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Remembering train travel

It’s my guess that flying is the preferred mode of travel for the majority of Americans. And so it has been for me most of my long life, until lately. Now, the prospect of standing in endless lines, passing through invasive inspection procedures, being treated as so much baggage, has me longing for the “good old days” of traveling by train.

A native of Chicago, I was aware at an early age that my city was the transportation hub of the nation. One could board a train from several different stations heading east, west, north or south, their tracks converging in a tangled mass on the South Side that is still an engineering marvel. I have fond memories of the city’s handsome Union Station with its cascades of gray marble stairs, immense waiting rooms and elegant restaurant where my father lunched several times a week with a group of businessmen.

It was from the Union Station that my adventurous mother set forth one cold winter day with my brother and me, heading west. I was 5, recovering from an appendectomy. Bobby was 3, recovering from mastoid surgery. Mother was sure her sickly children were in need of California’s sunshine. She had written her favorite aunt and uncle, who lived in Los Angeles, and been assured they would welcome our visit.

Daddy was left standing on the station platform as Mother, Bobby and I climbed aboard a sleeping car, assisted by the conductor. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to us kids. We were ushered to soft plush-covered seats by a kindly porter, wide eyes exploring these new strange surroundings.

“All aboard!” echoed along the platform and we pressed noses to the window for a final wave to Daddy as a slow chug, chug told us we were moving. The chug-chugging increased in volume, the train slowly gathering speed to settle into a steady rhythm. Chug-a-chug. Chug-a-chug. Chug-a-chug-chug. Transfixed at the window, we watched the mass of dark rail yards gradually thin and then we were looking into backyards of crowded tenements and soot-covered factories. Finally we were in the countryside and really truly on our way.

Darkness fell early. Soon the porter was converting our seats into sleeping quarters. We prepared for our first night on board. Mother explained to me that I would be sleeping in the upper bunk while Bobby would share the lower one with her. Obediently I climbed the narrow ladder to inspect my quarters and settle in.

During the night the porter came to wake Mother asking if she had rung for him. No, she had not. She went back to sleep. Again the porter came, asking if she had she rung. Again, no. This scene was repeated several times. It was, of course, the little girl in the upper bunk attempting to turn on the light in the middle of the night. Next morning I was shown the difference between the light switch and the call button.

Our visit with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Will began pleasantly enough but soon turned into disaster. The old folks were not used to small children, especially a rambunctious boy like Bobby who thought it was great fun to chase the chickens in their yard. Then he came down with the measles. Mother tried her best to keep him quiet in a dark room as the local doctor had advised, but that was no small task.

Bobby was finally recovering from measles when my stomach began to swell ominously. Mother was forced to cut short our visit and return to Chicago as quickly as possible. The return trip by train must have seemed endless to her as she worried about my swelling belly. Another surgery had to be performed to remove the adhesions that had set in following the appendectomy. It was some time before Mother ventured so far from home again with her troublesome children.

Though that first adventure by rail did not have a happy ending, my love of traveling by train would blossom in the years ahead. It was from that same Union Station that I would join a group of college-bound girls, our destination southeastern Pennsylvania. In the following years I would venture forth by rail visiting New York City, the Jersey shore, Boston, North Carolina and Annapolis. During World War II I would again travel back and forth to California several times, one of hundreds of war brides traveling the country, yearning to stay by our loved ones as long as possible.

Airplanes and automobiles gradually supplanted trains as America’s preferred ways to travel after the war. How unfortunate that we haven’t followed the examples of other nations in developing high-speed rail. Perhaps, some day in the future?

Audrey McConachie-Byers is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.



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