Thursday, September 4, 2014

Family Travels


During World War II my Dad was stationed at a radar installation in the Aleutian Islands. At the end of the war he was flown back to Seattle and experienced an awful flight. He was never specific as to what made it awful, but the bottom line is that while we were growing up he would not get on an airplane.

When he got to Seattle he was given a train ticket to Chicago so that he could muster out at his home. Whenever he told this story he made sure to mention that before getting on the train he had a fantastic Chinese dinner (which for him, in those days, may simply have been a plate of chop suey...but it was really good chop suey.)

He boarded his train after dinner. He had reserved an entire section on the train. For those of you who may not know what a section is, you've undoubtedly seen them in the movies. During the day a section is two seats for two facing each other. At night it converts to an upper and lower berth. Privacy is assured by a heavy green curtain. When all the sections are made up there is a line of curtains on each side of the central corridor in the car.

In any event Dad had reserved both and upper and lower berth for his personal use, giving him complete privacy behind the curtain without the upper berth being lowered above him. Soon after boarding the train, and probably after a drink or two in the club car, Dad returned to his section made up for night and went to bed...and proceeded to sleep until 2pm or so in the afternoon the next day. When he awoke all of the rest of the sections in the car had been made up for day use. His was the only curtained section.

Family Trips

My experience with him on long distance trains began in the Summer of 1956 when the family spent a week in a cabin at Lac Du Flambeau, Wisconsin. At the time Dad ran a woman's coat and suit company (Rothmoor) and one of his salesmen had a Summer home there. Our cabin was nearby. To get there we took the Flambeau 400 from Highland Park, Illinois (one of the few stops it made between Chicago and Milwaukee), boarding after and early dinner, and spent the night on the train. Dad and I each had roomettes (private single-person rooms with a private toilet), and Mom and my sister Kay shared a bedroom (upper and lower berth at night, sofa during the day, private bathroom -- picture the room that Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant share on the 20th Century Limited in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.) Our roomettes were great. In at least one direction the bedroom's bathroom -- not so much. We awoke early the next morning, spent a week on the lake fishing and whatever, and then did the whole thing in reverse. I loved every minute of it (well, perhaps not the outdoors stuff so much.)

I've written elsewhere about my first camp train experience. That was on the Bilevel Flambeau 400 (a day train) to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The return was on a normal (non-bilevel) day train and the only thing I remember about that trip was the snapping turtles we had captured on a canoe trip inhabiting the sink in one of the restrooms. Other years I went to a different Camp in Wascott, Wisconsin and we got there on the Soo Line's Laker to Gordon, Wisconsin. This was an overnight train and all the campers were in sections, one in an upper berth and two in a lower. As I recall and I had an upper at least the first trip. I also recall that not much sleeping occurred.

In February of 1958 I was lying in my bed on a Friday night starting to go to sleep when my parents came home from dinner at my Grandmother's (my Mom's mom). They came into my room and turned on the light and asked "would you like to go to Florida with us by train tomorrow?" Did I? I could barely get back to sleep. It turned out that my other Grandmother was sick and in the hospital and they were going to visit and took me along.

So it was that the next morning we boarded the City of Miami, a premiere train between Chicago and Miami that ran every third day. They had reserved a compartment (an oversized bedroom) but after they boarded the conductor was able to sell us a bedroom suite (two bedrooms with the wall between them folded up making one large room with two upper and two lower berths at night, and two private bathrooms.) As befitting a first class train of the era, the train had two dining cars and two lounge each for the first class passengers and the coach passengers. Unfortunately at Carbondale, Illinois one of the diners developed a hot box (an overheated axle bearing) and had to be taken off the train so we all had to dine together. I had a great time exploring the train from one end to the other...many times...over the two days and one night the train took to get to Miami. My grandmother got better and we eventually returned the same way we got there, on a northbound City of Miami.

It is worth mentioning here that my Mom and my Sister and I did not share my Dad's fear of flying and, in fact, I probably took my first flight (to Miami to visit my grandparents) when I was three years a DC-6 or DC-7 on Chicago & Southern Airlines. On those trips my Dad would catch up to us by train a few days later.

A year or so later my Dad was on a business trip in Birmingham, Alabama, and the rest of us took the Southwind (another first class every third day train from Chicago to Miami over a different route) to meet him there and continue onto Miami. He and I had the two upper berths and it was fun watching him try to get into his as the train rocked and rolled after leaving Birmingham. I believe the northbound trip was on the City of Miami again.

In June of 1963 my parents were celebrating their 20th anniversary and they took me with them on a trip to New York using the 20th Century Limited to get there. My Dad was a semi-regular on this fabled train but this would be my first and only time riding it. Unfortunately Dad booked us into new slumbercoaches instead of first class Pullman rooms. (A double slumbercoach room is very similar to what Amtrak calls a roomette, but not as comfortable. A single slumbercoach room more closely resembled a coffin.) We did manage to crash the first class lounge car where before dinner hors d'oeuvres and had a nice dinner in the dinner (again picture Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant...though neither were with us in either direction.)


This was the last family trip that we took by train. There were other driving trips and of course the rest of us took the plane lots of places ... but never as a family until 1968. On this particular trip my Mom, my Sister, a friend of my Sister's (who I had the hots for) and I flew down to Florida and my Dad followed a few days later. He was taking the Dixie Flyer (another every third day train from Chicago.) He also developed a flu on the train which was twelve hours late by the time it got to Chattanooga. He was so fed up that he got off the train and rented a car to go the rest of the way to Miami...a long one day trip at the time. He was passing the Atlanta airport and said to himself "what the hell?" and went up the Delta counter and booked himself on the next flight to Miami...not realizing that it had a stop in Jacksonville on the way. But he survived (and surprised us by showing up nearly a day early), and never took a long distance train again.

I of course continue to do so...every chance I get.

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