Here is another great story from Al. We just completed a six-day train ride crisscrossing America. We took the California Zephyr from Colorado to Sacramento with stops in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. We then took the Coastal Starlight to Seattle enjoying Oregon and Washington. We spent a wonderful day in Seattle and boarded the Empire Builder crossing Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. We missed our flight in Chicago. So, we bought tickets for the Lake Shore Limited all the way to New York, with less enjoyable but still pleasant scenery of Indiana, Ohio and New York. This was one of those trips of a lifetime. Six years ago, Al and I fell in love with the train trips when we crossed Canada from Toronto to Vancouver. Now, we know better why we love the trains. We thought about writing a story together for our trip. Then, Al remembered that he had written one in 1993. More than 20 years has passed, but everything in his story still lives as if it happened yesterday.
Here is his story from his train ride from New York to Birmingham in 1993 (all pictures from our trip in June 2015):
Most people, when they first consider riding the rails, think of the scenery as the drawing point. Gazing dreamily out the window, perhaps over a slow cup of coffee in the dining car, watching the hills, the cows,…. the sunset, ….whatever.
But, the key to train riding, the spirit of it, the resource unavailable anywhere else, is the people. The people and their stories.
Spalding Grey (in “Swimming to Cambodia”) noted that people on trains will tell you the deepest parts of their lives and thoughts, and they do so because they will never see you again. No other place that I can think of has the unique combination of forced proximity, anonymity and time-to-kill.
On my trip, for example, there was Frederick, the salesman for a hydraulic engineering company. Frederick was a train buff from the beginning of time, it seemed. From him I learned that in the old days, every railroad had its own specialty. The Southern Railroad specialized in its fine foods, the Pennsylvania for its speed, and the Burlington Northern for its smooth road beds. Now, everything is more homogenized. Frederick didn’t like that despite all other indications that he was a precise man whose life was based on orderliness and standards. Frederick knew that he wanted to be an engineer even when he was a very young child. He planned it, sought out the appropriate education and training; then he got the right job and has kept it for all these years. He has never questioned the plan. His three children are pursuing similar plans, all on schedule.
Except for his youngest son who just didn’t seem to know what he wanted; who Frederick convinced to enroll in the local community college at least to be doing something until his life shapes in some direction. There was a bout of drugs for the boy, he had run away for a while, although he is back and its over now. It is never really over of course; the counseling has taught them that. It’s a day to day thing. Its taught them all that- the whole family. Frederick may already have known that since his mother had been an alcoholic, and of course still was, even after his father died almost two years ago now. They worried a lot about how she might take care of herself. But, of course, you can’t run other peoples lives….
Frederick was my dinner partner. The next morning at breakfast, I was seated with Jake. Jake was taking a three and a half week tour, all by train. A 45 day coach pass costs only $250. He, like Frederick, loved trains and could tell you about many of them. The Pacific Coast trains were, all in all, the best, although the Cardinal between Cincinnati and New York was by far the prettiest ride, a ride that one needed to take soon because the train was soon to be canceled.
Jake took these rides every couple of years. He used to do it more often when he was single. But, now his wife gave him permission for these flings just every so often. She understood that Jake, not having been married, ever, until he was thirty-seven had grown accustom to certain things, and would not be changed easily. Though she probably would not have come at any rate – she couldn’t now take train rides because of the back injury she sustained in a car accident one year ago in April. Her car had skidded across the lanes after being cut off by a car passing on her right. It was driven by an elderly man who, for all we know, was trying to show his manhood intact by aggressive driving. Her accident was head-on. She was in the hospital for two weeks, and then, of course, recovery at home took much longer. But, it was probably a good idea to be on this trip alone since Jake and his wife were not getting along like they did during that first, exciting year of marriage. It was at the end of that year that Jake lost his job as a draftsman in the company that made bottling equipment. Jobs seemed in trouble all over, and Jake was scared stiff. He had never finished college, never really got started exactly, and despite being able to make ends meet with a part time job for now, his wife was clearly upset. She wanted children of their own. That was different than the two boys she brought from her previous marriage, both fine boys, but….
I don’t know if the dining car porters use any particular rules when they sit people together at a table. Watching the head porter carefully consider various potential seatings as he walks down the aisle, nearly signaling to you to follow, then hesitating, pacing out two more tables and then raising his hand to you – its possible to imagine him to be a social wizard carefully optimizing story mix and compatibility. Unlikely, I guess.
But does everyone in America have a story? There was Gail, the executive for a trade association, who took the train often. She didn’t like it; she did it because she hated to fly. Gail had enormous warmth and empathy; originating, no doubt, with that episode when she, a sixteen year old Army brat returning from Germany to a new high school tasted the brutality of Texas teenage society when she spent an entire house party standing in the front doorway looking outward, waiting to be picked up by her parents at the designated time because no one, not one classmate, would speak with her, the newcomer to town. Seeded in that way, she learned the methods of warmth in the lush directness of Louisiana, when her father was finally allowed to evacuate Texas.
There was Sidney from London, the unmarried bureaucrat from what amounts to England’s version of the IRS, into his third yearly trip visiting microbreweries all across the land in search of the best American Beer. There was Laura, a lovely woman whose role as a grandmother astounded everyone at the table. She was on a one way trip: she had driven down by car, a two-day trip with her husband, his mother, his father and his aunt. Now, they were returning by car, all except Laura, who explained with a vague flash of clever smile, that the car was pretty full….too full. And besides, she had wanted to try the train since childhood. Then there was Irene, who had tasted true tragedy when her daughter was murdered by a serial killer nine years ago. She had spent the time since writing self-help books on the process of grieving, and was about to make a movie.
And, finally, there was Tim. Tim was the quiet, keep-to-yourself type when he sat down. It was only after some prodding that he spoke, but his story was the winner, by far. He was traveling with his recent wife who had just been offered 8 million dollars for the movie rights to the book, which was about to be a best seller, and was about her life as the wife of a mobster, who had been brutally murdered along with their children before her eyes. And, she was spared because one of the assassins had known her as a child in the South of France, and then after the murders helped her to gun down the men responsible for the contract on her husband. Several of them being FBI agents actually working for the mob, the Bureau attempted a cover-up by initiating a nationwide manhunt for the poor woman. They caught her, of course, posing as a man working in a fishery in Seattle. The five years in solitary confinement was the cause for her not being able to stand the close quarters of their sleeper car on this train, so they had switched to coach. But, this claustrophobia was really the only scar on her from her ordeal. Then again, she had good preparation for the violence, since both her parents had died in a flaming car crash when she was 8, and then when she was twelve she was raped by a train conductor who immediately thereafter was decapitated in yet another accident. This propensity to violence did make Tim a little uneasy, he admitted.
Tim himself, he said, was in construction.
It’s hard to take Tim at face value.
Although, in truth, who knows? There is no reason to believe him any less than the others. Maybe Frederick doesn’t have children; Laura didn’t look at all like a grandmother. Breweries? Why should I believe any of them? It makes sense that people would react differently to an environment in which they are completely unknown. Some might use the chance to work out some life problem. Others might see the opportunity to invent better ones.
After all, I’m not really a violinist returning from a concert solo in Mexico City.
Allen E. Milewski