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WOYM: An interest in railroads, and writing, led to a lifelong vocation for Richlands lad
What’s on Your Mind

WOYM: An interest in railroads, and writing, led to a lifelong vocation for Richlands lad

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So many are the blessings, to count is futile.

Time and again distinguished members of the combined alumni association of The Roanoke Times and old afternoon World-News have with their support lifted this column from the humdrum.

This morning’s contributor emails us under letterhead from Richmond branch offices of corporate parent Lee Enterprises. Randy Jessee is a newspaper lifer.

Recent reference here to the bygone Norfolk & Western Railway youth organization Pocalier Club caught his attention.

“I became a member sometime in early 1959, when I was in the sixth grade in Richlands,” he began.

The club pledge followed a roundabout track. The prompt was clear. The young man was fascinated by a rail era that was disappearing faster than a line of eastbound coal cars heading down the mountain.

“I was smitten by steam-powered railroading,” he wrote.

From the family residence, he had box seat viewing for a regular parade of rolling stock.

“Traffic on the Clinch Valley line included a daily passenger train that ran from Bluefield, W.Va., to Norton, Va., and back. The westbound train passed through Richlands around lunchtime and I went to the window every day to watch it charge across the Clinch River.”

The menu of Tazewell County youth amusements being all but limitless, one a little less taken by the romance of riding the rods might have chosen to dampen a line in the aforementioned river. The smallmouth therein are ferocious tail dancers at this time of year, but that’s a topic for another day.

Back in Richlands, the passenger train on the return track from Norton had a schedule to keep.

“The return trip passed through Richlands between 5 and 6 p.m. each day. From our house on Lee Street, I could hear the whistle when the train was approaching Raven, about five miles away, and then watch the headlight coming up the valley and into town.”

As you have probably already inferred, the impression the to-and-fro of these daily excursions made on the young man was profound. The end of the line in this instance was anything but an instance of trite phrasing.

“The steam locomotive, No. 578, was retired in January or February and given to a museum in Ohio. The train itself was discontinued a few months later.”

The news came hard as the limestone ballast supporting the railroad tracks. Not long after, he was prompted to act. Along with a love of railroading, he had another emerging passion that was to serve him well.

“At about the time the news of the pending discontinuance came out, I wrote a story about the train and sent it to the N&W Magazine. My cover letter included an oh-by-the-way mention that my uncle, J.A. Morgan, was an engineer on N&W, running freight trains.”

The return post came swiftly, or at least would seem so to modern Star City postal customers whose mail is processed in North Carolina.

“A letter came back from the magazine in less than a week — mail traveled by rail in those days — and noted that my uncle’s occupation qualified me for membership in the Pocalier Club.”

It might have been explained to the new bid candidate that the official organizational name was a mashup in honor of two of the most famous of the N&W lines, the Pocahontas and Cavalier.

The other news in the correspondence could accurately be described as life-changing.

“My story would be published on the Pocalier pages about a month later.”

Take it from an authority, the promise of a first byline is a guarantor of accelerated heart rate. In the case of the rookie Pocalier correspondent, there was a residual benefit.

“The club sent me a pin and a box of Pocalier Club stationery.”

So started his career as a magazine contributor. The club had its own page in the company periodical. Typical column fare for the club’s writing staff included “trips and books and schools and such.” A pen pal swap was among the activities.

His sense was that club membership was substantial as was the roster of active members who actually penned real correspondence on club stationery.

“It was fun for a while,” he related.

He got older and went to high school. The uncle retired. The magazine subscription lapsed.

“The pin may be in some of the things from my parents’ house; I haven’t seen it for more than 50 years.”

Back to those residuals.

“But that experience had a long-lasting impact on me. That was the first piece of writing I ever had published and I have spent most of my career in journalism, including four internships and four full-time years with The Roanoke Times and The World-News.

The power of the pen is a mighty conqueror.

If you’ve been wondering about something, call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to whatsonyourmind@roanoke.com. Don’t forget to provide your full name (and its proper spelling if by phone) and hometown.

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