Passenger trains have all but left America as a frequently chosen form of travel. I know there’s Amtrak, and I’m so glad about that! Now that I’m retired, riding an Amtrak train is definitely on my want-to-d0-soon list!
But the passenger trains I am thinking of are the ones I rode as a child. They left from Atlanta, from the depot there. The building seemed grand to me and much busier than any place I was used to, with its crowds of hurrying people. I remember holding my mother’s hand as we stood in line to buy our tickets. Our voices echoed. The ceilings were high like a cathedral’s, and the grownups’ heels clicked loudly on the floor.
Then in would swoop my Granddaddy Dendy, or just “Dendy” as we called him – (my fault; I couldn’t say the whole name when I was little) – and he would kneel down to hug us and to greet us in his confident, happy-sounding voice. (He was a minister, and honestly, personal biases aside, he had a great voice!) Dendy would meet me, or my sister and me, and take us back to Richmond with him for a visit.
I remember being half-scared of the giant wheels, the immense power and sound of the engines as they pulled the train beside the platform and sometimes backed it up. And soon would come the moment to climb the steep steps up to the train, just after the conductor cried, “All aboard!”
Walking through the cars once the train had started was an adventure. You could see the tracks flying by below as you stepped from one car to another. The sound was a loud clacking and a roar, and you could feel every curve and sway at that juncture. I was both terrified and thrilled.
The dining car held tables covered in white linen tablecloths and set with heavy silverware. Waiters balanced perfectly while hurrying to an invisible kitchen. I don’t remember what we ate, or what we drank. ( I’d like to think it was hot chocolate, but I think that is from reading The Polar Express too many times!) I do remember the lunches on the return trip from Richmond, a day trip; they were packed by my grandmother in a shoe box: fried chicken, tangerines, hard-boiled eggs, and cake! (No wonder I remember!)
Usually we didn’t have a space in a sleeper car, and I struggled uncomfortably to sleep in an upright seat with a pillow. But once we rented a compartment in a Pullman car. In my eyes the transformation of the space into a room with bunk beds was nothing short of magical. I got to climb to the top bed and lie up against the window.
All night long the train rode on, its rhythm and rumble comforting, like a lullaby. The towns we passed through were a sleepy blur of light and people getting on and off in the middle of the night.
I don’t think I have ever slept such a deep and wonderful sleep before or since. Carried along on this train that seemed like something out of a storybook.
I haven’t ridden a train overnight in a long time; the last time was just after college, when I rode the train from London to Edinburgh. (We won’t discuss how long ago that was!) But, like most people, I love to hear the train whistles as the freight trains still pass through Marietta, where I live. And I especially love to hear them at bedtime, as I imagine riding on that train into the night.