Anyone who was fortunate enough to ride mainline American passenger trains in their prime may well remember them as a luxury indifferent to time. Slavery to technology and clocks cheats us too often of walks among the roses. First-class meals on an airline cannot match the pleasure of the old passenger train dining cars, serving freshly cooked meals to order, as the American landscape streamed past the windows. Hot cereal, desserts and coffee always came with fresh rich cream. Trains were always a joy of my childhood: trips every other summer by Pullman to visit the Mensels in Chicago and Indiana, where we could count on sweaty nights listening to the corn grow.
Those memories recall first our trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, when I was four. Our eldest, Dot, or Dorothy, had just graduated from BYU, and Uncle Bob, Dad’s brother, invited us to the fair. My recollection is that we spent three nights as his guests in the Stevens Hotel, the world’s largest, newly finished in Chicago’s get-up for the fair and its fight against the Great Depression. I still carry four distinct memories of the fair itself: the Henry Ford exhibit, which replicated part of his Detroit assembly line, to display the new age of mass production of cars; the Frank Buck exhibit, in which the world’s most famous explorer of the African wilds showed his latest catches, and 30-foot pythons stared at me through glass; Denmark’s display, a must since Mother was pure Dane, in which the costumed Danes fed us Danish pancakes that were not quite as good as those Mother served in Provo; and the recently minted Buckingham Fountain, ablaze in the night lights at the fair’s front gates. I also can’t forget acute growing pains in my legs, the price of marching about the fair 14 hours a day because Mother was not about to miss any last thing.
Fast forward five years then to the main point of this story, which was an unforgettable train trip made in a rush. A call from sister Marjorie in Detroit, where husband Henry Denny was at work for his lifelong employer, Koppers Company of Pittsburgh, informed us that Henry was being loaned to Kellogg Corporation of Great Britain, to help engineer new oil refineries in Palestine. They would be leaving very shortly for Haifa. Mother erupted, “Harry, we have to see them off! They’re headed for a very dangerous place.” With her mind never free of worry, she didn’t need to add, We may never see them again! To Dad’s urgent inquiry about passes came his railroad’s reply: Olive and Frank should locate next night the conductor of the Denver & Rio Grande RR’s Exposition Flyer when it stops in Provo, and he should be carrying a wire that would get us next morning to Pueblo, Colorado. To my surprise, the conductor put us aboard – in a sleeper, no less. At Pueblo, we were told, the station boss “should” have another wire for us, to board the Missouri Pacific train to St. Louis. We found him as quickly as we arrived, but he had no wire. I was catching Mother’s gift for worrying, and I was bouncing about the station, while she dished out treats that she had packed for us. The pacing about finally ended mid-afternoon when the manager handed Mother a wire that indeed would get us to St. Louis, and then on to Detroit the next night on the Wabash RR. At nightfall, we settled into our Pullman. Arriving early morn in St. Louis, Mother was not about to waste another day in the train station. She announced, “This city has one of the world’s most famous zoos.” Leaving our bags in a locker, we scouted out the trolleys to the zoo. There, I again found myself trading stares with huge pythons, and a cobra too. At nightfall, we settled into another Pullman. When we saw Marge waiting for us next morning in the Detroit station, my jitters soon began to fade. Marge made some time for sightseeing, and reminiscent of the Chicago fair, we toured Ford’s great River Rouge plant, purportedly the world’s largest at the time. The trip home happily was far less eventful, first to Chicago, then onto the Exposition Flyer again that between the Burlington and Rio Grande RRs would get us all the way to Provo.
Still, the shaky connections of three nights on three different railroads was in all a rattling episode for a nine-year-old. Yet it was not untypical of the childhood spent trailing after a dauntless Mother, whose makeup would not allow her to miss a thing if she could possible get there. This may help more of the clan understand why I grew up – and old – a bit of a nutcase.
Postscript: Americans hardly fathom how much we’re disadvantaged by our loss in the last half century of our preeminence in railroading. The claim that the United States is not suited to high-speed rail is the selfish fiction of entrenched special interests. If half of what the Pentagon has squandered on our stockpiled weapon systems made obsolete by the changing manner of warfare had been devoted to high-speed rail, Dallas, as but one example, would be little more than a half day or overnight ride to half of the nation’s 20 largest cities, among them Phoenix, Los Angeles and Denver to the west, and Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and Atlanta to the north and east, with Houston and San Antonio hardly an hour away. Both the economy and the middle class would benefit enormously for generations from world-class passenger rail systems – that we may never now be smart enough or debt-free enough to build.
– Frank Mensel May 2011