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Revised 20 April 2011

HEARTLAND TRAVELING

(Several years ago, my granddaughter and I took the train to Omaha and revisited some of my old haunts. Like her grandmother, she loved the train. We were all pulled off of the train outside of Novato, Colorado at 4:00 in the morning due to a purported bomb threat and spent the night in the Denver depot while the police searched the train. She later ticked me by telling all of her friends that she thought this a planned part of the trip. Each place we stayed was even better than the last. It was a trip neither of us will ever forget.)

I have been a traveler almost since birth.  Shortly after I was born, my mother took my sister and I to visit my grandparents….a trip from Los Angeles to Omaha, Nebraska and back.  Upon return, we repeated the trip with my soon-to-be-ex-father as he drove us cross country and dumped us unceremoniously on my grandparent’s doorstep, never to be seen again. . .his loss, not mine.

We lived with my grandparents in the Benson part of Omaha until my mother remarried (about age 6) and we moved to Iowa, during which time, I again traveled across country and back.  This time, I went with my grandmother to San Francisco and back.  It is probably the first train to use innovative kid-power to make the journey.  I am told it is a stated fact that I talked nonstop all the way across country without once sleeping.  You’ll be happy to know that we didn’t run out of hot air before we got there.  Every time we went through a tunnel, the conductor tried to convince me it was nighttime and I should go to sleep, but I wasn’t buying.  There was too much to see that was different and exciting.  By the time we got to San Francisco, my grandmother was exhausted, my having made the entire trip without running out of steam.  It was guaranteed to be one time when grandma did not need her sleeping pills to go into crash and burn.

I loved traveling by train and still do.  Its in my blood.  My great grandfather was an engineer out of Deming, New Mexico.  My uncle was the traffic manager for the Long Beach Red Line.  My Grandpa Lutes worked briefly for Southern Pacific during the depression and my Grandpa Pickrel worked for the Rock Island Line as a car inspector.

The first place I always wanted to go when we got to Omaha was to the old Union Pacific station where we would spend hours watching the trains coming and going and explore the old stations and pretend we were passengers waiting for our train.  The old station is now gone, but its memory lingers on strongly in my mind.  I can still hear the echo of the announcers voice in that huge, cavernous waiting room, or taste the delicious pies from the restaurant as Grandpa sipped his coffee and enjoyed his own private memories of the place.

When we visited my Aunt Pattie in Red Oak, Iowa, there was a small train station at the top of the hill.  For a quarter, we could ride from her place over to Grandpa Pickrel’s in Emerson on the old Rock Island line, with its horsehair overstuffed seats.  The ride only lasted minutes, but it was better than a carnival ride to me.  There used to be a saying that the only time the Rock Island trains were on time was when they arrived a day late.  They were slow, but nobody really seemed to mind, especially in the springtime when the fields were greening up and the animals were all birthing their young, who capered through the open fields like children at play.

Traveling in the Midwest was always something of an adventure.  There weren’t many ways to escape the small towns.  You could drive, walk, go to a bigger town and catch the Trailways bus or catch the tail end of a twister, although I don’t much recommend the latter since the pick up and delivery is somewhat bumptious and steering is out of the question.

I started traveling to Omaha by myself when I was about 10.  My mother would drive us over to Atlantic (about 15 miles away on gravel and/or muddy roads) to the Trailways bus station, where I would catch the red-eye into Omaha, a trip of about 60 miles.  I liked to get there early enough to put at least one nickel into the monkey band juke box.  It was a rare diversion for kids like me, since our only entertainment outside of the town library was to listen to the one or two radio stations available.  (TV didn’t come in until a couple years later.).  The monkey band was a little music box bandstand.  You played it like a regular juke box, except a little curtain opened and a bunch of animated monkeys dressed up like a dance orchestra would jig around in time to the music and when the music was done, it closed again.  Things were much simpler then and I was easily entertained.

Once on the bus, my mother would admonish me not to talk to strangers.  She would put me on the bus as soon as it got there so that I was guaranteed a good seat, then check back again just before it left with the same admonition—don’t talk to strangers—to which I always replied, “Its okay mommy, I checked the whole bus and there aren’t any strangers here.”  It only took them about five minutes to know exactly who I was and to move to the other side of the bus if they wanted any sleep.  Grandma never worried about knowing which bus I was on when I got to Omaha.  It was easy to spot.  Our passengers were the ones who had that deer-in-the-headlights look of a group of people who had been ambushed.

I have been across the Western United States many times by bus, train, car and plane.  I have one last big trip I want to make before I die.  I want to go to Ireland to see the place where my Gr. Gr. Grandmother was born.  Not to worry though, folks.  I doubt they will let me anywhere near the Blarney Stone.