“My Big Train Trip” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

(My mom is continuing with her wonderful memoir writing, providing a gift of her memories in writing to the rest of the family. With this one, her third, about a train trip she took by herself when she was 10, we don’t have relevant photos. I’ve decided to include a couple from roughly that time period as I think the writing is enhanced with pictures. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section below. Find the first two memoirs via these quick links: Days at the Cottage || New House –Andy)

My Big Train Trip

by Carib Smallman

Each summer of my childhood, my parents and I drove to my father’s parents’ (Gom and Pop) home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mother and Dad would stay for a few days before they left for Nebraska, where Dad worked each summer. At the end of summer, when they returned to Michigan, we would drive back home to Washington, D.C.. The year after my father’s serious surgery, he was unable to work. My parents decided I should spend the summer with my grandparents, as usual. I was excited, remembering all the fun I always had at the cottage.

How to get me there was a problem. To arrive in Grand Rapids from Washington by train, it takes a change of trains. I would turn eleven years old in July, a bit young to handle changing trains by myself. After conferring with Gom and Pop, the decision was made. I would ride the train to the Jackson, Michigan station. Gom and Pop would drive to Jackson and be at the station to meet me. I was a bit hesitant at first; I would be all by myself. Mother and Dad assured me I could do it. They gave me the confidence to trust myself.

Carib’s paternal grandparents – Gom & Pop.
Soon after school dismissed for the summer, Mother and I packed a suitcase with my clothes. A carry-on bag had food, pajamas, and books. Mother explained I would board the train after lunch and arrive in Michigan after breakfast the next day. Gom and Pop would be there to meet me. My memory is of excitement . . . not worry or fear.

Friends drove Mother and me to the station, where Mother walked me to the Pullman car. “Take good care of her,” I heard Mother say to the porter as she handed him a tip and then walked toward the station’s exit. It makes my heart hurt when I think how she must have felt as she watched me disappear into the train. I felt the same way the first time each of our sons left on his own.

I learned a lot about trains on that trip. Passengers with upper berths, as I had, sat facing the end of the train, watching where they had been. The upper berth doors pulled down from above the seats making a berth. The two seats used during the day made up the lower berth. For privacy, on the aisle side, there were curtains that snapped closed. The porter prepared the beds while passengers were at dinner. Many years later, I remember traveling with Al, where we rode the train from Salt Lake City to Denver. It made me smile as I discovered much was the same as I had first experienced it.

Many of the passengers in my train car were traveling because of the war. A U.S. Army Major sat down across from me. I felt proud to know he was a major because my friend, a Lieutenant Colonel, had taught me that a silver maple leaf insignia was a Lt. Colonel and a golden maple leaf was a major. The major was very nice to me. I am sure that we talked, but the exciting happening was that he took me to the dining car for dinner. I noticed as we walked through several cars to reach the dining car that every seat was taken, many with soldiers. It surprised me to learn that as I walked between cars I was ‘outside.’ Below my feet, I was able to see the coupling holding the car to the rest of the train. I was finding many facts that I was anxious to share with Gom and Pop.

I have no idea what I ate, but I was impressed that the waiters wore white shirts and black bow ties. After dinner, the major walked me back to our car. The beds were ready. The major suggested I take my toothbrush to the bathroom at the end of the car and get ready for bed. The porter told me if I needed anything, to call him. Then he put a ladder up to my berth and up I went. It was like a hidey-hole, snug and comfy. I changed into my pajamas, got out my book, and read until I fell asleep.

Carib & her parents, Christmas time.
Morning came. I quickly dressed and ate some of the snacks that Mother had packed for me. The porter showed me where to sit while he put the seats and upper berth back together. Shortly after returning to my seat, he explained that the next time the train stopped, we would be at my destination. The train slowed to a stop. The porter had my bags ready by the exit. How happy I was to see Gom and Pop waiting as I got off the train! I felt very proud of myself and pleased that I had acted very grown up and able to be alone.

It was a different world in wartime America. I recall the musketeer attitude: “All for one and one for all.” As I look back, I realize how much I benefitted from the kindness of strangers. Today, I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing a ten year old to travel alone, anywhere, much less on an overnight train trip.

One thought on ““My Big Train Trip” – Personal Memoir From My Mom

  1. Carib: Thank you for sharing your timeless memory when you were a young girl. It warms my heart… Keep sharing, please.

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