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Live Steam

When I was little, I was very intrigued by steam locomotives. I still am, I guess, even if I’m not so little anymore. A real highlight of my childhood was when I could ride steam trains. It wasn’t often, but I remember the train at Stone Mountain, and those at some amusement park like Six Flags. I fondly remember every visit to the old Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, too, when I would get to climb onto the old steam train they had there. (Well, it’s still there, in the new Children’s museum.)

My grandfather, Stewart Rafert, also was interested in live steam, but he was more focused on steam tractors. These giant, huffing behemoths had their own rustic charm, I must admit. I remember going to at least two live steam shows with him, and they were pretty awe-inspiring to a young tyke like myself. I particularly remember the salesman’s models tractors, all scaled down–these were fully functional stream tractors that collectors would steam around the event grounds. So fascinating.

Nearby to were I grew up in New Palestine, Indiana, my family had a friend named Otto Hefflemire. Otto was an interesting fellow who was into a lot of things, such as building homes, owning antique stores, and doing fine wrought-iron work. Anyway, next to his house he had an older house that he used for storage space for his collections of odds and ends. On the front porch he had pulled up and parked an old steam tractor. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe to partially protect it under the porch roof. As a little boy, I loved climbing all over this ancient, long-silenced giant. Let the adults visit for as long they wanted, I wanted to go hang out with the steam engine.

I’m not sure how old I was, but my grandpa got me a miniature, fully functional steam tractor. I remember lighting it up and chugging around the house with it. I still have it, and I haven’t lighted it up in over 30 years, but it’s one of my most cherished toys from my childhood. The maker, Mammod, still produces and sells them.

Now, since this is me, I’ll add a note of weirdness.

I have rather profound childhood memory of a steam tractor graveyard. Grandpa took me to see it, and it was near Anderson, Indiana. Inside a large enclosure that was fenced in with a gnarly steel fence, and there were hundreds of steam tractors, rusting away, neatly parked around a rutted, dirt track. There were birds making nests in these tractors, weeds growing up through them, and this place had a sad, ominous feel. Honestly, it was awe-inspiring, these mighty machine of industry abandoned in careful order, but lonely as well.

I’m well aware that no such tractor graveyard exists nearby, that grandpa didn’t take me there, yet the memory persists and feels real. Why? It’s a random bit of weirdness that means nothing, except to me, but there it is. Memory and emotion are strange things. It feels true to me, and I cherish this memory.


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