Train of Thought: On the Southerner Line
From 1941 to 1970 the train that ran from New York to New Orleans was called the Southerner, and for many of those years my husband’s grandfather, Grover VanDevender, was the conductor for the last leg of the trip. The train arrived in Meridian, Mississippi, at 3:55 in the afternoon, boarded the passengers in a rush, boarded his grandfather in his blue suit and blue cap with the shiny brim, and left at 4:00. At 8:15 in the evening the train pulled into New Orleans’s Union Passenger Terminal, and there Grover would sleep in a cavernous dormitory with all the other trainmen, their cots lined up in rows. At 8:00 the next morning the train would start the journey north, Grover on board to answer questions and punch the tickets.
Grover had a fat silver railroad watch and he announced the time they would arrive in Laurel and Hattiesburg and Slidell as he walked the aisles. Messages were hung for the railroad men on posts and it was Grover’s job to watch for them and stick his hand out the window at exactly the right instant, snatching them up while the train roared ahead. It arrived back in Meridian at 12:15 for another five-minute stop on its way to New York, and Grover got off there and walked home from the station. He was free to go about his business until 3:55 the next day, when he would get on the train to New Orleans again, spend the night on a cot, and then take the train back to Meridian. Every day he was either coming or going, back and forth, day after day, year after year. The trips were made different only by the changing of seasons and the rise and fall of passenger traffic. The days were the same except for my husband’s birthday.
Karl’s birthday is November 12, and on that day he was allowed to ride the train from Meridian to New Orleans with his grandfather. There were five trips altogether, the first when he was 8 and the last when he was 13. Every year he brought an overnight bag with pajamas and a toothbrush—no book, of course, as the train was too exciting for him to think about reading. The point was to look out the window while his grandfather was working. Mr. Kirbo ran the dining car and gave Karl the first table on the right, facing forward. It was Mr. Kirbo’s special table, set like all the others with a white cloth and a little flower in a vase. Because it was Karl’s birthday, he was allowed to choose anything he wanted from the menu, which was always a hamburger and a fountain Coke. He ate by himself and watched the towns shoot past in Mississippi and then Louisiana.
When they got to New Orleans, Karl and his grandfather slept side by side in two cots, and in the morning they got up early to have breakfast with the rest of the railroad men before boarding the train again at 8:15. Everyone in the family and all his friends knew that Karl had been to New Orleans, a city with which he felt himself to be well acquainted even though he’d never seen any more of it than the train station, the trainmen’s barracks, and what there was to see from the window in the morning when it was light.
Karl’s grandfather was a man with a great curiosity about the world, and in the hours he was off the train, he and Karl would look at National Geographic together and talk about the places they would go were it not for the fact that Grover always had to go to New Orleans. They read about Sir Edmund Hillary and his climb to the top of Everest and decided Everest was the place they’d like to see.
When Grover VanDevender died, in 1968, he left Karl $2,000, money he’d saved over the years by shaving off bits from his conductor’s pay for their great adventure. Karl kept it in the bank while he was in graduate school and medical school, and while he finished his residency. It was after he was in practice that he finally went to the Himalayas, a trip paid for by a thousand trips to New Orleans. He looked at the great mountain and thought about his grandfather, and thought that as beautiful as the mountain was, no trip was ever better than those birthdays on the train.