Back in the days before the transcontinental highway system and the plethora of family cars, we took the train. Almost every summer with our North Dakota mother (who didn’t drive), we boarded the Seaboard Air Line or later the Atlantic Coast Line in Charleston and headed north, then at Cincinnati, west. Riding the train was like having a whole swath of humanity spread out in a long snake, car to car. Riding in the backseat of my father’s Chevie was like being squeezed by family traits–we really hadn’t left home, only packed every bit of us in a squirmy cubicle. Thank god for the turquoise gleam of afternoon swimming pools when we finally stopped for the night.
The train was my introduction to the magic of travel. Ribbons of mountains with deep gorges flowed beneath our dining car window–we’d entered the Appalachians and soon, the porter would make up our berths. Then in early morning we changed trains at Cincinnati. Standing beside the huge wheels that exhaled steam, I searched the sides of cars for “Chessie,” the C&O mascot. The Chesapeake and Ohio line began somewhere in Maryland (I presume) and headed west. Chessie’s cute kitten face slept on a plump pillow the whole way.
Reaching Chicago, we’d visit the enormous Art Institute with its serious lions guarding the high door. Or the Museum of Science and Industry, drilling deep into the earth as we rode an elevator down into a coal mine.Changing trains again in either Saint Paul or Minneapolis–I remember better the cavernous Minneapolis station near the river–we’d take a final train across what became broad sweeping prairie. Finally we would stop at Wapeton where Papa Max met us in his pick-up–all four of us crammed into the cab.
Last night just before a cat woke me up–Chessie was adorable back in the days, but nothing like a real cat waking up before dawn–I dreamed about being suddenly roused from train bliss to a conductor telling me my station was next. Frantically I rose out of deep sleep and began searching under the seat, in the overhead rack for my belongings.
I think this dream is a composite of my childhood train trips, my recent return from Venice and Verona, where once again, I took a train in the old-fashioned way. These two things with the addition of reading just before sleep Isabel Wilkerson’s immensely compelling history of the Great Migration: The Warmth of Other Suns.
For those “colored people”–what they called themselves and she does here–riding the segregated cars north was an escape from harrassment, poverty, and degredation for which there was no redress. The train was their way north, their hope for a way out, their chance for a better life.
Just as I remember, the segregation of the cars changed once we crossed the Mason-Dixon line, though usually everyone stayed put. Not until much later do I remember encountering black people sitting in the same rail cars with us white folks. But the porters–all colored men in immaculate white-jacketed uniforms–worked the cars, up and down, helping passengers stow their suitcases on the overhead racks, waking sleepers to their fast-approaching destinations.
One of Wilkerson’s main characters was a railroad porter, after he and his family escaped Florida for New York City. He worked his way up to the fast trains going south and returning north, until he encountered a huge hateful conductor–the white man who punched tickets. This conductor did everything shy of a direct physical attack to make George’s life on the train a nightmare. In the last straw, he purposefully bumped George who was lifting a heavy suitcase above a frail old white lady. Luckily George didn’t drop the suitcase, but he half sprawled afterwards into her seat.
She had seen what the white conductor did. “Why did he act like that?” she asked. And George
described the many hazing behaviors. “You should report him,” she urged, but George explained that was impossible. Instead he urged her to write a letter, then and there, which he would make sure found its way to the appropriate authority.
The letter made almost no difference. Ultimately, George realized that if he wanted to keep his job and not suffer physical harm, he would have to get off the train that this conductor worked.
My mother was no huge white conductor. Anyone meeting her in a social situation would have decided she was a carefully dressed, quiet matron, standing to the side of her flashier, laughing husband. But when roused, her mean streak struck like a viper.
My childhood opinion of the colored porters on the Atlantic Coast Line was all sympathy. I saw their deferential treatment of white people, though I could not name it. I saw them putting up with insistent demands and sometimes rude rejoinders. But I never saw anyone other than my mother publicly upbraid a porter. Standing in the aisle, she gave him a tongue lashing. What it was about, I have no idea. But as clear as crystal remains my agony at her obvious ugliness. She was taking on a man who could do nothing but treat her politely. His dark face remained a mask of politeness. She was taking advantage of her superior station. I was deeply ashamed of her, and sorry for him. It was one of my earliest lessons in racism. I vowed never to act that way myself.
It’s probably the very last thing she expected to come from that encounter. And I had the sense, even as a girl of seven or eight, never to talk to her about it. She would not have remembered, or brushed it off with a “Oh, he was used to that sort of thing.”