Christmastime and Choo Choo's

(1 of 2) Carolyn and Grandpa have ridden several excursion trains over the years in addition to some cross-country trips on AMTRAK. This is one of the best --- the Durango and Silverton in Colorado. We rode several scenic trains on one 3-week trip.
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When I last wrote, Carolyn and I hadn't put away the Christmas decorations yet. We have now. And as we were packing away tree ornaments we have accumulated over the years, I noticed there are quite a few locomotives ... some made of tin, a few wooden ones and even a very delicate one made of lace. A lot of the tin ones are dated and were gifts to us from your Uncle Mike.

It struck me that trains hold a lot of fond memories for people like Carolyn and me. We were born in the 1930's. People traveled by train a lot, then. It wasn't until the early 1960's that jetliners and Interstate highways sounded the death knell for widespread train travel.

Don't get me wrong. Train travel wasn't always comfortable. The trains were seldom on time. But the train meant adventure. And the train reunited you with people you loved. Like the time my dad came home on Christmas leave from the Army.

During much of World War Il, Dad was in the Army Air Corps and was stationed at a base in Harlingen, Texas. He came home to Silver Spring, Maryland for Christmas in 1942. Mom and I met him at the Baltimore and Ohio train station there. I'll tell you, we were pretty excited. We were early. The train was late but finally off in the distance you could hear the whistle ... faint at first but then louder. All of a sudden that big steam engine rounded a curve and came gliding into view. With a last screech of the brakes, there she was. The trainmen opened the doors and put out the portable steps on the platform. And before you knew it, there was my dad. He was in his uniform with his duffel bag and carrying some Christmas presents. (A baseball bat is what he got for me and I used it for years.)

We waited to watch the train pull out. A steam locomotive pulling a big train is an awesome sight when it starts up. The engineer would ease it on its way until all the slack in the couplers had been taken up. Then the engine would start to labor with very loud puffs of steam and smoke. Very slowly, at first. Then, faster. Then, out of sight. That was more than 60 years ago. I was just ten years old. But it was a homecoming I still treasure.

Today's airplanes are convenient and fast and comfortable. But they don't give you much of a feeling for where you are going or where you have been. I've traveled many a mile on jetliners ... but with very little in the way of memorable moments. Train rides are different. They put you close enough to the trees to see the leaves.

Mom and I rode to Texas on the train. As I said, Dad was stationed there and some months after his Christmas visit home we went there for a week ... riding on the Southern Railroad's fine train, "The Southerner".

The trip began in Washington's Union Station late at night. It was the height of World War II and the station was a beehive of activity. There were soldiers and sailors in uniform going home on leave. Others were headed to war. Many would never come home again. I had never been in Union Station. You can imagine my excitement. The waiting room was huge. The public address system echoed announcements of trains arriving and departing.

Finally, it was time for our train to board and begin our great adventure. By daybreak we had reached the Carolinas with scenery I had never seen before. Beautiful pine trees in North Carolina gradually giving way to scrub pine and blood red clay in South Carolina and parts of Georgia. We had breakfast in the diner and it was my first experience with grits. Southerners love grits. I didn't like them then and I don't like them now. But the rest of the breakfast was fine and the thought of eating a meal at a table with all the scenery flashing past the window was pretty exciting stuff. By the middle of the day we reached Atlanta, Georgia --- in those days the "Gateway to the South". Our train backed into the Atlanta station for a distance that seemed like 10 miles. Eventually, we pulled in, took on passengers and were once again on our way. I won't bore you with every little detail. But it was quite a trip. We had a long layover in New Orleans ... long enough to walk through the French Quarter and eat freshly made doughnuts sprinkled with powdered sugar.

There was no railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in those days. Instead, the whole train was driven onto a ferry boat which took us from one side of the river to the other.

When we got to the end of our journey, my Dad was at the station in Harlingen, Texas to greet us. "So this is Texas" I thought to myself. "But where are the cowboys and Indians?"


Carolyn and I have gone several places together on Amtrak and each trip has been a delight. We went to St. Louis where Herb and Judy Humphries got married. Herb was the Best Man at our wedding and I was Best Man at his. On another trip, Carolyn and I decided to visit Grand Canyon. We went to Flagstaff and back on Amtrak.

Our longest journey was from Los Angeles to Washington. Carolyn's high school class (in Tiffin, Ohio) held its 30th reunion in 1984. We decided to make a big vacation by going first to Washington, D.C. by train ... driving a rental car to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia for sightseeing ... and then driving to Tiffin. The train ride took us through the Rockies along the edge of the Colorado River. It was June and you could see the vestiges of snow still on some of the peaks. In the river, we watched kayaks splashing through the whitewater. Our train passed through Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and along the same track and around the same curve in Silver Spring that brought my Dad home to Mom and me in 1942. And we finally pulled into Washingon's very same Union Station. It's been remodeled to accommodate modern train travel. The waiting room isn't as cavernous. Its glory days are gone but the memories were still there.

Now and then, some of my closest friends call me "Charlie Choo-Choo." They know I like trains. Now you do, too. The only difference is, you know why.