Image source: pixundfertig on Pixabay
Ritchie’s grandmother had just turned out the light on his nightstand. She sounded tired. He smiled at her in the dim light of his room, hoping she would see how nicely he was asking. “Will you sing the train song?”
“Little one, you need to go to sleep. It’s your birthday tomorrow, and it will be a big day. Rest now.” As she said this, she set the storybook she had been reading on her lap and leaned back in the chair.
With a small sigh, she sat up again. “Fine. You will go to sleep then, and no more shenanigans?”
Ritchie promised with scout's honor. His grandmother tucked him into his blankets and began to sing, with her aging, sonorous voice.
Train whistle’s blowin’. Makes a sleepy noise.
Underneath their blankets, go all the girls and boys.
Rocking, rolling, riding, out along the bay.
All bound for Morningtown, many miles away.
She paused in the song, perhaps hoping he had fallen asleep.
“Don’t stop singing, Grandma,” Ritchie said, though his pillow was soft and sleep pulled at him. A slowly swirling pattern of yellow stars circled the room from his night light, lulling him toward slumber. But it was his turn to be the engineer in the song, and he longed to hear the next part.
Grandma smiled, then yawned and Ritchie could see her bright false teeth in the glow of the swirling stars. “Very well.”
Ritchie's at the engine, Sammy rings the bell,
Alex swings the lantern to show that all is well.
Rocking, rolling, riding, out along the bay,
All bound for Morningtown, many miles away.
Ritchie loved hearing his name in the song, and his brother’s names as well. When they were younger, they would all crowd into the bed together for bedtime stories, and the night time song. Sometimes one of his parents went through the routine, and sometimes Grandma.
His brothers were quite a bit older than Ritchie, and close in age to each other. They were teenagers now, and had their own bedrooms. They hardly noticed Ritchie at all anymore, and if they did it would be to tease him, or tell him that he was small and weird. Even so, Ritchie insisted that they all had a turn as the engineer when his parents or grandmother sang him the song, for he missed his brothers and the nights when they had been all together. The next night it would be Sammy at the engine, then Alex, then back to Ritchie.
Yawning, and nearly unable to keep his eyes open, he said, “Finish it, Grandma. Please.” And so she did.
Maybe it is raining where our train will ride,
But all the little travelers are snug and warm inside.
Somewhere there is sunshine, somewhere there is day,
Somewhere there is Morningtown, many miles away.
With a deep sigh, he turned onto his side, and pulled his teddy bear close. When he looked at his grandma, he realized she had fallen asleep in the chair next to his bed.
What was that sound? Far off, he heard the unmistakable sound of an actual train, softly chugging along in the night. He could not remember a train anywhere near their home, but then again they had only moved there a few months before — when his parents wanted a bigger house, with a living space for his grandmother. Had he simply not heard it before?
“Grandma?” he whispered. “Do you hear the train?”
In response, his grandmother merely mumbled quietly in her sleep. He heard the train coming closer, and for a moment he worried that it would burst right through the walls into his bedroom. This was ridiculous, he realized. There were no tracks coming into the house! Still, he crawled back out of bed and found himself at the window, looking out into the night as the chugging sound came nearer and then the train’s horn sounded. Whoooot! Whoooot!
And there it was. The headlamp of the locomotive shone through the darkness, coming closer and closer. Steam rose from the engine in great puffs, like smoke from a dragon, and Ritchie was suddenly gripped with a mix of excitement and terror. How had he not known the railroad came so close? Yet there they were — the tracks — right outside his house.
He climbed up on his little desk, and unlocked and raised his window. Then he climbed through, landing on the soft grass with his bare feet, just as the train came to a halt, hissing and sighing like a monster at rest. Its massive hulking shape glimmered in the moonlight. It seemed to have been recently washed and polished, as it shone in the near darkness.
Just then, a man in uniform jumped down from the train. He was an elderly man, with a neat beard and spectacles that reflected light from the engine window. The man shuffled toward him, a kindly smile on his face. “Master Ritchie,” the man said. “It’s time to board, sir. The engineer has taken ill, and we’ll be late with the delivery if we don’t continue on.”
Ritchie looked around. Though the man had said his name, it hardly seemed possible that anyone would request the assistance of a boy to engineer a train. What would his parents say?
As if reading his mind, the man said, “It’s okay. We’ll have you back by morning.” Then he swept his hand toward the steps, and Ritchie climbed aboard, his way lit by a young man carrying a lantern and smiling broadly at him. He looked strangely familiar, like an older version of Ritchie’s brother Alex. The young man with the lantern handed him an engineer’s cap, lined with thin blue stripes, and he put it on.
Next thing he knew, he was in the engine car, looking out at the tracks extending far ahead into the night. Before him was a panel of gauges and switches. Another young man stood next to him in the engine car, and Ritchie felt sure he recognized him as well. But it was just that he bore a resemblance to his brother Sammy.
“Ready to ride?” the young man asked. Ritchie nodded, and the man pulled a small cord a few times, causing a bell to clang. Ding ding. Ding ding. Ding ding. Then he pulled another cord and the whistle blew. Whoooot! Whoooot!
Ritchie checked the steam pressure gauge and it seemed to be at the right level. “Release the brake!” he shouted. Then he moved a large lever into position. The train began to chug forward.
Faster and faster they moved as they made their way out of town, and out into the woods. They crossed lakes and rivers, shimmering in the moonlight. Ritchie kept the engine at a steady pace, chugging down the tracks toward their destination, and a feeling of peace came over him like he had never felt before.
Thunderheads had gathered in the sky, and for a while they drove along through a rainstorm that furiously pelted the windows. Then the rain tapered off and stopped, and the moon shone again through the parting clouds.
He turned to look, and there in the entranceway was the conductor who had greeted him. “We’ll keep an eye on the engine. You should check on the travelers."
“Okay,” Ritchie said. The man who rang the bell nodded at him, and took hold of the lever, and Ritchie walked through a sliding doorway to a coach car filled with children, all curled up and sleeping with blankets pulled up to their chins. Some were softly snoring. A few of the younger ones sucked their thumbs, and one was talking in his sleep.
Suddenly one of the children woke with a startled expression. “Where am I?” she cried. Tears filled her eyes and she looked as if she might be about to scream. This would, of course, wake up all of them, and then they would have more crying and screaming to contend with. In fact, a few other children stirred, and one cried out in his sleep.
Ritchie went to the girl. “Are you okay?”
The girl sat up. “Where are we going? Where is my mom?”
“I’m sure she’s waiting for you,” Ritchie said. “We are on our way to Morningtown. You should go back to sleep.” He handed the girl the teddy bear she had dropped on the floor, and tucked the girl’s blanket back in around her. The girl put her head back on her pillow and in a moment was fast asleep.
On the horizon, Ritchie saw the glow of sunrise, coming up behind the mountains. He returned to the engine car. Signs along the tracks indicated they were nearing the Morningtown station. He began to slow the train. At his nod, the engine mate pulled the whistle cord. Whooot! Whooot! Then he rang the bell. Ding ding. Ding ding. Ding ding. And Ritchie brought the train to a stop at Morningtown station.
The children disembarked sleepily and were met by parents who embraced them. The younger ones were picked up and gently cradled, or nestled against shoulders. Ritchie waved at them from the window of the engine, and some of the parents and children waved back.
Soon, he moved through the cars to the engine at the far end of the train. Dawn was coming. It was time to go home. The engine mate pulled the whistle and rang the bell. Ritchie moved the lever, and the train chugged back down the tracks, back over lakes and rivers and through forests, and finally to the outskirts of Riverdell, his home town. He signaled to pull the whistle cord. Then he slowed the train, and brought it to a stop again at the platform next to his house.
He smiled and said goodbye to the engine mate, as the bell clanged one more time. Then the man with the lantern showed him his way, as he stepped down from the train into the cool air of early morning. The conductor and the two young men stepped off the train as well.
“Thank you,” the old conductor said. “We really needed your help.” The two young men bumped him playfully and tossled his hair, just as his brothers sometimes did. Then they stepped back onto the train, waving goodbye as they boarded.
Ritchie climbed back in the window of his bedroom. His grandmother was snoring softly in the chair as he climbed back into his soft bed.
When he woke again, he was alone. The sun shone bright through the windows and he smelled the aromas of breakfast cooking in the kitchen. He sat up and stretched. A few moments later, his parents, his brothers and his grandmother all walked into his room, exclaiming “Happy Birthday, Ritchie!”
His brothers jostled and pushed one another and then jumped into Ritchie’s bed and tickled him and he laughed until he was afraid he would pee in his bed, and begged them to stop.
“Hey,” Sammy said. “What do you want to do on your birthday?”
“Yeah, kid,” Alex said. “We’ve given you a rough time lately. What would you like? We want to make it up to you.”
Ritchie looked at his parents, who nodded. But he just laughed and fell back on the bed, where he had a perfect view of the engineer’s cap he had set on his nightstand. “Thank you,” he said, “but you already have.”
Thank you very much for reading my story. As you can probably tell, I thought of children as the audience for this story.
Here's a brief background on what inspired it. I used to sing this song to my three children at bedtime. They always insisted on taking turns being named as the engineer, and I had to rotate from one to another each night. I just love the powerful imaginations of children. To them, when we sang the song, they really envisioned riding that train.
I learned the song from the children's entertainer, Raffi, who was one of our favorite people to listen to anytime we were in the car, especially on long road trips. You can hear it below. But I recently learned that the song is very old, and was originally sung by The Seekers, starting in the 1960s. Here's a version from 1964.
Raffi's version follows. He changed the song a bit to sing children's names for the three people who are at the engine, swinging the lantern and ringing the bell.
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