I don’t know what it is about ballet schools and railroads, but just about every single school where I’ve studied or taught has been on top of them; you learn to deal with the teeth-rattling thunder of the enormous diesel engines barreling down the tracks. It’s part and parcel of operating in a low rent district, I guess.
Those engines were my brother Tom’s salvation when we were kids. For years my mom owned and operated her own small ballet school in a Memphis suburb; most days my brother had no choice except to hang out there during afternoon classes. But it was also where he could assuage his inner choo choo geek whenever one rattled through.
He came into this passion as a little kid, obsessively counting and naming cars at railroad crossings <eye roll from big sister>, mimicking the clanging warning sound of the crossing bars as they lowered. Every. Single. Time. He was so earnest about performing this pantomime (it also involved his hands and fingers) that he never bothered coming up for air—he just kept “clanging,” sucking in instead of exhaling the sound when he ran out of breath. (Sorry, Tom: your secret is now out on the World Wide Web; you’re welcome.)
Later this enthusiasm morphed into model railroading, a hobby to reach epic proportions in our downstairs playroom when everything was said and done. By late elementary school he routinely trolled a stretch of Southern Railroad tracks not far from our Memphis home, where he discovered the joys of smooshing pennies on the tracks, keeping the flattened oblong copper disks in jars on his dresser next to a rusty collection of castoff iron spikes the maintenance crews left behind. At some indiscernable moment during adolescence his bedroom took on the slightest hint of diesel fuel vapor.
The pinnacle of this gathering enthusiasm occurred when he built a real, functioning handcar with the help of a friend, the two of them trailering it to the tracks on weekends for excursions. I am certain this was both dangerous and illegal. But when you possess that much passion for a thing….
Tom ultimately turned his passion into a career, where he has enjoyed much success at the front of operations at Knoxville Locomotive Works, working in a hands-on capacity that recently earned him inclusion in a patent for a piece of engineering used to retrofit locomotives with green technology. It’s a pretty big deal that has garnered some press. If you own a diesel engine, you send it to KLW to be retrofitted with this new technology.
My little brother is living the dream, and has for just about all his adult life.
I wanted to show Handsome Chef Boyfriend and my son Bentley the amazing Knoxville Locomotive Works facility, and so I asked Tom if he would be so kind as to give all of us a guided tour at the end of a work day. I shot lots of photos with my new-old Nikon; most did not turn out well for reasons that elude me for now. I include the better ones here to try to illustrate the enormity of this impressive operation.
The first three are pieces of the new technology in an engine that is used as a demonstrator. When you are there in person at KLW, you have no choice except to be in close proximity with these massive locomotives. It really is quite something. Tom gave us a thorough explanation of the new technology (which I can’t synthesize), including a “back to the drawing board”-style commentary on its evolution as ideas were tried, failed, revisited, and reimagined, until the whole business finally worked:
Another finger of this interesting company is its acquisition and restoration of old cars and engines; I find that part especially appealing. Tom and his colleagues at KLW restored this old sleeper (among others) some time ago; it was in the shop to be retrofitted for new, non-leaky window fittings. If you’ve ever seen an old car sitting on a stretch of tracks near the Thompson Boling Arena entrance to the University of Tennessee campus, it is this one. It’s the pride and joy of Pete Claussen, KLW founder and Chairman and CEO of Gulf and Ohio Railroads. We pressed Tom for a peek at its interior and he obliged; there was no power, so I used my flash. I love the thoughtful and simple lines in early twentieth century design:
And here is where you go when you need access to the underbelly of a giant diesel engine (I KNOW, right?):
And here is a small-and-mighty GE engine (I think I can, I think I can…):
And here is what you’d see if you were at the helm of the Southern engine shown way up at the top of the post:
Tom also gave us a peek inside another building on an adjacent lot where work is currently underway to see whether this beautiful, old steam engine can be restored:
And in case you’ve ever wondered how a steam engine looks without its nose thingummie:
We finished in nearby downtown Knoxville with dinner at one of my favorite eateries, the Tomato Head; it is a place near and dear to me also because the owners were early and avid supporters of Knoxville Ballet School, and once went to some trouble to come and visit me in Vermont. I was pleased and surprised to see its sleek new interior and expansion, changes that have happened in the intervening three years since my New England move.
I did manage to snap a very nice photo of my son B and my brother:
We had been joined at KLW and for dinner at Tomato Head by my mom and her husband and their daughter, and also by Tom’s wife Kathleen and their son, my nephew Tim. Amazingly, I somehow did not get photos of them. Gah.
HCB and B and I lingered awhile in downtown Knoxville, where I could not get over the commercial progress made in recent years. This beauty still awaits restoration:
And this is the vibrant weeknight view looking south on Gay Street towards the Tennessee River:
My favorite theatre, the Tennessee, underwent a massive restoration several years ago, long before I left. We did not have occasion to go inside this time, but you can get some idea of its more-is-more Moroccan-themed glory here.
We found dessert at Coolato Gelato; it was only meh, but B made a nice pic:
Thence to this giant sunflower collage, real but mostly faded, where I asked B to photograph me and HCB. I did not exactly get permission to post this, but too dang bad. I think it is a nice picture of the two of us:
However eventful that much of our day had been, it was not all. We had a lovely morning tour of the Ice Chalet courtesy of director Larry LaBorde, another person who was a fan and supporter of Knoxville Ballet School from the get-go. The school would never have come into existence were it not for the rink’s early involvement in it, and Larry himself was so helpful during my difficult and at times painful transition through closing the school’s doors and relocating to Vermont. HCB was also the happy beneficiary of some hockey equipment after the tour ended; we had a long, happy lunch at a nearby eatery. No surprise that hockey-playing HCB and Larry had so much to talk about.
It was nice for B to revisit an institution that was so much a part of his growing up years, through hockey and figure skating, and being a part of the bigger Ice Chalet family. Thank you, Larry.
For a few brief moments, I was once again an Ice Chalet mom:
And that was only Wednesday; so many more homecoming stories to tell. ‘Til soon.
Before we pulled out of Chattanooga on a hazy Tuesday afternoon, my dad reported he’d seen a burgeoning praying mantis and stick bug population this summer. And evidently my son is a praying mantis whisperer. I could not capture the kind of image he did, a challenge I threw his way. And what it lacks in resolution it more than makes up for in composition, in my humble opinion.
Howdy there, praying mantis.
Dad had taken us all to dinner at a barbecue joint in downtown Chatt the night before, during which time the boy selfie-photo-bombed a photo-in-progress; it was to be a continuing theme for the week. From the praying mantis sublime to the selfie ridiculous. I’ve always maintained that next to “ridiculous” in Webster you’ll find his name as its definition. He hones it to a fine sheen and wears it proudly.
Tuesday was another travel day.
Knoxville, Tennessee rests in a valley between the Cumberland Plateau to its west and the Smoky Mountains, the central portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to its east. The Tennessee River flows north to south between Knoxville and Chattanooga, but has its origins very near downtown Knoxville, at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers. Whatever weather is happening on the plateau, or in the mountains, tends to moderate in the valley, making for easy winters for the most part. For that and so many other reasons it’s an attractive place to put down roots; my family did so in the 19th century.
But despite the region’s lush and mountainous beauty, the city itself can feel seamy; Cormac McCarthy captured that quality in Suttree, his 1979 semi-autobiographical novel set in 1951 Knoxville. Suttree is brilliant writing by a man whose childhood home was only a few blocks from my own young family’s home for the better part of the last couple of decades.
Knoxville has struggled with something of an identity crisis for much of its life, famously called “a scruffy little city” by Susan Harrigan writing for the Wall Street Journal in 1980. What was meant as derision was and is held up by locals as a source of pride. That kind of thinking is admirable on the face of it, but maddening to me. I don’t miss that about Knoxville. When I opened a small classical ballet school there in 2006 I felt like I was fighting the “scruffy and proud” mentality on many, many occasions, trying to scratch and claw my way to bringing something special to the arts community there. Ultimately the school met that goal, with the help of many, many people and a whole lot of tireless effort, short-lived though it was. It happened in the guise of Franco de Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. Twice he visited the school to adjudicate exams (and by extension my own teaching). We put our vulnerable selves out there for those visits, and were all the better for it in the end.
Lots of folks did not get that, or did not care about it anyway. The local press showed very little interest in it. But the parents of kids (and the kids themselves) who had been along for this ambitious journey at the school certainly got it. This is one of them, who has continued to pursue her passion for classical ballet. She has talent coming through the pores of her skin; she’s danced at ABT’s New York City young dancer workshop and elsewhere, currently splitting her time between Knoxville and Atlanta to get the training she needs. (Would that the school had continued.) I have a proprietary interest in this child and others; this one came to me at age six and it is hugely satisfying to see she is on her way.
We spent a delicious Tuesday evening catching up (she had just come from ballet class as you can see), her own erstwhile-ballerina mom and I talking about her plans for the future and the realities of life as a professional ballerina. My photo-bombing-selfie-taking kiddo obliged me with the photo; props to him.
Knoxville’s economy was rough when I left three years ago; the school’s demise was in no small part a consequence of that, among other complicated things. But I will say the worst of it appears to be finished, at least for now: I was overwhelmed by bustling new development in the far reaches of the city limits and in its center. There is a lot going on.
In the intervening days since the end of my homecoming I’ve reflected on this, and the reasons my new home state of Vermont seems to continue to struggle so, so hard to keep its head above water. I am still getting the lay of the land here, figuring out the Byzantine political and economic landscape. I live in a state whose population continues to shrink, whose children grow to maturity and then leave, to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We could use a little boost, but sometimes I wonder whether we’re our own worst enemies up here in the Green Mountain State.
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were filled wall-to-wall with important reunions with family and friends. They deserve their own attention, about which more soon in separate posts. ‘Til then.
It is beyond me how 1000 miles disappear so quickly in the rear view mirror, or how four days dissolve in what feels like a half hour. It’s what has transpired in the intervening hours since 2:30 Saturday morning when Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I began our long drive south to see family and friends, some for the first time in three years. And for HCB to see the gaping hole left by the taproot I yanked up three years ago. And just to get out of Vermont for a few days and shake off the cobwebs and stretch our legs. The sun rose Saturday morning in Pennsylvania.
I wish we had more time already and we’re only now settling into my erstwhile hometown of Knoxville for a few days. I have so many thoughts about the landscape between the place I call home now, and the one I once did. And a desire to learn more about the vernacular Dutch architecture that dots the Pennsylvania countryside, a place that blurs the lines between North and South. The moment the first cheerful “How are you’uns?” washed over our weary selves snuck up on us. Some thoughts are gone already, some I may be able to reclaim. It feels like we’ve crammed months into hours.
Partly by design (and the balance geography) we started in Highlands, NC, where the small cottage that served as a happy vacation home in the last chapter of my life stands forgotten and neglected, suffering, awaiting its unknown fate. We went to check on things and reclaim a few belongings. I knew it would be hard, and would bring raw emotions to the surface. It did that in spades. I did not make photos of the house, but I did the landscape, seen above and below, and a busy intersection of a town teeming with new life and new young families. I no longer have a life there, but I hope its vibrant pulse bodes well for the future. An unlikely encounter with a favorite babysitter and her own young family felt perfect: my son was with us on this leg of the trip, and the reunion with the person who first introduced us to Highlands—in Highlands itself—brought much needed poetry to an otherwise difficult and emotional day.
The Ocoee River Gorge hems you in for mile upon serpentine mile, the river on one side, sheer rock walls and gnarled outcroppings on the other, the instability looming overhead urging you to keep your foot on the gas and both hands on the wheel. After a while you yearn to be let out, walls closing in with the fading light of day. Sunday was an exemplary specimen, the intense late-day sunlight filtered through rain, then late evening darkness gathering quickly, the backdrop for memories recalled along the way and answers to questions unresolved until Chattanooga grandparents could address them later. (What was that sketchy looking thing up on the ridge? A water flume, turns out, been there since the 1930s, carries water to this day.)
In two days’ time we ate our way through Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dad’s lovely wife shared with us one of her own traditions from the Deep South, biscuits with butter and chocolate. We were in bewildered awe, any doubts I had about properly introducing HCB to Southern cuisine evaporating with the steam coming off the melted confection set before us.
Downtown Chattanooga remains a favorite. The three of us struck out on our own for a day at the Tennessee Aquarium and some walking. Devices are a foregone conclusion; life—aquatic, avian, insect, and even human—could still hold sway over them from time to time.
I have everything to learn about making beautiful photographs with my new-old camera, even more about capturing motion. But I was able to pet a moving sturgeon, and that is something.
Climbing from the Aquarium into Chattanooga’s Bluff View Art District is worth sweaty knees and elbows, as is a late afternoon at Rembrandt’s for coffee and handmade chocolate; but chocolate does not always hold sway over devices.
Back at our hosts’ home there was not enough porch time for this Southern girl, but I am especially fond of the porch itself, which emphatically does not hold sway over devices.
In all fairness to the boy, he had just snapped several amzing photos of this incredible porch-time interloper; this is my photo, which paled in comparison to his:
That’s my dad and his lovely, gracious wife; I think they look great. My dad knows so much about so many things. Water flumes built at the top of the Occoe Gorge during the Great Depression, the history and evolution of the Cavalier Furniture Company, WWII-era aircraft, the whereabouts of the nearest Krystal burger: he’s your man for all this and so much more. I hope like heck it’s not another three years before we see them again.
We’re already on the next page of this nine-day-long story; ’til soon.