Sing the body electric
The only way to travel
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and
I engirth them,
They will not let me off till
I go with them, respond to them, And discorrupt them,
and charge them full with the charge of the soul. —Walt Whitman
HOW to keep on giving rides to kids of all ages at Creekmore Park in Fort Smith without their having to put up with all the noise, clamor, hisses—and ongoing repairs—that go with steam engines? Fort Smith’s city fathers and mothers may have come up with a way to replace the old steam locomotive that goes back to 1949 and till last year was still making it around the quarter-mile track in two laps. (The fare is a quarter but nobody is ever turned away.)
Now the same mix of nostalgia and economy can be offered electronically to the estimated 37,000 riders who show up every year to clamber aboard. It’ll soon be All Abo-o-rd! again if the city of Fort Smith accepts a low bid of $55,800 for a new electric train— rather than the bids of $83,000 and $85,000. It’s assuring to know that competition is still very much alive in this country even though the steam engine is growing extinct.
Doug Reinert, who directs Fort Smith’s parks department, was able to tell the city’s board of directors that Western Train of Temecula, Calif., has promised to supply a scaleddown version of a functioning steam mechanism with all the whistles and bells for delivery within two to three months. But this toy train would be run off an electric battery and carry carloads of passengers ‘round and ‘round the miniature track without needing to stop for a drink of water or a load of coal at regular intervals.
For some folks, riding the old steam and diesel trains at the park has been a family tradition. At 70, Larry Newman can remember riding old 999 as a boy back in the 1950s. Then his children rode it as a fun-filled rite of passage. “The train will bring out the kid in everybody,” he promises. By all means, let’s return to the past, for that would be true progress. But do it electronically.
Mr. Newman is one of a couple of drivers who act as engineer, conductor, guide and all of the above as he takes some 400 to 500 folks around the track every day since he accepted his job as trainman-in-general. A retired electrical inspector for the city of Fort Smith, he pauses before calling his new assignment a job, it’s so much fun. “Out there,” he says of his assignment, “you are the good guy all the time.” Imagine playing Santa Claus all year long. Or the person on the float who’s always throwing the beads in a year-long Mardi Gras. Now that’s living. John Mankin, now of Checotah, Okla., and formerly a resident of Fort Smith, says his grandfather used to take him for a ride on the little train—after the requisite amount of pleading and begging. “On a nice day,” Mr. Mankin recalls, “you could hear that whistle all over Park Hill.” May it long continue to stir the dreams of growing children and the memories of old folks with a full life to recount. And now all can continue to be stirred by its sound. Electronically.
THE COAL fields ain’t what they used to be, but the coal companies are catching on when it comes to mining them electronically. These days their executives have put out the Help Wanted sign for workers who know how to mine with gigabytes of data and a joystick at their command that can maneuver coal-mining trucks that weigh hundreds of tons and dig into the earth hundreds of miles away. And instead of risking life and limb and lungs, the worst injury a miner may risk nowadays is a sprained thumb.
Out in California, which is still the land of the future when it comes to turning out the latest in American cars and trucks, all-electric cars may soon be rolling off the assembly lines instead of old-fashioned horseless carriages powered by fossil fuels. That state is considering a bill to give buyers of electric cars a handsome rebate even before they’ve cleared the lot in their all-electric roadsters and sedans. That state could spend up to $3 billion a year to put people with average incomes behind the wheel of the all-electric car of the future.
That future may already be here for lucky Californians who have learned to sing of the (car) body electric.