train of thought

Occasionally I’ll hear a phrase that I’ve heard hundreds of times before, but for some reason I become acutely aware of the literal meaning. For example, hearing that someone had “lost their train of thought” made me begin to question things.

Why are your thoughts a train? Why do you only lose a train of thought instead of finding it occasionally? If you only lose it, why aren’t thoughts associated with something more commonly lost, like a sock? You know how it is when you’re folding your laundry and you’re down to three socks and none of them match. People can relate to that sort of thing, and if you were to say you lost your sock of thought they would surely nod in understanding.

Which reminds me of an experience I had as a kid. Trains would regularly pass through our town and we gleefully squashed many a cent on the tracks. However, one thing concerned us. We had all heard that a single rock on the tracks could derail a train. We couldn’t remember where we heard it, but it seemed odd to us that a tiny rock could wreak such havoc.

So, as boys are wont to do, we formulated an experiment. We laid 16 rocks on the train tracks. The first 15 were about the size of lemons and at the very end, we carefully balanced a melon-sized rock. We were determined to disprove what we had heard or witness the derailment of a train. I don’t know that we ever considered the latter possibility with any credence because of the confidence we had in our hypothesis. It hadn’t occurred to our young minds that we could be wrong.

Upon completing our preparations, we laid in wait for the next train. It took longer than we would have liked, but at long last we heard the all-familiar whistle of on oncoming train. Only then did I begin to consider what might happen. What if it was true? What if the train derailed? For a split second I thought about running in front of the train to clear the rocks from its path, but instead I sat frozen in place. Then I saw the engineer with his hand hanging lazily out the window, looking bored. The train was probably going 25 mph or so when it hit the first rock.

The wheels turned the rock into powder, and they continued on, crushing each one in seconds. It sounded like a machine gun firing and the engineer looked scared and slightly confused. He leaned out to see what was happening just as the wheels reached the melon-sized rock.

Instead of being crushed into powder, the middle portion of the rock was obliterated in a loud blast of noise and the two halves fell with a thud. At this point the engineer may very well have thought a wheel had fallen off. I don’t remember if he saw us or not, but we were pleased as punch that we had successfully debunked the myth.

Now what was I talking about again?


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  1. Evil children.

    Thoughts are equated with trains because they are composed of small segments that are related to each other but separate thoughts – each their own boxcar. The train of thought chugs along stringing them together. When you lose it, you lost a boxcar and therefore cannot find the one after it.

    Comment by Renee on January 4, 2005 @ 3:30 pm
  2. Aha. Thank you for the explanation.

    Inquisitive, not evil.

    Comment by dan on January 4, 2005 @ 3:45 pm
  3. Sock of thought doesn’t sound too bad, but then don’t socks come in pairs. I have a hard enough time formulating one thought. Let alone, pairing it off with a matching …. where was I?

    Comment by Charles on January 4, 2005 @ 3:55 pm
  4. Well…I imagine that our brain is a great big complicated web of information. All sorts of loosely related things are tied together (like, ever have a smell that reminded you of something totally unrelated? I remember watching the Italian Job in the theater and I was sitting by a women with very pleasant perfume on. I didn’t know what it was and I probably wouldn’t recognize it if I smelled it again, but now whenever I smell nice perfume that I don’t recognize I think of the Italian Job). So I imagine that as you are riding a train of thought through your brain you might accidentally take the wrong track and end up at a dead end.

    Just my theory.

    Oh, and thanks for clearing up the train-and-rock mystery, I was told that as a kid and always wondered. :)

    I’ve also heard that if you drop a metal bar so that it touches both tracks at the same time that the gates will go down. I doubt it, but I never tried that, either.

    Comment by mckay on January 6, 2005 @ 9:10 am

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