All Aboard

Even as a preteen I immediately understood the romance and glamor of an overnight train ride. For a couple of years during the 1960s, my mother, my two brothers and I took the California Zephyr from Chicago to Colorado for an Aspen skiing vacation. My father, who was not a skier, would drive us in from the suburbs and drop us off at Union Station in Chicago, one of the few times that we had been to the “big city.” My mother might have been holding my younger brother Andy’s hand, but Ralph and I marched side by side. I always felt great pride in our little tableau as we entered the station. This was in the days when my mother still went to the beauty “store” to get her short brown hair permed into a tousled bob decorated with a small oval gold barrette, when she wore bright red lipstick and string of white poppit beads, when people told her that she looked like Ingrid Bergman, when getting dressed up to go on a train was de rigeur, and before my mother abandoned all these touches of glamor and happily embraced the everyday practicality of an unadorned look. I imagined that people stopped to look at us striding along and asked each other, “Is that a famous family or something? They sure look important.”

Stepping into the Great Hall of Union Station was like walking into a foreign kingdom. The five story atrium, topped by a barrel-vaulted glass ceiling, was bordered by colonnades, each topped with a decorative flourish of foliage surrounding a torch. Lines of long oak benches were filled with dispirited travelers guarding bags at their feet, some stretched out on the bench for a hard nap. Again I would feel a little flush of superiority. People were milling aimlessly around us, but we had purpose, the five o’clock California Zephyr was waiting just for us and to top it off, my mother had gotten us all roomettes in the train. We would be sleeping in a comfortable bed and not on a chair or a bench.

We strode across the Great Hall and triumphantly entered the tunnel marked “To All Trains.” The dank and dark train platform was alive with energy; passengers and their well-wishers jockeyed for position between the criss-crossing Red Caps navigating their loaded carts. I struggled to keep up as our Red Cap bobbed and weaved through the crowd. I would slow down to gaze at the power of gleaming wheels perched precariously on the westward stretching tracks, and listen to the ploinking noise of hidden dripping water. Occasionally, the restless ambient noise was punctuated by a blast of escaping steam from the undercarriage, a full-bodied sigh of a wakening beast.

As soon as we got on the train, we were greeted by a porter who showed us to our roomettes and oriented us to the Vista Dome observation deck and the dining car. We settled into our compartments and waited for the engine’s stirring vibrations and the conductor’s cry of “all aboard.” Ours was a close knit family with attentive and loving parents, but in everyday life, my brothers and I were going in different directions, to football, field hockey, band practice or piano lessons. However, for the next twenty hours on the train, we would all be doing exactly the same things at the same times – looking out the windows together, eating together, playing games or cards together and sleeping in immediately adjacent roomettes. Once we arrived at Aspen and started skiing we would disperse across the mountain, often finding other friends to ski with.

I reveled in the compact functionality of the roomette, its name itself announcing its miniaturization. A petite sink folded out of the wall over the toilet, which doubled as an additional chair when all of us crowded into one roomette to play games. There was a couch overlooking the window where we watched the dimming lights of the jumbled industrial landscape give way to the monotony of flat Illinois farms. Later in the evening the porter would show up and fold out the couch into a narrow bed, complete with a pillow and crisp, white, all cotton sheets covered with a rough brown blanket. A similar bunk bed folded out of the wall above, but its open edge was further equipped with interlacing straps to prevent the occupant from tumbling out. I loved the upper bunk; perhaps I was unconsciously reliving some sort of in utero experience. As the train gently rocked through the night, I would first roll against the cool metal wall and then across to the comforting sling of the sturdy mesh straps. Even today, if it wasn’t so difficult to make a bed and change sheets, I would still opt for a bed against a wall and lean against its secure permanence.

I remember the rough upholstery of the couch that tickled my bare legs as I played word games with my mother. One of the favorites was called Hangman, a particularly grisly version of the game show Wheel of Fortune. I would guess the letters to my mother’s hidden phrase, and for every wrong letter my mother would add another portion of the picture – the scaffolding, the noose, and then the head, arms and legs of the doomed victim. My goal was to guess the word before the agonizing lynching was complete. There was much bantering about the details of the drawing. Should my mother be required to sequentially draw each finger and or was it permissible to draw the entire hand in one turn? Could she add both eyes at once, or one by one? Did the figure have to have hair? Another game was Jotto, where my mother had to figure out my five letter word by a process of elimination involving individual letters. Out of all the five letter words in the world, once she correctly guessed my word “milky” on the first try; we were both overwhelmed that blind luck could overcome immense improbability, giving credence to the possibility of winning a lottery or getting struck by lightning.

Once we tired of word games, my mother let us go exploring. We scuttled up and down the narrow aisles in front of the roomettes and then crossed over into the next car. I would open the heavy door with a great heave-ho, feel the cold rush of night air, and then momentarily stand in the darkness between the cars. In our roomette, the train rocked gently, but with my feet placed on either side of the coupling, I could feel one car abruptly jerk in relation to the other. I would wonder if it had ever happened that the train cars became uncoupled at the exact moment a young girl was standing with one foot on each car. After all, my mother had guessed milky on the first try. I would quickly move into the next car, not wanting to dwell on the agony of the extreme splits that would result if the cars separated as I stood there.

The rhythmic sounds of the clacking tracks provided a steady and comforting backdrop throughout the ride, reinforcing the unspooling miles as we raced across the Great Plains. If I wanted to get a direct sense of movement, I could peer down into the flushing toilet and see the actual tracks rumbling by. I remember wondering why the toilet had a little message requesting that it not be flushed while standing in the station. As a preteen, my critical thinking skills were still so rudimentary that I didn’t put it together that passenger trains had the unsavory practice of dumping raw sewage on the tracks. As with most issues involving effluent, it is probably best to operate on a need to know basis, so I’m grateful that the glamour of train travel wasn’t dampened by the appalling visual of a knotted trail stretching behind the tracks.

At midnight, I would wake to the conductor’s sonorous cries of “Om-a-ha, Om-a-ha” and poke my head through the webbing straps to peek outside the window. The few passengers milling about might be surprised to see an apparently decapitated, but smiling head hanging upside down from the upper corner of the window. The train platform was poorly lit, with a few moths dancing around the weak fluorescent lights that swayed in the breeze. I pitied those Omaha passengers whose late start meant that they could not enjoy a full night in the sleeper car.

The first activity in the morning was to check the little cubby where I had stored my shoes. Sometime in the depths of the night, the porter would open the cubby from the door on the aisle side, take the shoes out and shine them and then put them back in. As a child growing up in an all-white suburb, the porters, all African-American, were a novel experience. Their dark, dark skin contrasted both with their bright smiles and the equally bright white of their uniform jacket. To my inexperienced eyes, they all looked like Louis Armstrong and I remember them as unfailingly kind and patient with children. In the morning I would reach into the cubby with great anticipation and pull out my gleaming shoes. I always remembered to put a dingy coin in my penny loafers. Inevitably the porter would shine Lincoln’s profile to a high gloss.

Proudly wearing my newly shined shoes, I would head off to the dining car for breakfast. As a family, we never went out to eat, so the dining car was one of my first restaurant experiences. Our table had an immaculate white table cloth and napkins, forks and knives that felt heavy in my hand, and ice water that trembled in perspiring glasses. I watched as uniformed waiters delivered platters of food while nimbly accommodating the train’s lurches. The menu was far vaster than anything I had experienced. The signature breakfast entrée was some sort of deep-fried French toast. I would pierce the swollen and crispy toast and absorb the odor of the escaping plume of steam. Tufts of bread emerging from cracked exterior were then bent low by my generous addition of butter and syrup. A little amber droplet might hang off the edge of the toast, swaying in harmony with the clacking tracks. Of course, now I realize that the French toast could have simply been a slice of Wonder Bread dunked into a bubbling and unregulated vat of ancient lard/oil/grease/ or who knows what, but I was so completely enveloped in the triumvirate of sight, smell and taste that I had no interest in engaging a more discerning grey matter.

As soon as we finished breakfast we would up scamper up to the second level of the glass-domed Vista car to watch the scenery unfold as we headed west from Denver into the Rockies. This part of the trip was like a slow motion roller coaster ride – the train clung to the side of steep canyons and the wheels let out unnerving shrieks as the train banked around hairpin turns. Passengers might rush to the downhill side of the train car to get a better look at the valley below, but I would fear that this extra weight was just the tipping factor that would send us all plunging off the tracks. I was always grateful when we pulled into our final destination at Glenwood Springs.

Of the skiing itself, truthfully I don’t remember any specific details. My mother continued to take the family skiing for the next thirty years, but the pleasant and affirming togetherness of the California Zephyr was quickly replaced with the anxious cattle car experience of air travel. My lifetime of skiing memories has merged, but my train trips remain discrete and vivid events that can only be held alive by memory. Though tempted, I have never taken another overnight train ride, knowing that the inevitable diminished reality would tarnish my carefully tended memory.

Several years ago, my husband and I took our then-young children on a skiing vacation; on the way home our plane got stranded in Minneapolis. We struggled to find a single hotel room for the four of us. We had waved goodbye to a lot of money for this memorable trip – the airline tickets, the ski lodge, rental equipment – and yet when I asked our son what was his favorite part of the vacation, he said, “Remember when all of us had to sleep together in one room and we got cozy on the bed and watched movies together? That was my favorite.” I knew just what he meant – but I am also more than happy to avoid reliving that cramped hotel experience in order to keep his memory intact.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

We board the train at dusk and race across the plains as night captures day

In my upper bunk, I fall into a deep ******* as the train cars rock and sway.

Beyond Denver I eat breakfast of French toast, crisp, fluffy and deep fried

And watch the scenery change as the train ******* up the mountain’s side.

With shrieking wheels through darkened tunnels, the train chugs and ******

Finally the midwest horizon gives way to rocks in craggy heaps and jumbles.







Answers: slumber, lumbers, rumbles

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