NORTH LITTLE ROCK Sitting in a chair in the Jenks Shop locomotive complex, 34-year-old Vernon Myers was wearing a red T-shirt and ball cap, both with the Union Pacific Railroad logo. With a wide grin, he reached out his arms to me. I hugged him as if we had always known each other.
I first met Myers in June when I wrote a story about him. That day, I stood under a bridge with him and waited on the Union Pacific trains to pass through Jacksonville.
Now, we were waiting to ride one of those trains.
Myers is known as “Train Boy” around Jacksonville. He can’t hear or speak, so he communicates with sign language or with a pen and paper.
Each morning, regardless of the weather, Myers steps into Roberta’s Salon and Gallery on First Street in Jacksonville. He greets Roberta McGrath and walks back to her refrigerator and grabs a Mountain Dew, which she keeps on hand just for him. Then he walks across the street to the railroad track and sits under the Main Street bridge waiting for the Union Pacific trains to barrel through.
Although he can’t hear, he can feel the vibration of the trains before they can be seen or heard by anyone else.
There have been only a few times Myers hasn’t shown up at McGrath’s studio: once when his stepfather, firefighter Capt. Donnie Jones, was killed in the line of duty, and again when Myers’ uncle died soon after.
After the story ran in the June 7 Three Rivers Edition, it ended up in the hands of some influential people at Union Pacific.
“When I read the story, I cried,” said Raquel Espinoza, Union Pacific director of corporate relations and media for the Southern region. “I knew we just had to do something special for him.”
After making some arrangements for Myers to take a train ride during Union Pacific’s 150th celebration, Espinoza flew into Little Rock just to meet Myers and to ride the train with him.
Early Saturday morning, Myers came to the station with his mother, Betty Jones; his sister, Teresa Myers, and her 5-year-old son, Ali Sanders; and McGrath.
Greeted by Jerry Rachal, one of the engineers who sees Myers waiting on the trains each day, Myers found out that he was not only going to ride the train, but he was going to ride up in the locomotive with the engineers.
“I have seen Vernon several times while working in the Jacksonville area, and he always waves at our trains as we go by,” Rachal said. “Seeing him on Saturday was like visiting with family, and we all enjoyed giving him a different view of the railroad.”
With a smile that wouldn’t leave his face, Myers gave his mother a thumbs up and climbed up into the engine.
“We at Union Pacific appreciate Vernon’s dedication to safely watching our trains, which has helped us develop a unique connection with the community in Jacksonville,” Espinoza said. “It is not often that you meet someone with a natural sense that tells him trains are approaching, before they can be seen or heard, and it was our privilege to host Vernon aboard Union Pacific’s Heritage equipment. He is a remarkable young man who has been through a lot, and we just wish his stepfather could have been here to be a part of the experience.”
After about a 30-minute ride, Myers was given a couple of gifts: a Union Pacific watch and a Union Pacific limited-edition model train set.
The plan was to have Myers come down from the train so the railroad officials could present him with the gifts, but Myers was having so much fun that he didn’t want to come down off the engine. So several of the men squeezed into the locomotive, where Myers sat grinning and waving from the window to his mother. Then off they went on another ride with Myers ready to pull the horn.
“He has always loved trains,” Jones said about her son. “He has been so excited about this ride since I told him about it. … He will never forget this.”
Jones said her son was able to ride on the locomotive twice and is still excited about the experience.
“He was down here the very next day at his usual time,” McGrath said Monday. “He was penning to my customers about how much fun he had. He’s still on cloud nine, and still ‘talking’ about it.”
Staff writer Jeanni Brosius can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.