Riding along the ‘Pelican Road’

Published 9:08 am Friday, March 9, 2018

By T.J. Ray

A lifetime ago when I was a student at Mississippi College, the chairman of the English Department, Louis Dollarhide accepted an invitation to bring some students to Jackson for lunch with a ladies’ reading circle. Each of us sat at a table with four or five very nice, very literate women.

The memory that I knew nothing to say to them still chokes me. They were impressed — quite needlessly — that we were all in the creative writing program at MC.

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One of the first questions to me was what I had been writing. Nothing. What had I been reading? That was an easy one: God’s Little Acre. Hoorah! Home run! I wowed them, especially after one opined that God’s Little Acre was such a sweet book. Took a second or two to grasp that the title was all they knew of the book, so off I went on how lovely the story was. Since that day, I have felt profoundly guilty ever time somone mentions Erskine Caldwell.

Page Four of this newspaper is not the book review section, but please indulge me while I tell you about the book I closed ten minutes ago. Closed reluctantly, I should add, because I didn’t want it to end. And though its end was predictable by Page 3 of the text, I came to dread it, kept hoping the author, Howard Bahr, could work his fictional magic and avoid that pain.

Set early in World War II — with vivid, explosive backward peeks at the other war, the one to end all wars – Pelican Road raises a grim curtain on south Mississippi and New Orleans as experienced by men who rode the rails. Theirs was a world of thunder and steam, an environment cutting no slack for the shirker or the careless. Away from the tracks, where experience and title warranted respect from those around the huge rolling wheels and vented steam from warning whistles. their lives mirrored a world as hot and steamy as a roundhouse. Their mistakes there usually influenced how a man felt when working a run, be it a luxury passenger train going to the Northeast or a simple string of empty boxcars moved from Town A to Town B. Much as characters might like to put that other world out of their minds while working, that escape didn’t always work.

Many years ago, I had an uncle who was an engineer on the C & G Railroad (the Columbus & Greenville). The engines he commanded were mostly yard movers, unbelievably hot much of the year and frigid in winter, when someone would open the heavy iron gate every now and then to let the roaring fire inside momentarily fill the cab.

The short rides my uncle sneaked me on were mainly in and around the yard in Columbus, but reading Bahr’s gripping prose drew it from my memory, even down to the one or two bottles of Jax beer the crew gulped when a shift was over, even at three in the morning.

This book did a yeoman’s job of baring the frictions of the early war years: old Marines trying to reenlist, old engineers about to the end of their run, young folks who had to pay for their passion which they couldn’t control, even in a cemetery on the edge of a university campus. I wonder how I might have recounted the painful tension of that book to those ladies in Jackson. Just how does one describe a book he wishes he hadn’t read yet because then he could have it as a wonderful experience when he came to read it?

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.