What I share won't come from after dark but rather the quiet before the light, warm morning kisses, and the cold grip of the day.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Super Chief

Growing up we didn’t take many trips.  Two in seventeen years.  Money was a factor.  The oppression of my father’s illness was another.  They defeated any urge to pack up and take a holiday.  I don’t feel deprived from not having vacationed, not many in our farm community did, other than a camping trip at a lake.  Remove the illness factor and I would have been a happy camper to stay home and do whatever.  That was our lot.  The first trip we did take was fairly momentous.  If it wasn’t for my father’s problems we wouldn’t have.  For that matter, we might still have been living in the hills above Berkeley, and not in Kansas.  We moved to Topeka be near the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital established in the 1920’s by a man and his two sons offering an alternative from asylums as a treatment for mental illness.  My dad started analysis, where a lot of money we may have used for vacations must have gone.  At one point, things were so bad, and my mother so desperate, he was committed there for six months.  After a few years of the renowned regimen, he didn’t feel any better, and he was committed a second time.  He came home with a beautiful round wooden tray he made as part of his therapy.  For some time, he had been in communication with a psychiatrist in L.A., and it was decided he should go out for some consultations.  To his credit, for a man who had been a WWII Navy pilot, a captain for TWA, a onetime district attorney, a rancher, it took guts to reach out for help at a time when my mother’s family thought it all so ridiculous.  Just snap out of it.

Tickets were purchased on the Santa Fe Railway’s celebrated Super Chief, which traveled a route between Chicago and Los Angeles.  It was touted as the “train of the stars”, because it was the deluxe ride of choice for Hollywood celebrities.  Early one spring day my mother and father, my older brother and I, drove from our farmhouse to the depot in Topeka.  As an eight year old, I couldn’t resist walking on the rails as we waited.  The morning dew had left them slippery and one of my stiff-soled cowboy boots wedged between twin rails in a switch area as the engine, with its famous red and yellow war bonnet paint scheme, thundered into view.  I could not get my foot out.  My mother couldn’t get me out either and I would soon to be famous for being under the Super Chief rather than on it.  Finally, she pulled my foot loose, but the boot remained stuck.  Waiting passengers watched the drama, and cheered as mother, determining I needed both boots, wrestled it free as the engine screeched to its stop.

The train was magnificent.  Maybe it wasn’t the Orient Express but it was a shiny, streamlined, American beauty.  For a kid who thrilled at riding in the back of a pick-up, to climb the steep steps was like boarding a spaceship.  Our berths in the Pullman sleeping car, a twinette for my brother and me, had bunks which disappeared into the walls, and a bathroom masterfully engineered for efficiency, with a fold away washbasin.  Confined to the speeding locomotive, I was free to explore the observation car and the lounge car.  The dining car had white linen tables set with silverware and sparkling glasses, infinite food served on china with Navajo designs, handsome black waiters in smart uniforms.

At one stop along the route, my mother bought me a silver ring I had spotted in the gift shop.  It had the face of an Indian chief in a headdress, like the one who walked the aisles of the train greeting passengers, with his long braid of black hair, beaded buckskins, and a feathered war bonnet that trailed the floor.  His nose took up a lot of territory on his etched face.  It wasn’t funny like Jimmy Durante’s, but like a bird of prey.  He looked dignified, strutting in the way of men with strong chests, nodding slightly as he passed as if inspecting us before going into battle.  Even then, I suspected he wasn’t an authentic Indian chief.  I hoped he wasn’t.  I hoped he was an actor from Hollywood parading for a living.

I had no idea who the elegant gentleman in the cream-colored suit and the cigarette was, but my parents did.  My mother whispered to me after he passed us in the aisle one morning.  She did not have a poker face; she had a stone face, like the chief, when she got excited and tried to hide the fact.  I thought it was Edward R. Murrow, but she explained it was Oscar Levant and he had been in the movies.  I remembered seeing him on Jack Parr, with a voice like the creak of a castle door.  (Years later I would see him on reruns of An American in Paris.)  My mother said he had problems with alcohol.  It could have been the moving train that made him unsteady.  Come to find out he had been committed several times in mental institutions, like my dad.  Maybe he was headed home to Hollywood after a stint at Menningers.

The morning we arrived in Los Angeles, I realized I didn’t have my ring.  I recalled taking it off the night before and putting it on the sink as I washed my hands in the observation car washroom.  I thought the soap would be bad for it.  With anything brand new, I was overly protective, like not bending my feet when I walked in new shoes.  I ran back to find the ring but it was gone.  My mother called me a dope for taking it off.  She was mad about wasting the money.

Anon, James.