We killed the engine, letting the darkness settle softly around us, as nocturnal noises echoed through the silent swamps of our boyhood.

Regardless of age, there remains a sense of danger deep in the woods at night. At 16, you hear things that haunt your dreams. At 60, you just hope the Jeep starts the next time you turn the key.

If it doesn't, the boy inside you thinks of all the daring things that make life worth living. But the man you grew up to be sees pig paths that wind through cypress swamps where rescue workers find people one day too late.

Still, we parked beneath the stars, next to an old railroad line that sliced through the Savannah River swamp, talking of old times, appreciating friendships that come full circle, laughing aloud, allowing the silence to speak for itself.

Then we heard the whistle.

God's flashlight

Off to the west, beyond the peak of the tallest pines, something lit up the sky, like God's flashlight looking for lost boys.

We knew what was coming -- a night train, pulling its long load, bearing down on us, hitting its stride as it swept out of the rolling Georgia hills into the flatlands of South Carolina that lead to the ports and places far beyond.

As it rounded the corner and turned in our direction, the train's powerful lights illuminated the tracks, like two ribbons of fire, gleaming for a mile or more, headed our way, filling our senses with sound and fury seldom experienced in our daily lives.

Anticipating its arrival, we stood on our seats, mere meters from the track, closer than caution dictates, awaiting the mechanical monster that grew in size and sensation as it came roaring toward us.

Night train

As the engine flew past, it sucked oxygen out of the thick night air and we gasped at the speed and sheer excitement of being so close to life and death at the same time.

For a few mesmerizing moments we could not contain our childlike instincts to yell and scream in order to be heard above the rattle and rumble of a hundred rail cars that disappeared as quickly as they came.

We all agreed it was an unexpected exhilaration.

But apparently, it's a guy thing. When we tried to explain this midnight moment to our suspicious spouses, they gave us that look. You know the one -- parental, patronizing and perhaps a little perturbed that we put ourselves in such a precarious predicament.

But we just laugh, wink and nod. You had to be there.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Ken_Burger.