Player With Railroads

I spent a good chunk of my very early childhood at my grandparents’ homes in Ridgeland, South Carolina and Albemarle, North Carolina. While the towns’ characters and looks were quite different in many ways, both of their urban centers had similarities, shaped as they were by the railroad networks within them.

Albemarle was a cotton processing town, so there was a spiderweb of small spurs and crossings hanging off of the Winston Salem Southbound main line, all designed to get slow-moving freight cars close to the loading docks of the Wiscassett and Cannon Mill plants in town. Ridgeland, on the other hand, was always a railroad waypoint: the town was founded at the middle of the old Charleston to Savannah Railroad, and long, loud trains have always barrelled down its civic spine on their way from somewhere to somewhere else.

I was frequently taken down to the railroad centers of these small Southern towns by my grandfathers and my dad, though my interests were different from most little boys my age: I cared less about trains than I cared about tracks. The nascent map and system nerd in me was fascinated by the way that fixed rails could be managed to control huge moving objects, shifting and shuttling cars, making way for engines going opposite ways, building long lines of boxes and tanks, and storing fallow carstock on sidings.

I liked watching trains as they passed by, of course, but I wasn’t looking at their engines or their brightly painted boxcars, I was watching their wheels to see how the tracks got them where they needed to go. And when I wasn’t down by the mills or the crossings, I could often be found poring over maps, tracing with my finger the evocative little cross-hatch railroad symbols as they cut across pastures, wound their way through towns, divided, diverted, spread their fingers into rail yards, then knotted themselves together again like cables connecting mainlines. It was like being lost in the sclerotic circulatory system of a nation already transitioning to its own futuristic autobahn era.

That love of tracks and the trains they carry has stuck with me into adulthood, and I’ve always appreciated train travel, even when it’s not a terribly efficient or effective method of getting places. While the Albany to Penn Station AMTRAK run was a great, quick, affordable way to get to New York City for the many years we lived Upstate, the over-night route from Penn Station to the Low Country of South Carolina wasn’t quite so effective. Marcia and Katelin did that trip with me once, and they still tease me about it, since I gave them our sleeper car, and I sat upright all night long in coach, next to a nice old lady who shared her bucket of cold fried chicken with me.

While railroads don’t color my creative subconscious quite as much as the woods do, they do creep into my writing, especially my poetry — and, as I think about my some of my railroad poems today, I realize that their focus has indeed been as much on tracks as on the trains they carry. The tag line of this current blog (“slow molasses drip under a tipped up crescent moon”), for example, is from a poem called “Jefferson Water,” which describes a midnight trip:

. . . rollin’ down carriage lanes through Porterstown
and Bisco City, Eastern Hellebore, Locust, Clyde,
rollin’ on down that dead rail line, bringin’ me mine . . .

Another one, called “Cow Catcher,” begins thusly:

The engineer stands way back in the dusty cab
of the 2-6-2 engine rolling southwest from Canadys,
bound first for Hampton and then for Savannah,
heavy with a load of southern yellow pine trees.

And then there’s “Annexation,” which evokes a certain part of town where:

A railroad spur splits the annexed land in half.
Rusting grain silos and coal bins
nestled against the tracks.

Or “The Light,” about a trio of disbelieving ghost hunters who have a surprising experience one night:

We looked due west, down the tracks.
There was an overhead trestle about fifty yards out.
We couldn’t see it clearly late at night,
except as a starless black bar above the rail bed.
A little bit further out, the trees closed in around the tracks.
The line had been abandoned for twenty years, at least.
If you hunkered down, it looked like a darkened stage:
trees as curtains, dark trestle making the arch.

Or “The Mill:”

Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about trains and tracks over the past couple of months since we’ve moved to Chicago, since they’re pretty much a daily part of my existence now. Marcia and I ride the Blue and Red Line subways regularly, the rumble of the elevated trains around the Loop is a part of the sonic experience of being downtown, and the Burlington-Santa Fe North line carries the Metra trains I take out to work in Naperville every day.

I love the hustle and bustle of passing through Union Station, beneath which vast, knotted networks of tracks carry tens of thousands of people in and out the city every day. Coming back from work each day, I can sense that I’m close to my destination when the train makes a sharp left turn northward in the midst of a huge field of rolling stock, an industrial staging ground for a continent’s worth of commerce.

Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” is rightfully one of the most famous creative pieces ever written about the city where Marcia and I now make our home. I have always loved the language of the poem, and living here, I have come to appreciate its meaning all the more, especially its third line:

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler . . .

I’ve followed and dreamed of tracks for as long as I can remember, a “player with railroads” in my own small, odd way. My life’s mainline has now carried me and Marcia to Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders, which is proving a wonderful way station, its sidings filled with history, its freight yards rich with bounty, its crossings loud and electric, and its roundhouses pointing us toward marvels every way they turn.

It will take a long time to explore and internalize these tracks and trains of Chicago, and to make them our own, each in our own way, sometimes in the sleeper car, sometimes in coach. I look forward to that experience very much — but I also know that there will always be at least one mysterious track for us both, heading into the unseen distance, off the edge of the map, its station stops and final destination unmarked and unknowable to us, until the time when the conductor shouts “All aboard, and don’t forget your bucket of chicken” and we hop that train, hand in hand, to our next great adventure together.

Five Bands You Need to Hear

If you’ve been following along here for any period of time, it should probably come as no surprise that I listen to a lot of relatively obscure bands. It’s not out of a desire to be counter-cultural or hipper-than-thou, since I would really love it if the charts were dominated by the things I enjoy, because then I wouldn’t have to read about so much crap in the popular music press. No, it’s more just a matter of justice not necessarily being fairly dispensed when it comes to quality music. So to help promote the causes of some of my favorites from off the beaten track, I introduce you to the following five bands who should, absolutely, be better known than they are, if not rich and famous. Some are currently active, some are of historic interest, all are great. I give you a sample from each one, and encourage you to buy something from any or all of them at your earliest convenience. You will be glad you did. As will they.

1. The Weasels: This Albany, New York-based ensemble have been steadily creating an undeniably great body of work over the past quarter century, one perfectly-crafted album after another. Like Steely Dan, the group features a meticulous core pair of songwriters (mysteriously known as Dr. Fun and Roy Weasell) who draft great combinations of session players to bring their archly sardonic compositions to life in glorious jazzy Technicolor, sometimes with trombones. Unlike Steely Dan, The Weasels’ lyrical obsessions include The Larry Trinity (Hovis, Fine and Storch), famous killers, UFOs, and cheese. They’ve got a new EP, Also Sprach Larrythustra, coming out this fall, and their back catalog is highly recommended, all the way through. Sample song: “Jimmy’s Talking Pants.”

2. Octopus: Wikipedia will tell you that there are a few bands that have used this name commercially over the years, but the one I’m talking about is a British psychedelic pop band founded and led by Englishman Paul Griggs, active from 1969 to 1971. They’re better known these days as footnotes in some of their members’ later biographies (Noel Griggs and Malcolm Green went on to play in Spliz Enz, while Brian Glascock played with The Motels andseveral other bands with his late, great, bass-playing brother, John), but Octopus are well worth hearing in their own right, having left one great album, Restless Night, in their creative wake. Its cover must be seen to be believed, which counts for something, even now. Wow. Sample song: “The River.”

3. Doyle: The Misfits are a well-known and historically significant band, though they’ve mostly descended into parody and musical irrelevance in recent years, as bassist Jerry Only preserves the franchise with a variety of sidemen, much to the outspoken chagrin of original singer Glenn Danzig. Longtime ‘fits guitarist Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein (who is also Only’s kid brother) issued an album a couple of years ago with his own self-named band (also featuring fellow ex-Misfit Dr. Chud and Alex Story of Cancerslug), and rather than being a vanity sideman project, it’s easily the best thing to come out of the extended Misfits family tree in a couple of decades. If you love the horror punk and/or epic screaming lead guitars then don’t miss this classic disc. Sample song: “Valley of the Shadows.”

4. Love Songs for Lonely Monsters: I first became aware of Love Songs for Lonely Monsters when I downloaded Maximum Ames Records’ great Sonic Harvest compilation soon after moving to Iowa, as a convenient way of orienting myself to the Hawkeye State’s musical community. LS4LM (as they’re colloquially known) contributed a song called “Reputation” to the compilation, and it became an instant Smith Family favorite as one of our most played songs of 2012. While it’s not really helpful to compare one relatively obscure band to another one, LS4LM always remind me of Athens, Georgia’s cult favorite Pylon, with strong female vocals, great lyrics, and angular guitar-based rock with a beat you can dance to. The Monsters issued one excellent eponymous album after Sonic Harvest, after which they appear to have gone into a quiet hibernation, based on lack of gigs or activity on their website. They aren’t (or weren’t) prolific in the studio, but they were dynamite in person and on disc, and deserve to be widely heard. Sample song: “Ganglion Sister (Live).”

5. Good Rats: I’ve written about Long Island’s finest at length before (see “In Praise of Good Rats“), but you may not have listened to me when I did it, so I’m going to keep telling you about them until you get with the program. Rolling Stone once dubbed them “The world’s most famous unknown band,” as The Good Rats seemed (and still seem) to be a band more people have heard of than actually heard. This is a shame. I saw them play live half a dozen times in the ’70s at the peak of their collective powers, at large arenas (stealing Rush’s thunder as openers at Nassau Coliseum) and small venues (a summer party at Eisenhower Park) alike, and they rocked their audiences like nobody’s business, no matter how many people they were playing for. Their studio albums are great fun, too, with awesome chunky rock chops supporting the late Peppi Marchello’s weirdly progressive songs and lyrics, most featuring glorious singalong choruses. Or shout along, if that’s your style. Anybody can do it. At bottom line: you don’t have to be from Long Island to love the Good Rats, as they make everything tastier. Sample Song: “City Liners.”


1. In Des Moines, I generally got up at about 6am, made coffee, did my morning reading on the computer, cleaned up, dressed, and got to work a little before 8am. In Chicago, I get up at 6am, walk or bus to the train station, read my paper and have my coffee in transit, and get to work a little before 8am. Beyond distance traveled, the morning is not radically different, time wise. Evenings in Chicago, I’ve been getting home around 6:15pm at the end of the reverse commute (with about 35 minutes of book reading time on the train), which is about an hour later than I did in Iowa. But by that time, I’ve generally walked some 10,000 steps per my FitBit as part of my commute, which eliminates the need to spend 45 minutes or so on an elliptical at the gym at night. So my time at the office, and my free time at home with Marcia are working out about the same — though with orders of magnitude more things to do within a mile of where we live, Chicago is currently ahead on the scorecard in terms of weekly life routines. I will be traveling a lot more in the new job (trips already on the calendar to Pittsburgh, Waco, Orlando, Knoxville, Grand Cayman, Des Moines, among other locales), but one of my priorities in seeking a new job was to return to have a national (or international) reach, so this is a good thing, which I expect to enjoy.

2. With almost two weeks under my belt as President and CEO of the TREE Fund, I’m enjoying the work, the staff, the board, the opportunities, and getting to know the international community of urban and community forestry professionals that we support. Our major operating fundraiser is the STIHL Tour Des Trees, a 500+ mile cycling event that typically pulls in around a quarter-million dollars a year. Due to some pre-existing competing personal commitments, I will only be able to ride four days of the seven day Florida-based event this year, from Orlando, to Ruskin, to Sarasota, to Punta Gorda, to Ft Myers Beach, but that will still put about 350 miles of road beneath my wheels, so I am excited about that as well. We are already developing the 2016 Tour route, and I’m delighted that it will be in my native Carolina region, so more on that when we make the formal route announcement later this year. At which point, I’ll be hitting you all up for fundraising support, so be prepared.

3. A couple of artsy-fartsy-ish snaps of where we’re living these days. The views still haven’t gotten old for me:


Our temporary apartment in Aqua tower, back lit by the setting sun.


Night view from outside 340 on the Park, where will we be moving in two weeks.

4. Great book alert: I’m about three-quarters of the way through Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and am loving it. I suspect it could result in a Five By Five Books article soon. Unless she blows the ending. (Please don’t! Please!) Standby.

5. Marcia and I have been to two wonderful free concerts put on by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in recent weeks (review of one here), and are very much looking forward to the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, and to attending their Annual Fundraising Gala in October.

6. On a slightly less posh note, we’re also going to Riot Fest this month. Only for one day, but it will include Iggy Pop, System Of A Down (!), The Damned, Bootsy Collins, GWAR, Rancid and a few dozen others, so plenty of opportunities to get our funk, mosh, and skank on, as appropriate.

7. After nearly four years without reading a daily newspaper regularly, I’m happy to have The Chicago Tribune with me each morning on the train. While I don’t necessarily embrace their political/editorial views, I do like the feel of newsprint and am acquiring a better sense of the people, places, politics and things that make my new home community tick. I’ve particularly been enjoying columnist Rex Huppke, especially this piece about McDonalds’ effort to undermine traditional breakfast values. That’s some sharp writing, there. Nice!

8. I remain a board member for the Association of Midwest Museums, so I’ve also been doing my part to take in our region’s amazing museum culture. As a vintage plane nerd, I was flabbergasted to learn that the Museum of Science and Industry has one of only two surviving Stuka dive-bombers in the world, along with a complete German unterseeboot. Marcia and I also enjoyed a jazz night out at the Shedd Aquarium, and we’ve taken advantage of the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago membership that my staff at Salisbury House gave me as a parting gift. So much art! The brain can’t process it all! So we just keep going back and going back, happily.

9. Tuesday Morning Quarterbacks, my long-time fantasy football league (of which I am reigning champion, thank you very much) held its live draft last night, and I think I’ve got a very good team together. The league has had mostly-stable membership for a long time, but occasionally we have to recruit a new player. This year, The Pretzel Hammers joined the league, filling a gap created by a stalwart player moving out of the country. Their manager? Marcia! She finished second by a hair in her own league last year, so she knows how to get it done, competitively. This should make for some lively Smith Family football watching time in the upcoming months, especially during the two weeks when we go head-to-head. Huttah!

Press Release: TREE Fund names J. Eric Smith as its new President and CEO


TREE Fund names J. Eric Smith as its new President/CEO

 Naperville, IL, August 21, 2015 – The TREE Fund is pleased to welcome its new President/CEO, J. Eric Smith, who will take the reins at the Naperville, IL foundation August 24.

A South Carolina native, Smith is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. He served for ten years with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and the Department of Energy. Since leaving Federal service, he has spent 20 years in the public sector working in fundraising, communications, public relations, operations and executive management, most recently as the Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa.

17741079020_307d1ddb3a_z“As an avid outdoorsman, hiker and lover of green spaces I am a life-long beneficiary of the arboriculture industry’s contributions to the health and beauty of our planet,” Smith said. “I am excited by the opportunity to help the industry address the challenges to the urban forest posed by climate change, urbanization and other ongoing social and scientific changes. There are few things more powerful than knowledge, and I believe that the types of primary research and education programs that the TREE Fund makes possible can and should be widely communicated and leveraged to benefit as many communities, businesses, citizens and industries as possible.”

Randall H. Miller, TREE Fund Board Chairman, expressed confidence in the foundation’s new leadership. “Eric’s unique skill set includes the intelligence of a nuclear physicist, the dedication and discipline of a naval officer and the fundraising and interpersonal skills of an experienced public sector executive. He is eminently qualified to lead the TREE Fund into the future, and we’re looking forward to working with him.”

About TREE Fund

The TREE Fund is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge in urban forestry and arboriculture (the science of caring for trees in a landscape). Since 2002 the TREE Fund has distributed nearly $2.6 million in research grants, scholarships and funding for environmental education to advance the science, practice and safety of tree care and engage the next generation of tree stewards.

With support from individual and corporate donors and major sponsors STIHL Inc., Bartlett Tree Experts, The Davey Tree Expert Company, Arborjet, Asplundh, ISA, KASK, TCIA and Florida Chapter ISA, TREE Fund research has contributed to:

  • Better understanding of air pollution reduction and carbon sequestration by trees
  • Quantification of the benefits trees provide to urban settings
  • Improved survival rates for trees in difficult sites
  • Improved strategies for vegetation management by utilities
  • More effective disease and pest management strategies for urban trees

For more information, visit

Speak for the trees with a gift to the TREE Fund!

Low Cackalacky

I spent most of this week in Savannah, Georgia with my mother, doing a little exploratory house-hunting work for places that might be good for vacations, retirement, or getaway destinations for various members of our tribe. Of course, while we were there, we had to make the pilgrimage across the Savannah River into the Low Country of South Carolina from whence our people spring. As good Southerners, this means we spent most of our time in cemeteries, because that’s how we roll. Here are some highlights.

We visited my Dad, first, at Beaufort National Cemetery, and left him some sunflowers, Spanish moss, Oyster shells and chiggers to help him ward off the ground moles that were his bane in any Low Country yard for which he was responsible.


Dad always appreciated the importance of “location, location, location” when it came to real estate, so he got a nice corner lot in Beaufort National Cemetery to make sure that no undesirable neighbors moved in around him.


Dad’s immediate neighbor is “Harris,” who served and died in the Civil War as a member of the United States Colored Troops — freed slaves who fought for the Union in South Carolina. We do not know Harris’ first name (or if he had one), as noted in an article I wrote some years ago about my research to identify him. But he’s good company, and we pay our respects when we visit.


We stopped in Lobeco for some boiled peanuts on our way out to our family cemetery at Stoney Creek. They’re always better when you buy them from roadside stands like this one.


Stoney Creek Cemetery is a bit off the beaten path, tucked back in the woods behind a former rice paddy.


You have to walk slow and be careful in the cemetery, lest you step on fire ants or snakes. Or fire ants and snakes. They’re pretty much ubiquitous.


My grandparents got a nice corner lot, too, though one of their shade trees has seen better days.


William Ferguson Colcock was a member of the United States Congress, among many other notable accomplishments. He was my great great great grandfather, and married to Emmeline Huguenin, for whom my niece is named.


The oldest clearly legible tombstone at Stoney Creek belongs to Thomas Heyward Sr. His nephew, Thomas Heyward Jr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.


From Stoney Creek, we headed up to Yemassee, home of the region’s sole Amtrak train station — and (more importantly) Hughes’ Grocery, which hangs on and hangs on and hangs on, though I doubt that anybody has actually purchased anything there in a decade or so.


This is the road between Pocotaligo and McPhersonville. When my sister and I were young, we found it inexplicably terrifying, and spent most trips on it cowering in the back seat with eyes closed. It’s still a bit spooky, all these years on.


Stoney Creek Presbyterian Church in McPhersonville. Our family’s land and home were just beyond the woods behind it.


Next stop, Ridgeland, where my Mom spent her middle and high school years, and where I spent my early years when my Dad was abroad in the Marine Corps. My grandmother, aunt and mother worked at the Plantation Restaurant in Ridgeland at various times over the years. It has seen better days, alas.


The KB seemed like a space-aged grocery store when it was built in the 1960s, the fantastic future of produce shopping. Not so much in 2015.


This link shows a photo of my grandfather and great uncle building the house in Ridgeland where my Mom’s side of the family lived from 1955 until around 1980. Sixty years after its construction, shall we also say that it has seen better days? I provide three photos below to give you the full panoramic experience of what it was like for us to drive by it this week, jaws agape. I have to say that these shots are really worth clicking and enlarging to properly explore the majesty of the compound these folks have established in our former home. In addition to the obvious hot tub, Bunny truck, flatbed trailer and scooter in the sandy front yard, I can find two grills, a treadmill, two dogs, three tires, seven bikes, and all sorts of other wonders. Plus, I love the way that the window air conditioning unit has been installed through the living room wall by knocking out a few cinder blocks. And the dolls, teddy bears and gifts hanging from eaves and trees? Priceless! This is Low Country living at its finest, for sure!




On a slightly less weird note, we also drove by the little bungalow nearby where my Mom and I lived for a bit. We called it “The Green House,” and it seemed to have aged a bit more gracefully. Even if it’s not green anymore.


The next day, we drove inland a bit for a nice visit to Aiken, South Carolina, then stopped by the historic hamlet of Gillisonville on our way back to Savannah. We went to visit my step-grandfather Joe where he rests at Gillisonville Baptist Church, but he was not home.


The Gillisonville cemetery has a lot of historic graves, like Stoney Creek, but as we walked around it, we also noted that its newer residents seemed to have a more whimsical approach to marking their remains than their staid counterparts down the coast. Here’s but one example of the types of unusual things we saw engraved on stones in Gillisonville Baptist; I think it is supposed to be a dog, though it could also be the Demon Azmahobeth. Hard to tell.


After a couple of nice days in the Low Country, Mom and I flew back to our homes in Chicago and Charlotte. It’s always good to check in on the spaces that define us, and where we feel our strongest senses of place. Even if they look like outtakes from a documentary on hoarding, or include spectral chihuahuas.