I HAD always been fond of trains. I still am. I held onto my love for them through adolescence until I finally succumbed to the pressure of ``maturity'' and ``responsibility'' and having to listen to others asking me: ``When are you going to grow up?'' or using humiliating terminology in the middle of parties like ``You really like choo-choos?'' I am like this because I was raised in a geographically Victorian environment, where the railway reigned supreme. It was an age of iron and brick, of wood and oils, where the natural order of materials still held out against laboratory-created metals and plastics. I could no more think of my world without rail-roads than without home, family, school, and job. Trains and tracks were a natural part of life and living.
An important railway line bisects North London, where I lived as a young boy. With hordes of other youngsters, I would root myself to my favorite spot along soot-covered walls and embankments, noting numbers and names of locomotives, shouting to my companions above the passing trains the special information that only young enthusiasts can possibly know about.
It is not the sight of the railway that endures in my heart, but the sound. My trains were heard well before they could be seen, punctuating the night with their steady bark, panting their way up the long grade to London's northern heights. The sound of steam and smoke exploding from the boiler was soon accompanied by clanking connecting rods, pinioned to flanged wheels against the steel rails. The entire orchestration of steam and steel spread a picture across my mind unpaintable by any artist. Each rotation of the wheels was as if an invisible hand were turning up the volume knob on a radio.
When the trains went out of sight, the sounds would peak with a symphony of industrial machinery, then decrease, like some slow-motion Doppler effect, but with the clanking, hissing, pounding noises so intermingled that one was not aware of any lessening until the train passed. Silence would embrace the night again. That everyday scene is a capsule of my railway memories.
But that was long ago. The 20th century soon caught up with me, and America refashioned me, and my taste for the iron road became one for asphalt.
My railway world faded into the background. The Flying Scotsman was replaced by the Chevrolet Impala, and the 20th Century Limited by the Mustang. My own interest seemed to match that of the whole country. Trains were pass'e, old-fashioned, useless against more modern forms of transportation, dirty, noisy, and slow. My model rail-roads were packed away and stored.
Last year, I returned to England with my wife. London was still London, faster and festooned with the antiseptic ``international style'' architecture, but still very much a city of villages - and railroads.
I had planned to drive everywhere, just as I did in America. So when we decided to visit ``old'' York, I had planned to rent a car.
``Why don't we take the train?'' asked my wife, Linda.
``It'll be slow and expensive and dirty,'' I said. ``Let's take the car.''
My wife looked at me and said with great deliberation, ``Is this coming from a ferromaniac? Am I hearing correctly?''
Then she continued: ``Do you realize that every one of London's mainline termini is still intact and operational? Do you know that they have opened up the line to Stratford that they closed in 1913? Did you know there are over 100 live-steam museums in Great Britain?''
I looked at her in amazement. Then she smiled. ``I have been talking to your mother. I asked her to give me some facts about trains to stimulate your interest. How am I doing?''
Her words shook 20 years of auto-mobilia out of my system, and I hugged her and said, ``We take the train - tar- rah!''
The journey, which once took four and a half hours, was completed in just under two. That train, neatly packaged under the generic title of ``Inter-City,'' sped over rails that no longer sang with da-da-de-dum, da-da-de-dum, but hummed a subdued chorus of ``continuously welded rail.''
And my faith was restored, when, traveling beside one of Britain's new freeways, we easily passed at 125 m.p.h. the slower road travelers doing 70!
From that trip, we revised our itinerary. As we toured the lovely Devon and Cornish countryside, we visited as many railway museums as possible.
On our return to the United States, I felt reassured that, thanks to Linda's love for me, my love for trains was intact. But I was prepared to be ``de-trained,'' to return to the country of concrete and macadam, and live upon my memories of the steam age.
Linda had different ideas. Among the packages under the Christmas tree that had my name on them was one almost the size of 10 breadboxes. It turned out to be a large-size model of a German railroad. The detail was exquisite, the locomotion perfect.
The surprise in all this is how Linda feels about my love for trains. I confess that I had not expected to marry anyone who would even acknowledge the existence of trains, let alone insist that they be a part of my life again. And, not content with her own input, she has told everyone about it. When friends returned from a trip to Maine, I was given a wooden train whistle that is so realistic that when I blasted it in my home, my neighbor came over to tell me they have reopened the old branch line to the town center. ``I swore I heard a whistle,'' he said.
My daughters have always had problems getting beyond the ties-and-socks stages as gifts for their Dad. Linda tells them that more track is needed for the extension to the baseboard; that my railroad is short one boxcar, or that the local bookstore happens to have a book called ``Steam Locomotives of the World'' on sale.
I am not offended any more when I am told that you can tell the age of the boys by the price of their toys. The romance and legend of steam now expand steadily in my heart, and I am all the better for it. Linda found in me something special that I had long forgotten. That I have to go and seek my trains out only adds to their worth and value. I'm glad we both found what we were looking for.