Thursday, November 22, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
You can meet the nicest people in train stations
My father would not want to be remembered as a gentleman who picked up ladies at the train depot, but that is exactly what he did at Thanksgiving in 1955. As it happened, the two ladies were my grandmothers, and therein lies a tale!
Thanksgiving in my family did not exactly involve “over the river and through the woods,” and certainly not a horse who knew the way to carry the sleigh, but on that particular Thanksgiving, snow was very much involved.
Our family had gone by car to share the holiday with my aunt and uncle in Charleston, Ill. I am sure the dinner was magnificent, but being only two years old, you will forgive me if my memories are spotty. What I do remember is Uncle Bill’s black and white fox terrier “Skipper,” and those who suffer with my reminiscences will recognize that as a story for another day!
The day after Thanksgiving Uncle Bill awakened everybody with news that a blizzard was headed toward Charleston. It was decided that for safety my uncle would put my grandmother (Mother’s mother) aboard the southbound City of New Orleans at nearby Mattoon while the rest of us got underway as quickly as possible in our 1951 green Dodge.
Now, the City of New Orleans was a fast streamliner that ran between Chicago and New Orleans in the glory days of American passenger trains. Some readers of this column are bound to remember it, as it made stops in Memphis, Senatobia and Batesville. It was always a long train — and on holiday weekends often operated in two sections. Amtrak still operates a train by the same name, but the schedule is different and the whole “feel” of riding the train is different now than it used to be.
One thing that was different was how swift that train was. If you ever saw it from a stationary position, you’ll know what I mean. Speeds in excess of 100 m.p.h. were an everyday occurrence. (The present-day Amtrak train has some nice aspects, including on-board shower baths, but outside the Boston-Washington corridor, speed is not part of the modern U.S. train riding experience.)
Anyhow, Auntie Fran packed us a lunch — “who would want to eat in those unpredictable roadside cafés?” she would say. So off we went with a shoebox full of turkey sandwiches, pound cake, apples and oranges, brownies, and a thermos of hot cider. I’m sure there was coffee for Daddy as well. Uncle Bill is sure to have provided tire chains and cinders in case we ran into a drift.
By the time we neared Fulton we had outrun the snow, and my father calculated that the train would easily beat our car to Memphis, where we were to meet my grandmother at Central Station. (Remember this was long before interstate highways were part of our travel vocabulary!)
So my father headed for downtown Fulton (which he knew well because he had spent his early childhood at nearby Clinton and we still had family there), and pulled up in the parking area of the Illinois Central depot at the north end of the business district.
Daddy planned to board the train during its scheduled ten-minute stop and find my grandmother, so that she could detrain and ride with us the rest of the way to our home in Cleveland, 110 miles south of Memphis.
Grandmother was not nearly such a “train buff” as I, and I am sure she was glad to get off the train earlier than planned and would also not have minded cashing in the unused portion of the ticket, for tickets were expensive in those days and Grandmother also, as I recall, thought the whole idea of putting her on the train “for safety” was ridiculous. Nonetheless, ride that train she did, with another of Auntie Fran’s shoeboxes of goodies, for why wobble through the train to that expensive dining car when home-cooked could be sent along so conveniently? Besides, Auntie Fran had bought provisions for a longer visit. How could she and Uncle Bill eat all that food?
But as Daddy walked through the waiting room, whom did he spot but his mother, waiting to board the City, headed back home to Memphis, having spent Thanksgiving visiting various Kentucky relatives in and around Fulton?
I can see her now, sitting high-backed on those high-backed benches, tall and thin in her navy blue coat, with the obligatory hat and gloves.
Why Granddaddy was not along, and why Daddy did not know her plans are details lost to me in the passage of time, but anyway there she was, and we were all so glad to see one another!
When the train came in, Daddy gathered up both grandmothers, and I was the happiest of all getting to sit between both my grandmothers as we made our way the 125 miles south to Memphis.
We all had a nice, leisurely ride down U.S. 51, laughing about whom you might meet in the waiting room of the Fulton depot!
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