Trains excite me. It’s something about the powerful nature of the beast, the noise of the whistle; it’s not just one pitch, but rather, it builds to a crescendo of sound that leaves no mistake about its origin. It emanates from a thousand tons of steely power snaking its way from one point to the next. Like a coyote’s howl, it signifies a rare passing of an essential part of western America. All I know is I enjoy their romanticism. I find it alluring, the lonely ride across America’s changing landscape and the hope it offers of meeting unusual people and possibly finding new friends, new lovers, or maybe just new thoughts.
Trains stimulate me. I hardly ever sleep on a train, as if one could get any respite on the jolting metal cars anchored to their steel roads, stopping and starting at each new station along the way so people can both begin and end their chosen journeys.
I travel seldom, but when I do, I take special pains to enjoy what train routes there are crossing the Intermountain West. I’ll gladly leave the snowy passes behind and let Amtrak do the driving. The ride from Salt Lake City to the West Coast is long and more than once I have met an attractive divorcee or widow to help me pass the time. And once, such a meeting upon the rails blossomed into a brief romance by the time we neared Oregon.
But that is another story…
On the particular journey I wish to relate, I arrived late at the Salt Lake City depot and had to carry my backpack and camera bag quickly from one train to another, jogging down the yellow-lit midnight platform through a crowd of tired vacationers and their whining children until I found The California Zephyr.
I struggled to hand the conductor my bags and he labored to get them aboard the train while he gave me a disgusted look and snarled his long white moustache at me for having such awkward belongings.
“You could’da left the concrete home,” he answered, then turned to help a young lady with her sleek suitcases.
The train slowly lurched away from the platform and I settled into the nearly empty car. I turned on the reading lamp and continued the cheap western pulp novel I picked up for the trip.
An old man well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds took the seat across the aisle from me. His head was barely covered by stubs of white hair and his body was draped in a garishly green sport jacket and checkered slacks. As the train gathered speed, the man across from me began to chuckle to himself. He looked out the window before slowly turning his head toward me. Without any apparent cause, he began to laugh, to guffaw, as loud as his fat belly would allow. I did my best to ignore him, thinking of course that he was slightly off balance and craving attention. After at least two minutes, he stopped his solitary hilarity and turned his happy eyes and stared at the reflections on the window.
A cloudy, moonless night kept me from gazing at the landscape so I tried to sleep between stops and chapters of my mediocre novel. Dawn found us somewhere east of Winnemucca and when we pulled into that station, dozens of people crowded the platform, many of them coming into my coach. A farm family in their freshly starched jeans and cotton shirts loudly and excitedly took two rows of seats behind me; a pretty girl in a straw sun bonnet and crisp blue dress took the seat where my old sleeping friend had been, across the aisle and a seat forward.
We rode through the desolate, desert country, chugging our way westward toward chosen destinies. The young girl in front of the old laugher took off her sun bonnet, revealing long, silky blonde hair. Her chubby face shined with youthful health. After a few miles, she raised her head above the high-backed train seats and asked the old man for the time.
He showed her the face of his wristwatch: “It isn’t right,” he said. “We should be on Pacific Time by now and this old watch is still set to Rocky Mountain Time.”
She squinted at the hands and I instinctively took my own watch out; seven o’clock, which meant six Pacific Time. I had not yet changed to the new time zone, either. “Umm,” she murmured. “Thank you. I always get confused on the time changes.”
“Where are you going?” he asked, smiling happily into her pretty blue eyes. “To Sacramento, to visit my grand folks.”
“Are you from Winnemucca?” he asked. “I noticed you got on there.”
“No, I was just visiting my uncle and aunt,” she replied.
I could not help my eaves-dropping. My book was terribly boring and they were so close.
“I spent three whole weeks on their farm!” she smiled.
“Then where are you from?” His line of questioning continued.
“The Bay area.”
“Boy, they sure make you girls bigger and prettier in the Bay area than they did in my day,” he said boldly. “Are you in college there?’
“No!” she laughed. “I’ll be starting high school next year!”
“My, my, you sure look old for your age,” he said, and then he guessed her age at fifteen. For nearly an hour they conversed. Each time that I thought the conversation would wane, he brought up a new subject, telling her about his wife, who was in Southeast Asia visiting her relatives and how he was heading there himself to meet her. I could see the wonder in the young girl’s eyes as he explained he was a professor at a Salt Lake City college. He taught courses in psychology, he said.
Her clear, shining eyes were filled with enthusiasm and newness, melting my heart and making me wish I was sixteen again. I could just imagine what the old man was building up to. Twice I thought of joining in on their conversation but each time I hesitated, fearful they would think me intruding. Maybe the young girl was as taken by the old man as he seemed to be with her. I knew if the old man was building up to a romantic climax with this teenager, he would be hostile to my intervention and I could not blame him.
He asked her to join him for lunch and she accepted. Her beautifully straight white teeth smiled genuinely over at him. She sank out of sight on her side of the seat, reappearing in the aisle after straightening her clothes and combing her golden hair. An hour later, they returned.
I must admit that just as he mentioned eating, I was ready to jump up myself for the dining car but I thought it unwise to go at the same time they did. It would seem too much like I was prowling, so I waited until they returned before I ventured out myself.
We came to another station as I was eating and when I returned there was another young girl in the seat behind the old man. To my utter astonishment, she raised herself above his seat and asked for the time, just as the girl in front of him had a few hours before.
Using exactly the same lines, he began a long conversation with this young, slim, and healthy-looking girl. She was in the eighth grade. “That must make you fourteen?” Of course, she answered, and she was good at mathematics and loved to dance. The ballet was her favorite and she practiced four times a week. She had been visiting her grandparents and was now going home to Richmond.
By this time, I had to admire the old man’s style, in a prurient way. He obviously was making a play for both of these two girls, both young enough to be his own grandchildren. I had heard all the stories about dirty old men but this was my first glimpse of this frightening reality. It both repulsed and fascinated me. I found myself taking mental notes about his style, his phrases.
After a while the San Francisco girl poked her head up over the back of the seat and renewed her chat with the old man, who told her he had been a teacher for over thirty years.
“So you’re studying dancing also?” he asked when she offered her interest in ballet. “Karen, in back of me, has been taking it for seven years. You two should talk, compare notes and such. You’d like that, would you?” He chuckled, then returned his gaze to the pines that rushed past us outside the train windows. I stared at him in amazement and after a while he turned to gaze back at me, and he smiled.
“You must be a writer,” he said.
“Why, yes, I try at least,” I stammered, amazed that he should make such a quick observation.
“I noticed you were putting words on paper. Most people don’t do that on trains.”
He crouched up and moved over into the empty seat on my side of the aisle. “I can’t hear so good,” he smiled.
“I’m going to Vietnam for a while,” he said proudly. “Go there every summer.”
“That sounds nice,” I said.
“It took a war to get me there the first time,”
he replied. “In fact, that’s when I met my wife. She’s from Saigon. She speaks all the language, too, so it makes it real nice for us. We can travel all over and not have to worry about being understood. I speak a little Vietnamese but it is so terrible that I only use it when I want to look silly.”
I laughed at the sincerity I saw in this man’s face, his boxer’s nose, and cauliflower ears adding character that I had originally taken for something less when he was sitting on the other side of the aisle. We talked on, about my aspirations, about his teaching. He had taught all through the West, from Denver to Albuquerque and many points between. From grade school to high school and now at the college level, he said, and he was obviously in love with the profession and with the young minds that he tried to shape and form. He reminded me of the best of the teachers I encountered many years past.
He talked as a teacher would, and people responded to his interest and to the learnedness of his tone. There was no hidden meaning. He seemed to immediately accept people, to calculate their position in life’s huge, complex strata, and speak on their level. Now he was relating to me this way and although at first I had felt threatened by his openness, I slowly began to feel its refreshing quality, its rareness, its wealth. How could those two, intelligent, fresh female minds have not seen the same thing, I wondered, knowing that they obviously had. Eventually we said all we wanted to and the proud, effective teacher returned to his own seat.
The ballet dancer popped her head eagerly over his seat and asked for the time again.
“Remember, you have to take off an hour, he smiled up into her brown eyes. “Say, Jennifer will be getting off soon, so why don’t you sit with her and talk about your dancing, Karen? She has been taking classes, also.”
With ease and grace the man brought two young girls together to talk about their shared interests and as I watched the events across the aisle, I knew I was witnessing something special, a true spectacle of love.
I settled back into my seat and picked up my western paperback. I read only a few lines before I was disgusted with the lack of reality in its words. I thought how so much of life is like those words, filled with illusions and false fantasies, simply because there are so few old men in glaring green jackets to bring us together for real communication.
I glanced over at him again and this time I saw an older gentleman who was on his way to see his wife and his past. Afraid of retirement, he lived his work as only the very best teachers do. I bowed my head as I realized the dirty old man on the train was me.