The Trains of Christmas
The party would be in full swing before we got out of town
By FREDERIC SMITH
One of my most
vivid memories is of coming
back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who
went farther than
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace carne suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
That's my Middle West--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. *
*Reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Copyright 1925 Charles Scribner's Sons.
This passage, written by Fitzgerald in the mid-Twenties, is perhaps the most famous evocation of what was, until recently, a nearly universal American experience. For college students before and after, the approach of Christmas meant identical happy throngs down at the depot, and a train ride home that differed very little in its essential features from one generation to the next.
As a student
in the years 1960-65, I reversed the direction of Fitzgerald's migration, my
school being in
The RI was, even in those late
days, still very much in the passenger business. Streamliners plied twelve of
its fourteen states;
Your hero and his friends, more rail-wise, sit in a dumpy bar across the street drinking 3.2 beer. Our unchecked baggage consists of a half-dozen brown paper sacks. The talk is literary--we were all writers in those days--and very much for the benefit of our female companions, whose seductions either have already been accomplished or await resolution in the New Year.
(Vanished with the varnish are those long locks and languorous limbs! O, where are the girls of yesterday?)
Traintime... the sun reddening and
lowering over the tree-dense valley of the
Make way for
Tolling, magnificent, No. 10 brakes into station with an x-ing sound,
leaking oil and steam, its maroon-nosed engine trailing a string of silver cars
with names like Grinnell, Mesa Verde and
No wonder the trainmen look apprehensive.
The party would be in full swing before we ever got out of town. Or parties, I should say--a half-dozen clusters of good fellowship in each coach. If you could not find a seat where you wanted, you just pulled up a suitcase; after a while, there seemed to be as many people in the aisles as in the seats. Beer-drinking was general, and cries of "Have you got a church key?" were heard as often as the engine singing for th.e crossings.
The train crew, not having much choice in the matter, were tolerant if not cloyingly friendly. Their forbearance said that this, too, would pass: come January, they would be back at their real job of moving empty cars over the road.
No. 10 ran
off the fifty-four miles to the
For the railfan, there was the westbound Rocky Mountain Rocket parked on an adjoining track, its gay yellow windows as crowded with faces and life as our own. Side by side, the two trains were like a couple of oldsters who succeed, by mutual encouragement, in evoking an earlier and more prosperous day.
hungry, there was the dining car even then being switched into the consist. Plenty of time for even this crowd to eat
And last, for the thirsty, a little brightly-lit tavern just down the street from the depot where supplies could be replenished during the 15-minute layover...
Bureau . . .
many would consider
this more true than at Christmas time with its great
crowds. "Like wartime," a stationmaster told me once, an impression
strengthened by the ubiquitous uniforms--Navy blues, especially, from
There was a tree, of course, and usually a choir singing from the red-carpeted risers set up in front of the windows. Much of the audience was made up of LaSalle's permanent population, the derelicts who never seemed so pathetic as at this time of year. What must have been their thoughts as they watched the holiday thousands entraining for far firesides and families!
On my own
now, and with a couple of hours to kill, I would wander around looking at the
people and catching up on the train-off notices. (One year, I remember, the
I cannot imagine anyone caring, but I found Grand Central a depressing cathedral, from its grime-blackened battlements to an interior where, in daytime, the stained-glass window arches admitted a holy light. (The blue neon B&O sign on the tower was, however, neat.) Even at Christmas time, it seemed more suited to the interment of saint than railway carriage--a place from which all commerce had departed. Indeed, a look at the skimpy board showed this to be very nearly the case. Even the bums had withdrawn their patronage.
One year, with the snow drifting
gently down, I finally hoofed it over to Canal and ,
this was not really the
I love the
architecture of the Twenties, of which
I wandered around for an hour or so, trying out the place from its many angles, stairways and balustrades--always, somehow, looking up. Then I slipped through the gates for my first on-the-spot inspection of the likes of a Milwaukee Road Skytop observation lounge. and the magnificent maroon-and-red of the GM&O. The Limited was just unloading, I remember, and this was a thrill for one who had always admired from afar the road that named its other trains, too, with such heroic simplicity: the Mail, the Abraham Lincoln, and the Midnight Special.
the hour would be getting
late, and it was time to hustle back to
Why Nickel Plate, with the New York Central loading on the next track.'?
Part of the
answer lay in one traveller's emotional preference for something small done
exceedingly well. For, if the
(I never met a rude conductor on the NKP, or was banished from a vestibule. Whether this stemmed from innate goodness, company policy, or the employees' knowledge that they were only a train-off or two from riding in a caboose, I cannot say.)
I liked the intimacy of the partitioned coaches--restrooms were located in the middle of the car--which gave you the feeling of going down the pike in your living room. And it would have taken a hardhearted man to resist the Bluebirds that rode on the point until 1962.
Charm aside, there were good practical reasons for choosing the NKP overnight between Chicago and Cleveland.
important was the club diner-lounge that welcomed you aboard for drinks at , a good two hours before departure. The
Central's entry, No. 90, offered no such service--which also meant no breakfast
A final argument for the NKP eastbound was that one always rode the Central back. Even before the former dropped its daylight run in '63, the Central's No. 59, the Chicagoan, was so fast and excellent as to be obligatory.
Picture me, then (as I like to picture myself, these trainless Christmases since), taking an easy chair in the lounge of No. 6. We are still standing in station. The sober Filipino waiter advances and, when I order a beer, asks to see some identification.
This is a
moment fraught with peril. All Fall I have been drinking on the draft card of
an ex-GI buddy whose physical attributes do not exactly tally with my own. That
is, he is tall, heavy and dark, whereas I am short, slight and fair. In
He keeps me waiting for a long time before returning the card with a wink and a smile. Quietly, he says, "My congratulations--you are very-well preserved. Was that a Schlitz?"
What did I tell you about those NKP crews?
At , there is momentary confusion as the lighted
windows on the next track begin to slip backwards. Are they moving, or are we?
Our start is as imperceptible as that--but soon unmistakable as we emerge from
the shed and the
It is a
different crowd than on the
I do not
mind the difference. There is, in every journey, a point at which one's
thoughts turn from where he has been to where he is going. For me, that point
has always been
There is the
obligatory stop at
I had a friend who used to give, as one of his reasons for preferring rail travel, the opportunity it affords to spin elaborate, outrageous lies about oneself. No doubt we have all consumed our share of these in our lounge car miles; but there are moments, too, of unmistakably truthful self-revelation . . .
I have made the acquaintance of a sleeping car passenger, a handsome man of middle years who is, he says, a professor of English. There is no reason to doubt this, as his conversation on literary topics is lively, informed, and frequently funny. We find, to our pleasure, that we share a number of enthusiasms, including classical Greek drama. Impossible to imagine two more compatible spirits thrown together by chance on a train.
Then, as the drinks keep coming, the talk of my friend begins to veer from the works to the authors themselves--many of whom, it seems, have never been presented in a truthful light. Shakespeare was a secret bumskuttler, his sonnets addressed in truth to a young man. Have I noticed, in the plays, his penchant for dressing up his heroines in men's clothing: Byron--that great lover of women--had a homosexual fling or two, and there were whispers about Words worth. Then, of course, there was the obvious example of Oscar Wilde.
On and on he goes, until nearly all of our heroes, past and present, have been implicated. It is piffle, of course, and eventually even I divine the thrust of all this scatology. The point is, I am too young--too polite, too inexperienced, too embarrassed--to do anything to check its course. So that my friend is encouraged to make the final confidence:
"Actually, I'm more of a switch-hitter, myself--if you know what I mean."
I do, and excuse myself a few minutes later to return to my coach. There, sweating and unhappy, I sit in the dark and look out the window until the fields of Christmas have restored my holiday to me. It is slightly soiled, perhaps, but still intact.
after the steel furnaces of
For me, a wonderful wakeful night lay ahead, of vestibule-creeping and long conversations with the brakeman or conductor. I was a fanatic in those days, make no mistake. And thank God I was--for the sights and sounds of that Christmas time railroading, now impossible of duplication, will be with me forever.
fondly the little gray frame depots of the NKP, and the small towns whose
crossings we blocked for a few minutes of a frosty night.
Riding the vestibule, great sport on any line, was a special treat on the NKP. The road was unabashed about putting us in the hole for its "million-dollar freights"; the schedule was already padded to provide for it. One leaned out into the stationary night to watch the charge of those black Alco hoods, then flinched from their thundering passage and the concussions of frigid air. You could read the road names and slogans on the cars in the thin yellow light from the vestibule. Then, when the caboose had cleared, there was the excitement of hearing the Bluebirds winding up as we got underway again.
The rural landscape at speed was lovely, especially on the couple of occasions when there was moonlight on the snow and dark woods. I would linger in the vestibule until I was almost frozen, then repair to my coach seat for a snort of dark Bacardi rum.
had become traditional--I bought the same pint at the same liquor store on
(The Bluebirds' were the sweetest whistles I ever heard--like chords struck on an organ. Steam could not have been any better.)
met us a couple of hours later at
Though in spring and fall I might experiment with different trains and lines, my sentimental interest at Christmas was in recapturing, as nearly as possible, the sensations, sights and sounds of other years. (An unadventuresome attitude, no doubt, but not out of keeping with the season, when you think about it.) Such an approach never would have occurred to my boomer friend from those days, Bob M.
Bob was a
collector of railroads--and oddball trains--when there was
still an amazing number of them around. Nevertheless, we all felt he outdid
himself the Christmas he routed himself home to
involving changes at
"I know it," he said. "But it's my money, and I want you to write the ticket the way I say."
stalled; he had not gained his position by short-hauling his road by more than
700 miles between
nothing but a milk run," he snorted of CGW's No. 5 out of the capital.
"It stops at every farmer's barn between
But it was
when he opened his Guide and looked at the connection out of
"I wasn't planning to ride that one," Bob said. "There's another train leaving a couple of hours later."
The agent looked and nearly howled. "That's a mixed train! It takes eighteen hours! You'll have to hold a pig in your lap and help with the switching!"
There would be no explaining to him the railfan's credo--that a slower trip means more for your transportation dollar--and my friend did not try. There were a couple of people in line behind us now, and Bob simply outwaited him.
was written with much grumbling and leafing of unfamiliar tariffs. There was
only one more explosion--when the agent discovered that Bob's exotic route
saved him ten cents over the
"That embarrassed me," Bob admitted later.
I was next.
"How about you?" the agent demanded. "I suppose you want a
I said. "I only want to go to
"The Nickel Plate!" he sighed, throwing up his hands. "How much do you save: Fifty cents? A quarter?"
The actual savings over a ticket on the New York Central was one dollar and fifty cents.