One bright morning in 1952 I boarded the Santa Fe Chief in Streator, Illinois, and rode to Galesburg, a hundred miles away.
All by myself.
I was seven years old.
Mom had given a small tip, probably a dollar or two—equal to ten or twenty of today’s dollars—to the porter, a smiling man in a white coat and brown skin, for the extra trouble of looking after me. It was a commonplace transaction.
But for me, a train ride was an adventure.
You could take a train from almost anywhere to almost anywhere. This was near twenty years before the railroads gave up on passenger service and turned it over to a tax-funded company called Amtrak.
It was more than twenty years before computerized ticketing and reservations. To ride the train, you spoke to an agent through the metal grille of a ticket window. In small towns the ticket agent might also be the station agent and telegrapher (although by the time I was riding the train, manual telegraphy had been replaced by teletype machines).
You told the man—it was always a man—where you wanted to go, and he gave you a rectangle of pasteboard which conveyed that information to the conductor of the train. If you were going on a long trip that required changing trains, or even changing railroad lines—starting on the Milwaukee Road and ending your journey on the C.B.&Q., for example—your ticket might be a long, multipart form with two or more sections stapled together.
The conductor—a white man in a dark blue uniform—came through the car soon after the train left the station and asked for your ticket. He punched it with a hand punch to show it had been used. He kept the ticket and placed a slim paper tab in a clip above your seat. The tab was color-coded and marked to show your destination.
I wore my best clothes—of course one did that for such an important thing as a rail journey—and carried a small cardboard suitcase and my best friend, Teddy. The stuffed bear rode in the seat beside me, at no extra charge. If a grown-up sat there, Teddy could ride in my lap.
A great panoply of the Heartland blurred by the large train window at sixty miles per hour. We sped past the clotheslines, tenements, and scrapyards of Moon, Ancona, Leeds, Caton, Toluca, LaRose, Wilburn, Atlas, Holton; crossed the Illinois River and stopped for several minutes at the important town of Chillicothe; then clackety-clacked through the stockpens, car lots, and water towers of North Hampton, Edelstein, Princeville, Monica, Laura, and Williamsfield; jumped the Spoon River at Dahinda, and rolled on through the quaint backyards and byways of Appleton, Knoxville, and East Galesburg, to stop at Galesburg, where I got off and was met by Grandma Sommers, with her big old Hudson sedan.
(Confession time, Dear Reader. My brain does not contain the full litany of railside towns after seventy years. I cheated by looking at an old railroad map.)
The smiling porter, who had checked my well-being from time to time during the two-hour trip, handed me down the passenger coach steps onto the platform, where Grandma waited. She and I walked through the station—or, as we called it, the depot—on the west side of North Broad at Water Street.
Where you left the passenger waiting room there stood a gum machine. You could put in two of Grandma’s pennies and choose among four flavors of Chiclets. Down a little chute they slid, two pieces of hard-shell chewing gum in a bright-colored cellophane packet. Tutti-frutti was the best flavor, and its packet was peach-colored, not unlike Tennessee Avenue on a Monopoly board.
That color, halfway between orange and pink, marks in my mind not only tutti-frutti Chiclets and Tennessee Avenue, but also Tuesday, my favorite day of the week. For no reason I can think of, Tuesday is peachy in color.
That may be peculiar to me. If you don’t like it, Fair Reader, you’re free to paint your Tuesdays a different color. Go ahead, I dare you.
The grand exploit of soloing by rail into the wilds of western Illinois, like most of my youthful pleasures, is denied to young people now. Today, minors under twelve may not ride unaccompanied on Amtrak, and those of twelve years and older may do so only subject to numerous regulations.
In the safe world of my childhood, we did not think strangers were likely to be perverts. It was unspoken and universal that adults would protect children. Adults trusted other adults to safeguard their children; and we who were children believed that adults—even the legions of grouchy ones—would watch over us if need be.
Others may remember things differently. Perhaps my memory wears rose-colored glasses. But those growing old along with me can testify that in those days, though we were often fussy and formal, sometimes about trivial things, we were at the same time more relaxed and confident in the major departments of life.
Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. Galesburg, however, is still served by Amtrak. But Amtrak rides the old Burlington main line, now owned by the mega-railroad company called Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).
That means you can go home again, but you get off the train at a different station. The old Santa Fe main line tracks still run just north of Water Street, owned and operated by that same Burrlington Northern Santa Fe. But that line is traveled only by freight trains. The old depot that had the Chiclets machine is long since demolished.
That stately old depot, and the way of life it embodied, are now gone with the wind, as Margaret Mitchell might say. They are with the snows of yesteryear, per François Villon.
No matter. Those trains and stations and clackety-clack journeys still exist in memory . . . for a few years yet.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)