Riding the Rails

It amazes me sometimes to think about the things we take for granted in today’s world. We talk, text or email people around the world from a little device we carry in our pockets. We scroll through hundreds of channels looking for a show to watch on television. Or to DVR so we can watch it later.

But it wasn’t always so. . . .

When I was growing up back in the 1940s & 1950s, passenger trains went everywhere. Not Amtrak. These trains were operated by all the regular railroads, and there’s a world of difference.

Back then, if I wanted to ride a train somewhere, I could find one that went fairly directly to my destination, or at least close to it. Now, if I want to go from Fort Worth to El Paso by rail, I have to go to San Antonio first. To get to Denver by rail, I’d have to go to Chicago first. I could make the 283 miles to San Antonio in 7:45 or about 36.5 miles per hour. The 1020 miles to Chicago would take 23:32 or about 43.4 miles per hour. Do you wonder why more people don’t ride Amtrak?

My father worked briefly for the railroad while he was in college. His father worked for the Fort Worth & Denver—which became part of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy, which merged with the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific to form the Burlington Northern, which then merged with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to form the Burling Northern Santa Fe. Whew!

Anyhow, Poppy worked for them for 48 years, mostly running from Dallas to Vernon, Texas. Needless to say, I had a love for railroads from my earliest memories.

Most of my life Poppy and Mama, my paternal grandmother, lived in Wichita Falls. He deadheaded to Dallas to go to work, worked a round trip from there to Vernon, Texas, and then deadheaded back to Wichita Falls. Out of every three days he was gone a day and a half and then home a day and a half.

By the time I was four or so, I was riding the train from Fort Worth to Wichita Falls to see my grandparents pretty regularly. I would always be on a train where Poppy was working, and he’d come by and check on me now and then, but I was by myself most of the time. It never occurred to me to be scared of being alone. Besides, he made sure all the crew knew who I was, and various ones would stop to speak on their way by my seat.

There was a little two-car train called The Doodlebug running from Wichita Falls to Abilene, with a stop in the town of Munday, where Mimi, my maternal grandmother lived. Mother arranged for me to ride the train all the way to Munday to visit her once. The first leg was on Poppy’s train to Wichita Falls. Mama met me there and helped me get on The Doodlebug, providing me with a sack lunch for my supper.

It’s about 75 miles from Wichita Falls to Munday, and suppertime came and went as we rode along. I noticed other people opening their sack lunches and eating along the way, but I didn’t join in. When Mimi and my Auntie Mac met my train it was well after dark—and way past supper time—and I still had my sack lunch in my hand. They asked me why I hadn’t eaten it on the train, and I explained to them that I couldn’t, because there was no dining car. They didn’t laugh more than five or ten minutes.

Another interesting experience came when Mother bought me a ticket to Big Spring, Texas, on the Texas & Pacific, which later became part of the Union Pacific. An aunt would meet me there to take me to Lamesa, 44 miles up the road, where two pairs of aunts and uncles and several cousins lived.

When the ticket agent asked Mother who would accompany me, she said no one and that I was accustomed to riding trains alone. He told her kids under six weren’t allowed to ride alone, and I was afraid I wouldn’t get to go. A stranger who overheard the conversation volunteered to look after me, which satisfied both Mother and the ticket agent. Can you imagine in this day and age putting a five year-old kid in the hands of a stranger for a 300-mile train trip?

I rode trains frequently both to Wichita Falls and to Big Spring after that, but none of the trips were quite so memorable as those when I was four and five years old. It was simply the easiest way for me to get to visit my kinfolks.

Those were good days. I always loved riding the train, but I’ve never ridden Amtrak. It goes so slowly, and you have to go so far out of your way, it hardly seems worth it. And it has such limited routes, there are too many places you can get to. Some day I may ride VIA across Canada just for the experience, but I’ll still miss the good old days when you could go down to the depot and get on a train to go almost anywhere.

Ø Imagine a world where kids were safe from pedophiles and other dangers and could travel hundreds of miles unaccompanied to visit relatives. Would you have enjoyed taking advantage of that?

Ø What things from your childhood are lost to your children and grandchildren?


clip_image006David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since his retirement from insurance a few years ago, he has devoted his time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel himself.


About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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28 Responses to Riding the Rails

  1. Lynn says:

    I enjoyed reading about your train rides. I think I would have like doing that, too. However, I can’t believe your mom entrusted you to a stranger, even back then. Wow!


  2. It was great, Amber. Thanks for stopping by.


  3. I know, Angela. I sometimes wonder how we got along without cell phones, etc. But us oldtimers still yearn for lots of things about “the good old days.”


  4. Gyran says:

    Once upon a time I used to climb all the trees I could. I’ve just visited my aunt and her young boy is taking after me but all I could do was look up with my heart in my throat the whole time he was up there.

    We laughed about it over coffee and she shouted out the same thing that my parents said to me “If you fall down and kill yourself don’t come crying to me!”


  5. Good story, David. Next time I bring snacks to Saturday I’ll try to remember a white table cloth and napkins to make you feel more at home!

    My father also worked on the railways and I grew up wanting to be a train driver. I eventually got that wish driving a diesel loco at a zoo.

    Its definitely a different world to the one I grew up in. I used to cycle a mile down the main road to my elementary school. I wont let my daughter anywhere near the main road. 😦



  6. Donna Hole says:

    Now I doubt I’d let my 4 year old walk down the block without supervision. The world has changed so much since I was a kid.

    Loved your train stories 🙂



  7. DM says:

    I loved this blog. Those were the days, and a child was perfectly safe riding public transportation. So many young people have never been on a train and that is sad.


  8. I’ve traveled the country by Amtrak, coast to coast and border to border. I’ve always enjoyed it. I also traveled by train in the old days. What can I say, I’m a rail brat.


  9. it’s hard for me to imagine such a world, and though I’m grateful for technology, I long for the simpler times. great post!


  10. Bill Chance says:

    I remember travelling alone by train when I was… maybe ten. I would go to visit my grandparents, getting off the train in Newton, Kansas. I was always worried I’d miss my stop – though the train crew always made sure I was good.

    Those days are gone – but I am doing my best to enjoy and take advantage of the new light rail systems and, especially, the resurgence of streetcars in a lot of our cities.


    • Thanks, Bill. The only rail we have in Fort Worth other than Amtrak, which you can beat on foot, is the Trinity Railway Express. It runs to downtown Dallas at a speed slightly higher than that of a tricycle. Kinda kills the experience.


  11. Barb Estinson says:

    I feel like I”m on Poppy’s train again after reading your post, David. It was really special to be able to ride the train (with Poppy checking on us) when we were so young. I don’t think I knew about the experience when Mom entrusted you to the willing stranger. Guess it worked out just fine. But … sad to say .. there were dangers from pedophiles and other dangerous people when we were kids … but we were fortunate. I recall riding the bus alone to downtown Fort Worth and hanging out at the library or stores all day from the time I was perhaps 10 …. that sure wouldn’t happen now. Thanks for the memories. Oh, by the way, what did you think when all those other people ate their sack lunches in spite of having no dining car?


    • I don’t know what I thought, Barb. I saw them eating, but I didn’t think you were supposed to if there were no dining car. Haven’t missed a whole lot of meals since then, though.


  12. Alex, I think you’re thinking of Jennie Bennett’s post at http://abookagirlajourney.blogspot.com/. Please do read it and then offer Jennie some encouragement.


  13. susielindau says:

    I have a friend who wrote about riding the train cross country from Canada to San Francisco.
    We used to pack the station wagon with my friends and of course no one wore seat belts!!
    The world population has tripled since I was young so I guess our world has changed a lot.
    Great post~


  14. hawleywood40 says:

    I love this post, David! Such delightful memories. I felt like I was riding the rails with you. One thing I miss from my childhood (70s and 80s) is the feeling of not being tied to a phone. Those younger than me don’t know the anticipation of coming home to check voice messages when you were hoping a special someone had called, because their phone is always on their person. They also don’t know the sense of freedom that being away from your phone when you go out can bring.Not saying I’d give up our advances in technology because the pros way outweigh the cons, but those are just some of the feelings I miss about simpler times.


    • Wow, Pam. When I was growing up kids weren’t allowed to use the phone without special permission. And there were no answering devices. If you missed a call, you just missed it.


  15. This is lovely.

    I am sad to say I think love letters are disappearing. Kids send texts for everything, and they make dates and break via text, too.

    I wonder if my son will ever receive a real love note. One with lipstick on it and scented with perfume. Because it takes so long to do that, and they don’t seem to make the time.


  16. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Dave.

    When I was a kid, Mom invited–correction–encouraged–correction–demanded we play outside. Tiny house. Five girls. Connect those with a mother’s last giggle nerve.

    We roamed our sub-division for hours with only one restriction: “Come home when the streetlights come on.” I held the record for “most turns without touching the handlebars” on my bicycle. My bicycle that braked when I pedaled backwards. Now, with the brakes ON the handlebars and those skinny tires, riding without touching handlebars is a lost sporting event. Unless there’s a brave kid in Pennsylvania still riding the streets until the streetlights come on.


    • We were all over the neighborhood, too, but we had to be home for supper. Then we’d go back outside after supper and play Red Rover or Mother May I or some such game until bed time. As Archie Bunker would say, those were the days.


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