Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie

In a previous post, I described my trip on Amtrak from Ft. Worth to St. Louis – I guess you could call it a birthday present to myself. I had two reasons for choosing St. Louis as the destination. For one, it was the farthest point I could get to and still have enough free miles to get back home again (that’s important!). But beyond that, St. Louis is home to one of the finest collections of railroad equipment anywhere in the country, at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.

From the downtown Amtrak station, I caught another Amtrak train, the Missouri River Runner, to the suburb of Kirkwood. From there, it was just a short Uber ride to the museum. It was lightly raining off and on throughout the morning, but not enough to dampen my plans.

A guided tour had just started when I arrived, but I was able to catch up with the volunteer and the handful of guests he was leading, and we began walking the grounds of the museum. We took advantage of a break in the rain to tour some of the exhibits that were out in the open, including a collection of unusual freight cars, a caboose or two, and a Texas & Pacific baggage car that has been converted into a classroom on wheels for school groups.

three-locomotivesWe also saw a beautiful, side by side display of three locomotives, headlined by a rare, stainless steel Burlington engine, the “Silver Charger,” #9908. This unusual diesel-electric was built by EMD in 1939 to pull the “General Pershing Zephyr” between St. Louis and Kansas City, and was the last of the “shovel nose” units in service. A Frisco RR 2-10-0 steam locomotive and an early diesel switcher from the Sabine River & Northern sat beside the shiny passenger engine.

mp_eagle_obsUnder their sprawling pavilion, the museum has a nice assortment of passenger equipment, locomotives and more, including a number of rare and one-of-a-kind items. One of the things I especially enjoy about passenger trains from the 1950s and 60s were all the bright colors, and the museum does not disappoint, with the blue and cream of the Missouri Pacific’s “Eagle,” the two-tone light and dark greens of the Northern Pacific, the shiny silver of the Burlington, the maroon and red of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and more, all proudly on display.gmo_obsnp_passenger

gm_demonstrator

Scattered throughout the museum grounds are numerous other items of significance to any railfan, including a brown & yellow GM Demonstrator locomotive from 1939, part of the famous “Train of Tomorrow” that toured the country in the 1940s.frisco_1522

The famous Frisco locomotive #1522 is there, along with a UP 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” an enormous “Centennial” diesel, and much, MUCH, more, including an extremely rare “Aerotrain,” aerotraina futuristic train that looks like some- thing out of a science fiction movie, but actually saw service in the 50s and 60s on the Rock Island and other railroads.

st_louis_stationTime was beginning to get away from me, and I had more that I wanted to do before my train back to Texas left, so I caught a return ride on Amtrak to downtown. I went up to the top of the St. Louis Arch, saw venerable Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and toured the famous (and historic) St. Louis Union Station (no longer used by Amtrak), built in 1904 for that year’s World’s Fair, as celebrated in the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I also had a fine seafood dinner before making my way back to the Amtrak station.

The southbound Texas Eagle was on time, and I boarded and found my way to my room. I deposited my gear and headed for the dining car, just in time for dessert and coffee. From there, I went back to my room and slipped between the sheets and was soon asleep, rocked by the gentle rhythm of the rails.

tp_400Epilogue: When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were until I looked out the window. Even in the foggy, gray, half-light of that early fall dawn, I knew we were in Marshall, Texas, because right outside my window I saw the steam locomotive Texas & Pacific #400, which is parked beside the historic Marshall depot. I showered and dressed and headed for breakfast. Even though this train ride wasn’t yet over, I was already thinking about where I could go on my next #AmtrakAdventure.

The Train

First, the obvious – I like trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

passenger-train-bald-man-thoughtfully-looking-out-window-moving-journey-rail-lonelinessSuddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.

My Amtrak Adventure

For a recent birthday, I decided to treat myself to an Amtrak trip. Kathy couldn’t really take the time off from work, and I had accumulated enough free miles to earn a free round trip, first class ticket. So off I went to Ft. Worth, to ride the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.

The Eagle is an old and honored name among passenger trains, first operated by the Missouri Pacific & Texas & Pacific system in the late 1940s. The MP/T&P operated a number of Eagles that radiated out from St. Louis to Denver, Kansas City, New Orleans, and other points across the system. The Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take an Eagle to Houston, Laredo, San Antonio, Brownsville, or Mexico City. Other Eagles would take you to Dallas, Ft. Worth, Abilene, El Paso – even Los Angeles, if you made connections on the Southern Pacific.

Amtrak’s Eagle runs from Chicago to St. Louis, Texarkana, Marshall, Dallas and Ft. Worth, then south to Austin and San Antonio, with connections eastbound to Houston & New Orleans, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

eagle-approachingThe train coming up from Austin was about an hour late getting into Ft. Worth – not a good beginning! But since Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks in this part of the country, it is generally at the scheduling mercy of UP, BNSF, and other freight-haulers. But I checked in with the conductor, who pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in.

roometteAccommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette,” which is what I had, is the smallest. It has two bench seats that face each other, and a sliding door for privacy. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also offers bedrooms, family bedrooms, and bedroom suites, depending on a traveler’s needs, some with “en suite” restrooms and showers – see www.amtrak.com for more information.

Meals in the dining car are included with your first class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course. (More about the meals later.)

After the usual wait for servicing the train and loading passengers, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth. Until recently, pulling in and out of the Ft. Worth station required a complicated series of backup moves, crisscrossing through the Tower 55 interchange, and heading to Dallas on the UP through Arlington. Now however, the Eagle takes the more convenient route of the Trinity Railway Express commuter train (formerly the Rock Island line) through Richland Hills, Hurst, and Irving, on its way to Dallas Union Station.

As we pulled into Dallas, the conductor announced that he was hoping to make up some of the time he had lost earlier that day, and warned any passengers getting off the train at Dallas for a smoke break, to stay close to the train and ready to leave at short notice. Sure enough, we weren’t there very long before two more short blasts on the horn announced our departure, and we were gone, heading east past Deep Ellum, Fair Park, and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Heading through these residential areas, I was reminded of the interesting experience that often accompanies train travel: looking out your window into people’s backyards – some well-kept and inviting, others filled with piles of junk and forgotten, half-finished projects. You see plenty of both kinds, and everything in between.

Then it was into the beautiful woods of East Texas, which at the time were just beginning to put on their autumn colors. Now and then we’d pass a rural homestead, often with tractors and other farm equipment parked around the place. Going by homes like that, I can’t help but wonder about the people who live there. What is their life like? What are their delights, and their struggles? Are they happy? Do they want to ride this train when they hear it going by?

Train travel always makes me thoughtful.

dinner-in-the-dinerSomewhere around Longview, I headed to the dining car for supper. Railroad dining cars have a long and well-deserved reputation for good food, and I’m happy to report that tradition is alive and well on the Texas Eagle. I had an excellent steak and baked potato, while enjoying pleasant conversation with three other travelers who were bound for various points north and east. (This kind of shared discussion is another old tradition of train travel.)

I found the sleeping car attendant, and asked him to make up my bed while I went to the club car to read and sip a little bourbon – it was my birthday, after all! I returned to my room, with the bed now prepared for sleeping, changed clothes and crawled between the covers, the train rocking me to sleep with the (usually) gentle “rhythm of the rails.”

I woke up the next morning, just after daylight. It was a cool, gray, cloudy & drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot – we had made up that hour, and were actually a few minutes early. I headed down the hallway in my pjs to the coffee pot – another “perk” of riding first class, complimentary coffee. A few minutes later, I got dressed and went back to the dining car for breakfast – scrambled eggs and bacon, with whole wheat toast.

We pulled in and stopped. I tipped the waiter, went back to my room, and grabbed my luggage; from there, I headed out to explore St. Louis.

But that’s a story for next time.

 

Remembering the Abilene & Southern

Many people know that Abilene was founded by the Texas & Pacific Railway in 1881, but not as many remember another railroad that served this area for much of the twentieth century – the Abilene & Southern.

morgan_jones

Morgan Jones

The A&S was the brainchild of Col. Morgan Jones, a Welsh immigrant who came to the US in 1866, and assisted with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. He later helped built the Texas & Pacific, as well as numerous other rail lines throughout West Texas. In January, 1909, he began work on the Abilene & Southern.

Jones’ original vision was to build a railroad from Abilene through Winters and Ballinger, and then on to points south and west, but for various reasons, those plans were never completed. Ultimately, the line stretched almost a hundred miles, from Ballinger in the south, through Abilene, and northward to Anson and Hamlin.

18

A&S Engine 18, a 4-6-0 “Ten Wheeler” type

The Abilene & Southern was very much a West Texas road. Its primary traffic over the years was grain, cattle, bales of cotton, and cottonseed oil. Passenger traffic was usually handled by a passenger coach attached to the rear of a freight train. (In the world of railroading, combined freight and passenger service is known as a “mixed” train.)

Those who rode the mixed train report that it was common for the passenger coach to be set out on a side track at a station while the train crew went about their switching duties, picking up and dropping off cars. They would then re-couple to the coach and be on their way. It must have really played havoc with the conductor trying to keep the train on schedule! Mixed train service ended in the late 1950s.

TimetableDuring Col. Jones’ lifetime, the A&S was operated as an independent railroad, interchanging with the Texas & Pacific in Abilene, and the Santa Fe at Tuscola and Ballinger. In 1927, however, after the old man’s death a year earlier, the profitable little railroad was bought by the Texas & Pacific, which continued to operate it for decades to come.

1914 Pass AAlas, economics and the dwindling populations of the towns it served finally caught up with the A&S. The tracks north of Abilene were abandoned in 1937. In 1972, the line from Winters to Ballinger was pulled up. Ownership of the line passed from the T&P, to the Missouri Pacific, to the Union Pacific, which finally abandoned the remaining portion of the line south of Abilene in 1989.

Today, only about seven miles remain, interchanging with the Union Pacific and serving industries in east Abilene. Southern Switching Company handles these chores, and their green switching engines can be seen trundling back and forth along the former A&S tracks.

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A&S Depot in Ballinger, TX

There are still a few reminders of the A&S today. The station in Ballinger, with its unique stone twin turrets, is still standing. Drive along the highway between Ballinger and Abilene, and if you look carefully, you can still spot the old right of way. The old A&S Freight Depot has been moved and incorporated into a brew pub on South First. And, when he died in 1926, Welshman Morgan Jones was laid to rest in his adopted hometown of Abilene, Texas.

Jones grave

Morgan Jones’ final resting place in the Abilene Municipal Cemetery

And that is not all. Although the colonel never married and left no direct descendants, his nephews and other members of his extended family remained in Abilene, and continued to use the profits from the A&S – as well as their own fortunes – to benefit the entire community. There’s a huge wing of Hendrick hospital named for a nephew, Percy Jones, and his wife, Ruth Leggett Jones. The planetarium at Abilene High is named after another nephew, Morgan C. Jones. And every non-profit in town is familiar with the philanthropic investments of the Dodge Jones Foundation.

So the next time you’re sitting in the comfortable Percy Jones waiting room at Hendrick, think about the old Abilene railroad. The next time you’re driving along US Highway 83 through Winters and on to Ballinger, notice the old roadbed that was there before the highway, and remember the men who built that line, and those who operated her.

The next time you’re on Treadaway Boulevard, and you see those little green switchers shoving hopper cars loaded with grain, remember the Abilene & Southern.

15X5 Abilene & Southern photo

A&S Engine #20, a 2-8-2 “Mikado” type, August, 1949.

Dining Cars and Cantaloupe Pie

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This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines. It featured the state flowers of the states served by those railroads.

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Midwestern “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout.

t&p logoAnd the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert:

Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P, and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country.

But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we now pass along to you.

Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, deseed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
  5. Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  6. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  7. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned.
  8. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Friendships are formed through experiences shared together, whether it’s a meal, a piece of pie, or something else. Because of their proximity, neighbors have opportunities to share experiences and work with each other to build a stronger, safer community. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Lessons from Guatemala

I’m just back from a week in Guatemala. Why I went there is a story 40 years in the making.

Lori PinneyWhen I 12 or 13, I met a young woman named Lori Pinney. We were about the same age, but because of how our birthdays fell, she was a year ahead of me in school. She and her family lived in a neighboring town, where her dad was the preacher of the Christian Church there. We would see each other at various area church functions, summer youth camps, and other activities.

We both ended up going to Dallas Christian College, where we had many classes together. She was something of a trailblazer, because she was a Bible and ministry major, at a time when girls just didn’t do that sort of thing – but she did, and she did it well.

Lori ended up on the faculty at Colegio Biblico, a ministry training school in Eagle Pass, Texas, and she eventually met and married a young preacher from Guatemala, Eugenio (Queno) Nij. In 1985, they moved back to Guatemala, where they have lived and raised a family and worked ever since.

(There’s a whole story about Queno being falsely accused and framed for murder and being wrongly imprisoned until an international outcry finally compelled authorities to release him, but that’s another story for another day.)

Even back in our days at DCC, Lori’s passion was Christian education – but she never expected how God would use that calling. After being involved with different kinds of service, in 2001 she led in the establishment of the Morning Glory Christian Academy. What began as two rooms and 90 students is now six buildings, 35 faculty and nearly 700 students!

I have been asked to serve on the board of directors that oversees Morning Glory, and so I felt it was important for me to go to Guatemala and see the work for myself. Thanks to some very generous friends here, I was able to go, and I’m really glad I did, because I have learned some important lessons in the process.

Building relationships is the most important thing. Lori’s version of Morning Glory’s mission statement is short and sweet – “Morning Glory exists to build relationships that change lives.” When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, remember what He said? “Love God; love neighbors.” It all boils down to relationships. How we nurture and grow those relationships is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Make the most of what you have. Guatemala is a poor country, but some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met. I saw lots of small gardens, as families take advantage of even tiny pieces of ground to grow food. Space on a flat rooftop becomes a great place for a clothesline to dry clothes. Just about every home has a tank for collecting rainwater. Their approach to life is a great reminder that we can either whine about what we don’t have, or be thankful for what we DO have, and get busy making the most of it.

Don’t make excuses. Bless her heart, Lori has a number of serious health issues – most significantly, a life-threatening thyroid condition that causes weight problems and many other health-related complications. A lot of people would let stand in their way and become an excuse. But not that Texas girl! It makes me aware of how easily we can make excuses and let little things stop us.

new friendsI hope you’re not tired of hearing about Guatemala, because I’m certainly not done talking about it. I’ll be telling you more about the school, the kids, and how you can get involved, if you’re interested. But for now, I will just invite you to join me in praying for Morning Glory, for their students and faculty, for my friend Lori, her family, and her health.

Morning Glory is a great work, and I’m honored to be associated with it.

 

The Train to Yesterday

I am just back from taking a couple of weeks off. During that time, I was able to visit some family, help my dad with some chores, get some reading done, ride a train, and eat some Cajun food. I was gone for a few days, and came home broke and tired.

That’s how you know it was a good trip, right?

No, I’m just kidding about that part – but it WAS a good trip. The main reason I went was to go down to the Beaumont / Orange area to see my 85-year-old dad and spend some time with him. And we did have a really nice visit, and I was able to help him with some things around the house. But I also enjoyed spending some time with my brother David. He’s a pastor in Spring, Texas, and was also on vacation.

AmtrakHe and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

MoPac buzzsawThe old Missouri Pacific RR main line runs right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad side track where they used to load freshly-cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, and the New York Central, Great Northern, Santa Fe, Denver & Rio Grande, and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

Grayburg 2011So we climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger, and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the countryside and past the little towns.

The old siding at Grayburg is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. I looked over, and my brother was wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he thought he saw four little boys run over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

Everything Old is New Again

As a railfan, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to live in the old days, the so-called “Golden Age of Rail Travel” of the 1920s through the 1940s, when you could get on a train at a station in just about any town, no matter how small, and it would take just about anywhere you wanted to go.  The train was literally your gateway to the world.

I got to experience a little bit of that this past weekend.  Kathy and I had gone to the D/FW area to visit some family and friends and do some antiquing and shopping in Denton, where our daughter Brittany lives.  We were also there for our niece’s housewarming party, which was in downtown Ft. Worth.  So, while Kathy & Brittany did the mother-daughter shopping thing, I took the train from Denton, through Dallas, and on to Ft. Worth, where we met up and went to the party.  (I’m so blessed to have a wife who tolerates this hobby of mine!)

The first leg of the tratrain2ip was on the Denton County Transportation Authority’s “A-Train.”  Now, just saying that makes me think of the classic Big Band-era tune, “Take the A-Train,” which I suppose is what their marketing people were going for when they picked that name.  (You can listen to the song through the player at the bottom of this page.) The line is built on the old M-K-T (Katy) corridor, and runs from downtown Denton to Lewisville, then to Carrollton.  I bought my ticket from one of the vending machines on the platform and sat down to wait.  I’m happy to report these trains run on time.

When I rode the A-Train in December, 2011, they were still using refurbished 50-year-old Budd RDC coaches they had leased from the Trinity Railway Express (TRE).  This time, though, they had brand new equipment built by Stadler Rail of Switzerland – they’re also the manufacturer of choice for Capitol Metro in Austin.  Very modern, very clean, very quiet.  Also very comfortable.

Tatrain_interiorhe coach was empty except for one other passenger, and I sat down at the front, right behind the operator’s control room, also known as the cab.  I understand that Saturday ridership is usually somewhat sparse, but it’s busy during the week.  (I’ve also heard that they expect ridership to jump even more when TexDOT begins tearing up I-35E for their new construction of that freeway and turns it into even more of a parking lot than it is now.)

The engineer gave the traditional signal that the train is about to move – 2 short blasts from the horn.  So, as my friend Joe Calvert (himself a retired railroad man) used to say, “Toot-toot and gone.”  These modern trains are very quiet, and acceleration and braking are both quick and smooth.  We were up to speed in no time.

It’s interesting, the things you see while riding a train.  For example, we’re used to sitting at crossings in our cars, watching trains go by.  It’s a different thing to be in the train going by, and look out at the drivers, sitting there waiting for you to go by.  Another thing: the strange, almost voyeuristic feeling of looking over into people’s backyards.  You know, most people keep their front yard neat, to keep up appearances for their neighbors, if nothing else – but backyards, it seems, as a different matter.

dartplatform3We arrived at the Trinity Mills station – the end of the line for the A-Train.  I stepped out to wait for the DART train – Dallas Area Rapid Transit – that would take me to downtown Dallas.  Those trains also run on time, and it arrived in 3 minutes.  The all-region ticket I had bought earlier was good for all trains, all day, and I stepped aboard.

Unlike the so-called “heavy rail” equipment of the A-Train, DART trains are “light rail.”  That’s a bit of a misnomer – it’s the equipment that is light or heavy, not the rails.  DART trains are electric, drawing their power from the catenary wires overhead.
dartrailmapdec2012largeIf you haven’t ridden a DART train, you really should try it the next time you have to go anywhere near downtown Dallas – they are amazingly clean and convenient.  You don’t have to worry about traffic, and there’s no hassles or expenses for parking.  Wanna go to the Dallas Zoo? Take the Red Line.  Need to visit the VA hospital?  You want the Blue Line.

dartviewSo here I was on the Green Line, which runs through Carrollton and Farmers Branch, south past Love Field, and on towards downtown and then to Fair Park.  This picture is looking east along Valley View Drive in Farmers Branch.  See that little building on the corner where the white truck is parked?  I think it’s a Chinese restaurant now, but it used to be a little diner called “Mr. Hilton’s Railroad Crossing.”  I working there as a short-order cook in 1978, the summer Kathy and I got married.

dartcabviewAs we continue south, part of the time the line runs at ground level, part of the time on elevated tracks, part of the time under ground.  But always, fast.  In a few minutes we were approaching the American Airline Center downtown and DART’s Victory Station, where I again would change trains.

Once again I was REALLY glad the trains ran on time, because as we pulled into the station, there sat the westbound Trinity Railway Express, which would take me to Ft. Worth.  I stepped off DART, walked across the platform, and stepped onto the TRE.  The doors closed, and toot-toot, we were gone.

tre121-2The TRE has been operating since 1996 along the old Rock Island corridor between Dallas and Ft. Worth, and is quite a success story, with annual ridership of over 2.5 million passengers.  I first rode it about 2001, when I took it to Dallas Union Station, to attend a Promise Keepers rally at the old Reunion Arena.

The TRE mostly uses American-built EMD locomotives and bi-level coaches built by the Canadian company Bombardier. Their coaches are also clean and quiet, and their added height means they have a more pronounced side-to-side motion – not so much to make you seasick, but enough to notice that you are “rocking to the gentle beat, and the rhythm of the rails is all you feel.”

They operate numerous trains between downtown Dallas and downtown Ft. Worth, daily except Sunday, with intermediate stops in Irving, D/FW Airport, Hurst and Richland Hills.  The train also stops at the Ft. Worth Intermodal Transit Center where you can connect with Amtrak intercity trains, Greyhound Bus Lines, and The-T, Ft. Worth’s city bus service.

tre125-1The TRE’s western terminus is the old T&P train station, on the southern edge of Downtown Cowtown.  This old building is an Art Deco palace, and has been given new life in recent years, and turned into a high-rise complex of luxury condos.

FW_LobbyThe building has these cathedral-like ceilings, with intricate masonry, tile and burnished aluminum.  FW_Ceiling_DetailThe chandeliers in the lobby have to be seen to be believed – it’s easy to see why it’s become a popular spot for wedding receptions.  FW_door_detailThe diamond-shaped T&P logo can be seen everywhere – even in the door handles.

Standing in that lobby, it’s easy to imagine that you are a traveler from the 1930s, arriving to board the train.  Maybe you’re heading west, taking the T&P to El Paso, and changing trains to go on to Los Angeles.  Or maybe you’re heading to Chicago, or New York.  They’re all just down the hall.

tptavern2Another cool thing here – the T&P Tavern.  This is the refurbished cafe-lounge area adjacent to the main waiting room in the station.  It’s a fun and funky little place with some really cool railroad memorabilia, giant travel posters on the wall, good food, and a nice selection of craft beers.  It’s easy to imagine travelers from the past, sitting there, enjoying a meal or a drink while waiting for their train.

I sat at the bar and sipped a glass of rye whiskey and felt very connected to the past.

Pieces of the Past

As I have often mentioned, I love trains.  It’s something that has been in my blood since I was a kid, watching trains go by my grandparent’s home in Grayburg, Texas – near Beaumont on the Missouri Pacific main line between New Orleans and Houston.

I’ve known several men who worked for various railroads, and many of them don’t understand the attraction for railfans.  To them, it’s a job – period.  But to me, and other lovers of all things rail-related, it’s a passion.

t&p logomopac logoSo it should come as no surprise that part of the hobby I enjoy is collecting railroad memorabilia, or as it is sometimes called, railroadiana.  Like any form of collecting, there are different ways to enjoy this hobby.  Some collectors get all they can of certain items, from whatever railroad – dining car china, for example, or timetables.  Others collect items from certain railroads, and that’s where I fall into this obsession.  My chosen lines are the Texas & Pacific and its corporate big brother, the Missouri Pacific.

I mean, if I can’t own the railroad, I can at least own a few pieces of it, right?  So here are a few things that I have gathered over the years.  And in case you’re wondering, no, none of them are terribly valuable – otherwise, I would never have been able to acquire them in the first place!

T&P_TT_1943Timetables are a fairly common collectible.  They’re not large or bulky, and relatively easy to store.  And, they were produced in such large quantities, that even decades later, you can still find them at reasonable prices, unless you’re trying to find some really obscure ones or something.  This is one of my favorite T&P timetables – it’s from 1943.  Notice the big “V” for victory – also the three dots and a dash – Morse Code for the letter “v.”  Three shorts and a long – it’s why the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was used by the BBC during the war, as theme music for their newscasts.

mp_timetableHere’s another favorite.  This timetable was given to me many years ago by Mrs. Mildred Green, a member of the Christian Church in Haskell where I was pastoring. mp_timetable_inside Her late husband had worked for the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railroad (you gotta love the ambition of that name!), and he received this timetable from the Missouri Pacific because of those connections – his name was even printed right there on the cover. The inside cover is also shown.

Here is another T&P timetable, this one from 1960. tp_1960timetable_cover tp_1960timetable_insideI like the graphic of the man taking off his cowboy hat as he is talking with the lady – definitely from a time in the past!  I also have another version of this same timetable printed in black and purple, instead of the black and orange colors that this one has.  Of course, every timetable had listings of that road’s passenger trains, the cities they served, and their scheduled days and times of service.  (Click HERE for a link to Amtrak’s current list of timetables showing their routes – opens in another window.)

Some of the most popular railroad items to collect come from the dining and lounge cars.  Eating a meal on the train has always been one of the great treats of rail travel – still is today, for that matter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in the so-called “Golden Age” of passenger travel – the 1920s – the elite train on the Missouri Pacific system was the “Sunshine Special,” which traveled from St. Louis to the Southwest, with connections all throughout Texas and even reaching to Mexico City.  When you ate in the dining car on one of those MP trains, you would find a beautiful charger plate at each place setting.  These plates were adorned with a very nice painting of a steam engine in the center, and the state flowers of the states served by MoPac trains, with Missouri’s flower at the top, “12 o’clock,” position.  EXCEPT, that is, on dining car service in Texas.  When you were eating in the diner on the Texas & Pacific, or on one of the MP trains elsewhere in Texas, there was a different version of the charger plate, with the Texas bluebonnet at the “12 o’clock” position, like the one shown here.

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Another favorite piece of mine is this linen damask napkin.  It measures about 15″ x 22″ and has a gorgeous tone-on-tone view of the T&P logo in the center and very ornate corner designs.  Imagine sitting down at a table with these at every place, and the heavy Reed & Barton T&P silverware, like this fork, with the T&P logo in the handle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

milk_bottleDo you remember when milk came in a little glass bottle instead of the waxed cardboard cartons they use now?  If you ordered milk in the dining car, this is how it came – all the way from Sunnymede Farm of Bismarck, Missouri.

Of course, if you were traveling first class in the Pullman car, you might want something a little stronger than milk, especially to help you sleep in the evening.  If so, the porter might bring you one of these little bottles of bourbon.Pullman_OF_bourbon_01 Pullman_OF_bourbon_02 It held 1/10th of a pint of 100 proof whiskey  – roughly equivalent to the 50mL “shooter” bottles you get nowadays.  You can still buy Old Forester bourbon today, but I bet it was never finer than when enjoyed to the “rocking of gentle beat” of your private Pullman compartment.  I just love this little brown bottle – it’s about 2 1/2 inches wide by 3 1/2 inches tall.

cuspidorOne final piece to show you – it’s a cuspidor – AKA a spittoon – that has been in my family for generations.  SaSaMy grandmother Sallie McMillan gave it to me.  Here’s the story as she told it.  Her uncle – so that’s my great-GREAT-uncle – was a brakeman for the MP in East Texas.  When he retired in the 1920s, as he was leaving the caboose for the last time, he announced, “This railroad has taken a lot from me over the years; now I’m going to take a piece of it!”  He reached down and picked up the cuspidor, and headed home.  It doesn’t have any markings on it to prove that it came from the RR, or out of a caboose, but that’s the story.

Thanks for sharing this look at some of my collection.  Any other collectors of RR stuff out there? I’d love to hear from you.

Visiting Israel

(Okay, nothing controversial today, I promise!)

For the last week, I have been remembering a wonderful trip I took, exactly four years ago, to Israel.  It was truly, to use an overworked phrase, a life-changing experience.

I almost didn’t get to go.

Early in the summer of 2008, there was an announcement at Beltway, the church where we attend, about a trip to Israel in February, 2009. The cost would be about $3000.  I didn’t have the $3000 – at the time, I didn’t even have the $100 I needed for the deposit, but I began praying, and asking God if I was supposed to go on this trip, and if so, how was I going to pay for it?

By the time I got my trip deposit together a couple of weeks later, I was told that the trip was full, but that a dozen or so reservations were probably going to be cancelled, so my name was first on the list of “alternates.”  I talked with the trip secretary again a few days later, and she told me that a spot had opened up for me to go.  I gave Pastor David my deposit check the following Sunday at church, and he said he would get me signed up.

The next morning, he sent me an e-mail.  Yes, he said, I was confirmed for the trip.  And what is more, he said, was that “an anonymous friend” had come forward and wanted to pay the cost of the trip – the entire $3000.  To say I was stunned would be a gross understatement.

DSC02433For the next several months, I read the pre-trip material and attended the team meetings.  Finally, the day came for us to load up.  A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv, and there we were – I was in Israel!

Our first stop was in Akko, on the coast in the far northwest corner of the country.  Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11.  In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7.  The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

While we were there in that region, we visited several Messianic synagogues where we have friends.  What a blessing to get to meet these precious brothers and sisters and pray with them!  It was a time of wonderful fellowship and mutual encouragement, with worship services sometimes held in three different languages.  Besides Akko, we also visited Haifa and Nazareth.

During some free time one evening, with our bus driver’s help, I was able to get to a train station and ride a passenger train a few miles down the coast, then take another train back.  (You knew part of this story would involve a train ride, right?)

Next we went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest (I Kings 18), then across the country through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

IMG_2465February 10 was my favorite day in Israel.  We started out driving up to the top of the traditional site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.  It was very cloud and misting rain that day, but this picture shows the side of the mountain sloping down to the Sea of Galilee below.  Then it was on to the coastline itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection  (John 21), and then He and Peter went for a walk along the beach – “Feed my sheep.”

IMG_2520We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next.  Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me.  We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel.  The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood.  The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof.  Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish.  And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people did not believe.  (This picture shows David leading us in our morning devo, in a little park just outside the ruins of the synagogue there.)

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there.  I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more.  Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would easily fit on the campus of ACU – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing.  Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hearing them telling me those stories again.  And here I was, standing in the midst of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

communionWe were in Israel for almost two weeks.  We also visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea.  Of course, we toured Jerusalem, prayed over Holy City from the ancient ramparts, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa.  We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back.  There’s some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit.  For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so.  The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20!  If you stay out of the West Bank and Gaza, stay with your tour group, you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible.  It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined.  And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.