life was simple

Our house was only 10 yards from the railroad tracks and 50 yards from the end of the train station. It was a small rented cottage, one of five allocated to families of track workers. We had waited several years before the two bedroom cottage became available. The bedrooms were small and I was allocated a bed on the enclosed porch. There were no windows, only a wire screen to keep out the insects and a large canvas roller blind to keep out the light. It was cold and noisy.

The Railroad Worker’s Cottage
The Railroad Worker’s Cottage

My bed was no more than 15 yards from the tracks so I heard every train that passed by during the night or stopped to fill the steam engine’s tank with water. The only heating in our house was in the small kitchen at the back where a wood-fired stove kept the room warm during the winter. The kitchen was our family room and we talked, listened to the radio, played card games and had all of our meals there, huddled around the stove.

Hot water was available from a large cast iron kettle that sat on the side of the stove and from a wood chip heater in the bathroom, a separate building at the end of the yard. The laundry with a wood-fired copper tub for boiling the dirty clothes was in another small building. My job was to cut the wood into small pieces for the kitchen stove, the bath heater and the fire under the copper tub.

It was our first and only home as a family, we didn’t own it but we loved it. The cottage was near the town, the station where my father caught the train to work and close to school for me. We moved into the cottage when I was about six years old from a single room at the back of my aunt’s house. The extra space was heaven to us and as we didn’t own a car being close to everything was important.

There was no barrier or fence separating the railroad tracks from the narrow path in front of our house so each day I carefully crossed the double tracks, walked past the iron clad workers’ shed, and climbed over the back fence of the school. I could hear the school bell ring from our house signaling that it was time for me to get to the classroom before roll call. My mother watched me cross the tracks from our front gate. When I started high school I left the house by the back gate and walked 10 minutes up a steep hill where I could look back down into the yard of our little cottage. We could not have found a more perfect home even if it was on the other side of the tracks.

There were many benefits from living next to the railroad tracks. The freight train engine drivers threw lumps of coal for our stove onto the path outside the house. Carting them inside was easier for me at that age than cutting up large pieces of hardwood for the fire. The freight train drivers, who knew my father, would lift me up into the engine and take me to the next town. I loved standing there with the smell of burning coal, heat from the fire and smoke swirling around us. They let me pull the cord to blow the engine’s whistle as we approached crossings and to shovel coal into the firebox.

Riding the freight train was like driving the back roads across the country past old farm houses and machinery sheds, through herds of cattle and sheep, and past farmers riding on horses or tractors. Occasionally we would see a small airplane or crop duster flying low along the tracks for the pilot to read the name on the stations. It was their way of navigating.

At the end of my journey the driver would hand me over to another freight train heading back to our town where the new driver would lower me onto the tracks near the station. My mother did not know about these excursions.

Along the sunny side of our house, my mother planted beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, melons and strawberries. We had a grape vine that covered the side of the wood shed and a choko (chayotes) vine along the fence. At the front of the house near the railroad tracks my mother grew flowers and planted two fruit trees in the tiny garden. There wasn’t a piece of dirt that didn’t have something growing in it.

On the other side of the tracks near the school were larger houses, the railroad station and main part of the town with its 28 hotels and many stores. A short bicycle ride away was the river where we swam and fished in the summer.

Life was simple in those days. Get out of bed, have a quick wash under the cold tap outside the house and hurry into the warm kitchen where breakfast was waiting. When the school bell rang I grabbed my bag, checked there were no trains coming and hurried cross the tracks. After school I lingered in the school grounds to play football or race other kids to the fence and back until the teachers told us to go home as they were locking the gates. My mother was waiting for me at home to make sure I did my chores before dinner. We talked and spent a lot of time together as my father was away from home a lot, working and drinking beer at the local hotel.

We lived there for 12 years before I left home after my mother’s death. I returned briefly, after being away for several months, but it was not the same. The house was dusty and cold, the plants in the vegetable garden had died, the fruit trees and grapevine were bare and there was no wood for the kitchen stove. My father and brother only slept at the cottage, it was no longer a family home and I had no place in it.

It was almost ten years before I saw my old home again and another family was living there. The house looked smaller than I remembered. I walked around the house and stopped at the front by the railroad tracks to look over the fence. There were no vegetables, only untidy garden beds and bushes. The new family didn’t need to grow fresh vegetables and fruit as at the back of the house was a shiny new car, parked where I once cut up the firewood.

Train Station
Train Station

I crossed the tracks to peer over the fence into the school and two track workers shouted that I was to cross by the bridge. Ignoring them I walked faster to a gate that lead to the street next to the school. The gate was locked and with the men now running towards me I climbed over the fence into the school yard startling the children and a teacher who had heard the shouting. I walked up to the teacher, smiled and said: This was how I came to school when I was seven from that little cottage on the other side of the tracks. I had to do it one last time.

Before she replied I walked quickly across the schoolyard and through the gate into the street leaving the bemused teacher and the railroad workers behind. I drove up the long steep hill where I had walked each day to high school and looked down on my old home. I was happy we lived there as a family even though it was only for a short time. It was from the little cottage by the railroad tracks I went to school, learned to play football, basketball and baseball, and developed my interest in trains and travel. But it was time for me to leave as I had no family there.

It was many years before I returned to the town for a funeral. My old home was gone, replaced by a large iron-clad shed with a concrete floor covering the memories. I didn’t walk across the tracks to the school or drive up the hill to look down on where our house had been. I sat in the car across the street with a picture in my mind of the old cottage and the family that once lived there.

Before leaving the town I drove to the cemetery to thank my family for the few happy years we lived in the little cottage that was only a few feet on the other side of the tracks.


Images: the photos in this story were taken by the author, Ken Peacock
Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.