Memories of a different time.
|Featured in the For Authors Newsletter - 9/24/08
Entry for the Stroll Down Memory Lane Contest.
I love trains!
When I was very young, it was my family’s Saturday morning ritual to drive the twelve miles or so from the rural community where we lived to the nearest city to do the weekly shopping. In those days, trains were the primary means of transportation when one was traveling any distance at all.
The city where we shopped held many things that were fascinating to my young eyes. There were not only throngs of people strolling the sidewalks and stores of every description, but there were the trains!
Located on the east/west path of the major rail line, the town was split by tracks and was home to the only passenger depot for miles around. Whenever I heard the lonesome wail of the steam locomotive’s whistle approaching a street crossing, my pulse rate increased and I would tug on my dad’s hand pulling him toward the station. I was lucky enough that he indulged my curiosity and moved in that direction. Watching all of the people milling around the platform, waiting to board, I wondered where they were going and what great adventures awaited them at their destinations. How I wished I were going with them.
Most alluring of all was the caboose with its small windows and Dutch door. There sat a jolly-looking man that my dad called the brakeman, watching the people gathering along the tracks. He would return my excited waves either with one of his own or a tip of his cap and I would clap small hands with delight.
One day as we watched, the brakeman left his station and went into the depot. Tugging Daddy closer to the open door, he lifted me up so that I could see inside. I marveled at the “little house” I saw. There was a small table with a couple of chairs and even a bunk. Thus began my dream of traveling across our wild and wonderful countryside watching the grassy plains and snow-capped mountains pass outside the window and meeting all of the wonderful people that I felt sure I would encounter along the way.
Sometime later an uncle gave my brother a huge set of train pictures that included 8X10 black-and-whites showing all sorts of trains, both inside the cars and out. There were mail cars where attendants sorted letters and packages into large bags, freight cars loaded with goods and “cattle cars” full of livestock. Most fascinating to me, however, were the passenger cars. I gazed at coaches lined with seats; sleeper cars with their neat compartments and uniformed conductors; a dining car with linen-clothed tables, real silver utensils, flowers in vases and formally suited waiters and my desire to “ride the rails” only burned deeper.
Some fifteen years later, I finally got my opportunity.
After high school I got a job at a nearby factory and moved into an apartment only about a block from the train depot. I went to sleep every night with the rumble and vibration of the metal wheels on the rails and the sad wail of the whistles.
At work there were only about fifty of us females to several thousand male employees. The “girls” would periodically plan a group-shopping trip to one of the larger cities within a few hundred miles. The mode of transportation on one of these trips was a passenger train. I was ecstatic! Finally, I would be able to ride a train.
I tried hard to conceal my childlike excitement from coworkers as we stood on the platform waiting for its arrival. When I heard the distant blast of that beloved whistle, I turned toward the sound and anxiously watched for the smoke-spewing locomotive to come into view. As it snaked around the bend my pulse began racing and continued its frantic pace while the train crept into the station and, with a blast of steam, screeched to a halt.
Taking my place in the forming line I anxiously awaited my turn to climb up the shiny metal steps and into the world of my dreams.
“Watch your step, ma’am,” the conductor cautioned. I answered him with a silly grin and followed the rest of the group into the coach. Seated on the red-leather bench next to a window, I nervously waited for that bellowed, “All aboard!”
At long last it sounded and we began to inch forward, whistle blowing. Slowly we slid over the familiar downtown streets, across the breadth of the Ohio River and through the small town on the opposite shore. As it disappeared behind us, we picked up speed and, rocking and swaying, rolled through the rolling green hills and ripening fields of grain. It was time for me to explore as much as I could of the wonders I remembered from those old photographs.
I slipped out of my seat and stood for a moment in the aisle getting the feel of my newly discovered “train legs”. I moved forward to the front of the car and approached the conductor. “Can you tell me what’s up ahead?” I asked, nodding toward the forward cars.
“Of course, ma’am. Directly ahead is another coach, then we have the sleeper and the dining car.”
I nodded my understanding and pointed toward the rear. “And that way?”
“Next one back is the Club Car and that’s about it for this run.”
“Thank you.” I moved toward the forward door, at last I’d see those marvelous cars and as a passenger!
“Watch your step as you cross between cars, ma’am,” he cautioned.
“I’ll do that,” I smiled. He opened the door and I stepped out onto a narrow, railed platform. I was surprised by the burst of wind that flowed through the open area. Holding onto one of the poles framing the opening, I carefully stepped onto the twisting plates that covered the coupling and onto the “porch” of the forward car.
I passed through the coach and on to the sleeper. I paused to gaze at the rows of compartments and badly wished that I was going on a trip of enough distance to warrant using one.
The deserted dining car appeared just like the one in the pictures I’d seen. White linen-covered tables, sans the waiters, flowers and silverware, awaited the travelers who would, no doubt, be using them later in the day, long after we had departed.
Smiling, I turned and retraced my path waving at my coworkers as I passed through our coach on my way to the Club Car. As I stepped through the door, I knew I’d found my dream.
On my left was a counter about six feet long with stools bolted to the floor; beyond it was a row of small round tables surrounded by leather-upholstered seats that mirrored those all along the opposite wall. At the far end was an ornate bar tended by a porter who looked very handsome in his short-jacketed black suit, red vest and crisp white shirt. Best of all, several of the tables were occupied with fellow travelers, enjoying a drink along with their morning paper or the conversation of companions.
I slid into a booth on the right side of the car and the porter hurried toward me.
“Good morning, Miss,” he smiled. “What can I get you?”
I ordered a drink and he strode back to the bar, returning a few moments later to sit it in front of me. I thanked him, paid and then began questioning him about his life on the trains.
We talked during the entire trip and I learned that he’d been ‘workin’ the rails for nearly thirty-five years’; that he enjoyed the traveling, but missed his family. Too soon, the engine pulled into our destination station and screeched to a halt.
Reluctantly I said goodbye to my newfound friend, rejoined my shopping group and stepped down from the train, sad that it was over so soon.
But then I smiled. I still had the trip back.
I love trains!