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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Way West

I woke shortly after sunrise.  The landscape outside had changed during the night.  The undulating prairies had given way to rolling hills and rocky outcroppings as we approached the Rocky Mountains.  I was enthralled.  We were getting into cowboy country. 

I was hungry and feeling the call of nature.  I made my way slowly through the swaying car to the lavatory at the end.  For a country boy fresh from a two-holer outhouse, the train lavatory was opulent.  The sink was marble with gleaming brass fittings and there was a fancy light up beside a gilt-framed mirror.  I wondered where electricity and hot and cold running water came from on the train.  The toilet was flushed by a foot treadle.  I was fascinated by the fact that the treadle simply opened a flapper valve and, peering down, I could see the ties flashing past.  Now I knew the reason for the sign that said “Do Not Flush While Train is in Station.”
I washed my face and combed my unruly mop of hair, then made my way across an open platform into the dining car.  It was a bit overwhelming.  Each table was set with a white linen cloth, heavy silverware, white coffee cups with gold rims, and water glasses that must have been crystal.
There were few passengers in the diner at that early hour.  I took a seat at the nearest empty table.  The white-coated black waiter, flashing his white teeth in a big smile, placed the menu in front of me with a flourish and a “Mawnin’, young suh!”
He waited while I studied the menu.  I was appalled at the prices.  At home in Greenfield a complete breakfast of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, toast, juice and coffee could be had for 35 cents—twenty-five cents without the juice.  You could also get a hamburger for a dime.  Here on the train, a glass of juice was twenty cents alone and a bacon and egg breakfast was seventy-five cents.  On the lunch part of the menu, a hamburger was fifty-five cents.
I surreptitiously felt of my pocket where, after the movie in Kansas City, I had little more than four dollars to see me to Portland which was still two and a half days away.  I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair.  “We-ell,” I said, “I am not very hungry.  I’ll just have a glass of milk and some toast, I think.”
The waiter never batted an eye but I realized later that he knew the reason for my discomfort.  He smiled, “You sho’ that’s all?”  When I nodded wordlessly, he leaned down before he turned away and said in a low voice, “Tell you what—when we gets the folks from the Pullmans fed, Ah’ll be comin’ through the coach with some sandwiches—they is only two bits apiece.”  Then he turned away to get my milk and toast which was going to total thirty cents here in the dining car.
The black waiter was not only as good as his word, he was better.  About an hour and a half later he did indeed come through the coaches with a tray of ham and beef sandwiches.  When I held up my hand and dug out a quarter, he flashed that big grin again.  Without asking my choice, he pulled a sandwich from the bottom of the pile.  Instead of cold ham or beef, it was a bacon and egg sandwich still warm from the grill.
After that I did not go near that expensive diner but bought sandwiches three times a day and sometimes a bottle if pop when a vendor came through.  A grape NeHi was a dime instead of a nickel that my grandpa charged at his store.
There was not much else during the trip that made a deep enough impression on me for me to remember more than fifty years later.  I recall that there was a boy a couple of years older than me sitting across the aisle.  We struck up an acquaintance and would sometimes get off and stretch our legs when the train was in a station.  I still remembered that other trip when I thought the train was going to leave my mother behind so, even though I now knew that the train would not leave until the whistle blew and the conductor call, “All aboard!”, we never wandered very far from our coach.
I do recall one scene clearly the second day out, probably somewhere in Wyoming.  I knew that I was finally “out west”.  There was a dirt road paralleling the railroad track.  I watched as we passed a man wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and driving a buckboard behind a spirited team of horses.  Behind him loped a young fellow on a pinto rocking along in a silver-mounted saddle.  I was a bit disappointed that he did not seem to be packing a six shooter.

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