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The Red Caboose Page
Chapter One
It Happens Everyday,
and Involves Everyone
Far too many people believe that history consists solely of important
dated deeds by important people in important, faraway places very long
ago. That kind of history, replete with its many, many dates, is what
historians traditionally write about and teach. But we believe that history
can be far more comprehensive, inclusive, down-to-earth, and personal
than that.
The history of the historians characteristically omits any mention, let
alone celebration, of the common man and woman, the “Joe Six Packs”
of our societies. Their deeds and accomplishments, while very
significant to the individuals involved, usually go unrecorded. Although
there may be exceptions, common folk typically leave few, if any,
footprints in the “sands of time.” We find this to be regrettable. Sad to
relate, too many people may have come to believe that they have
accomplished nothing in their lives worthy of record, and that they
themselves are insignificant because of this lack of accomplishment. We
found this to be lamentable; a situation in need of remedy.
Perhaps you’ve been in an antique store and seen a large pile of old
photographs for sale. Often, these portray stiffly-costumed, stern-
looking men, women, and their children while assuming awkward poses
as they stare at the camera. The pictured people had obviously gone to
considerable efforts to be remembered. Their discarded pictures indicate
that they didn’t succeed. They are rarely accorded even a bare-boned
identification with names, a location, or a date. Similarly, tombstones
tell precious little about the buried person and the life that he or she had
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led. Genealogists and descendants would kill for a hundred or a
thousand words that would tell them who the individual really was, his
or her experiences, work, religion, hopes, fears, and dreams. These are
the historical words that “The Red Caboose, A Collection of
Memories” sought to gather and report. The citizens of Altoona, both
current and from the past, were given an opportunity to provide them.
Incidentally, the title is a take-off on the name of Marian Potters
children’s book, “The Little Red Caboose.” “The Red Caboose” is an
off-beat title that ties together Altoona’s very distant railroading past
with the light-hearted fun of writing, recording, and reading Altoona’s
memories – the purpose of the venture.
Other efforts have been made to record Altoona’s history. Gerald A.
Hagen’s fine book, “A History of Altoona
,” (1989) remains a definitive
source of such information. Altoonians have already contributed
personal memories to “The Old Altoona Public School, A Collection of
Memories,” (Thurston, 2008), a book containing the recollections of
students who attended that school prior to its destruction by fire in 1951.
A booklet, “Jesse Jensen, Principal, Coach, and Teacher, Altoona
(WI) Public School, 1921-1943,” (Hoyt and Thurston, 2008)
concentrated on the life of the man who was of vital importance to that
school system for a very long time.
The small community of Altoona, Wisconsin was once again targeted. A
call went out for the memories of its residents (See “The Red Caboose:
Collecting Altoona’s Memories” in the Appendix). Every effort was
made to contact all residents of all ages. Current significant memories
were considered every bit as important as those based on events of long
ago. All of these remembrances warranted recording, recognition, and
sharing. Such was our belief as we embarked on this venture.
As in the case of the two previous volumes, “The Red Caboose, A
Collection of Memories” assumed that each of the contributors is both
unique and important. The late E. Lynn Harris, in his memoir “What
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Becomes of the Brokenhearted ?,“ said it simply and accurately:
“Every life is a story worth telling.“ By soliciting and recording
memories, we were “celebrating the uncelebrated;“ by telling a bit of his
or her story, we were attempting to honor the individual and the role
each had played in our society.
It has been said, with some regret, that “the best time to record important
personal events, thoughts, and feelings may have been forty or fifty
years ago when they happened. The next best time is now.” As we have
indicated previously, each individual was believed to have something
that was worthy of recording and sharing. In the “sands of time,” even a
poorly-drawn memory is better than no memory at all. Whether or not
the general populace of Altoona could be convinced of this need and its
basic premise was a matter of conjecture. From our standpoint, the
opportunity we presented was a “no brainer,” a relatively non-
demanding sharing with a tangible reward, the appearance of one’s
writing in an Altoona history book.
On February 16, 2009, on the basis of our confidence in a reasonable
response, we cast our net out upon the citizenry of Altoona. October 15,
2009 was established as the deadline. In the intervening months, we
found our “catch” to be both interesting and rewarding. As expected, we
found a considerable diversity in the nature and content of the
contributed memories.
Could and should the resulting volume have been more comprehensive
and inclusive? Certainly! There could have been more, much more if
there had been a greater response by Altoona’s citizenry. However, “One
goes with what one’s got.“ There were probably as many reasons for
non-participation as there were unresponsive people. Some of their
excuses may have been reasonable. However, while it’s very sad to
contemplate, a substantial number indicated that their lives failed to
contain a story worth the telling. Apathy, illness, inability to write, being
“too busy,” and “I’ve better things to do” were common excuses.
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We found that younger citizens and “newcomers” were especially
reluctant to share memories with us. To what extent did they fail to
identify with any Altoona experience? The “Old Altoona” of the 1930’s-
1940’s had been both unified and unique. Its citizens were railroaders
and proud of it. Everyone knew everyone else. Our day in, day out
experiences were the stuff of important memories. The Great Depression
and World War II contributed to many of these. Without really
understanding what was going on, people came to rely upon one another.
“Things” may be very different now. Important questions should be
raised: What, if anything, differentiates living in present day Altoona
from living in the nearby countrified Town of Washington? Is it possible,
that Altoona, Cinder City, exists in name only? Are Altoona citizens
now so diffuse and specialized in their life styles that little community
cohesiveness exists? Might Altoona just as well be called East Eau
Claire again? If one truly believes that important, indeed essential,
personal roots are to be found in one’s community, these questions are
worthy of considerable consideration.
It isn’t without reason that Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry” comedy series
continues to run on current TV. Could it possibly be that a great many
people, consciously or unconsciously, yearn for the simplicity,
friendliness, kindness, gentleness, personal closeness, unity, and laid-
back atmosphere of a small town? Altoona could provide elements of
just such an atmosphere.
The Red Caboose is a collection of memories. It is more “seed catalog”
than story book. There is no narrative thread uniting its contents. Editing
has been minimal. Many of the contributions were printed exactly as
they were submitted. Readers may choose to leaf through this volume,
finding some parts to be of interest while ignoring others. It is our hope
that every contribution will be read and appreciated by someone. After
all, by our definition, each of these shared memories has a special value
that can and should be acknowledged both now and in the future.
John R. Thurston 10-14-2009