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Do you hear that whistle down the line?
I figure that it’s engine number forty-nine
She’s the only one that’ll sound that way
On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe
[Johnny Mercer]

My choice of a window seat on the Texas Eagle grew into a magical experience. I’d paid $210.00 for a round trip coach ticket between Chicago and Austin, Texas. I’d left my car in South Bend and caught the South Shore (electric commuter train) to Chicago. I’d hoisted my bags up and down steps, in and out of cabs, and through the crowds at Union Station. And then I found the magic window seat.

  • The first gentleman who sat next to me had served as a seabee in the Navy when I’d served (I wonder why he looked young enough to be my son). He’d had river-boat duty Vietnam then came home to Minnesota to work for the power company. He was soft-spoken, genteel, and thoughtful.
  • We passed wind farms, and fields of early crops across the Illinois prairie. We appreciated our tax money at work as we sped along smooth stretches on the track where wooden ties had been replaced with concrete.
  • We crossed the Mississippi and rumbled into St. Louis past the arch.
  • My table mates at supper in the dining car were excited about the wedding they were going to in Galveston. They, and many members of their family, had taken the train from Detroit and would catch a bus in Longview to finish their trip.
  • It seemed odd to sleep the night with strangers but it was also nice in a way. When I awoke at three a.m. in Little Rock, I was struck by the trust folks had in order to sleep instead of keeping vigil.
  • My seatmate and I woke early and made our quiet way to the observation car while everyone else slept. We watched the East-Texas sunrise, sipped coffee, and visited until he disembarked in Dallas.
  • My next seat-mate, a stunningly-beautiful young woman, boarded in Fort Worth. We shared our time together by looking at a bride magazine. I was fascinated by the process. The magazine tied our generations and our conversation together. We discovered that we had the same taste in gowns. She told me that the fields of flowers out of the window were Texas blue bonnets. We discussed her wedding worries and high blood pressure. I advised that she focus only on pleasing her groom and herself with the wedding plans. By the time we got to Austin, I felt like her grandmother and she kindly called a cab for me on her cell phone.
  • The point of my journey was to attend the biennial memoir-writer’s conference held by Story Circle Network. It was enriching, encouraging and energizing. It also helped me focus on story sources. Maybe this was because the conference was sandwiched between two such interesting journeys.
  • My first seatmate on the return trip was another veteran seebee. He was 92 and had built runways in the South Pacific during World War Two. Ever since college on the GI Bill, he’d worked as a civil engineer. He told me stories about growing up in Texas in the ’20s and ’30s. He bought me a cup of coffee and treated me in a courtly sort of way. He kissed my cheek when he departed in Dallas.
  • The lady across the aisle and I went to supper together. We sat at a table with a writer and her husband, an artist. They were on a book tour. My aisle-mate, a singer with a lovely speaking voice, exuded wisdom when she spoke. I basked in the beauty of it all. It was like turning a kaleidoscope. Each combination was beautiful but not to be captured again.
  • In the night’s wee hours, a lad boarded the train in Arkansas. Every time I awoke, he was taking a nip from a hip flask and another dip of snuff. He was finally asleep by the time I crept to the observation car for coffee. I mused at the combination of experiences that providence had dealt me on this trip. He was awake when I returned, and he talked with me the rest of the way to Chicago. I was surprised since I must have looked as old as dirt to him. He was returning home to bury his 19-year brother who had been murdered. He looked like he was in shock as he told his heart-wrenching story, and our wise aisle-mate reached over to  put her hand on his shoulder. He relaxed at her touch.
  • The experiences went on and on through a discussion I had with a kindly Pakistani taxi driver, and a visit with my seatmate on the South Shore train. He was studying a booklet about his upcoming trip to Patagonia!

On my drive down U.S. 30 toward home, I felt like I’d just finished reading a novel based upon John Donne’s poem:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
… any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
[John Donne]