My Amtrak Adventure

I read the other day where Amtrak, the nation’s intercity rail-passenger service, just had a birthday, turning 51. And that got me to thinking about some different Amtrak trips I have taken that I really enjoyed. One in particular that I remember was on my birthday, a few years ago, when I went from Fort Worth to St. Louis. Kathy wasn’t able to take the time off from work, but I had accumulated enough credit card points 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 original Texas Eagle went from St. Louis to Texarkana and Marshall; from there, you could take it west to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Abilene, and El Paso, or go south to Houston, San Antonio, Brownsville, even Mexico City. 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, or westbound to El Paso and Los Angeles.

The Texas Eagle arrives in Fort Worth, coming up from San Antonio and Austin.

Our train arrived from Austin. I checked in with the conductor, and he pointed me towards my compartment, and I settled in. Accommodations on an Amtrak sleeper come in various sizes. The “roomette” that I had is the smallest private compartment, with two bench seats that face each other. Cozy but comfortable, as long as you’re not claustrophobic, with restroom and shower facilities down the hall. Amtrak also larger rooms with private facilities, if you want to pay for it. Meals in the dining car are included with your first-class ticket at no extra charge – gratuities and adult beverages are extra, of course.

After a few minutes, the engineer gave the customary “Toot-toot” on the big locomotive’s horn, and we pulled smoothly out of downtown Ft. Worth, on our way to Dallas Union Station. As we arrived, 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 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 past Fair Park and into Mesquite and Terrell.

Passing 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.

Somewhere 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.) Later I found the bed in my room prepared for sleeping. I changed clothes and crawled between the sheets, 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 and drizzly morning. We had crossed through Arkansas, and were just outside of St. Louis, awaiting clearance to pull into our spot. I got dressed and went 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 another time.

Their Biggest Day, x2

God has been very, very good to me and my family over the years. He has blessed Kathy and me with good health and while we haven’t gotten rich, we have always had food on the table and a roof over our heads. He blessed us with parents who loved us and friends who supported us. Our greatest blessing has been that we had four children: two boys and two girls.

And both of our girls are getting married this month. Separate ceremonies, different locations, even different states, but the same month, only two weeks apart. Give me strength.

Brittany, our older daughter, lives in Baltimore. She’s 30, and has lived there for several years. She works at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Her fiancé is a software engineer. His name is John, and he looks a lot like the actor Tom Cruise. Most of his family is from the New Jersey – Pennsylvania area. We like John, and he has visited Haskell a few times. They seem to be a good “fit” together.

Kathy and I have visited Baltimore a couple of times since she’s been up there, and we have enjoyed it very much. There’s so much interesting history, and so many exciting things to do. We took in an Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards and visited the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum. We toured the U.S. Navy’s historic USS Constellation, a three-masted sailing ship anchored there in the harbor, as well as a World War II submarine also docked nearby.

Perhaps most fascinating was a visit to Fort McHenry. That was where a Baltimore attorney, Francis Scott Key, was negotiating for the release of a hostage being held on a British warship, which was busy shelling the fort during the War of 1812. Mr. Key was successful in gaining the man’s release, but he had to spend the night on the warship. All night long, he kept trying to see if the fort was holding or if it had surrendered to the Brits. Finally, at dawn the next morning, he was able to see the Stars and Stripes, still proudly flying above the fort. That’s when he wrote, “O say! Can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming.” I like Baltimore.

Our younger daughter Erin lives in Abilene, and she works as a dental technician for an oral surgeon. She is engaged to a young man named Joseph. We also like Joseph; he’s a big fan of “dad” jokes – the cornier, the better.

Each of our kids is unique and special, and they all have very distinct personalities and tastes. Any parent who has raised several kids in the same family certainly knows that kids are different (no surprise there), but it’s fascinating to see the way that plays out with our two girls and their wedding plans. Different colors, different styles, different ceremonies. I’m officiating for Brittany’s wedding, but Erin wanted my brother David, who is a pastor in Spring, Texas, to handle her ceremony. Brittany is getting married at an old castle, right outside of Baltimore; Erin and Joseph are having their service at a beautiful outdoor venue on the San Angelo highway. The differences go on and on.

Another interesting difference: Brittany’s middle name is “Helen,” named after Kathy’s mom. Erin’s middle name is “Beth,” named in honor of my mother, Tommie Beth. Both our moms have passed away, so they won’t be with us physically, but their memories will certainly be cherished as we celebrate with family and friends.

As the father of the bride(s), I don’t have much say in any of the details of either ceremony, of course. My job is to go where I’m told, stand where they point, and smile for the pictures. But I keep thinking about the cycles we go through in life, and that day in August of 1978 when Kathy and I made our promises to each other. And I’m remembering two little girls growing up, their hopes and dreams, alternating silliness and seriousness. Dress-up parties and bedtime stories, and now, one by one, I get to walk them down the aisle and give each of them to another man whom she loves and who loves her. I will continue to pray God’s richest blessings on the new families they will be starting.

Right now, I need a Kleenex. Dang, my allergies are bad this time of year…

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

Pieces of the Past

People sometimes ask me how I became so interested in trains. No, I never worked for a railroad, nor my dad nor his father before him. (I did have a distant uncle and some cousins who worked for the railroad in East Texas – more about that in a minute.) But trains have been in my blood since I was a kid, watching them 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.

One 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?

Every railroad used to publish timetables of their scheduled trains. There were public timetables, showing times for passenger trains, and there were employee timetables, which also showed scheduled freight service. These timetables 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, there are still lots of them to collect, trade and sell.

This Texas & Pacific timetable from 1943 features one of that line’s powerful 900-class passenger engines. The letter “V” and the Morse code for “V” – three dots & a dash – was a patriotic reminder for the nation to pull together for Victory in World War II.

Some of the most popular railroad items to collect come from the dining and lounge cars. Collecting dining car China and silverware is a fascinating and common part of the hobby, but can also be quite expensive. Linen napkins with the railroad’s name are also highly prized.

Do you remember when milk came in a small glass bottle instead of the waxed cardboard cartons they use now? When you were having breakfast on a dining car, your milk would be served in a little half-pint bottle with the railroad’s name, as well as the name of the dairy that produced it. I have one for the Missouri Pacific RR from Sunnymede Farm of Bismarck, Missouri.

“Dinner in the diner – nothing could be finer – than to have your ham & eggs in Carolina.” If you had milk with breakfast, it would have been served in a half-pint bottle like this.

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 a little bottle of bourbon. It held 1/10th of a pint of 100 proof whiskey – roughly equivalent to the 50mL “shooter” bottles you get nowadays. I have a little brown bottle that once held Old Forester bourbon. The bottle is about 2 ½ inches wide and 3 ½ inches tall, and has the Old Forester label on one side, and the Pullman Sleeping Car logo on the other. You can still buy Old Forester bourbon today, but I bet it was never finer than when enjoyed while “rocking of gentle beat” of your private Pullman compartment.

Many railroads offered shooter-sized bottles of liquor, and a lot of them came with the railroad’s logo on the bottle. The one I have came from the Pullman Company, operators of many RR sleeping cars.

One other piece I want to tell you about is a cuspidor – AKA a spittoon. It has been in my family for many years, and my grandmother Sallie McMillan gave it to me. How did she get it? Well, the story, as she told it, went like this: Her uncle – so that’s my great-GREAT-uncle – was a railroad brakeman in East Texas, near Palestine. One of his sons was also a brakeman, back in the days when those guys had to walk on top of moving cars to set the brakes. The son was killed one day when he was thrown off the roof of a moving car that stopped violently.

Anyway, when my grandmother’s uncle 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.

This cuspidor has been in my family for nearly a hundred years. My grandmother told the story that it was taken from a Missouri Pacific caboose by her uncle when he retired in the 1920s.

It doesn’t have any markings on it to prove that it came from the RR, or out of a caboose, but that was the story, and I’m sticking to it.

More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Visiting DC

During our recent vacation, we went to Baltimore, to visit our daughter, Brittany; while we were there, we took a day and went down to Washington. My wife had toured DC several years ago, but although I had been through there, I had not been able to visit any of the historic locations in that city on the Potomac. We made reservations with one of those companies that offer guided bus tours, and off we went.

Brittany helped us plan how to navigate the commuter trains to get there and find the starting point for the tour. Any day that begins with riding a train is a good day as far as I’m concerned, and we had no problem finding our way through the maze of above-ground and subway trains, and sure enough, when we came back up into the sunlight, the tour buses were right in front of us.

A word about these buses: they were about the size of a short school bus, but made with a retractable, open roof, especially designed for tour purposes. We checked in, and were assigned to a particular bus, and didn’t have to wait long before Craig, our driver, and Alisha, our tour guide, came on board and welcomed us to their city.

Alisha was a young, vivacious, African American woman with the build of a long-distance runner. In the course of our tour, she mentioned that she had been working as a guide for over five years (which meant she was older than she looked to me!) – a Washington native and a fan of both learning and telling history. As Craig chauffeured our bus, Alisha gave us some background on the city, how it was laid out and when construction began.

We parked near the Washington Monument, but she began moving us in the opposite direction for our first stop. We came out from behind some trees, and what I saw, literally took my breath away.

Here I am, standing on the South Lawn of the White House

It was the White House. We were standing on the South Lawn, which it turned out, was as close as we could get. It didn’t matter. I was thrilled to be there, and to see the Executive Mansion where every president since John Adams has lived. She pointed out some of the other historic buildings that were within our view, before shepherding us back across the street, to get a better look at the Washington Monument. Later on we would stop off at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and see the Capitol Building.

We headed over to the World War II memorial. This is one of the newer structures in DC, having opened in 2004. It features two large, semi-circular areas – one for the European Theater, and one for the Pacific. There is a special “Gold Star” wall, honoring the more than 400,000 Americans who died in that war. Later, we visited the Vietnam War Memorial, and on that famous black stone wall, I found the name of a young man from Haskell. I’ll have more to say about both of those walls in a future article.

From there, it was on to the Jefferson Memorial, where his statue stands next to some of his words from the Declaration of Independence. And that was just the first of several locations that we visited that day, that call to mind some of the words that are important to our country and to history. Words are important, because they carry ideas – ideas that are truly foundational to our republic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Words of power.

Our next stop was a further reminder of this, as we visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King. There, engraved on the arches leading to and away from the stone statue that honors him, were 14 of his most famous quotations, including one of my favorites: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A quick lunch, an enjoyable boat ride on the Potomac River, and then it was on to the installation honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and again remembering his words – “Fear itself” and his “Fireside Chats” – words that led this nation out of the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II.

From there, we had another powerful demonstration of the power of language at the Lincoln Memorial, with his Second Inaugural Address engraved on one wall, and the Gettysburg Address on the other: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

God Bless America.

Thoughts While Traveling

Kathy and I are just back from our vacation, and we had a wonderful time. We went to the Metroplex and got to spend time with our son there, then we flew to Baltimore and spent a few days with our daughter there, whom we hadn’t seen since before Thanksgiving. We were able to go to a Rangers game and we visited Washington, DC, saw a lot of famous sights and historical sites, and ate a bunch of really good seafood. And in the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about where we went and what we saw, but for now, I want to share some observations I had while we were on our trip – random thoughts about traveling.

This was the first real trip we have taken together in over two years, partly because of moving back to Haskell, and partly due to the pandemic. And as a lot of people have observed, we were definitely happy to just be going SOMEWHERE – she and I are both fully vaccinated, and it’s just nice to be able to be “out and about,” to see different locations and some new faces. So here are some things that I noticed in the midst of our goings and comings:

It’s been a very green year. All the way on our drive over to Ft. Worth and Dallas, we both kept talking about how pretty and green the countryside was and is. By this point in a normal year, the grass would be brown, the wildflowers would all be long dead, and even the trees would be looking droopy and dried up. Not this year. The grass is still lush and green, and it’s nice to see. And Thank You, Lord, for the rain.

“O say, can you see?” We went to a Rangers game Saturday afternoon at the new Globe Life Field ballpark – it is air conditioned with a retractable roof, and a very comfortable place to watch a ballgame. (The Rangers lost in extra innings to the A’s.)

Anyway, I was in line at a concession stand before the game started, and had just gotten to the register, to pay the man for our order, when we heard the familiar opening notes of the Star-Spangled Banner. The cashier said to me, “Just a moment, sir – we will wait until the anthem is finished.” I glanced around and sure enough, everywhere I looked, all the concessionaires were standing still, in a posture of respect, and the whole area fell silent.

In my mind suddenly, I was with my mom and dad, my brothers, and our grandmother, and we were at an Astros game in the late 60s. I looked over and noticed that my grandmother wasn’t singing, so after it was finished, I asked her about it. She reminded me that one of her brothers had been killed in Korea, during an enemy rocket attack, and she said that the lyric about “the rocket’s red glare” was painful for her to think about.

Just then, the anthem was over, and I remembered that I was in line, buying nachos and sodas – but now with unspoken gratitude to the management there for putting commerce aside for three minutes and honoring our National Anthem and all that it means.

A lot of smiles. I have to admit, I was a little anxious about my first plane ride in a couple of years. Not because I’m afraid of flying, but because of all the horror stories that have been in the news in recent weeks regarding the extremely disruptive behavior of many travelers. I’m sure you’ve heard these stories, as well, about passengers going crazy on flights, acting disorderly, even trying to open exit doors in midair.

But those worries were absolutely pointless. From the TSA agents to the Southwest ticket and gate staff, to the flight and cabin crews and our fellow flyers, everyone seemed to be smiling and patient, and just trying to get to their destinations with a minimum of fuss and bother. It was nice.

Taking off is the best part. My favorite part of any flight has always been that moment that comes after you’re finally on board and seated, with all of your gear stowed and the seat backs and tray tables in their full upright and locked position. The plane is taxiing along and finally gets to the runway, then turns and gets lined up for takeoff. The engines begin spooling up, and then it happens: You start rolling down the runway, and you notice the seat back pushing harder and harder against your spine. You’re rapidly picking up speed and you notice the bumps of the expansion joints in the concrete below you, as the physics of flight take over and the pilots turn a 90-ton tricycle into a jet airliner. The nose lifts, then the whole plane, and off you go, into the wild blue yonder.

I love it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best part of the whole flight.

The Train to Yesterday

I have been fortunate enough to get to take a number of passenger train trips over the years. One of my favorites was a special trip a few years ago with my youngest brother, David Ray. He’s a pastor at a church in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston.

My brother David and I in front of Amtrak’s “Sunset Limited” in Houston.

He 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.

The old Missouri Pacific RR main line ran right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad sidetrack 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, the New York Central and Central of Georgia, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Santa Fe, the 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 I remember running back to the tracks after the train had passed, to find those little squished pieces of copper, still hot from the friction of the wheels that ran over them.

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. I have a very sweet memory of sitting on the freight platform with my dad, next to the tiny beige and brown depot, absolutely enthralled as the massive trains roared past, and watching the rail joints move up and down as the car wheels went across them.

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.

So David & I 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 Southeast Texas countryside and past the little towns.

Grayburg is literally just a blur when you go through there on a fast train.

The Grayburg depot is long gone, but the siding is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. As we went through there and saw where we used to play, I looked over and saw my brother wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking.

He said he thought he saw four little boys running over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

A Visit to Jefferson

Jefferson, Texas, is a beautiful, historic community in Northeast Texas, between Marshall and Texarkana. I had the chance this past weekend to go over there, to indulge a totally frivolous hobby of mine – model railroading.

You see, I still play with trains.

Like many little boys who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination. Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

So, back to Jefferson – it’s a very picturesque small town that celebrates its heritage of historic homes, railroads, old-fashioned steamships, lumber and oil industries, and more. Over fifty buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are numerous good places to stay, from beautiful and historic hotels to quaint and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts, along with good restaurants and interesting little museums and antique shops.

And every year, they host a big model RR show where hobbyists from across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas come together to watch and run trains and visit with their fellow enthusiasts. A model train club from Orange, of which I was an active member when we lived down there, goes to Jefferson every year with their portable layout, so I went last weekend to see my old friends from that club, and enjoy some time running and playing with the trains.




Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators, drawn together by their shared passion of model railroading, gathered this past weekend in Jefferson for that city’s annual train show.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains (and my original Marx trains) are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man six feet tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

The most popular size is known as HO – you pronounce the letters separately: “aitch – oh.” The name comes from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can build a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the last few years has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC; this enables you to control each locomotive separately, independent of any others, utilizing a miniature computer chip installed in each model. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. One of the great things about being in a modeling club is the ability to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and run on a club layout. (And, just in case you’re interested, there’s a great model train club based in Abilene.)

I had a great time seeing my friends and enjoying our shared love of the hobby with them again. And I’m more determined than ever to finish setting my home layout back up, to once again enjoy my own little empire in miniature. All aboard!

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple

Two summers ago, my wife and I took a belated 40th anniversary celebration trip to visit “The City So Nice They Named It Twice” – New York, New York. It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time.

We took an Amtrak passenger train to get there, leaving from Beaumont on a Monday afternoon. (At the time, we were still living in Southeast Texas, where we had been taking care of my elderly father. He had passed away a few months earlier.) We changed trains in New Orleans and headed east into the early morning sunlight. Our first-class tickets included a roomette (it’s pretty cramped for two, but we managed) – and the roomette also included our meals in the dining car at no extra charge. And those were great!

I dozed off in our compartment, but a little while later, Kathy woke me up and said that we were in Laurel, Mississippi, featured in the HGTV program, “Home Town.” And yes – Ben’s shop really is right next to the train tracks, and we went right by it. We cruised along the smooth track, riding that “magic carpet made of steel,” and by suppertime, we were in Atlanta, where we turned north. Overnight through the Carolinas, breakfast in Virginia, and then DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and lunch in Philadelphia. Then it was through New Jersey, under the Hudson River, and there we were, at the underground Penn Station, Manhattan, arriving on time a little before 2:00 that afternoon.

Being in New York was exciting, exhilarating, and a little bit scary, all at the same time. I absolutely loved it.

We came up on the Seventh Avenue side. Kathy had made us reservations at the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, and there it was, right across the street. We got checked in, went up to our room, and unpacked.

A dear friend of mine, a writer, had asked me to take a few pictures for him, and research a particular neighborhood that he was interested in for a novel he was writing. So, we headed for the old Irish part of the city known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” We continued west to the river, where we had reservations for an evening cruise on the Hudson, out to the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River. Sailing past Lady Liberty at sundown was a memory I will always cherish.

The next day, we took the subway and headed down to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. We saw the World Trade Center memorial, went past Wall Street, Chinatown, and the Bowery. I learned that in New York, it’s pronounced “How-ston” Street (not the way we Texans normally pronounce “Houston”). We saw famous locations such as Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park. We visited the beautiful courthouse with the tall steps, featured in “12 Angry Men,” “The Godfather,” and dozens of episodes of “Law and Order.” We went by the police station where “NYPD Blue” was set – it’s an actual police station, and for fans of the show, yes, there really is a little park across the street with basketball courts, and off-duty cops really do shoot hoops with neighborhood kids.

We had tickets for a Broadway show that evening, where we saw “Beautiful – The Carole King Story;” you ladies of a certain generation probably owned her 1971 album “Tapestry.” We both thoroughly enjoyed the show and our walk across Times Square.

Kathy and I enjoying the lights of Times Square, New York, in 2019

On Saturday morning, we had reservations for a Turner Classic Movies bus tour of Manhattan. They drove us all over the borough, as the knowledgeable guide talked about movies that had been shot in various locations around the city and showed brief clips from those films. We had lunch at a little grocery store-deli featured in “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. That afternoon, we went up to the top of the Empire State Building.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. We ate a hot dog from a street cart and had New York-style pizza from a little family-owned restaurant. We bought some souvenirs and took lots of pictures. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the New Yorkers we met were smiling and friendly, and tolerant of this traveler’s questions. We never felt afraid, nervous or worried. The most annoying part? Learning to figure out which direction to walk when we came back up to street level after riding the subway.

Sunday morning, it was Father’s Day. We packed up, went back across the street, and boarded the train for Baltimore, where our daughter Brittany lives. We spent a couple of days with her, then flew home. While we were there, she took us to an Orioles game at Camden Yards, and we visited some great museums, including Ft. McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote a poem during the War of 1812 known as “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know it better as, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But that’s another story.