Thursday, May 10, 2007

2am Explains the Photo

Train leaving on Track 5 for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuuuu-ca-mon-gaaa! (pause) Doesn't anybody want to go to Anaheim, Azusa, or Cucamonga?

-- the voice of Mel Blanc, The Jack Benny Program [1]

The comments from my last post made it clear that perhaps the question was a bit too broad. I apologize, and I promise not to go all EuroPosh on you since this blog isn't being read for college credits.

To be honest, when I took this photo some 20 odd years ago, I was taking it for purely referential reasons. The operational aspects of the railroads in my hometown provided me with a great deal of fascination and mental preoccupation. I took pictures of trains and the infrastructure needed to help them move, and I read extensively about both. I never envisioned the scene having any allegorical value. With appropriate cropping, it takes on symbolic value.

The Literal Elements

The photo is a north facing view of a grade crossing a couple miles south of my home town. The rail line is a branch line, seeing only two through trains a day and a local. In a less highway centric time, this line hosted a major passenger train that ran from Chicago to Miami -- The South Wind

Just shy of the grade crossing is a signal used to regulate the movement of trains on the line. The signal is called a position light, gaining its name from the fact that it uses the alignment of lamps to emulate the positions of the semaphore signals that they replaced.

The signal is lit, but is is hard to see anything other than a couple of the amber lensed lamps. The reason that it is so hard to see the lamps clearly from this angle is that the mirrors and lenses are aligned for optimal visibility at a higher level of elevation a longer distance away. Keep in mind that the engineer would be seated almost ten feet from the ground.

This purpose of this signal is to serve as an early warning to the oncoming train. A little over two miles north of here, there is a crossing with an east-west rail line. The crossing is protected by a similar signal.

The signal in the photo could tell the train to proceed at normal speed, or it could tell the train to proceed with preparation to stop at the next signal. Freight trains, which can be over one hundred cars long, can require over a mile to come to a complete stop.

The signal is powered by the small gray control box just to the right of the telephone pole. You can see the power line drop running from the right of the photo to the pole. The power drop is the only reason that this telephone pole was spared the fate of its brethren, thousands of other glass insulator bedecked structures that paralleled the line.

I don't know when the railroad stopped using the phone lines, but I suspect that it was in the early 70s, as the railroad started to close the stations along the line. By the early 80s, the bare copper wires were clipped, and the poles were removed from the right-of-way.

The Symbolism

The scenery... flat, rural, agrarian, symbolizes my past and the place from which I came.

The rail line... operable, yet only a shadow of its significance, represents the course of my life in recent years, that sense of feeling adrift.

The viewpoint is northward, looking away from the south. Unfair as it may be, the term "south" has a negative connotation in slang. Something breaking down is referred to as "going south". Likewise, my journey in this blog is an effort to reverse the stagnation and degradation of my life.

The signal... ancient, fixed, authoritative, yet unclear. It is a symbol of my search to derive certainty from something outside of myself. The inability to see the signal clearly from the given viewpoint represents my inability to reach a conclusion by raw logic or established wisdom. Even if I was to know the signal's indication, it would do no good. In fact, the indication shown in this photo was Caution -- a diagonal row of three lights descending from left to right, with a single separate light below. There is no definite Proceed or Stop indication from which certainty may be derived.

The unseen crossing... drawing near, yet still unseeable. It represents the choice I will need to make with respect to my family and my career. The east-west direction of the other line represents opportunity, something that is commonly associated with the westward direction in American culture. On a more literal level, some of the more radical choices I could make involve moving far westward.

The lone telephone pole... isolated, seemingly out of place. It represents the loneliness anxiety that I face in making my choices. Only my online readership and my therapist know the fullest extent of my ponderings and the choices that lay before me. None of my real life friends are aware, and I'm not even sure if any of them would understand. My sense of connectedness is derived from unconventional sources via channels unseen.

[1] -- If you want to hear a snippet of the "Train leaving on track 5..." line, listen to the first few moments of this Frank Deford essay on NPR's website.
blog comments powered by Disqus