TRAINS: Promising Me New Worlds

Vintage Diesel Engine from the Chicago, South Side and South Bend Line.

Vintage Diesel Engine from the Chicago, South Side and South Bend Line.

I’m not positive, but it’s entirely possible that my desire to tell stories began on a sleeper car rolling through the night from Chicago to New York City.

Much of this is a hazy memory, of course.  I was only five years old, and this memory is older than Amtrak.  But a portion of it is crystal clear, engraved in my memory like words upon granite.

Christmas was coming, and my parents had heard that the sleeper cars were going to be retired.  They decided to book passage to New York City.  My father has gone ahead, now, and my mother does not remember which line they took, other than the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad train into Chicago.  Mom was six months pregnant, and a train trip with a toddler and a five year old sounded a lot easier than braving the airports or the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

I have watched more old movies with steam engines, dining cars, cabooses, and private cars than I can count.  I have seen romances bloom in lounge cars and bodies tossed off the steps without fanfare (much to the puzzlement of the people still on board.  Mysteries rule!)  The thing that remains vivid to this day was the sleeper car itself.  That was where I discovered America.

Of course there was a hitch–a specific and troublesome hitch.  Apparently my little sister and I were afraid of the upper berth.  Dad had thought we would love the upper berth.

Not so much.

So my poor mother was heaved up into that upper bunk, and my sister and I ended up below, next to the window, tucked in for the night.

But there was no blind, no curtain closed against the darkness.  Under the light of a waxing moon, as my family fell asleep around me, I was propped up on my hands, holding my head up as we rolled through the countryside.  Beyond us were towns and villages, their inhabitants sleeping; they were dotted with what I suspect were towering mercury vapor lights and small incandescent lamps marking homes, roads and businesses.  The depots were dark as we rolled past, but I have no strong memory of water by night.  I have no clue as to whether we took the northern or southern route from Chicago to New York City.  I remember no mail transfer.

I was busy…busy making up stories about the people who lived in those houses, driving back home late, heading off to work so early, feeding animals, hooking up rail cars, and oblivious to the lives that hurdled through their city.

2010 "A Trip to the Moon" window at Bergdorf Goodman

From “A Trip to the Moon” window at Bergdorf Goodman, Inc., Christmas 2010. Photo from NY Daily News staff. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/new-york-city-department-store-window-displays-evoke-holiday-magic-article-1.454381

There are other memories from that visit–walking along the streets to see lavish Christmas windows at Macy’s, Saks, and Lord & Taylor, just to name a few stores.  Visiting with cousins from far away, and family photos that still speak to us today.  But the sharpest song from the past is the gentle swaying of a passenger train, taking me into the unknown, promising me new stories.

Promising me new worlds.

© 2014 by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel  I wrote this for the Amtrak Residency, but their rights grab set poorly with my professional soul.  So you get to enjoy it, instead.  I’ll send them something already published.

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TRAINS: Promising Me New Worlds — 3 Comments

  1. wow, how timely! Roberta Baxter (wife) and Loretta Sue (Baxter) Krieger just got back yesterday from Omaha Nebraska. Roberta took the Amtrack train from South Bend to Chicago then transfered onto the #6 California Zephyr train to Omaha then on the return took the # 465 Wolverine. They were on these trains for twelve hours. they too, slept on the upper deck of these swaying box cars.

    I mention the names of the trains because they sound like those of a novel. Oh how the mind races with ideas, narratives, storylines with names like these while traversing cross country on a train.

  2. for the Cat, it should have been the C&O, sleep like a kitten….