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Photo by Bob Gentry 2001 Stanyan Entertainment

A Thought for Today

Railroad trains are like a train of thought, not easily set out of mind. 


I'm grateful that some of my newer unpublished poems are getting some attention; ""Age is Better," "I Always Knew" and "Gods Were Going By" seem to generate a lot of mail. 

I've had a lot of feedback on the new poem I wrote and published here on December 12th to celebrate what would have been Frank Sinatra's 85th birthday. Frank was indeed a railroad aficionado and as I wrote that day, in his Palm Springs compound he had one of the most elaborate toy train sets I'd ever seen. I spent many a happy day and night playing with Frank and his Lionel's.

Whenever I traveled to someplace new I tried to pick up something to add to his collection. A boxcar from England, a clubcar from France and the complete down to the last detail (including Baccarat glass Panels) Orient Express I got from a dealer in Geneva.

Johnny Mercer loved trains too. Look at all the train motif songs he gave us; "The Atchiston, Topeka and The Santa Fe," "Blues in the Night" with it's 'clickety-clack, echoing back' chorus and its oh so blue line 'now the rain's a-fallin, hear the train a-callin' whooee, hear that lonesome whistle blowin' cross the trestle, whooee.

"I Thought About" you starts out 'I took a trip on the train and I thought about you' and "PS I Love You" contains the memorable almost matter of fact line 'Was it dusty on the train?'

Even "Hit the Road to Dreamland," from the film "Star Spangled Rhythm" was sung on a train by Dick Powell, Mary Martin and The Golden Gate Quartet dressed up as Pullman Porters. While there are no train lyrics in it the decision to film it in a coach car was Johnny's idea and not the directors. Harold Arlen, the songs composer has a wonderful rail-like rhythm moving in the background. Taken in this context "Trav'lin Light" can be added to Johnny's train cannon as can "Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home."

'And you see Laura on the train that is passing thru' could only have come from the pen of Mercer. I've left out more examples of Johnny's fascination with trains that I've included.

It was Sinatra who told me that "Johnny always carries a train schedule in his breast pocket" and sure enough shortly after "Lonesome Cities" (for which Sinatra took the cover photograph) was published Johnny called and said "Hey Kid, we have to write a train song together." He had just read "The Art of Catching Trains" and said it 'knocked him out.'

We started our train song but never completed it because I was on the road so much and Johnny went off to England to work on "The Good Companions" musical with Andre Previn. I'll finish it one day, as I'll finish our Christmas songs. Who know, maybe even in time to include it in the Mercer/McKuen "Good Companions" album. 

By the by, one of the more delicious treats around is Capitol's CD (80326) "Frank Sinatra sings the select Johnny Mercer."

Here's some of the feedback on the poem I dedicated to FS.

Funny - I know about your hobo days and your fascination with trains -certainly expressed in detail I haven't heard before, but I didn't know about your playing with toy train sets. That must've come after your more affluent days! That all reminded me of grammar school days when I used to walk the railroad tracks from the Berkeley Station to Page or 10th - can't remember
which went which way now - but it was six blocks. The trick was to balance walking on the track itself for the whole six blocks without loosing my balance, or having to get off because of an oncoming train. I didn't make it all the way very often. That's an old memory I'd forgotten about that your poem triggered, and a nice tribute to Frank too. Thanks. Love 'n prayers, Sister Mark


You captured the longing and the sadness that seems to accompany train travel beautifully. Thanks, Paul Upland


The new poem about trains is just gorgeous.....Mind you... I am a train freak. So many memories of being on tour with my Mum and dad...... a different station every Sunday morning.... Half my childhood was spent catching trains, moving into new digs every week, standing in the wings while my folks took band call on a Monday morning, sleeping with my brother in a double bed so they only had to rent one room for us....

Trains are so wonderful..... I took Andrea from the board for a ride on puffing billy... a hundred year old steam train... with a transvestite station master called Sue!!! truly....thank you for the new poem....You truly do, like vintage wine or fine cognac, get better with age. Love, Coral


For 26 years I was an engineer on the B.&O. No other poet or songwriter writes so tellingly about the romance of the rails as you do. Phil Hollenbeck


Hi Rod, The new poem is great - I love it. Another reason to dance....... (I'm starting to feel like Ginger Rogers.) Love, Ann


When you write about trains I always feel sorry that they are no longer part of most of our daily lives. Ted Pool


Dear Rod: What a beautiful poem for Frank and the world. I can just picture you and Frank playing with the choo-choos. Maybe I could take one of my wonderful pictures. I Loved your FP for Frank. Love, Nan


"This about Trains": What a beautiful, beautiful, gorgeous poem and a wonderful tribute to your friend. I know you will receive a lot of positive email . . .Susan


What is it about trains? While I certainly haven't had as much experience with them as your poems and songs tell me you have I too feel nostalgia for everything to do with trains. It could be all of us are longing for a simpler time without crowded highways and not so friendly skies. Kerwin Matthews


Dear Rod, Just a quick type to say thank you for sharing your beautiful poem of today's FP. Frank would still be very proud of you and your words, Sonja


At fifteen I don't know much about trains but you make me want to know more about them and what my generation has missed by not having much exposure to them. Bill Sauerweinn, Tulsa

As Webmaster Ken pointed out in his September 22, 1999 "This One Does it for Me" feature, I often perform The Art of Catching Train and To Watch the Trains together in concert. While I'm still putting the March concert program together I'm definitely thinking about doing them in the show, or I might substitute "This About Trains" and do Hedy West's "500 Miles" instead. Anyway, below are both "The Art of Catching Trains" and "To Watch the Trains." 

                         RM 12/30/2000 Previously unpublished

notable birthdays


Isaac Asimov o Jim Bakker o Bill Bradley (football) o Tia Carrere o Gabrielle Carteris o Taye Diggs o Jason Evers o Dick Feller o Cuba Gooding, Jr. o Dennis Hastert o Julius LaRosa o James Melton o Roger Miller o Lucretia Mott o Robert Nathan o Sally Rand o Joseph Stalin o Renata Tebaldi o Christy Turlington o Vera Zorina

Rod's random thoughts Part of the country not to be recovered moves off when cars are disconnected, left at sidings and forgotten.
-from "This About Trains"

Trains aren't just transportation, they are memory triggers.

I'm a Railroad Man not by thought but by design. An engineer between my ears with freight trains on my mind.
-from "Railroad Man" by Johnny Cash & Rod McKuen




I came through the clothesline maze 
                  of childhood
in basketball shoes.
Up from the cracked cement of sidewalks.
Long hair blowing in the breeze
from barber-college haircuts.
I moved into the country
knowing love better than long division.

Tricking out with women twice my age
we acted out our own French postcards.
Dr. Jekyll in the schoolyard,
Mr. Hyde behind the barn.

After school the trains,
their whistles known by heart.
Pennies flattened on a rail
and dresser drawers with matchbooks
         from every northern town -
thrown by unknown travelers
who never waved back.

I knew the U.P. right of way so well
that gandy dancers called me tow-head
till they learned my name
and engineers would sometimes whistle
               down the scale
          on seeing my arm raised.

Baseball's just a sissy game
to anyone who's waved at passing trains.

You learn from hobos
the art of catching trains.
Locomotives slow at trestles
and whistle-stops
         to hook the mail.

Diving through an open box car
you lie there till your breath comes back.
Then standing in the doorway you're the king
as crowns of hills and towns go by
and nighttime eats the summer up
and spits the stars across the sky.

How did I come to know
so many lonesome cities
with only pennies in my pockets ?
I smiled a lot
       and rode a lot of trains
and got to know conductors
and railroad bulls by name.
From Alamo to Naples is a ride
that took me nearly twenty years.
But here I am,
my cardboard suitcase traded in for leather.


Now a traveler
under the gray-black winter sky
moving down the mountain by torchlight,
I've come to find
a gathering of eagles.
Not for the sake of mingling
        with the great birds,
but only to justify
a thousand streets walked end to end.
Ten thousand evenings spent listening
to the small sounds of the night
in station after station.

Not every town in Switzerland
has a golden Gondelbahn,
but there are other ways
to climb the hills
and reach the lonesome cities
                    of the world.

Riding friendly bodies
you can inch your way to Heaven
let alone the far side of the room
and who'd deny that brushing elbows
            in certain streets
has not produced for every man
at least one vision of Atlantis.

For me old habits don't break easily
                       I wait for trains.

Sometimes I feel I've always been
just passing through.
On my way away, or toward.
Shouting alleluias at an unseen choir
or whispering Fado's down beneath my breath
         waiting for an echo
not an answer.
Everybody has the answers
or they'll make them up
                       for you.

Just once I'd like to hear
a brand-new question.

What about the trains you ride
do they go fast or slow
would I recognize your face
clacking past the poplar trees
if I were stationed on some hill ?

If I did I'd know you
by the look of nothing in your eyes,
the kindred look that travelers have,
the one that says a tentative hello.

If while riding down the rails
you see a boy in overalls
along the railroad right of way,
                wave as you go by.
Signal with a frown
you too are going down
                 that same road.

Small boys need encouragement
the freight trains in their minds
will only take them just so far.
Be kind
    for small boys need to grow.

from the book & album "Lonesome Cities," 1967


I came through the clothesline maze of childhood
Up from the cities in the rain
And if you wonder what I'm doing in the wild wood
Well I'm off on the hills to watch the trains.

I grew as the vine is fond of growing
But I doubt that I'd grow that way again
And if you wonder where it is I'm going
Well it's down through the town To Watch The Trains.

And the whistles blow as a lighted row of windows
Race around the room and then they go.
Is it any wonder that a man like me
Puts his luck in locomotives
That go racing to the sea.

Well I don't know what's happening tomorrow,
Maybe I'll catch me a fast express and then
My address will be the other side of sorrow;
'til then, I'll look thru the window watching trains.

- from the album "Lonesome Cities" 1967, Stanyan Music Group & Rod McKuen
1966, 1967, 1999, 2001 by Stanyan Music Group & Rod McKuen. All Rights Reserved
Birthday research by Wade Alexander o Poetry from the collection of Jay Hagan o Coordinated by Melinda Smith
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