|Apr/May 2016 Nonfiction|
For many decades travelers, not just businesses, in America relied on trains. The first steam locomotive began pulling cars in New York State in 1831, on a 16-mile route between Albany and Schenectady. Only a decade later, in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that roads were being made useless by railways. He was wrong, but the rails were spreading fast across America.
My family in Louisiana took to riding trains somewhat later, although the first Louisiana line, the Pontchartrain Railroad, had opened, like the New York line, in 1831, in New Orleans. At the beginning it was just a little five-mile line with horse-drawn cars, running straight north from the Fauborg Marigny, east of the French Quarter, along Elysian Fields Avenue to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The line acquired a steam engine the following year and soon became an important link between ocean-going vessels docked on the Mississippi River and steamboats that ended their runs at Lake Pontchartrain—including the steamboat line owned by my great-great-grandfather Thomas Rhodes that was the first to bring the U.S. mail from Mobile.
It took my great-grandfather William Devlin and his family, living out west of the city in St. Mary Parish, some decades to begin riding "the cars" instead of steamboats. The Texas & New Orleans rail line finally reached New Orleans from the west in the 1870s, and this played some part in the Devlins' decision to move to the city early in the 1880s.
Great-Grandpa Devlin had emigrated from County Donegal as a boy and after a few years in Louisville he became a merchant down in the Louisiana bayou country. He seems to have come out of the Civil War, in which he served as a Louisiana militia officer, in good financial shape. By the time he moved his family to New Orleans, the nation's rail system included several lines from New Orleans to the North, where his brothers were in business. He began taking his growing family (seven children in all, my grandfather the oldest) north for the summer, to escape heat, malaria, and yellow fever. Sometimes they went to the New Jersey shore, but I found in his papers that at least once in the 1880s they went on the train from New Orleans north to Chicago, and onward to stay at a hotel in southern Wisconsin.
No doubt they had a restful stay in cool Wisconsin. They would have needed it when they got there. The northbound express from New Orleans took over 48 hours to reach Chicago. Not only did passenger trains operate at low speeds, but until 1889 there was no bridge across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Illinois. A car ferry carried a whole passenger train, half a dozen cars, across the water to the town of Cairo, while passengers remained in their seats. At the Cairo depot there was a further delay, since each car had to be jacked up and standard-gauge trucks substituted for broad-gauge, or vice versa for trains bound south for New Orleans. I imagine Great-Grandpa and family getting off and strolling about the town, to which the railroads had finally brought a degree of prosperity. But perhaps it was not a long stroll. Cairo was swampy if prosperous. Charles Dickens had visited the town years earlier, found it "dismal," and portrayed it mockingly as "Eden" in Martin Chuzzlewit.
When finally they reached Chicago the Devlins had to change stations, and their Wisconsin hotel was several hours beyond. I can imagine them crossing Chicago in a horse-drawn cab, weary and grimy with engine smoke but marveling at the Windy City, a metropolis growing toward a population of 1,000,000, four times greater than that of their somewhat sleepy Creole City.
By the 1880s there was also a direct train from New Orleans to New York, where Great-Grandpa's two brothers lived. My grandfather Daniel Devlin remembered how once, when he was eight years old—he was born in 1881—his father came home to their big modern house on St. Charles Avenue and told his mother that they must all leave immediately for New York. Why was not made clear to young Dan, but the Devlins packed their suitcases and several hours later they were traveling through Mississippi on the northbound express. Grandpa always remembered armed men standing on the platform at each station stop, preventing anyone from getting off the train. Yellow fever had broken out in New Orleans, no one then knew a mosquito was the vector, and the Mississippians wanted no fever in their towns.
When I was born, in 1932, passenger trains were still doing much to keep our country together. A small town might be as stultifying as Sinclair Lewis portrayed "Gopher Prairie" in Main Street, but twice a day a train stopped there to provide a convenient link to cities. In the 1950s one could board the streamliner City of Portland in mid-morning in Montpelier, Idaho, population not quite 3,000, and reach Chicago, 1447 miles east, the following morning. The demise of the trains of my boyhood helped produce the demise of the small towns of middle America, a loss Americans once lamented but have now forgotten. I still like to read the novels that speak of the trains of those times, like Willa Cather's My Antonia or Booth Tarkington's The Gentleman from Indiana, or poor Ross Lockridge's great novel, Raintree County, that evokes the old days in the Midwest like no other book I know.
My own first memory of riding in a train dates from sometime in the Great Depression. We lived in Chicago and my father had kept his job, unlike a number of his friends, but his salary had been cut twice. I dimly recall riding with my parents when I was perhaps four years old on the Illiinois Central Railroad from Chicago to New Orleans, in a grimy railway coach rather than a sleeping car, no doubt because a coach was all we could afford. Before World War II began, though, the Bridges were affluent enough to ride the Panama Limited for our Christmas and sometimes summer trips.
The Panama was composed of seven or eight sleeping cars, a dining car, and at the rear end a car with an observation lounge, where a boy could sit and look out big rear windows as we sped down the Midwest at 90 and even 100 miles an hour. It was not the fastest long-distance train in America; in its best years it took 16 and a half hours to cover the 921 miles between Chicago and New Orleans, because the line in parts was curving and slow. Overall, the Panama averaged 55.8 miles per hour, while by 1940 the Twin Cities Zephyr went from Chicago to St. Paul in six hours at an average speed of 71 m.p.h. Those were the good old days. Amtrak now takes three hours longer between Chicago and New Orleans than it did a half-century ago, and almost two hours longer from Chicago to the Twin Cities.
America had just entered World War II when, at the beginning of 1942, the Illinois Central took delivery of new equipment for the Panama Limited that had been ordered some months earlier. Now the Panama was an elegant streamlined train, powered by diesel-electric locomotives. Perhaps its most elegant feature was the long dining car, really two cars with no door between them, where gentlemanly black waiters served us meals on white tablecloths. It was the white dining-car steward who got thanked by the passengers, but it was the black waiters who served and the black chefs, working in a cramped galley, who produced fine Southern dinners, beginning, say, with crab gumbo, continuing with white fish in a hot sauce, and ending with pecan pralines and just a demi-tasse of black coffee for the adults.
Best of all were our family's trips on the Panama Limited in December, when we went down to New Orleans to spend Christmas with my Devlin grandparents. On a cold, gloomy Chicago afternoon we would take a taxi from our house on Claremont Aveue to board our train at the 63rd Street station, six miles south of the main station downtown. I remember the gray day, and the snow that the city's polluted air had quickly turned as gray as the sky. I did not suffer from childhood depression but the scene was depressing. An hour later, though, we were dashing south past Kankakee toward a different world.
In the morning, as we sat at breakfast the Panama stopped at Hammond, 50 miles before New Orleans. There was a row of palm trees outside the Hammond station. We had reached the South.
Grandma Devlin came to pick us up in her aging Buick at Carrollton Avenue, where the train stopped to leave off passengers a couple of miles short of the New Orleans terminus. We drove down Carrollton Avenue and then St. Charles Avenue to the Devlins' pleasant old house at 1415 Octavia Street, through a green city. For a boy from cold Chicago it was an exotic place that was full of new scents, sounds, and sights.
That great train the Panama is no more. Once it was not the only, but the best, of several Illinois Central trains that ran between Chicago and New Orleans. Amtrak now has only one, and it is both slower and far less likely to be on time than the proud old Panama Limited. The Illinois Central's in-house magazine reported in 1922 that an engineer named C.J. Barnett, who ran the Panama south from Memphis, had had a perfect on-time record for the past five years. Amtrak reports that its present-day Chicago to New Orleans train, the City of New Orleans, most recently ran on schedule just 58.9% of the time.
The Panama Limited has appeared perhaps only once in fiction, in Walker Percy's fine first novel, published in 1961, The Moviegoer. Binx Bolling, a young stockbroker from a good New Orleans family, is traumatized and alienated after Korean War service. He steals away to Chicago on the Panama with his pretty cousin Kate Cutrer. Northbound in Mississippi he experiences, as I have often done, "the dark smell of going....the peculiar gnosis of trains." For Binx it is not an altogether happy trip. Cousin Kate is more disturbed than he and perhaps even suicidal. But Percy conveys well what it was like to be a passenger on the Panama Limited, dashing through the Southern night.
When my wife first read The Moviegoer she said to me "Walker Percy used your family!" There are in fact similarities, beginning with Binx. He is raised by his aunt and uncle, the Cutrers, after his mother, a nurse, leaves New Orleans for her old hospital in Mississippi when his father is killed in World War II. My younger cousin Daniel Devlin was raised by our grandparents after his father, a young surgeon in the Public Health Service, was killed by a patient and the boy's mother, my Aunt Eleanor, went off to England as a wartime Army nurse. After VE Day she became an anesthetist in Greenville, Mississippi, which was where Walker Percy lived as a boy with his stepfather, William Alexander Percy, author of the bestselling autobiography Lanterns on the Levee.
I still have a copy of Lanterns on the Levee that the author fondly inscribed to my mother's sister, my aunt Angela Devlin. This aunt spent a career at Isidore Newman School—perhaps the South's finest—in New Orleans. She ended as the lower-school principal, and in retirement she planned but (alas!) never finished a memoir that she was going to call The Principal of the Thing. One student who was to figure in the Thing as a bad actor was the son of Phinizy Percy, Walker's brother. But there are limits to similarities between the Devlins and the fictional Cutrers or, for that matter, the real-life Percys. I think there were no suicidal types in our family. Walker Percy's father and grandfather both killed themselves.
Back to the rails and what runs on them. Not long ago I had my latest ride on one of the dark-green, old-fashioned St. Charles streetcars that run for 13 miles through New Orleans, along Carrollton Avenue and then St. Charles Avenue, through Uptown and the Garden District down to Canal Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. Today's cars were built in 1923, but have been renovated more than once. Fortunately Hurricane Katrina, that struck the city so hard in 2005, left them undamaged; but it took New Orleans unconscionably long, several years, to repair the damage to the line.
I first rode the St. Charles streetcar in 1937, when I was five years old and staying at the Devlins', together with my mother and small sister, while Gov (that was my father) was on a long business trip to Europe and Africa. It was, and is, a lovely thing on a fine day to sit by an open window on the streetcar and watch the slow procession of old houses, mansions and smaller ones, along the Avenue full of trees. We pass by Tulane University's old gray stone buildings and the red-brick, neo-Gothic Holy Name Church and Loyola University. On the other side, Audubon Park with its ancient oaks stretches toward the unseen great River. Soon we pass Octavia Street. Grandpa and Grandma Devlin lived just two blocks down Octavia from the Avenue toward the river. Every weekday morning Grandpa would ride the St. Charles streetcar to the paint manufacturing company that he managed, just off Carrollton Avenue where the Panama Limited stopped. When, on a winter afternoon, we left New Orleans on the Panama to go back to Chicago, we could see him waving at our train from his office window.
Riding the St. Charles streetcar in the old days was pleasant for white boys but hardly so for black ones. It was a continuous reminder of racial segregation that took an absurd as well as cruel form.
The wooden seats for the passengers on the St. Charles line have a metal strip running along their tops. When I was a boy each of these strips, since replaced, had two holes in it a foot apart. The holes accommodated prongs affixed to the bottom of two-faced signs, one for either side of the car, that said "Whites Only" on the front and "Colored" on the back. It was a flexible sort of segregation. If more whites got on the car they could move the sign back, perhaps forcing some black passengers to stand. On the other hand, if there was a dearth of whites the blacks might move the sign forward.
What made the thing absurd as well as cruel was that sometimes the sign on one side would be several seats farther forward than the sign on the other, so that black people would actually be sitting across the aisle from white people.
But the system was not utterly absurd for whites. It was one of the constant reminders to African Americans that their status was subservient. Southern society had retrogressed very far since that day in 1873, just eight years after The War had ended, when 50 New Orleans white men including former Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard met with 50 New Orleans black men and agreed on a program of civil equality. The former hero of a slave regime was widely quoted as calling for "absolute and practical civil as well as political equality between all citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color."
Who in 1930s and 1940s New Orleans remembered that? Certainly this white boy from Chicago knew nothing of that, as I rode along St. Charles through a warm and verdant city.
Back in those days people in New Orleans liked to say that the Panama Limited was the best train in the country. People in the North knew there were competitors for the title. Two of them ran between Chicago and New York City: the all-sleeping-car Broadway Limited on the Pennsylvania Railroad and the all-sleeping-car 20th Century Limited on the New York Central.
I never got to ride on either of those trains, but Gov usually took the 20th Century when he went to New York on business, every month or two. If he was to leave Chicago on a Sunday afternoon, as he most often did, we would drive to the station at 63rd Street for him to board there.
In those competitive years the 20th Century and the Broadway each went overnight in 16 hours from Chicago to New York. They left from different downtown Chicago stations, each of them at three o'clock in the afternoon, and each stopped ten minutes later at 63rd Street, the Englewood station, to take on passengers. I can remember standing with Gov and Mother one afternoon on the Englewood platform and seeing the two express trains roar into the station almost simultaneously on tracks divided by our platform. Each was headed by a streamlined steam locomotive with six great 79-inch driving wheels. A New York Central 4-6-4 Hudson weighed 200 tons and could pull a dozen passenger cars at 100 miles an hour. Few things so big and fast moved across American earth. Oh to be an engineer! I was never that, but I was always an admiring watcher, and a rider when I could be. Indeed as a boy I had a fascination for trains, as I did for ships, but in and around Chicago I saw more of the former.
Gov was a far-traveling man. Before he met and married my mother in New Orleans he had spent several years as an agent for Libby's canned foods in the Caribbean and South America. There was not much of a rail network south of Mexico and he traveled mainly by ship, but he remembered well his trips across the Isthmus of Panama, between Colón and Panama City, on the railroad that had bridged the Isthmus since 1855. (The great Canal opened only in 1914.) He was never a mountaineer but in the 1920s he frequented high capitals—Bogotá, Quito, and La Paz. He liked to recall traveling from Antofagasta up to La Paz on a well-appointed train that offered oxygen for sleeping-car passengers, including himself, who were troubled at 12,000 feet by soroche.
My childhood trips with my family on the Panama Limited were memorable, but the most memorable trip of my life, at least until now, was one with my father when I was not quite five. Shirley Bartow, the first of my two sisters, was born in 1936. The following spring, in 1937, my father went on a business trip to Virginia and the Carolinas—and he took me along! I suspect my mother asked him to take the unruly kid with him, so that she and the baby might have some peace.
We rode from Chicago to Washington on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, in a Pullman car on the elegant Capitol Limited. My father woke me in my upper berth in the middle of the night. "Look," he said, "There are the mountains!" I looked and there they were, my first mountains, Appalachian ridges dim and mysterious in moonlight. Alas, a long time was to pass before I saw any others.
I had taught myself to read and write when four, and sent my mother a short letter from Washington. Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin physician who has studied this phenomenon of hyperlexia, says it presents itself in several ways. Some of us early readers have savant syndrome, like Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man. Dr. Treffert, who was a consultant for the film and to whom I wrote some time ago about myself, thought I was perhaps one of the hyperlexics who had no disorder and went on to typical successful lives. I think he's right—but even if I was and am no savant, as a boy I was good at memorizing numbers, which railroad timetables were full of.
When I was 17 John Devlin, my mother's younger brother, came to dinner one evening at our house in Hinsdale, that most pleasant suburb 17 miles west of downtown Chicago on the main line of the Burlington Route, now BNSF. Uncle John came out on a suburban train and said apologetically on arrival that he would have to leave early to get back to Chicago, to take the Kansas City Chief that left at ten p.m. on the Santa Fe. He had, he explained, an important breakfast meeting in Kansas City at eight next morning. John was in his 30s, working hard and rising fast in the Continental Can Company, then the world's largest packaging firm.
"John," I said, "I don't think you need to go back to Chicago. I think that train will make a flag stop at Willow Springs, and that's just a quarter of an hour's drive from here. I'll go look at the timetable." I went upstairs and consulted my copy of the 1,000-page directory that contained all the timetables of U.S. railroads. I had not memorized all of the 1,000 pages... but sure enough, the Kansas City Chief left Chicago at ten and there was an "f" for flag stop next to Willow Springs.
I told John the train would definitely stop at Willow Springs. He was dubious. "Peter," he said, "I have an early meeting in Kansas City and I can't take chances."
My father joined in. "Son, are you really sure about this?"
"I'll call the Willow Springs station," I said, wondering if there was a station agent on duty there. There was, and he said he'd stop the train.
John remained dubious, but agreed, and so had an extra hour to spend with us.
I drove him to Willow Springs a little after nine-thirty.
"I called Union Station," the station agent told us, "and I've also set the semaphore to "Stop," as you can see if you look outside."
So all was well, or so it seemed. Soon we heard a locomotive horn in the distance. The stationmaster went out, walked 100 yards up the track, and lit a flare that he dropped between the rails, where it burned bright red.
"What's that for?" John asked when the man came back.
"Well, sometimes the engineer doesn't get the message, or forgets. Nothing like being sure." Was it so sure? I wondered.
In a couple of minutes we saw the headlight. The train was coming fast—too fast to stop, I thought. John looked at me grimly. I suspected he might want to choke me.
The train slowed, and stopped with one of the sleeping cars just abreast of the station. A door opened and a porter in white jacket stepped down and said, "Good evening, sir."
I said "Goodbye, John. Come back again soon." He boarded, and in a minute the train was gone in the night.
I was away at college when my uncle next visited Hinsdale. No doubt he was sorry that I was not there to help him with his travel.
At the age of 17 I entered Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I had read and re-read the New England novels of Kenneth Roberts but I had never yet been in New Hampshire, nor anywhere north of New York City. When I boarded, one afternoon early in September, the well-named New England States at LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, I must have felt uneasy to be going to the Northeast alone, but what I remember is happily making the acquaintance of a new classmate named George Haigh when he boarded at Toledo, and meeting another on the train that we took north from Springfield, Massachusetts to White River Junction in Vermont.
During the next four years I took the train home to Chicago for vacations, when I could not get a ride in my classmate Anson Mark's ancient Ford. The summer after our junior year Ans, our classmate David Cost, and I drove the Ford to Denver, and picked up another classmate, Karl Zimmerman, who had a newer Ford.
We had read that geologists had identified a huge new petroleum basin centered on Williston, in northwestern North Dakota. We would find jobs on a drllling rig, and surely they would pay well. But we didn't find jobs, until after a week cruising through Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas we came on a tool pusher named Shriver in Miles City, Montana who was so short of men that in desperation he hired three of us.
In the next ten days I worked 12-hour shifts on the greasy and noisy platform of the rig, helping to pull thousands of feet of drill pipe when the bit needed replacing, then putting the pipe back into the hole. I nearly got killed late one night, when the driller dropped a heavy chunk of chain that missed my head by six inches. Shriver finally hired an experienced hand, fired me, and paid me off. I took it as an honorable discharge.
The next morning I drove Zim's car 100 miles southwest, to see where in 1876 the Lakota and Cheyenne had killed George Armstrong Custer and almost 300 other officers and men of the Seventh Cavalry. At the battle site there was no visitors' center, no gift shop, no other human. I stood alone in a hot wind by little stone markers where soldiers had fallen, and looked out at the Bighorn Mountains, far to the south, dim and blue. I imagined a young cavalryman standing by his dead horse, looking at those cool high mountains—their peaks reach over 13,000 feet—and wishing he could be there and not facing death in the cruel June sun. I wished I could be there, too, but it was time to go back to urban life.
That afternoon, back in Miles City, I went down to the depot of the Northern Pacific Railway. The North Coast Limited stopped in Miles City at four a.m. daily on its way east to the Twin Cities and Chicago. I bought a coach ticket and still had $20 left.
A drug store nearby had a soda fountain. There I fell into conversation with two pretty teenagers, and bought ice-cream cones for the three of us. Then the two girls and I drove across the Yellowstone River and up onto a bluff, where we watched the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen.
One of the girls was decidedly prettier than the other. I would gladly have taken her to a movie (or elsewhere) but there seemed no chance of splitting her off from her friend. I took them back to town and said goodbye, left Zim's car at the café, walked to the depot. There I read some science-fiction paperback for a while, then dozed on a hard seat until the great Limited finally roared into town.
I boarded and the train started eastward. I wish I could say that I enjoyed watching the Dakota morning landscape as we sped across the high plains at 80 and 90 miles an hour; but I was exhausted from my ten days on the rig. Except for a stroll up and down the platform when we stopped in Fargo, I slept in my reclining seat for much of the way to the Twin Cities.
When we reached Aurora, 40 miles before Chicago, I got off the Limited and took a suburban train to Hinsdale. I was happy to see my family, and happier still when two days later I got a summer job as a tree trimmer for the Hinsdale public works department. Dutch elm disease was decimating the town's great trees, planted soon after the Civil War, and our crew took down many of them.
My first train trip outside America came as an Army private. I had married my love just after leaving graduate school, and then entered the Army. We were between wars, Korea and Vietnam, but service was compulsory for young men. I had long weeks of basic training in Missouri and then my comrades and I boarded a troop train that in 24 hours got us to Fort Dix, New Jersey. We knew we would go on from there to Europe—but where? France, we found.
It took our troop ship ten long days to cross the Atlantic. Finally we sailed up the Weser to dock at Bremerhaven on a Sunday morning. We stood on the deck for hours, watching snow fall on the piers. Finally in the early evening several hundred of us, raw recruits and older sergeants, boarded a troop train at dockside and went off into Germany: Bremen, Osnabruck, Munster, Essen, Duisburg. I lay in the top bunk of a six-man compartment and looked out at the dim countryside and the rebuilt cities.
Then I slept, but not for long. I woke again at dawn as we passed through some city on a river. Koblenz, I saw; the river must be the Rhine. I finished my breakfast quickly in the mess car and went back to stand in the corridor by our compartment, and pulled the window down. The air was cool, not cold. We came to the River Mosel and turned up that valley. The train stopped for a while across the river from a town backed by a wooded hill. In the quiet dawn a church bell began ringing, slow and deep, and another church answered with a lighter bell.
This was the Old World but it was a new world for me, fresh and fascinating. I forgot for the moment that I was a lowly private. I was a traveler in a new country, with new things to discover every minute: a different style of power lines, old trees of unknown species, new sorts of houses, stores, stations. Even the clouds had exotic new shapes.
We came to Metz, and a dozen of us bound for posts in France left our troop train for an ordinary civilian one. At Nancy we changed again, to a little train that took us through a mild sweet countryside to the ancient town of Toul, where I had been assigned to serve in the 97th Engineer Battalion. Since I had a college education I was found qualified to serve as a clerk, and after a day was transferred from Toul to battalion headquarters in the Caserne Maginot at Verdun. André Maginot, builder of the Maginot Line when he was France's minister of war, had served there as a sergeant in the great battle of 1916.
Mary Jane joined me in two months, we moved into a garret and bought a small car, and we devoted our free time to seeing Europe. The next January, in 1957, we decided to spend two weeks of my annual leave to travel from Verdun to Italy, but not in the Austin A-40. The great Italian autostrade had not been built yet and we did not want to spend days on winding roads; my wife was six months pregnant with our first child. American soldiers and their spouses got a 30 percent discount on European rail tickets. For a reasonable price we got a sleeping-car compartment on the train that stopped at Metz on its way from Brussels to Milan.
Where to stay in Italy? Mary Jane had come upon the Agence Havas, a venerable French institution that provided various services including hotel reservations. Their stable (perhaps not the proper word) of hotels in Italy included places that were older, economical and, we were to find, quite pleasant.
I had a predecessor of sorts on our route to Italy. In 1892 young Hilaire Belloc had returned from England to his native France for military service—at Toul, where our army had first sent me. A decade after leaving the French army Belloc, on his way to becoming a famous author, made a pilgrimage from Toul to Rome on foot, 700 miles or more. He recorded the walk in his 1902 bestseller The Path to Rome. Belloc was tough. He had walked across much of Colorado a decade earlier. He had left soldiering when he hiked to Rome, and unlike me he would not face a court-martial if he should fail to get back to Lorraine in two weeks. Nor did he have a pregnant wife. In any case Belloc's walk and Belloc's work were things I could admire if not emulate. Years later, I read in his Sonnets and Verse that while he had walked 700 miles he had also taken a train for some miles across Italy.
I remember well that January morning, over half a century ago, when our own train ran from snowy Switzerland into the St. Gotthard tunnel and sped down into warm Lombardy. Henry James had written eight decades earlier how his train came out of another long Alpine tunnel, the Mont Cenis, to "whirl out into the blest peninsula." I was far from sure in January 1957 that Italy was blest, but this sun was a welcome change from grim Verdun where, from cold and poor diet, in winter many women had the purplish calves of chilblains, and the little anthracite-fueled Ciney stove in our garret did not keep us very warm.
We stopped for a day and a night in Milan, admired the Cathedral, and got cheap seats at La Scala. From Milan we reached Rome, changed trains in the impressively modern Stazione Termini, and quickly went on to Naples, where Agence Havas had gotten us a room at the old Hotel Britannique up on the Vomero. We walked out onto our little balcony that was floored with flowered tiles—and there was Capri in the sun across the bay. The next day we climbed to the highest point on the island (with some help from a chair lift), then toured Pompeii, and from Naples went on to Rome, Florence, Venice, and back across the Alps to Metz and rainy, wintry Verdun.
It was not long—but it seemed long—before I was discharged from the Army. Mary Jane, little David, and I went to stay with my parents in Hinsdale, and after three weeks came a telephone call from the Department of State in Washington. Are you still interested in joining the Foreign Service? Yes, indeed. Then report here next Monday morning.
On Saturday afternoon my parents and my sister Mary, my wife and small son, and I drove to Grand Central Station in Chicago. I had last been there, with Gov, two decades earlier, to board the Baltimore & Ohio's Capitol Limited for that memorable trip East. Now the grand old station was run down and the Capitol was the only train waiting for passengers in the tall trainshed. No matter; the train itself was modern, I ate a good dinner in the dining car, and I slept well in my roomette. The next morning I rose early to have breakfast and admire the summer countryside of Maryland. That afternoon, together with two dozen other new Foreign Service officers I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I did my best on that score for the next three decades.
We spent two years in Washington and then, after a hot and humid summer, were sent to a yet more tropical place, Panama. After I had spent a year in the embassy in Panama City the State Department decided, for reasons of economy, to close our only consulate in Panama, across the Isthmus in Colón, which had been in operation since the 1850s. The Department transferred the consul elsewhere but our ambassador argued that the post should be kept open. Indeed the Panamanians were threatening anti-US riots if the post stayed closed, saying that closing the post would tell the world that Washington thought Colón's economy was headed downhill. (It was.) While the argument continued the Department agreed that an embassy officer might be sent on temporary duty to Colón. So it was that at 28 I became vice consul in charge of my own post. It would be another quarter-century before I again had a post of my own, the embassy in Mogadishu.
As my father had done on his occasional business trips to Panama three decades earlier, I took the train across the Isthmus, every weekday—thus becoming, I think, the only American diplomat ever to commute across a continent. The train, four aging coaches pulled by a modern diesel-electric locomotive, took just an hour and a half to do the 47 miles. The cars were not air-conditioned but the windows were open, the breeze was cool, and the ride was pleasant, with occasional views of the Canal and Gatun Lake—and never, or almost never, a mosquito. It was the railroad that had first made it possible for travelers bound, say, from New York to San Francisco to traverse the Isthmus with relatively little fear of coming down with malaria or yellow fever. (U.S. Grant wrote in his memoirs that when, as a young lieutenant in 1852, he crossed the Isthmus with his regiment, one in seven people died.)
After my short commutes across the American continent, my family and I had a long rail journey in and out of Russia when we lived in Moscow, our next embassy after Panama. I was due some vacation in the summer of 1963, after we had been in Moscow for almost a year. It had been a trying year, not just because of my job. The Cuban missile crisis came soon after our arrival, and life in the Soviet police state became still more difficult, even though we had diplomatic immunity. There had been interesting moments, too, like the amazing publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the frank description of a prisoner's life in the Gulag. We had gotten to know intellectuals like Lev Kopelev, a literary critic who had been with Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag and had first pushed for publication of his work. But we needed to get out of Russia for a while. We found an apartment to rent in Bavaria, on the edge of Garmisch, that looked out over Alpine meadows at two fine peaks, the pyramidal Alpspitz and the Zugspitz, Germany's highest.
The State Department paid me a hardship allowance for serving in the USSR, an extra 20% of my salary. It was well deserved and it left us better off, but we still needed to economize where we could. So it was that we economized on our vacation by taking the train to Germany instead of flying. It was a long trip, but not unpleasant.
David (age 6), Elizabeth (4), Mary (2+), and their parents (each 31) left Moscow at ten one summer evening, having boarded the ekspress for Vienna at Moscow's large and ornate Byelorussian Station, built in 1870. We had a comfortable sleeping compartment and I think we all slept well our first night on the train, which was due to reach Vienna on the second morning.
Our train had cars designed for Russian railroads' broad gauge, and so the compartments were a little roomier than those on Western trains. Standard gauge on almost all of the world's railroads is four feet, eight and a half inches, which dates to the first railroads in England. Russian gauge is five feet, neither a metric nor an old Russian measurement, and that is due to an American named George Washington Whistler, the painter's father, who designed the first Russian railroad in the 1840s.
We knew the train had no dining car, and we brought food to eat in our compartment. In the morning, as we ate breakfast I looked out at the countryside of Belarus: forests, meadows, and collective farms with poorly tended fields. The fields were large; the Soviet regime had consolidated what had been small peasant plots, making it economic to use tractors and other mechanized equipment. But the collective farmers, kolkhozniki, put in only what time they were forced to, working the State's fields. They gave much more time and care to the plots of just an acre or so, adjacent to their log houses, that they were permitted to work for themselves. The large fields that belonged to the State were unkempt, full of weeds. Late on a sunny afternoon I spotted from the train a dozen kolkhozniki sleeping peacefully under bushes alongside one such field.
Our sleeping-car porter was a pleasant man who brought us tea from the samovar at the end of the car—not an electric samovar but the old-fashioned sort with a charcoal fire to heat the water. Our express was far from fast; it cruised along at about 50 miles an hour; but by afternoon we had stopped at Minsk, passed through the sad Pripet marshes, and arrived at Brest on the Polish border. There was a restaurant in the station. We ate a late lunch there while our train was taken off to the yards to have its broad-gauge Russian trucks replaced by standard-gauge European ones. I thought back to the Devlins, waiting in Cairo, Illinois while their train, too, had its trucks changed to standard gauge.
By the time we pulled out of Brest and crossed the Soviet-Polish border, that summer day in 1963, the Soviets had long since been maintaining an Iron Curtain. It lay farther west, between the Europe they dominated and the free countries; but the border between the USSR and Communist-run Poland was also an iron curtain. Soviet border guards went through our train thoroughly at the Polish border and, to make sure no one left the Motherland of Socialism without permission, they went under our train as well. The Soviet side of the border itself was marked with a plowed strip and thick barbed wire.
We passed inspection by the Soviet passport controllers and soon our train was rolling west through Poland in early evening. Poland had been under the Communists for almost two decades, but Poles are stubborn people and have never been keen to take dictation from Moscow. They had most recently fought the Russians, and successfully, in 1920. After the Soviets installed a Communist regime in Poland in the wake of World War II, the leadership tried, pushed by Moscow, to collectivize Poland's farms. Poland's farmers resisted. No more than ten percent of the land was ever collectivized, and much of that returned to private ownership after the public protests of the "Polish October" in 1956 brought a degree of liberalization to the country.
As the long summer evening came on, we were looking out at a landscape far different from the broad, untended and weed-full fields in the USSR. Poland was small farms. Some plots were tiny and narrow, less than an acre, but the fields were green, weedless, well tended, thriving. Large fields made sense to the central planners in Moscow, and in truth a field too small to plow with a tractor was not ideal; but Polish yields per hectare were greater than in the Motherland of Socialism. Economic theory was not all. I liked the smallholder country.
Next morning we crossed the true Iron Curtain, at the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria. The Czechoslovak border guards went through the train and looked under the train and a machine-gunner in a tower looked down on the train, to make sure no one was escaping from the Socialist paradise. Finally we started up, going slowly through the dead zone of plowed, mined fields and barbed wire...and in less than an hour we reached bright free Vienna. Two more trains, and in afternoon we reached Garmisch and were looking up at Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitz. Russia passed out of my mind, at least for a while; at least until I took the train back to Moscow after two weeks, leaving my family to enjoy another month in Bavaria.
My next long train trip, in America, came in the autumn of 1964. For the first time I did not bypass the mountains but went into them, and with my wife.
Mary Jane and our children and I had come back from two years in Moscow, and we were spending several weeks on home leave in Hinsdale before I began my new assignment in Washington. One morning I read in the Chicago Tribune that the Burlington Route and a new ski resort called Vail, in the Colorado Rockies, were offering a marvelous bargain. For just $100 one could ride from Chicago to Denver on the Denver Zephyr, continue to Vail by bus, spend two nights in a new hotel in Vail, and return to Chicago. My salary was modest, $10,000 a year, but a trip like that was affordable.
"Mary Jane," I said, "Let me take you to the Rockies!"
We left the children with my mother in Hinsdale and went west. It was a good trip and we even got in some hiking. On our Sunday morning in Vail we left the hotel and walked far up the mountain, not on a trail but up one of the new ski runs. Sunday was a cool day and my wife wore her good brown cape. We learned only later that it was the first day of deer-hunting season. Fortunately few people lived in Vail at that point, and if any hunters were out, we didn't see them nor did they see the graceful doe-like creature in brown. God protects fools like us, at least at times.
One of the smaller trains I ever rode on was an old cog railway. This was in the summer of 1981, when I was in charge of the State Department office for dealing with Communist countries of Eastern Europe. We knew that Soviet divisions were massing on the border with Poland, where the pro-democracy Solidarity movement was riding high. I did not think the Russians would invade Poland; I needed a little time off; my boss granted me a week's leave. I could get back to Washington quickly if the situation required.
What I myself required was to go back, for just a little while, to the woods and mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont that I had known as a Dartmouth undergraduate. Mary Jane was too involved with possible house sales, to keep me out of debtors' prison, to come along. I packed hiking and camping gear into our VW Bug, and Andrew, then 11 years old, and I headed north toward New Hampshire on a Friday evening. After three days hiking up small mountains we camped under Mt. Washington, highest of them all.
The next morning we rose at first light, breakfasted on rolls and jam and juice, packed our gear, and drove to the bottom of the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail. I had never been there, but I had done some research and it was the trail that made most sense. It would mean 3,800 feet of elevation gain. That was a lot, but my son was sturdy and my morning runs had me in fine shape. We mounted steadily and the views got long and lovely. We were tired when we reached Lake of the Clouds Hut, and went in to buy something to drink and to sit for a few minutes. We were not quite a mile above sea level and we still had another vertical quarter-mile to do before the top. The weather held, we persevered, and finally we were there! We went into the big new summit building where there were 50 or 60 people, most of whom looked like they had ridden up the mountain and not walked. We came out again to spend five minutes in mountain glory. All of Upper New England was spread out beyond and below us for 100 miles and more. But the weather was beginning to change for cloudy and colder. It was time to go down to lower country, and we'd take the easy way—the train.
The summit station of the cog railway was nearby, as it had been for over 100 years. Soon we saw the train coming up from below: a single ancient passenger car, pushed by an ancient steam locomotive with its boiler fixed at an angle because the gradient was so steep. We bought tickets and boarded. How good to sit!
We started down the mountain, slowly, soon very steeply. Our engine (exempted by law from pollution standards) was puffing much black smoke that a mighty wind blew away along the slopes. The engine was below the car and not coupled to it—a safety measure, so that if the cogs attaching engine to track should somehow give way, the brakeman in our coach would perhaps be able to stop us with the coach's hand brakes while the engine flew down toward the valley.
Our brakeman was a young man who manipulated the large brake wheels at either end of the car as the gradient turned dramatically steep. The maximum gradient along the three miles of line is 37%, almost the steepest of any cog railway in the world. The brakeman adjusting the brakes was an admirable figure to my son. Andrew said that was the job he must have some day. I hoped he would; I wished I could have, decades earlier. Andrew never did become a brakeman, but as Dartmouth students he and his future wife, Maury, would return to Mt. Washington more than once in spring, as his brother David had done before him, to climb and then ski down the 45- and 50-degree slopes of Tuckerman Ravine.
Our train came down safely and reached the valley station in three-quarters of an hour from the summit. It was only a few hundred feet from the station to our car, and that was about as far as I felt able to walk. I drove to some place where we had a good dinner, then back to the campground at Hanover. Next morning we woke in steady rain. Up on Mt. Washington it was probably snowing. We had done it right, and it was time to go home. And when we got there the Soviet tanks had not gone into Poland; nor did they later.
Eventually, as I mentioned, I got my own embassy. Mr. Reagan made me ambassador to Somalia, there being no Republican fat cats who wanted the job. I dealt frankly with the dictator who was leading his country toward horrendous civil war, and I traveled there widely. A couple of times I also visited neighboring Kenya, and on one such occasion I traveled to Nairobi from Mombasa on the 329-mile narrow-gauge rail line that the British colonialists built at the end of the 19th century, from the Indian Ocean through Kenya up to Lake Victoria in Uganda. The physical work on the line was done by 30,000 workers brought in from then British India. Twenty-five hundred of them died of overwork, disease, and attacks by Kenyan tribesmen. A hundred others were killed by the famous, ferocious lions of Tsavo, a tragedy that has led to the making of several films.
My train in Kenya was called the Nairobi Express but it was no express. It took us 15 hours to do the 329 miles and I doubt our speed reached 40 miles an hour at any point. But it was a nice little train and it had comfortable sleeping compartments and a nice little dining car that served good food. At dinner I had interesting table companions, a young Kenyan civil engineer who had studied at Cambridge and a retired English couple who were on vacation. The husband was a former captain of the old British-India Steam Navigation Company. He had first seen Mombasa before World War II, as mate on one of the BI passenger-and-mail ships that ran between England and East Africa via the Suez Canal.
I thought of Karen Blixen and her splendid Out of Africa. She had come out to Africa by ship, to Mombasa, before the first World War. She had ridden this rail line up to Nairobi, to the green Kenya highlands where she experienced beauty and, as well, marriage to a profligate baron who gave her syphilis that hurt her for life but never stopped her writing. Years later, too, when she had lost both her African farm and her great love, Denys Finch-Hatton, this was the train she had taken on her lonely way back to Mombasa and to Denmark.
I hoped to see wildlife from the train, although I had had my fill of animals large and small on a Kenya safari earlier in the year with my wife, two sons, and a daughter-in-law. Alas, when I woke in my sleeping compartment at dawn, three hours before Nairobi, there was a ground fog. There were still lions in this part of Kenya but I saw only a single man-sized ostrich ambling across dim grasslands as my train ambled up its narrow track, not much faster than the bird.
The bird seemed to know where it was going. I was not sure where I myself was bound, beyond my return flight to Mogadishu that afternoon. I had decided to resign my ambassadorial commission and retire from the Foreign Service after 29 years in diplomacy.
In succeeding decades, in America, I traveled much but took few trains. There were no longer many good ones in America, although Amtrak improved their service in the Northeast Corridor, between Washington, New York, and Boston. For some years they have boasted of speeds of up to 150 miles per hour—but there are stretches, notably in the 1870 tunnel under Baltimore, where the speed limit is still no more than 30 m.p.h.
A recent Republican candidate for our Presidency, Marco Rubio, has chastised President Obama for wanting to make America become like other countries. Not to worry, Senator Rubio, at least as regards passenger trains. We lag badly behind others and will continue to do so. Meanwhile Italy, which most Americans know for pasta and St. Peter's, and which I have gotten to know over six decades, has some of the fastest trains in Europe. The ultra-modern Frecciarossa runs between Rome and Milan, 400 miles, in three hours, and there are dozens of trains each way, each day. I sit content as we course through Lombardy quietly and smoothly, while the speedometer above me shows we are doing 300 kilometers an hour, more than 185 m.p.h.
But speed's not all. Twice in the last decade I have led family and friends on treks across the valleys and mountains of Corsica, enjoying both before and after the trek a ride on the narrow-gauge Chemins de fer de la Corse that runs up and down that lovely island for 100 miles. There are stretches where we speed along at almost 50 miles an hour—and stretches where, coming around a tight curve, the engineer jams on the brakes because goats are ambling down the track. On days like that, I think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote
My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.