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lonesome train rides

April 1, 2010

I was sitting here in the dark this morning after Notah left for work. (I’m in New Mexico with Notah and his family for a few months. Back in the desert—Yay) It’s a good time of day on our hill. I can see across to Belen in the valley and across the other way to the far-off highway with its high bright lights. This morning and every morning I hear the distant train whistle blowing. I don’t know what road it is crossing but its sound brings back memories of the times I rode the train from Columbus to Uhrichsville.

From 1963 to 1967 attended Ohio State University in Columbus Ohio, but my home was in New Philadelphia. I found different ways to get back and forth between the two places-sometimes friends, sometimes mom and dad coming after me (usually only for longer holidays) and sometimes the train. In the early 1960’s railroad transportation was a dying sort of commerce. I’ve heard since that it has been revived, but it will probably never reach the proportions that it held during the war years in WWI and II.

When dad came up with the idea of traveling by train I wasn’t very enthusiastic. For one thing I’d never done it and I’m not one for new experiences. After a lot of badgering on dad’s part and his finding out all the details, I agreed to try it. In case anybody is wondering why I didn’t use the bus, we didn’t have a connection to Dover or New Philadelphia which didn’t take twice the travel time and run around past Robin Hood’s barn. I rode the bus once and by the time I got home it was almost time to pack to go back.

So I rode the train. (I can hear it again now, whistling across the desert hills—ghostly distant sound still.) Columbus once had a major depot and it comprised most of the length of two blocks, not even counting the outside area where the trains came through, loading and unloading. The entrance was right on High Street, but stepping through the big gate was like entering a time warp. I don’t ever remember seeing more than about four people the whole distance from High Street to the actual station entrance. The space was wide and empty and reminiscent of past days.

When I went through the gate I walked into an open plaza type arrangement. From the gate for about a city block length wise, there were shops surrounding the courtyard. When I got there the doors along each side were locked and most of the windows boarded up. I assume they were like modern airports with little areas for souvenirs, last minute necessities and quick food purchases or offices to shipping companies. I could picture the whole area filled with rushing travelers and family members awaiting the travelers’ return. But now it was silent, from the entrance to the gaping doors of the station.

I always left and arrived at night, leaving on Friday after classes and returning on Sunday evening. The city bus dropped me off about half a block from the entrance and I had to walk from there. The outer wall of the station building—there must be a name for it but I don’t know what they called it, it wasn’t exactly the station proper, but only the attached businesses and shipping offices. The outer wall facing High was punctuated every so often with windows. I suppose that once they let light into offices or shops or whatever. Now they were boarded up. At night or late dusk, it was very lonely. That is hard to imagine in a city the size of Columbus, but the whole area was largely deserted. I walked along there by myself and only a very few times met a grubby, tired looking person. They were probably very nice people simply going home from work or running a forgotten errand. To a young woman alone they were more than a little scary. There was no place to hide, no one to call out to if I needed help. If I had been attacked in any way it would have been “too bad, too sad.” I never told mom and dad that. They would never have had a moment’s rest and I’m sure it would have ended my train riding.

I can’t say I was ever truly frightened by anyone, but I walked quickly. Since I lugged a suitcase that wasn’t too quickly, but I could appear to be hurrying to catch the train instead of scared out of my wits. There wasn’t much space along the sidewalk to avoid being too close to strangers but once inside I stayed in the center of the block long courtyard. It was wide and empty and dark. There were NO lights for its length, only a couple small ones on either side of the entrance and bright ones flanking the doors to the actual station. I could imagine attackers of all sorts lurking in the shadows of the empty doorways and behind the broad heavy pillars supporting the upper levels of the empty buildings. I was always relieved when I reached the relative brightness and busy-ness of the station itself.

I say ‘relative’ because even inside the past glories were sadly departed. The station itself was huge. It compared fairly well in size with the main hub of some of today’s big airports but 75% of it was unused. As you entered there were various kiosks for maps and books or toiletries. Most of these were unused or unmanned, but a couple were always open with lonely, bored-looking attendants. Off to the left there was a ticket counter that had once had a long line of windows. Now only one was open. I don’t ever remember having to wait in line to buy a ticket. At most I met someone leaving the window. Tickets were fairly inexpensive. I think about five dollars or less -even a poor college student could afford them.

The huge station had a high vaulted ceiling and pillars even bigger and taller than the ones in the courtyard. All along the far wall were doors leading to the trains. I only ever used one of them and the others looked abandoned. There were benches like church pews grouped in the open area before the train entrances. I remember less than a dozen people scattered across an area designed to hold hundreds.

It was neat to walk across the marble floor. Your shoes pattered on it. I never wore heels but I could imagine the high heavy 1940’s and 50’s heels of girlfriends, wives and mothers clicking across it to meet returning military men or hurrying to catch a train. Now my pattering feet simply sounded lonely. Probably somewhere there were restrooms and other facilities. I do think I recall a lunch counter where you could get sandwiches and drinks. I do, for sure, remember the fragrance of fresh coffee floating across the concourse from time to time. Otherwise, it was only empty of pattering feet or any other sound.

The area before the gate to the trains was pretty well lighted. The area over the ticket counters was lighted, especially over the one that was open. The entrance was lighted brightly over the little kiosk selling maps and books and the one selling the toiletries, odds and ends. The other areas were dim, not dark really, but only lighted well enough that you could see your feet if it was necessary to cross them. A janitor occasionally moved through the dimness with his mops and cart. I never ventured over there.

The man behind the ticket counter gave me my ticket and told me the gate number, pointing to the general area where I could wait. I carried my small suitcase or overnight bag across to the gate area and sat down on one of the pew benches. I never sat close to anyone. For one thing most of the people waiting were usually older men and even when there were women I was much to taciturn by nature to go and talk to them. I sat there with my coat pulled closely around me and my scarf around my neck. That was not due to insecurity but becaues it was always chilly in the huge space-probably partly due to the fact that most people were wearing coats or jackets any way and partly that the cost of heating such a huge place must have been mind-boggling.

When the train arrived you could hear its distant thunder rumbling up to the dock. I call it a dock. There’s probably a better name. The conductor would open the huge gates and call the number of the train, stating its ultimate destination as well as various important stops en route. The half dozen people who were traveling that direction would collect their various belongings and trek along to the train.

Once through the gate it always seemed ten degrees colder than inside. There was a short open corridor and then we walked along outside on a wooden dock beside the train. And, of course, it was always dark, with only one tall, tall light to shed a dim rays over the whole length of the walk way. Eventually you would find one of the cars with a door open where another conductor-type person would be standing to help people on. I don’t know what there was on down the dock. From movies, I think that at one time there must have been several cars open and you had to enter the one headed for you specific destination. Now there was only one. Everybody used it and got off at the right town.

You had to go up a couple steep metal steps to the platform of the car and then into the car itself. Everyone has seen pictures of the inside of a railroad passenger car in a movie or on television, but they are much more inhospitable “in person.” And they were just as lacking in color as they were in the old black and white films–all shades of gray. Of course you are supposed to stow your bags over head and sit in one of the seats below it. I did that and sat down. Sometimes the seats had high backs like an airplane seat. Sometimes they had low backs like a bench. I liked the high backs better because I felt safer. Traveling by train when I did it was very intimidating.

The cars were most often ‘used’ looking. They weren’t really dirty, but often the floor was dusty and sandy from feet tracking in off the dock. The seats were not horribly stained but showed the use of years, darkened from their original colors with an occasional small round char from a cigarette. (That’s strange to remember now when cigarettes are not allowed in public use areas. Then everyone was used to cigarette smoke drifting through busses and so forth. No one even thought to complain.) I think the cars were cleaned at their point of origination and again at their final destination. In between they were just tidied up by the conductor or porter. By that I mean that any scraps of paper or other litter were disposed of and the car was made presentable.

It was usually warm enough in the car to take your arms out of your coat sleeves, but not warm enough to abandon it completely. Those movies where people stow their coat up above with their baggage, you know? It never happened. A few times it was cold enough that I kept my coat on and buttoned with my scarf snug up around my neck. I don’t think my feet were ever warm. After the first time I wore snow boots.

The conductor would come dawdling along after a bit and punch my ticket. Then for the rest of the trip I was left alone. That satisfied me just fine and I passed the time with my book and looking out the window at the passing towns and especially the stations. It was always dark and spooky outside. Usually I only saw street lights or station lights; sometimes I could see shapes of buildings and trees. A few times I actually glimpsed inside houses or other buildings where people went about their business. No, I never witnessed a murder or beating or robbery happening as Agatha Christie was so fond of portraying. Only humdrum ordinary kinds of things happened when I caught quick looks at them. All the stations were just as deserted and eerie as Columbus, some of them more so.

I was always glad to get to Uhrichsville. Uhrichsville had been one of the major arrival and departure stations during both wars. Every year there is a parade and all kinds of doings commemorating the volunteers and activities that took place there supporting the traveling service men. When I was there it was a long empty dock and an equally long deserted frame building. Now the building has been all spiffed up. It is now brick and has its own restaurant and tourist center. People come from all around to visit the historic site.

The first time I arrived, Dad was waiting for me on the dock. After that I almost always had to wait a few minutes or go through to the main street to find them. Getting to the main street required walking along a little ways to find a door that was open giving me access to a waiting room which opened onto the street. It always seemed to be a different door! Inside was just a small empty room with a ticket window on one side, two sets of benches set back to back and a rack of booklets and flyers opposite the ticket window, a barren place. I think it was painted green.

I would spend a great weekend at home and on Sunday evening do the whole thing in reverse.

Rachael and Michael drove down High Street with me a while back. That grand, eerie, old station is completely gone. It was hard to even figure out where it had been. Only railroad tracks running under the street far below gave any hint of its existance. Sad.

Funny the memories a distant train whistle brings back.

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