Arkansas and Childhood Train Adventures

When I was a child back in the 1960s, we never took vacations the way I imagined other families vacationed, where summertime meant everyone packed into the car, a jovial sweater-clad father would steer us down the highways and byways of the great American West, visiting national parks and other natural wonders, with mother navigating by AAA maps and my older sister Luci and I (and later my younger brother Lee) playing games and tormenting one another in the back seat of the car (preferably Dad’s big black 1959 Buick LeSabre). No, we were different.

We went on vacation infrequently, once every three to five years; the frequency was either determined by the availability of money (in somewhat short supply at the time, I suppose) or perhaps that it took Mom several years to convince Dad each time that we ought to go. The destination was always the same: Arkansas, where most of Mom’s family was clustered, with a stop in Texas to visit her (half-)brother Lindsey and his French wife Jacqueline.

Dad didn’t go, and we didn’t drive. We took the train.

Taking the train was exciting. After weeks of anticipation of going on a Real Trip, with Mom making us (and later Luci and I would make for ourselves) new hot-weather clothes to wear, the day would arrive when we would finally pack ourselves into the car, not for the long driving trips of my imagination, but for the trek to Union Station. Dad wasn’t much of a driver, not having ventured out of San Pedro by car too often in those days, so the trip to Union Station in the heart of old downtown Los Angeles, some 30 miles from home, was an adventure in itself. We’d take surface streets (including the San Pedro-Wilmington Road) the entire distance, taking over an hour, maybe two, and invariably we’d get lost, at which point Dad’s fear of the unknown would manifest itself in anger towards Mom. (Did the Harbor Freeway (I-10) exist in the 1960’s all the way to downtown, allowing one to travel through a four-level interchange onto the 101, where you’d go only a few miles before getting off at Alameda to get to Union Station? If it did, we never went that way.)

Eventually we’d make it to Union Station, mentally battered but physically in one piece. After struggling to find a “good” parking place to avoid dings, Dad would run to get a luggage cart. Can’t say I blame him; we almost always went for six weeks at a time (when vacations are infrequent, you make the most of it), and we would pack most of the contents of our respective closets. I wouldn’t have wanted to carry the bags either, especially Mom’s old blue giant that must have been constructed of lead. Following the obtaining of a cart, there would be some amount of argument as to the best way to load the cart. Sooner or later we’d all get inside the old, grand station, and Mom would stand in line to check us in while Luci and I would listen to the sounds echoing about in the cavernous hall, while Dad, a nervous angry anxious wreck by now, would pace up and down mumbling to himself as only he could do.

Then we would sit, for what would seem like hours. Maybe it was; the combination of parental paranoia as to the time (a trait I’ve inherited), and the fact that the train was usually late, meant we’d have a lot of time to kick around in the station, getting more excited by the minute, Dad getting weirder, and Mom no doubt wishing we were just gone already.

Finally, the moment would arrive when the wide doors underneath the “To the Trains” sign would open. We’d walk through those doors and up the ramp to the platform, to find our gleaming silver train stretched out alongside us as far as I could see. The sounds of the uneasily resting train reverberated through the platform area, great hissing noises escaped from around the wheels, and the whole platform seemed to shudder with the locomotive’s barely restrained power. We’d find our car, load ourselves into our compartment, and then hang out the window talking to Dad, waiting for the train to pull out and take us on our way. From way up in our compartment, he always looked so small and alone standing on the platform, hands in his pockets; his anger (apparently) gone, he’d simply tell us to be good.

Then the train would start pulling out, slowly, and Dad would run along the platform, keeping up with us, dodging people and inconveniently placed poles, waving. Picking up speed, we slipped past the end of the platform, leaving him behind, alone, still waving, getting smaller and smaller in our sights until we couldn’t see him anymore.

I often wonder what he did at that point. Considering the trauma of the drive to the station, how did he make it home, and how did he feel once he got there? Was he sad to see us go, or, solitary person that he was, was he happy to have the house to himself for six weeks? I suspect he bragged to his longshoring friends on the waterfront about how he could send his family on such a luxurious, long trip when all the other Slavs stayed put year after year after year, but I never knew. Lee works on the waterfront now; maybe he knows.

At any rate, the momentary trauma of leaving Dad behind us, and Mom just wanting to relax, we’d explore our “home” for the three-day journey. Our own private compartment! We had seating that the porter could, somehow, miraculously, turn into bunk beds at night. Maybe it wasn’t the most comfortable seating in the world, but it was far, far better than what the poor slobs who had to sit in coach day and night had. We had our own bathroom, complete with a toilet that deposited its contents on the railroad tracks of America, and a stainless steel sink that would whoosh water all over you if you weren’t careful. And best of all, we had a giant window through which we could watch the ever-changing landscape roll past.

Once we left the compartment, the true adventure would begin. The first hurdle would be navigating from car to car while the train was moving. At the ends of each railroad car were large, heavy sliding doors through which was what I considered to be Railroad Hell: the dark, loud, scary, barely-enclosed area between the cars, with shifty metal plates for a floor covering the railroad car couplings. The wind would whistle through the numerous gaps in Railroad Hell; you could hear the wheels clacking along the track, and worst of all, you could see the railroad ties whizzing past through the large gaps in the floor.

I was convinced if I got stuck between the cars, I would die, so consequently I tried to get through Railroad Hell as quickly as possible, getting the door to the next car open before the door behind me could close. But that was difficult. The hissing doors of the cars were hard to open, and once open, did not like to stay open; invariably I’d have one set of doors squashing me while I struggled to open the next, and all the while I could hear the wind and the wheels and see the railroad ties and I’d scream to myself HELP ME GET OUT OF HERE!

But always, just as I felt doomed, the opposite doors would open and I’d escape from Railroad Hell, only to face it again at the end of the next car, or on the return trip if I had reached my destination.

Why did I bother? Three reasons, mainly. One, our compartment was wonderful, but three (and later four) people in an enclosed space for three days inevitably get on each other’s nerves; either Mom would get sick of us, or Luci and I would want to choke the life out of each other, or something. I was probably either told to get lost or I would get mad and leave. Two, if we were lucky, the train had a domed observation car, where we could sit for an hour or two and watch the countryside unfold all around us as we chugged along. Looking out our compartment window was fascinating, but the domed car was something special. (Although Mom didn’t like us to go to the dome car too much; she usually said the reason was she didn’t want us to get lost if the train shuffled cars at the next stop. Maybe she was scared of losing us in Railroad Hell, as she thought she had with Lee once; more on that later.) And third, if we wanted to eat, we had to go the dining car.

The dining car always seemed so elegant. Crisp white tableclothes draped tables set with sparkling white dishes and real, heavy silverware, and always, flowers in little vases near each window, vases that never seemed to tip over no matter how the train rattled and moved. Polite porters, also dressed in white, would hand us menus, ask us what we wanted, and then actually bring it to us! (We didn’t go to restaurants all that often when we were kids, the exception being when we would go to the Jump ‘n’ Jack in Torrance.) And as I recall, the food was pretty good, although I did order Buckwheat Pancakes once and then get chastised severely for not eating them.

Eating, exploring, and navigating Railroad Hell repeatedly were great adventures, but nights were even better. When we would be in the dining car for dinner, a porter would transform our compartment from a sitting area to the sleeping arrangement, two bunk beds with a ladder up to the higher bed, with white sheets, woolen blankets, and fluffy pillows. Somehow on all the trips, Luci got the upper bunk. In the pre-Lee days I slept next to Mom, who usually complained that my toenails were too long (so why didn’t she cut them, that’s what I’d like to know); the two train trips with Lee (summer 1970 when he was 18 months old, and in 1973 when he was 4), Mom and Lee had a compartment, I think, and Luci and I shared another, where she predictably had the top bunk again.

But that was ok — I had the better view out the window from down below. And Luci probably regretted being on top on our 1965 trip, when she fell off the ladder and cracked her eight-year-old head on the ashtray-thing on the door. (Mom was trying to help her up, Luci told her to let go, which she did, but then Luci let go herself, and fell. She says the train doctor showed up to attend to her, but I was only five and don’t remember much beyond her falling.)

Toenail complaints and Luci’s top bunk escapades aside (seems like we had to work to keep her from falling out while asleep, too…), I enjoyed sleeping on the train. There really wasn’t too much to do after dinner, especially when the beds in the compartment were already in place, so pretty much I’d lie down and watch the sun set out the window, and be lulled to sleep by the train motion. On one trip the train stopped in Flagstaff, close to midnight; I remember Mom lifting the blind and we looked out at pine trees, moonlit, in the snow. It seemed so mysterious and beautiful, and looking back, more than anything, that image accounts for the romantic allure of travel that’s been with me all these years.

The days would pass, sometimes going quickly, other times tediously, but always we’d get to our destination. Sometimes we’d go directly to Fort Worth; that must have been when we’d take the Santa Fe Super Chief, the line from Los Angeles to Chicago that now sort of parallels the I-40 through Flagstaff and Albuquerque, and into Kansas. Other times we’d take the Sunset Limited, following the southern route through Arizona and New Mexico, through El Paso (where we once spent days trying to figure out what UTEP on a sign meant…) and on to Houston, where we’d catch a connecting train that would ferry us up to Fort Worth. If we were lucky, that is; once thanks to Amtrak’s utter and complete disregard for time and schedules, we missed our connection. Although Mom was willing to rent a car to drive to Dallas, we were persuaded to stay put in the humid, sticky station waiting for Lindsey and Jackie to drive down to get us.

Other train experiences float at the edge of my memory.

There was the time that Luci spilled nail polish (red or hot pink, I think) on one of Mom’s new summer outfits; I suppose she got smacked pretty good for that one.

I remember, on an early trip, stopping somewhere in New Mexico — Carlsbad, maybe? We got off the train and walked across the dusty, open-air wooden platform into the small station to get something to drink, and all around us were…INDIANS. They were still called Indians then, back before ethnic awareness and political correctness brought the term “Native American” into popular usage. They were dark-tan men with scruffy clothes and cowboy-type hats, driving beat-up pickup trucks (no horses; those Westerns we watched on television must have been wrong) each with a gun rack in the rear cab window. They stared at us (although now I think it must have been envy more than malice), and they were scary to me as a five-year old.

There was Lee’s Great Disappearing Act when he was four years old; seems that after leaving his and Mom’s compartment to visit me and Luci, he got confused as to which compartment he should go back to, and wandered off. Mom and Luci panicked, thinking he had fallen through the gaps between the railroad cars to be squashed and abandoned on the tracks below (concern for Lee no doubt tinged with abject fear that Dad would murder us all when he found out about Lee’s presumed untimely demise). I don’t remember what I did, which is odd because I was 13 and you’d think I’d remember more about that whole event. At any rate, it turned out that he was simply in the next car, hanging out with some other kids, having successfully (and calmly, damn him!) navigated Railroad Hell; I guess RH didn’t scare the living daylights out of him as it did an older me. Unfortunately, after it was determined that Lee was safe, he then got the crap beat out of him by Mom for wandering off and scaring her so; I think she brought Hot Wheels track with her on that trip. I guess that pretty much ruined that trip for him. None of us realized it at the time, though, because usually he’d just laugh at her anyway, making it was hard to tell what bothered him and what didn’t.

And lastly, there was the time we were stranded in Newton, Kansas overnight, waiting for a connection. I’m not sure if we had missed one train and were waiting for the next, or what; probably, since I doubt we would have gotten there early. The station was filthy, there were cockroaches and spiders crawling around the place, and there were strange people about. No surprise, I guess; only drunks, fools, and people who miss their train connections inhabit train stations in the middle of nowhere during the dead of night. Outside, close to midnight, I remember seeing a big tumbleweed rolling down the dusty street. I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if a stage coach had rumbled past me.

The train still stops in Newton today; I don’t think I’ll go there to see what it’s like.

By the mid-70’s, the attraction (or perhaps the necessity) of train travel had ceased for us as a family. We had travelled by train in the summer of 1965, February 1966 (for Grandpa Bingham’s funeral), summer 1970, and summer 1973. After that, either travelling by air became cheaper than the train, or Mom finally convinced Dad that there was no way in hell she was going to spend three days on a train each way when she could be in Arkansas in four hours. Luci went to college, and the last time I went to Arkansas while still living at home, it was Mom, Lee and I, summer 1978, and we flew. It was Mom and Lee’s first airplane trip, which I think (hope) they enjoyed. (I’d already flown (with the USC Band) twice by then, to Notre Dame in October 1977, and to Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl in December 1977.) But for me, it just wasn’t the same.

© Liza and Robert Weissler 2023, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License.