Occasionally I receive a newsletter from someone who travels regularly on the City of New Orleans. I always pause. Just the name of that train is evocative. So many train names are. The Wabash Cannonball. The Night Scotsman. The Empire Builder. The Broadway Limited. The Orient Express. All the romantic notions of travel and its destinations are suggested in such names. We’re in old black and white movies where the steam rises from an engine, and the camera eyes the churning wheels and the dark metal of cars. Brakes hiss. Doors slam into an air-pockets of quiet. Strangers shuffle bags in aisles and stare into the passing night.
Of course, the reality of any kind of travel is always more tedium than romance, more weariness than excitement. I can’t, for instance, imagine much pleasure attending the dangerous ship crossings of nineteenth century Europeans like Suite Harmonic’s John Given leaving home for a new life. Even jet travel, today’s fastest transportation, has long since abandoned the suggested glamour of its early days, depending for its very existence on the uncertain patience of packed together flyers. And while I’ve never been on a cruise, since the ship itself is the real destination, whatever the allure might be, I think it’s something different from travel, which by my personal definition requires a strong element of the unknown, sometimes fear, sometimes adventure, often loneliness.
I think there is something of a train’s essence that comes closer to the nature of travel than anything else. There are so many possible beginnings and ends to a train trip, passengers coming aboard or disembarking at different stations, hurrying off with only hints of their unfinished stories remaining behind them. There are the uncertain speeds, a bullet train flying along, a regular passenger train slowing to a crawl and then waiting—who can guess how long?—until another train has passed it by, freeing the track. There is the sudden rush of two trains rocketing past each other in opposite directions, passengers lit in brief cameos.
Musing over this, I remember the long catalog of my train journeys, most of them alone. I am often eighteen. I banter with a black, perfectly uniformed bartender in the club car and, in the dining car, spot a man whose gaunt head, makeup, and dyed hair make him a double for Gustav von Aschenbach (whom I meet only later in Death in Venice). Once more, I am seated beside a traveler in his forties who tells me he will become prime minister of Italy one day (and may well have done so, there have been so many). He asks me to leave the train with him; my life flashes before me.
To me, the meaning of these memories is that they suggest stories that were not really mine, which is to say they were a particular kind of introduction to the mind travel required for people who write fiction. Yet the train stories that fall into the category of important stories truly do belong to me, for they’re drawn from the cache of essential family stories that are part of my life.
With trains, there are two. The first is the trainwreck John Given and his fellows in the 25th Indiana experienced on their return from the Siege of Atlanta. It was one of the many experiences John so amazingly survived and why, as his great-granddaughter, I am actually here to tell his story. The other story feels more immediate for, unlike John’s, it is one I learned growing up, a simple tale with just two main characters—my grandfather and my uncle—but terrible and unforgettable. My eighteen-year-old uncle, the oldest of my father’s brothers, had joined the navy in 1918 and was sent for training at a South Carolina base in preparation for going overseas. He was one of the many boys in his barracks who became sick with influenza. My grandfather, who worked for the Wabash Railroad, immediately caught a train for South Carolina but, by the time he’d arrived, Ted had died—one of the statistics in a war that, incredibly, saw more men die of influenza than of battle wounds.
For me, my grandfather’s return trip to Illinois with Ted in his coffin is the archetypal train journey. I see him, this man who himself died before I was born, dressed in a dark suit, his hand with the long fingers like my father’s moving nervously to check his pocketwatch. For a moment, the hand rests on his chest. I think he is wondering if blood will seep onto his palm, if that is what it means to have a broken heart. I watch as he wipes sweat from his neck. From the look on his face, I think he has choked on a fish bone of air, that he cannot comprehend how separate the train seems from the landscape, it is moving so fast. He is more than halfway home, racing to the moment where everything will be real—his brothers in their own dark suits, my veiled grandmother and weeping aunts, my uncle and father trying to seem brave.
I know my grandfather is alert when the train slows, aware there is no stop at this place on the schedule. I watch him absorb the jolt of the freight car uncoupling and feel his own car lighten. I see him bolt from his seat, propelled by the panic of every lost connection. He runs down the aisle and the end of the car is the end of the train. He has no idea how it happens but, when he’s opened the door and leapt over the car flange to the ground and reached the freight car on the siding, wrenching its door open to find the coffin, the white cuff of his shirt sleeve is soaked with a pungent black oil. For the day it takes him to see the car joined safely to a train that will take it home, it is all he can smell.
And so . . . I began with the romance of names, meandered to something closer to wistfulness and, finally, reached a thing that is deeply sad. The truth is that I have no idea if the oil stain was real or, instead, a detail imagined to end a story with a scent.
I’ll decide. It anchors the desperate aloneness of my grandfather’s trip. For me, that means it is true.