Observations: Knowing and slowing

Published on: March 20, 2012

Michelle and Harold waiting for the Auto Train to pass in downtown Dunn, North Carolina. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Michelle and Harold waiting for the Auto Train to pass in downtown Dunn, North Carolina. Mitch Traphagen Photo


Old people don’t screw around when they are traveling. Taking a trip north on I-95, we stopped at a freeway-side motel and we planned to hit the road early. At least we thought it was early. Old people with license plates from New Jersey, Ontario, Quebec, New York and Pennsylvania were already leaving in droves by the time we stumbled out of our door on Sunday morning. The snowbird migration is in full swing. They know what they want and they know how to get it.

Harold is a soft spoken, slow speaking, middle-aged man who lives in Dunn, North Carolina. He knows an awful lot about trains. My wife and I met him on a Saturday night in downtown Dunn while waiting for the Auto Train to pass. We have ridden the train in the past and would do so soon again, but now we wanted to see what it looked like from the outside. It blasted through Dunn about 9:30 p.m. — exactly as Harold predicted it would. He knows his trains, but is more interested in the frequent freight trains than in the Auto Train that passes through town twice each day.

Harold wishes it were 1996. In that year, he had four buddies who would sit out with him to watch the trains. One died from a disease (he couldn’t remember what the name of the disease was). Another fell off a ladder and broke his neck. And yet another is still around but, apparently, is no longer interested in watching trains with Harold.

Harold normally doesn’t wait around for the Auto Train, but tonight he would. Tonight, we were his buddies. He pointed to a forlorn patch of cement where the town’s train station once stood. Today it is an empty space. Trains don’t stop in Dunn; they blast through at a speed fast enough to blow your hair back.

We told him we’d be back through on the train on Wednesday and that we’d be looking for him. This will go to press before then, so I can’t say if he’ll be on that dark and lonely downtown block. If I see him, I’ll wave; but we’ll be passing through so fast there is almost no way he’ll even see us, let alone wave back. For some reason, I have a feeling he’ll be there — even though he likes freight trains best and doesn’t care much for the engines used by Amtrak.

“They are too square and boxy,” he said. Harold knows what he likes and he knows what he wants, even if time travel is impossible. But since we invited him, I suspect Harold will see it as an obligation. He is a gracious man from a different time.

We waited for him to complete sentence after sentence in a polite and slow drawl. When he asked if I had a computer, his eyes lit up when I replied that I did. He talked about a program on a disk that lets people drive trains on the computer. I didn’t tell him my computer doesn’t take disks and that few people use such things anymore.

Michelle and I took this trip to celebrate our upcoming 15th wedding anniversary. A decade and a half blew by faster than a freight train through Dunn, North Carolina. For this trip, Dunn was just a stop on the way to Washington, DC — one of our favorite cities.

This year I’ll turn 50 and I’ve been moping about with the realization that I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. And the realization is sinking in that I may be too late on that. The old people in the freeway-side motel seem to know what they wanted and they were in a hurry to get it. Many would be home later that night in New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania. I’m in a hurry, too, but I don’t know what I’m hurrying towards.

It was good that I met Harold. He talked about riding in the engine of a freight train once all the way down to Florence. He talked about things in Florida, all involving trains, but I’m pretty sure that Dunn was his universe. I think he’s happy there; happy with the small town and happy with the trains that pass through. He knows what he wants and is in no hurry at all. I think my heart rate slowed down just due to the slow pace of the words that came out of him. I think it was good that I met him because hanging around with happy people is a good cure for mopey-ness.

On Saturday night, at least, I have a feeling Harold was happy. He was watching the trains pass with his buddies. I hope it was almost like 1996.