(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: Memoir #1 || Memoir #2 –Andy)
My Big Train Trip
by Carib Smallman
Each summer 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. When they returned we would drive back to Washington. The summer after my father’s serious surgery, he was unable to work, but 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 D.C. by train takes a change of trains. I would turn 11 years old in July, a bit young to handle changing trains by myself. After conferring with Gom and Pop, the decision was made that I could 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.
Soon after school dismissed for the summer, Mother and I packed a suitcase with my clothes. A carry-on had food, pajamas and books. Mother explained I would board the train after lunch and arrive in Michigan after breakfast. 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, and 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 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 we had been. The upper berth pulled down from above the seats. The two seats made up the lower berth. For privacy there were curtains for each berth that snapped closed. The Porter prepared the beds while passengers were at dinner. I remember travelling with Al when we rode the train from Salt Lake City to Denver. It made me smile as I discovered all was the same as I had first experienced it years before.
Many of the passengers in my train car were travelling 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. We had to walk through several cars to reach the dinning car. I learned that as you walk between cars you are ‘outside’. You can see the coupling holding the car to the rest of the train. 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 pjs, got out my book and read until I fell asleep.
Morning came and I quickly dressed and ate some of the snacks that Mother had packed for me. The Porter came and showed me where to sit while he put the seats and upper berth back together. Shortly after returning to my seat he was telling me that next time the train stopped we would be at my destination. The train slowed to a stop. The porter had my things 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 10 year old, especially a girl, to travel alone anywhere, much less on an overnight train trip.