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Riding the Rails
by Catherine C. Brooks

     When I first began using Direct-TV, nothing seemed interesting on a Saturday morning after the news and weather. Living alone, I enjoy company when I cook and clean. So I just went through a few stations, finding RFD TV, which isn’t even listed on the sheet the company left me. But what I found were C & O trains, traveling through Virginia. I became fascinated because that was the line that I had traveled from Newport News, Virginia, to Ohio while in my teen years. If at all convenient, I tune to 379-RFD TV on Saturday mornings at 9:00 a.m. Since my apartment doesn’t have many partitions, I can see the TV from everywhere except the bedroom and office—even there I can hear the trains puffing along with steam engines blowing their whistles as they near a town. They are now showing Washington and Oregon states with more Horse Shoe bends than I saw in West Virginia.

     In 1945 with World War II still raging in the Pacific, I had an invitation from a Christian Endeavor Group, Newport News, Virginia, to attend the Ohio Friends Annual Youth Conference in Beulah Beach, Ohio, with them. I had enough money to pay the conference fees so my parents assisted me with train fare. Daddy and Momma dropped me off at the home of our friends near Elizabeth Buxton Hospital. Eleanor, daughter-in-law of the older couple, who accepted her as a daughter, was going as our guide. On Sunday, I met all members in the group that I didn’t already know. Excitement filled every part of my being. I’d attended such a conference near home before, but hadn’t ever ridden on a train.

     It was six of us, who boarded the train early Monday morning. We pulled out of the C & O Terminal at 8:00 a.m. I had lugged my one suitcase, filled with clothing that must last a week, as did my co-travelers. With suitcases safely tucked into the compartments above our heads, I sat by Eleanor. I had hoped for a seat next to the window, and she preferred the aisle seat. This was a trip Eleanor had made many times so she showed little interest and took advantage of the rest. If you don’t remember or never rode a train, burning coal and running on the steam the fire generated, seats faced each other. Each compartment made a foursome. Someone opened a window, letting soot into the car. They soon closed it—not being the country air they’d expected.

     I stayed with Eleanor, but our group kept switching seats so I got to know them all. Now, what if I could have seen into the future as we became acquainted? It was one boy in our group, Eddie. He was a bit younger than me, but little did I know that he’d someday be a famous doctor in Ohio. The youngest of our group was Eddie’s sister, Betty. She became a missionary and died suddenly in a plane crash, coming home on furlough. Evelyn and I were the same age, but instead of picking beans and peas with a tan to show for it, she worked in a store. Her blond hair and fair skin told the tale of a life indoors. Evelyn later married a minister, and they pastured churches in Ohio. She died in her sixties with cancer. Evelyn’s friend, Etheline, was within a few months of our age and worked in another store. Etheline, having married and raised a family, is a widow and lives in Achilles area of Gloucester County in the vicinity her parents grew up. The last time we talked she still worked. Eleanor had become a single mom at that time, making her living as a special nurse on night shifts. (Up until that time, anyone having surgery usually had a special nurse to care for them the first few nights—usually an RN.) She had worked in the hospital as a RN previously. She lived wither in-laws, and they were taking care of their grandchildren to give Eleanor a rest. Actually, we left her in Cleveland where she stayed with her sister-in-law and her husband. Before I closed my store, Eleanor’s daughter, a delightful person, visited me about every six months when she and her husband had their car serviced in Mathews Court House.

     We had taken sandwiches, fruit and cookies to eat for the lunch and the evening meal, planning to arrive in Cleveland in time to eat breakfast with Eleanor’s family, who would meet us at the terminal. Her sister-in-law, a traveling song leader and her evangelist husband, the Downings, had spent time in my home and the others knew them. The working girls, Eddie and Betty purchased sandwiches from the conductor, selling them on the train. Everything seemed so new to me, I said little, but tried to learn. We had reached the mountains well before night so the train swayed first one way and then the other as we went around the curves of the track. After it grew dark, the conductor came through our car, telling us we were nearing Horseshoe Bend in West Virginia. Whether there’s a place by that name or just what folks traveling the rails called it, I’m not certain. There is a post office known as Horseshoe Run. Three of us poked our heads near the window to watch. And there to our amazement were the last cars of our train opposite us, but a long way across the void space. The freight cars behind the lit windows seemed not there, but the lights on the caboose shone bright red, telling us the black cars sat between. We hadn’t realized our train was so long until then.

     About 1:55 a.m., having tried to sleep slumped against the window, the conductor came through, awakening us with his call, “Cincinnati, next stop,” he yelled. “ Make room for the miners, who travel on this run.” When the whistle began to blow several times, we knew we neared this--our first stop. But I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of mine workers that came into our car. Now I know we were traveling anything but first class. We knew that the dining car and Pullman cars were back of us.

     Men dressed in overalls, smelling of coal dust and cigarette smoke, with faces darkened by the years in the mines, poured into our car. We all had to slip over, scrunched on our seats. Eleanor had moved to the seat facing me. So, three of the men pushed into the seat with me—the last on the arm. I was sitting on one hip at this point and still sleepy. My purse lay in my lop-sided lap. What if someone took it when I fell asleep? It held my return train ticket, money to pay my room and board at Beulah Beach and my extra cash. I raised enough to tuck it between my body and the seat. I’d know it if they tried to raise my 140 pounds so I relaxed a bit as men continued to fill the aisle, packed like sardines. The atmosphere grew heavy with the odor of a coal bin so an opened window was welcomed. I didn’t know how to open mine.

     I dozed off, awakening with the grungy man, smelling of cigarette smoke along with the coal dust, next to me, trying to hug me. I pulled his arm from around my neck, demanding, “Stop it. Stop it now!” I kept my voice as low as possible. Then the whistle blew, bringing the train to a stop. Lots of the men left the car, including my closest seat-partner. At a second stop, the rest left. The conductor explained to us that with gas rationing this was the only way the men had to travel back and forth to work. We brushed our seats with handkerchiefs—tissues were scarce in war times in the 1940s if available.

     When we put our feet on the ground, it was good to walk on a stable surface. We entered the Cleveland terminal; our cotton dresses looked like we’d traveled 12 hours and slept in them. The Cleveland friends were there, waiting with smiles. “Let’s load your bags into the trunk of the car,” they said. “Now before we go to the house, you must take the elevator to the tower and see Cleveland.” 

     Into the elevator, five of us poured. Eleanor stayed behind with Rev. and Mrs. Downing. Next to the Washington Monument, I had seen years before, it was the highest view we had seen. I’d remember when people looked like dolls and cars like toys. The girls my age began to look at souvenirs. I must have something to remind me of this trip in years to come. I purchased a key to the city with a thermometer on the face. It lasted and I have it tucked away since the thermometer doesn’t work after 59 years.

     In the Downing’s automobile with Eleanor on the front seat with the couple, the five of us filled the back seat with some sitting on laps. We didn’t have a seat belt law in those days. 

     On our return trip, we didn’t have Eleanor. When we boarded the train in Cleveland in the afternoon, every seat in our car but one was taken. We insisted Betty take that. We sat our suitcases in the aisle and took seats on them. It was like riding a mule without a saddle according to Etheline. When we reached Cincinnati, we had plenty of room for our baggage and to sit. Thankfully, the seat only did for minutes without pain, and I’d stood often, traveling across Ohio.

     We tallied our money, deciding we each had saved enough for one meal in the dining room. Walking from one car to the next on a moving train was a bit scary for me. I kept quiet because Eddie got a kick out of teasing us girls. He and Evelyn had stood outside the cab, inhaling fresh air as we crossed the Ohio farm country. I felt relieved when I entered the next car, and the next, until we reached the dining car. Boy, how different from the cold sandwiches and sodas. I don’t know what I ordered, but I enjoyed every bite. Evelyn and Betty paid for a Pullman for the night when the conductor offered them.

     We arrived in Newport News 24 hours after we left Cleveland. I’d been too busy to get home sick, had made many new friends and had a rewarding week of services.But my family looked so-o-o good. 

©2004 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved. Contact Catherine C. Brooks at 

 


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