A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

When I fantasize, as I often do, about appearing on Jeopardy, it is not the speed with which I push the button that makes me anxious — for sluggish button-mashing

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

When I fantasize, as I often do, about appearing on Jeopardy, it is not the speed with which I push the button that makes me anxious — for sluggish button-mashing

When I fantasize, as I often do, about appearing on Jeopardy, it is not the speed with which I push the button that makes me anxious — for sluggish button-mashing seems to be as much an impediment to success on that show as not knowing the question to the answer — but the answer to the question posed after the first commercial break.

The question itself is never voiced, but judging by what the host reads from the cue cards, the contestants are asked to elaborate on a fun or unusual fact about themselves. I have never jumped out of an airplane with a dog strapped to my chest, as some apparently have, nor am I double-jointed or capable of reciting the alphabet backward. But I do have an answer at the ready for my fantasy Jeopardy appearance, and it is a doozy: My great-uncle once stole a train.

The anxiety comes when I am asked to elaborate. My inability to say more speaks, in a way, to the very nature of ancestry, of all that is left out of what used to be recorded in the family Bible and is now found on Ancestry.com. The dates of births, marriages, and deaths may tell us where we come from, but they don’t shed much light on who our ancestors were or how they lived.

So we are left with facts, and the facts, in my case, are scant: My great-uncle stole a train.

We do know a little more than this. We know that my great-uncle came, as my father’s people did, from eastern North Carolina — Pitt County, to be exact. We know that my great-uncle’s name was Ralph Parker, and that he was born around 1880. We don’t know if he ever married or had kids; we don’t know where he died. It’s as if he rode that train right out of existence.

Knowing next to nothing about his infamous caper has not stopped my siblings and me from retelling this story, at every opportunity, for more than half a century. All we know is what our father told us, which is not much.

My father was not extroverted enough to be called a raconteur, but he loved to tell a story. Often, his stories were outlandish, as 40 years in the small-town newspaper business leads to an endless supply of outlandish stories. A family favorite began with the line, “A man came up from Wilmington, carrying a bag of snakes.”

Because my father spoke little of his family — his own father died when he was 4, and his early life was a difficult one — we hung on to every detail he shared. A man may or may not have come up from Wilmington, carrying a bag of snakes, but there was never any doubt in our minds that our great-uncle stole a train.

• • •

The only concrete proof that my great-uncle existed is a photograph. In it, he and my grandfather are sitting, arms around each other — so close that they appear joined at the rib cage — on a wicker settee. If you were to ask, What’s wrong with this picture?, it would definitely be the settee. These men were not settee types. Obviously, the photo was taken at a professional photographer’s studio; a rumpled rug covers the floor beneath the settee, and the backdrop is painted with clouds and a flourish of tropical flora.

The writer's great-uncle, Ralph Parker as a child with his brother.

Ralph Parker was very much a riddle wrapped in an enigma. According to family lore, the author’s great-uncle (right) was a train thief, but one of the few things anyone knows about him for sure is that, one day, a young Ralph posed for this photo with his brother. Photography courtesy of Michael Parker

The cheerfully domestic surroundings only highlight the fact that my grandfather and his brother look like they are about to rob a saloon. Both have cigarettes dangling from their lips. I would never use such a familiar phrase as “cigarette dangling from lips,” but the cliché seems to have been invented to describe the angle at which those unlit smokes are attached to their mouths.

That this is the only known photograph of my great-uncle — that it is the only thing that remains of him except a preposterous, and so far unproven, tale — makes him all the more mysterious.

• • •

One of the benefits of being a novelist is that you can take the slightest anecdote — or image or even a phrase — and get 300 pages out of it. My first novel sprang from a story that my father once told me about delivering morphine to an addict in Tarboro in the ’30s, when my father worked as a delivery boy at a drugstore. My seventh novel came from a slight story that my mother told me about my grandmother and her sister riding a pony to school in the fierce Oklahoma winter.

Why, then, have repeated attempts to bring the train theft to life, in fiction, failed me? I have tried three times and have gotten no more than 70 pages into the story before spinning out. Giving up is a part of writing fiction, as some stories just do not want to be told, but I tried everything I could to get that story on the page. In one version, my great-uncle is met on the street by the shotgun-bearing father of a girl he’s gotten in the family way. A train, half-filled with cypress slabs, idles on a nearby track. My great-uncle is no conductor, but he’s savvy enough to tell the difference between a brake and a throttle.

In another attempt at telling his story, I had my great-uncle managing to drive the train to Tennessee. In yet another version, he ends up seasick in the steerage of a Mississippi riverboat, longing for the relative stability of a narrow-gauge railway.

Illustration of a man jumping off a train

illustration by Chuck Pyle

Because I am a novelist and have been known to embellish without even realizing it, I decide to ask my siblings how they remember the story, and how it has shaped their sense of our paternal heritage.

Sister Stewart: “In the past, when I overheard folks speaking about their illustrious genealogical heritage, it has given me great pleasure to contribute to the conversation by simply saying, ‘My great-uncle stole a train.’ It’s pretty much a conversation closer.”

Brother Jim: “My memory is that part of the story was his being drunk when he stole the train. Also that the train ended up in Roanoke Rapids. I don’t know whether those two things were really said to me, but I certainly repeated them to other people.”

Brother David: “My memory is pretty much the same — got drunk, stole a train, train was found, but he was never heard from again.”

Sister Edith: “I will say it comes in very handy when I have colleagues who brag how their sister teaches at some Ivy League school. I whip out what our great-uncle did, and that tends to change the trajectory of the conversation.”

Aside from the additional information, my query reveals three things: that my great-uncle more than likely tied one on before stealing the train; that all of us take what my brother Jim describes as perverse pride in retelling the story of our great-uncle and the stolen train; and that it is possible to have some overlap, if not actual agreement, among the five of us about something that happened in the past, an occurrence so rare that it elevates the exploits of my great-uncle to near-mythic status.

• • •

On our maternal side, there are ancestors who are far more illustrious. My third-great-grandfather William MacLean, who lived in Gaston County, has his own NCpedia page. He served valiantly as a doctor at the battle of Kings Mountain and was a state senator. His papers are a part of the Southern Historical Collection at UNC.

Why do I feel that I know more about the character of my great-uncle the train thief than I do from reading the much more complete and verifiable biography of the renowned Dr. MacLean? Does my failure to write my great-uncle’s story mean that I’d rather not know any more, even if it’s made up? Broken branches of a family tree may frustrate genealogists, but the mysteries they create can tantalize. Even if I were able to prove that my great-uncle served some time for his caper and spent the rest of his days quietly raising hogs outside of Conetoe, I would still favor the apocryphal anecdote.

My new home in Durham is a few blocks from the train tracks, and half a dozen times a day I hear the bleat of a horn when a train passes. I think of my old great-uncle, who was likely not that great in the traditional definition of greatness, but he’s mine. He’s ours. And we’ll continue to delight in the retelling of his daring deed. We will pass his story down to our children, so that there might be no end to whatever track he chose to take.

print it

This story was published on Feb 26, 2024

Michael Parker

Michael Parker’s latest book is the novel Prairie Fever. He taught for many years in the creative writing program at UNC Greensboro and now lives in Durham.