The World of the Train (Ten-Foot Poles and a Mother and Child Reunion)

That’s how it feels when you board the train: like you’ve entered into a self-contained world that moves, as if inside a tube, through the outside environment.

Amtrak is the only way to go! If I can possibly manage it in terms of time and destination, I’m going by train any time I need to travel in the future. True, I did splurge on a bedroom instead of sitting in coach for 19 hours. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Getting a bedroom required planning, though, because there are only a few available on each run. I made my reservation back in January for my end-of-June trip. Usually I’m not quite that organized.

Once aboard, I realized that I probably could have just booked a “roomette” instead of a “bedroom.” The only real difference between them is space and a private bathroom.

The roomette is a quite-narrow, self-contained little room with two reclining armchairs facing each other and a berth above. To sleep, you can pull down the berth and recline the two chairs completely, and you have sleeping accommodations for two, one up and one down. There’s a sliding door that locks, so you can feel secure during the night. Each roomette car contains a bathroom to be shared by everyone on that car.

The bedroom, on the other hand, contains its own bathroom and a sink. If you get up in the middle of the night, there’s no need to run down the hall. There’s not only a sofa and a reclining chair that face each other, but there’s also an overhead berth. The bedroom easily sleeps two people and could possibly sleep three. You’d feel a little crowded during the day, but certainly no more crowded than in coach.

The space! It felt very unnecessary—but completely luxurious—to have that bedroom to myself. As I stretched out on my sofa, read my novel, and watched the green landscape outside my long picture window, I could not stop thinking about how comfortable I was and how miserable I’d be on a plane.

Meals in the dining car were included in the price of my ticket. Pretty good food! And a very relaxing meal. The pace is unhurried and you can enjoy both nice scenery outside the window and good conversation inside the car. The dining booths seat four people. If you’re traveling solo, as I was, or with one or two other people, you’ll most likely be seated with strangers. The conversations are inevitably mostly small talk, of course, but they can turn surprisingly personal, as well.

The small talk can be fun. At dinner Thursday night I sat with a couple from Bay View (a Milwaukee south side neighborhood) who had been on vacation in New Orleans. They had taken a carriage ride and done the cemetery tour, neither of which I’d had time to do. As they told me about the cemetery tour, I was able to glean interesting tidbits like these from their recounting.

Apparently a year and a day after someone is buried, it’s time to make the tomb available to its next occupant. The body, wrapped in a bag rather than placed inside a coffin, has completely decomposed by then and is nothing more than a bag of bones. The tomb is opened, and a ten-foot pole is used to reach inside and break up the skeleton. Then the now-more-compact “package” is pushed down a shaft, leaving the tomb itself vacant. According to my dining companions’ tour guide, these New Orleans cemetery practices are where we get expressions like giving someone “the shaft” and not wanting to touch something “with a ten-foot pole.”

At breakfast yesterday I sat with two sisters, who were probably in their seventies. One doesn’t fly, and although they had drifted apart during the years they were both raising families, they have recently begun traveling around the country by train every year to visit their children and other relatives. They told me a wonderful story about an impromptu reunion that one of them had been able to have with her son during one of their cross-country trips.

At some point after leaving Chicago on the California Zephyr, this sister had looked at the route map in her compartment and realized that the train would be making a brief stop in Ottumwa, Iowa (fictional home of the M.A.S.H 4077’s company clerk, Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly, in case that town’s name sounds familiar to you 🙂 ) .

Her son lived in Ottumwa! She managed to get a phone call through to him: “Quick, come to the station! We’ll be there in an hour!”

When they arrived in Ottumwa, there was her son waiting at the station along with his wife and children. The mom got off the train; she and her son hugged and cried. They hadn’t seen each other in a very long time. By that time, everyone on the train knew what was up, so as mother and son were having their  unanticipated reunion, all the other passengers on the train were looking out the windows and applauding.

And then it was time for the train to pull out and head to its next stop. Just like that, as abruptly as it had happened, the reunion had to break up.

Mom got back on the train. Son and family remained at the station, waving goodbye.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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6 Responses to The World of the Train (Ten-Foot Poles and a Mother and Child Reunion)

  1. mworfolk says:

    Your whole post was lovely–I adore train travel–but the story at the end was particularly so. Thank you for sharing it!


  2. Lisa says:

    This is a lovely story! I’ve enjoyed reading about your travels and completely agree with the joys of train travel. I wish Amtrak’s route was closer to where my dad lives.


    • That would be perfect. We could certainly use more passenger routes. It was so sad seeing how extensive the Milwaukee Road’s route used to be (there was a map included last year when the Grohmann had an exhibit on that now-defunct railroad). I bet that 50 or 60 years ago you could have taken the train to visit your dad. (And it was called “progress” when we moved away from all that!)

      Here’s a link to the photo I took of their route map.


      • Lisa says:

        That old route would have gone a little over an hour from our farm, which would be terrific. 🙂 I have taken Amtrak to the closest Nebraska station, but that’s over four hours away, and the timing was not good (arriving and leaving in the middle of the night in a small town with no rental cars).


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