A recent posting by Elisson, neighborhood bud and blogger pal and mentor, had me choo-chooing back to the late ’50s. Ellison’s post was all about a delightful trip he recently took from here to the Nawth, much of it via trains.
I took a similar trip, one of my all-time great vacations. It was the summer of 1959 and I was just breaking into my teen years, still unsure about most everything. My Dad, who just about never went on vacation – he was the man behind a one-man business – decided to visit an old army buddy in upstate New York and, for whatever reason, also decided to take me along.
The trip was filled with a fistful of firsts that I still recall and cherish, even after five decades have come and gone. It was the first, and quite possibly the only trip my Dad and I took together without other family members – I have three brothers; the very first time I visited Washington, D.C., visited all the Smithsonian museums, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and Mount Vernon; the first time I made it to the Big Apple, visited the studios of NBC, walked along Broadway, ate my way through the Carnegie Deli and – drum roll, please – attended a game at Yankee Stadium, sitting in center field, only a few dozen yards away from, that’s right, Mickey Mantle.
But I digress. It’s the trains that Elisson got me thinking about, those glorious, gleaming streamliners that glided on rails through the heart of America, connecting us all in a special way that is nothing more than a distant and vague memory today.
Yes, we can now get from here to there much faster. But something has been lost in the translation – elegance, civility, a sense of magic and adventure? Now it’s all about getting to our destination. Back when I and my father made our way north it was all about the journey.
And that journey began at a little station, just a mile or so east of the Chattahoochee River in west Georgia. We boarded the Man o’ War, sparkling and shiny and slow as molasses – can you say milk run! It took an agonizing three hours to make it to the Land of Cotton, 100 miles to the north.
But that was okay. The big city was a happening place, I could tell that as we scurried from Terminal Station in the Land of Cotton, over to the nearby and bigger Union Station – an imposing edifice of stone and brick, featuring a series of columns that stood as silent sentinels at the entrance of the impressive building and its cavernous main hall.
Both stations were reduced to rubble in the 1970s, the massive space turned into massive parking lots – a balancing act of sorts since cars were among the reasons train travel was headed the way of the dinosaur.
But I digress, yet again. The trip really began when our train was announced and its schedule blared across the waiting room, the names of villages and cities spread across the Southeast echoing around the massive space – now boarding on track 4, the Southern Crescent, with stops in Greenville, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Greensboro, Lynchburg, Manassas, Alexandria and Waaaaash-ing-ton!
The Crescent was huge, 14 gleaming cars that seemed to stretch on forever – two state-of-the-art diesel engines, coaches and sleeping cars, two dining cars and a lounge.
It was an adventure just to walk about, to sway and stumble your way through coaches filled with plush, velvet seats, then push aside the massive doors that separated the cars, and keep your balance in that space where they were joined together. If you were lucky, a porter was resting in this area with one of the windows open, the wind and countryside rustling by at a frenetic pace.
The rhythmic rocking of the train, the constant clickety-clack of the wheels sliding along the rails, is heady stuff for a 12-year-old. Everything about the train seemed fresh and new and exciting – white-jacketed porters and linen-covered tables in the dining cars; leather couches and stainless steel tables way back in the lounge car. This, as I recall, was a special place – smoke filled, the adults drinking their way through the night, youngsters like me staring through the back door of the train, watching the miles fade into the darkness.
Before returning home, we experienced all these thrills, and more, aboard two additional trains: the Pennsylvania between Washington and the Big Apple and the Nickerbocker – you gotta love that name – from Grand Central Station in New York to Albany.
It was a different time, when hope and excitement and the slight stench of diesel fuel and cigarette smoke filled the world, when everything seemed absolutely possible and dreams were the stuff of life. At least that’s what I remember now – and for today that’s more than enough.