Riding the rails
After returning from Kentucky, one of my friends asked, “How was your trip?”. I told her about the amazing trip God had planned for me. I spoke about being awed and exhausted and about how the trip home was definitely an adventure. She looked me square in the eye and said, “Traveling with you is ALWAYS an adventure.”
To say the station was packed was an understatement. I have traveled the railways as far back as I can remember, and I knew from the looks of things we were going to have a full train. I had really hoped to get a last minute sleeper car, because we were boarding at one in the morning. However, I had no luck on that one.
After loading all the families and couples, only us single passengers remained. There were four of us in a line – a college kid, an older woman, and elderly gentleman, and me. Onboard, the lady was struggling to get her bags on the overhead storage rack, and the student helped her. The older gentleman made a few loud, cantankerous remarks about wanting to sit down, and that was when it hit me. He was holding the ticket to the seat next to mine! Oh dear!
The other three were all seated while I stored my items above. Like the roaring of a lion, his voice startled me. “Well, at least, I get to ride next the prettiest girl in this car.” A sheepish, flattered grin crossed my lips as my thoughts raced to, “Here we go” and “Who I am to argue with a septuagenarian?”!
Within the first five minutes, I knew this was going to be one interesting journey. His response to my offer to place his portable oxygen tank above was met with, “I shot myself in the foot”. I am certain I had a look of horror in the dim light of the coach car. A quick smile, followed a few seconds later with an honest assessment of “years of smoking”. Then he shared his whole life story – Korean War Veteran, married and divorced (twice), father of three, railroad worker for 43 years, and drummer in big bands his adult life.
Humbled, I shook hands with Mr. Jimmy S and thanked him for his service.
Slowly the Cardinal (how fitting) rattled and rumbled as we headed on down the tracks to our ultimate destination – Union Station: Chicago. Any hopes of sleep were dashed as this old railroad man told me all about the intricacies of rail signals, troubles on the tracks, and engineers signaling off. Mr. Jimmy had me in giggles telling about his gigs over the years in the bands. Quickly, I learned he lived a colorful life. I discovered that we were both to be passengers on the Empire Builder later that day. Eventually, exhaustion overtook me, and I fell asleep.
I rose to discover he was still awake and enjoying the ride. He asked if I would accompany him to breakfast at the station because I had been a willing listener to all his old tales. I accepted the offer on one condition: He must allow me to help him maneuver around the station. It was a deal!
In Chicago, it became clear that Jimmy’s COPD was worse than I knew, and that walking was a challenge for him. I learned these things because the redcap was not waiting for us on the platform as had been previously arranged.
Slowly, and I mean very slowly, we walked the entire way, pausing many times along the way, from the rail car to the VIP lounge. I dropped him off with the promise I would come back as soon as I secured a sleeping car for the next train.
No sleepers were available, and I didn’t have the golden ticket of entrance to the VIP lounge. I entered once and was turned back similar to the scene in “Titantic” where the passengers want to get out of steerage. About twenty minutes later, I tried again. I explained the situation which was exactly what I knew to be true and holy. This man was from a different generation – where you didn’t leave a man (or female traveler) behind.
I asked if they could page him so I could explain that I wouldn’t be able to travel or wait with him. The desk clerk begrudgingly obliged.
Paging Mr. Jimmy S
Mr. Jimmy S, please meet your party at the VIP lounge door.
At this point, the agent began to question my integrity just as a gentle hand was placed on my shoulder.
Exasperated: Where have you been?
Looking for you. I was worried.
Relief flooded every fiber of my being. Somehow God put me with this older man to look out for him, and I knew it.
Then began the conversation I dreaded.
Did you get your ticket?
No, there weren’t any sleeper cars available; so I cannot stay here with you.
Well, why not?
Because this lounge is for first class passengers in sleeping cars. I don’t have a sleeper; so I cannot wait in here with you. I will be fine. You stay here. There are food, drinks, nicer chairs, television, and the newspaper.
I will not! I want to stay where you are. How far is it?
It’s not far, but that is beside the point. This is where you should be. You will be more comfortable here. I will be fine.
No! I am going where you are!
Jimmy, I really feel like you should stay here. Please just stay in this lounge. It’s so much nicer, and you will be well taken care of.
I’m coming with you.
At this point the VIP lounge agent chimes in. Ma’am give me your ticket. Do you have any problems riding in a sleeper car with this gentleman?
Um . . . no. (Knowing full well, I would be getting off the train before bedtime.)
Sir, do you have any concerns of this young lady riding with you in your sleeper car?
Not at all.
Ma’am, I am giving you a free ticket upgrade. Enjoy dinner on us.
You sir are a scholar and a gentleman.
What just happened here? This does NOT happen to my friends!
We went out for breakfast, and then waited the five hours until our train arrived for parts westward. Of course, our waiting time was not restful, as more stories were shared. During our wait my phone died; so, I wasn’t able to call or text home to explain what was going at the train station.
Finally, the time came for boarding. This time, however, I insisted that the train company provided Mr. Jimmy a redcap. We were driven basically from our lounge seats right up to our sleeper car. Whew!
After a quick recharge, I sent a text to my husband to tell him, “ALL WELL. SHARING A SLEEPER CAR WITH A GENTLEMAN.”
His response said it all, “What? I am nervous.”
I explained that he was a 70+ year old Korean War Veteran with COPD. I could outrun him. Trust me. God & I got this.
I don’t think he was convinced.
We rode for five hours, and again with no rest. This time, I learned much more about his time in the war. I almost lost it, when he teared up telling of an ill-fated night flying mission. He was a flight gunner, and one simple mistake (not his) caused the loss of two whole planes and their entire crews. He was on the only plane that safely made it back that night.
Finally, we were called for our dinner reservations. The jaunt to the dining car was a journey in and of itself because our sleeper was eight cars away. We had to pause twice in each car, just so he could catch his breath. My heart was breaking because I would be getting off in an hour, but Mr. Jimmy would be traveling all the way to Idaho, arriving sometime late the next evening. Who would take care of him?
At dinner, despite my protestations of being full, I was ordered dessert whether I wanted it or not. This was a proper meal, and dessert must be ordered. Stuffed to the gills, we made it back to sleeper as the engineer announced that the next stop was Red Wing.
I reminded Mr. Jimmy this was my stop and that we would be parting ways. I needed to gather my things and get to the door platform. I shook his hand and said, “Thank you for traveling with me today.”
I thought that was the end of our time. I should have known better. The ride into Red Wing is a little slower due to construction on the bridge there. As I stood on the platform with the porter, I sensed a third presence. Yep, there was Mr. Jimmy unsteadily waiting to make sure I safely got off the train. In his words, no gentleman would allow a beautiful young lady to travel alone. It was his duty to make sure I arrived safely.
When the train stopped, I showed him where my car was parked, and with a quick hug and a peck on a stubbly cheek, I disembarked with strict instructions to the porter to take care of my friend.
Walking exhaustedly down the brick platform, I begged God to not give me any more little old men for a while.
God obliged . . . for about a hundred feet.
There at the station, disembarking from another car, was a little old man who couldn’t get his walker over the tracks without it getting stuck.
I sighed, then threw down my bags and got him safely across. On my final drive home, I thanked God for the time spent with one heck of a gentleman from a great generation.
So Mr. Jimmy S – Thank you for your service and for spending time with a girl on a train.