – the smell of breakfast pancakes and cornbread and learning to play guitar in the bunk cars of the C&NW bridge crew – college and r.r. wino friends I made and total exhaustion on Bill Shipley’s steel gangs – riding the commuter tram – and many, many more that come to me unexpectedly when I see a section gang working or hear a tram whistle, though they never quite sound as exciting as the old steam engines.
When I was in college, having your pass to ride back and forth to Sioux City was very important to me. It let me go home to visit and in the summers, it let me go back to S.C. to see my friends and girlfriends.
Here we are back in the present again and you’re looking at your last railroad days and undoubtedly a whole bunch of your own railroad memories. I hope you feel those years have all been worthwhile. They certainly have been for me. I’ve always been proud that you were a railroad man and, in case I never told you, one of the most important things to me is that you were a constant, a solid foundation. My dad always had a job. I never worried that I’d be hungry or not have something I needed, and we always had good times. Those are the things that are easily taken for granted when they’re there and I know I’ve been guilty of that. As I get older and get a little more perspective, I realize how difficult it would be for me to do what you’ve done and I truly appreciate it, Dad. It’s a lot of years to wake up that early and deal with corporate games.
We all pray that the rest of your years will be rewarding and interesting. We hope that you’ll have a good time and find something stimulating to occupy your mind and keep you in good physical shape. We also hope we’ll get to see you more often. Lots of love and gratitude from me, Dad.
Thanks for sharing your letter to dad. As I write this my 85 year old dad is hospitalized in FL. with heart concerns (has already had two by pass surgeries over the past 25 years). Hopefully this will turn out ok. Your letter reminds me of one which I wrote him several years ago about his catering business in Central Falls,, RI in the 1960s. I hope that he enjoyed it as much as your dad did.
Anyway, I am a member of Taxi and you may have critiqued my songs over the past two years. I’ve gotten some decent feed back but only a handful of forwards from my 100 submissions with no follow up responses yet. I’m still writing and rewriting. I recently read your book, “The Craft and Business of Songwriting” and found it very informative but the size is a bit clumsy for reading in the WC which is where I like to read. It was interesting to learn of your association with Len Chandler. Being a big fan of the Beats and Fugs etc., I happen to own a copy of the Musitron release, “Beat Generation”. This was recorded at the Gaslight and features Len performing “Nathan’s Goat”.
Keep up the great work!
John, that is a wonderful letter you wrote to your dad. I wrote a similar letter to my elderly great uncle. I never knew either of my grandfathers and my great uncle was like a grandpa to me. He was in his 90s when I wrote it. He lived a bit longer. His son told me that he read that letter over and over again.
I only wish I had sent my dad a letter like that. I did write him and my mother one time and told them how much they meant to me but it wasn’t very long. But my mother has said how much that brief letter meant to her.
I guess the good news is that a few years ago, I wrote a song about this very thing. Perhaps I will have you critique it!
It’s nice that you posted this.
John, that’s a nice letter you sent to your dad. I wrote a similar letter to my great uncle one time. I never knew either of my grandfathers and my great uncle was like a grandpa to me. He was in his 90s when I wrote it and he lived a bit longer. His son told me he read that letter over and over again.
I only wish I had sent a similar letter to my dad. I did write a brief letter to my parents one time and my mom has said how much it meant to them. But it was too brief.
I guess the good news is that I did write a song with this very theme. Perhaps I will have you critique it!
It’s nice that you posted this.