Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Not the “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but Close
My mom was from Florida, and visiting her family in the little town of Green Cove Springs meant taking a long train ride. Let me tell you about my first such adventure.
Catching a passenger train to Florida from Harrold meant flagging it down around two o’clock in the morning. It rained hard the evening before we left, so hard that Mom was afraid Dad wouldn’t make it home that night. He barbered in Blunt on Tuesdays, usually until well after dark in the summertime. I was afraid too, because Dad had to take us to the depot and flag the train down, and I didn’t want to miss my first train ride! Mom tried to get me to sleep until it was time to leave, but I was too excited, so she finally let me tear around the house, hoping I would use up some of my six year olds energy. Dad drove home in the pounding rain, then helped me pass the time by reading to me, hoping I would go to sleep. No such luck.
When it was finally time to meet the train, we drove to the darkened depot. The agent had locked up at suppertime, so when Dad saw the light of the engine, streaky through the rain, he got out and grabbed the red flag that was in a bracket on the wall of the depot. As the engine light reflected off the brick-red depot, Dad stood in the rain on the edge of the loading platform and swung the flag back and forth, until he heard the engine slowing down. The locomotive pulled past the depot, lining the passenger cars up to the loading platform. After hugs and kisses, Mom and I stepped off the platform into the darkened passenger car, and settled in our seats. Mom put me next to the window, where I could wave at Dad as the train pulled away. The excitement of the evening had finally been too much for this six year old, and I promptly fell asleep.
I woke up to sunshine streaming in the window. The rain was gone, the sky was blue, and the train was stopped. I sleepily asked Mom why we were stopped, and she told me the hard rain had washed part of the track away, so we had to wait until it was repaired. Mom lowered the window so I could see the washed out section of track. After a minute of watching the repair being done, I looked towards the rear of the train, and was shocked by what I saw. Harrold! We were only a few miles east of Harrold. For no farther than we had gone, I could have slept in my own bed that night.
The clack clack of the train rolling over the track was exciting to hear. People moving about in our car stopped and talked to me, probably amused by my excited chatter. The dining car was also an adventure, sitting at a window table, watching the countryside go by, seeing the engine up ahead as we went around a curve, all while eating my pancakes! The redcaps were always nearby, making sure we were comfortable. I’m sure Mom was worn out from answering my non-stop questions, and it was only the first day!
We had a layover in Chicago, waiting in the huge terminal where several trains were lined up. I entertained myself for a time by riding the escalator. I should say we rode the escalator, because I wouldn’t ride it without Mom by my side. She soon tired of that, and led me outside where she flagged down a taxi. We went for a short ride through a busy part of Chicago. It was daytime, but was so dark! Mom rolled the window down and told me to look up. I caught sight of the sky, sandwiched between the tall buildings. It was a little scary, even for Mom. The ride didn’t last long, which was alright for this six year old from Harrold. Give me an escalator any day.
We stayed in Florida just long enough for me to start understanding my relatives’ Southern drawl, then boarded a coal burning train for the first part of our three day trip home. It was summertime, hot and muggy, and the train was not air conditioned. Everyone had their windows down, trying to feel the breeze. When we would come to a curve, all the windows facing the near side of the curve quickly closed, trying to keep the smoke and cinders from invading the car. Even so, by the time we switched trains everything and everybody was covered with a grey layer of dust. By this time, traveling by train was becoming old hat, and I just wanted to get home to my dad and my dog Spot.( Hmm, does that last bit sound like a good title for a movie?).
I traveled to Florida several times by train, and always considered it an adventure, but the first trip is one I will most remember. I haven’t traveled by train for almost 60 years, but an Amtrack trek through the Rockies is near the top of my bucket list. All aboard, anybody?
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A short essay by Justin Tupper, Vice President, United States Cattlemen’s Association