Su Lum: Chattanooga choo-choo
One of my earliest memories is of a train trip from New Jersey to Alabama when I was 4. It was before The War, by which I mean World War II, and my mother, my older sister Erkie (8) and I took a Pullman car to visit my maternal grandparents, Monie and Frank.
I remember the engine, the din of it steaming and hissing in the station like a great steel stallion pawing its hoofs and sending out sparks, and our hurrying along behind a Redcap carrying our baggage (no lightweight backpacks in those days), and being lifted by my elbows onto a metal stool, “Watch your step, Missy.”
We sat on facing seats with a table top that dropped between them, precursors of the tray tables on airplanes. I have no idea what we did for entertainment, but it probably involved cards ? Fish, Flinch, Authors or Old Maid ? because a year later, in New Jersey, the last time I saw him, my grandfather Frank howled, “This little stinkpot Marked the Deck!”
What I remember is not what we did at our seats, but going between the cars. My mother would yank on the door, which seemed to be held shut by suction, and then there we’d be on the moving metal plates that held the cars together, deafened by the clatter of the wheels on the track, and would stand there as my mother pulled on the door of the next car, which would slam behind us and all would be quiet again.
We’d make our way through the next car, lurching from side to side and me staring at all the passengers and then we’d get to another door and another exciting interim when we were between things.
We were on our way to the diner, the closest thing to a restaurant that I’d ever been in. All the porters, waiters and cooks were black and friendly; the conductor and the man who added up the dinner check and took my mother’s money were white and sour.
When we made our way back, we found that our seats had been turned into a bed, the bulge above the seats had been pulled down to make an upper bunk, and the sleeping quarters were covered with heavy black curtains, so that walking through the Pullman car was like walking through a long, narrow closet with dark coats on either side.
My bed, the upper bunk, was accessed by a canvas ladder. An experienced climber, I sprang up the ladder and, after checking out the enchanting blue light and the little hammock to Put Things In, after hanging by my toes and poking my head between the curtains below where my sister and mother were settling, and after making the astounding discovery that I could watch people undressing in the upper bunks the whole length of the car, exhaustion overtook me and I sank into what I remember 62 years later as the most comfortable bed I ever slept in in my life.
The next thing I remember about that trip was changing trains in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the middle of the night, being shaken out of a sound sleep and hustled off the train (“Watch your step, Missy!”) and standing in a station watching our train chug off in a burst of steam and finally (a few minutes? an hour?) rolling into another top bunk in our connection.
The next morning, after the excitingly dangerous trip to the diner for breakfast (I remember the undercooked bacon, which seemed exotic in its difference from the crisp strips I was used to), the bunks had been turned back into the ordinary facing seats with a table between them and a lump above, hiding my secret upper bunk.
[Su Lum is a longtime local who, at about the same age, was woken up to see the northern lights and hasn’t forgotten that, either. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.]
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