All Aboard

A ticket to ride the memory train

By Deborah Salomon

I parked on Pennsylvania Avenue, gathered my stuff and walked toward The Pilot office for a staff meeting. I work mostly from home but enjoy seeing everybody, checking the grapevine at least once a week.

Just before opening the door, I heard the shrill whistle, clanging bell and thunderous approach of a train, not much more than 50 yards away.

Just like an old movie, the present fades away and I am, once again, a little girl waiting with her mother on the platform of the original Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, ready to board The Southerner which would take us to my grandparents’ house in Greensboro. The sensory experience practically knocked me over: sounds, smell, emotions all at once, as though a compartment (the right word) in my brain had burst open, spilling forth contents, remarkably intact.

Because this is about brains, not trains.

Nevertheless . . . trains were part of my childhood. I rode a subway to school and traveled to Greensboro several times a year by rail. After supper on warm nights, Granddaddy would walk me over to the tracks parallel to Lee Street to watch the freight trains rumble by. I waved at the engineer. He waved back.

But it was the overnight trips from Penn Station to Greensboro’s imposing Southern Railway Depot that are etched above the eyebrows.

Before boarding, we would “grab a bite” at a coffee shop (always an egg salad sandwich, for me) then proceed to the platform bathed in enough steam to hide a furtive Ingrid Bergman. The conductor really did shout “All aboard!” to hurry passengers onto coach and Pullman (sleeper) cars. An hour or so into the trip, near Philadelphia, porters would commence “making up” berths in upper and lower compartments.

The porters! They were the essence of rail travel, posters for institutional segregation/racism. Most had white hair under their caps. All were kind and deferential. Unlike rather stern conductors, they smiled, made me feel safe. Watching them assemble upper and lower bunks concealed by heavy canvas curtains was like watching a child play Transformers. I can smell the ironed cotton sheets, feel the scratchy wool blankets, see the pillows covered in striped ticking.

Then the Pullman car went dark.

I peeked out. How strange to see strangers padding up and down the aisle in robes and slippers.

Once under the covers (I got the window side) after my mother fell asleep, I squeezed a metal gadget that unlocked the heavy shade and watched the landscape speed by.

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack . . . lullaby of the wheels.

We woke early, dressed (nobody traveled sloppy back then) and made our way to the dining car for breakfast. Glorious! Outrageously expensive orange juice, scrambled eggs, biscuits and jam served by waiters wearing white gloves, who called me “Missy.”

Out the windows, Virginia and then North Carolina looked so much greener than New York. I saw cows grazing.

The air felt warm and fresh as we disembarked. Granddaddy was waiting in his ’36 Dodge, which emitted an odor that made me car sick. I can smell it, right this minute, and still feel woozy.

There’s so much more. When I was about 8 my mother sent me on ahead, alone. By then, the route required changing trains in Washington, at midnight. Always an adventurous child, I was thrilled. My mother pinned a note on my jacket, instructed the conductor, gave the porter a whole dollar to look after me, although little was required.

By then, I knew the ropes.

This was soon after World War II; trains were filled with happy young soldiers headed home. The ones in my car “adopted” the lone little girl, taught me a card game, gave me Hershey bars. Unthinkable, now, which makes the memory even more precious.

But this is about the brain, right, not the train?

My last train ride was in Switzerland, in 1996. Here, I learned the hard way that if departure is scheduled for 10:32 that means 10:32, not 10:33. However, a few days before this memory eruption, I spoke to a couple who still ride Amtrak from Southern Pines to Penn Station, for a lark. Sure, it takes 12 hours but no driving to RDU, parking, weather delays, baggage issues, cramped seats, getting a cab ($50) or bus to midtown Manhattan. You can walk around, maybe recline. I must have been ruminating on this when Amtrak blasted across Pennsylvania Avenue unlocking a trainload of memories — audible, olfactory, visual — which like ghosts at midnight on Halloween, must slither back into that compartment in my frontal cortex, forever.   PS

Deborah Salomon is a writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at

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