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?
David 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.