By Greg Clark, August 2, 1947
“Train travel,” announced Jimmie Frise, “has become very dull.”
“It’s for the underprivileged,” I submitted.
We were seated side by side in a crowded day coach. Our baggage teetered overhead in the narrow racks. Our feet were encumbered with additional baggage underfoot. We were hot, bothered, crowded.
“Let’s see,” said Jim. “It must be 15 years since I’ve been in a day coach.”
“Same here,” I calculated. “Any short trips I’ve had to make, such as you would travel in a day coach, I’ve always done by motor car. Any long trips, overnight, have been in a sleeping car. And during the day, in the sleeper, you’re travelling Pullman anyway.”
“There must be millions of people,” mused Jim, “who are in the same situation as we’re in. You could say that the number of motor car owners in the country – plus their families – are the number of people who haven’t been in a day coach for years and years.”
“The motor car,” I pointed out, “has brought a lot of joy into the world. But it has also taken a lot of joy out of the world, too. Why, when I was young, a train trip was the most exciting and interesting adventure conceivable.”
“And look around you now!” chuckled Jim.
Our fellow travellers were certainly a melancholy and lack-lustre crowd. Though it was midday, more than 50 per cent of them were either asleep or in the attitude of sleep, sprawled and perspiring. From our train windows could be seen such summer beauty as hundreds of thousands of tourists come myriad man miles to behold. But if any of our fellow travellers had their faces to the windows, their eyes were shut.
Half a dozen children meowed and wailed wearily. A few commercial men, in pairs, carried on Imposing conversations above the giddley-bump, giddley-click of the train wheels. But if anybody was enjoying the adventure of the train ride, they were concealing it.
“Where’s the glamor gone?” demanded Jim. “Why, even after I was a child, even when I was a mature man, and before I owned a motor car, I can recollect there was glamor in train travel. I looked forward to a journey by train as the better part of the holiday I was bent on.”
“The motor car,” I suggested, “has altered all values. It has personalized travel. Individualized it. You travel with chosen and selected companions, for one thing.”
“Yes, I suppose,” said Jim guardedly, taking a slow look around our immediate vicinity. “The motor car has removed from train traffic a great proportion of the interesting people who used to travel this way. I don’t mean to be snobbish. But after all, probably most of these people here WOULD travel by car IF they could afford a car.”
“In other words,” I ventured, a certain class distinction has arisen in the world of travel.”
“You could put it that way,” agreed Jim cautiously. “It stands to reason that the brightest and most alert people are the people who have money. And if they have money, they own motor cars.”
“Jim, you are,” I declared, “a snob! Some of our best and most delightful friends haven’t the money to buy a car.”
“I think it’s about time,” retorted Jim, “that we put a spike in this snob stuff. Here on this very train is the answer to the whole problem. In the old days, when everybody, rich and poor, travelled on trains, there was a sense of alertness, of fun, of adventure, of amused excitement, about train travel. Now, with a certain element removed from the population of trains, train travel has become dull and uninteresting, sleepy, impatient; something to be gotten over with. And that certain element, my friend, which has been removed – is the motor car owners, the people with money enough to own a car.”
“In other words,” I accused, “If a person can’t afford a motor car, he’s dull!”
Jim just waved his hand around at the day coach.
Certainly, nowhere else I can think of in our civilisation, could you find gathering of people so completely bored with their present condition. Not in a big department store waiting room. Not on the streets. Not in movies. Not in public parks.
A bevy of five young people, from a car ahead, came boisterously through the door of our car; two boys and three girls. They were merely prowling through the train looking for excitement, I suppose. Their laughing passage had no effect on our car, except to rouse a few burghers from their slumber, who cast indignant glances after the disturbers; and to excite a couple of the children to further outcries, so that damp mothers had to smack them to quiet them again. “See!” explained Jim, after the gay ones had passed.
“Well, they’re happy enough,” I countered, “and they haven’t got motor cars.”
“But they will have,” retorted Jim, “in a couple of years. Or I miss my guess.”
“Thank heavens,” I concluded, “we’ve got parlor car chairs from Fort William on.”
“We were lucky to get them,” said Jim. “When I tried to get chair car seats, the ticket agent just laughed. He said they had been sold out for a month.”
“Right there,” I offered, “is more than half the secret of the dullness of train travel, Jim. The railroads, during the big depression and then the long war, got years and years behind in their equipment. These trains should all be equipped with any amount of chair car space. The day coaches should be all streamlined, modern, with soft adjustable seats. There should be club cars and observation cars. The minute the motor car really started to take on, the railroads should have started competing, then and there. They let the motor car get miles ahead of them.”
“I still think,” declared Jim, “that the whole secret is – the bright, alert, merry, mischievous, money-making type of people have ceased using the trains.”
“Aw, you’re right!” I exclaimed suddenly, remembering my Uncle Tom Jackson and his brother, Uncle Bill.
“These two uncles of mine, Jim,” I related, “were characteristic of the sort of people who travelled on trains back in the good old days. They owned a clothing factory in a small town about 150 miles from the big city. And they travelled to and fro a lot. Man, there was no lack of excitement on any train they were on!”
“They always travelled parlor car, of course. Now, Uncle Tom was tall and thin and bald as an egg, with a sage aquiline nose. His brother, Uncle Bill, was short and stout and pudgy.
“The first thing they did, on boarding the parlor car, was stage a fight. Just as the train was pulling out of the station, Uncle Bill would walk in and take his chair. He would open a newspaper and start to read. Along would come Uncle Tom. On seeing Uncle Bill seated, he would draw his ticket stub from his pocket and examine it.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ he would say, ‘but you are sitting my chair.’
‘Not at all!’ Uncle Bill would reply.
‘Let me see your ticket,’ Uncle Tom would demand a loud voice that would attract the attention of the entire parlor car.
‘Why should I?’ little Uncle Bill would retort.
Then Uncle Tom would make a grab. And up would jump Uncle Bill, and the two of them would start shoving and punching and wrestling furiously, while the old ladies screamed and pushed the bell for the porter, and the gentlemen passengers would come and try to separate the fighters. By the time the old familiar porter came running, grinning from ear to ear, the two brothers would separate and sit down side by side, as if nothing at all had happened.”
Jim gazed into space with a dreamy look. “Ah, those were the days,” he confessed. “There used to be more of the boy in men, in those days. I don’t know! It seems to me, men bare become very stuffy and dull in recent years. Too proper. Too self-conscious. If anybody did that sort of thing nowadays, they’d call in a psychiatrist.”
“Well, here’s another,” I recounted. “Don’t think my two uncles let it rest with a mere tussle in the parlor car. No, sir. As soon as they got a little bored with their companions in the parlor car, they’d start a little excitement in the day coaches. Uncle Bill, the short, fat one would go into the first day coach, select an empty seat better than half way up, and start reading the paper. Then Uncle Tom, the tall thin one, would come along, handkerchief in hand, and carefully scrutinize every passenger in each and every seat. He would pause by each seat and stare intently at the noses of all occupants. By the time he had reached Uncle Bill, everybody in the coach was up and staring. ‘What the Sam Hill,’ they’d say, ‘is the silly old goat up to?’
Then he’d arrive at Uncle Bill. With a triumphant expression, he would shake out the hanky, bunch it up comfortably and hold it to Uncle Bill’s nose. Uncle Bill never removing his eyes from the newspaper, would blow mightily. He had one of those trumpet nose-blows. He’d blow and trumpet, and Uncle Tom would wipe and rub for all he was worth, doing a good and workmanlike job. He would lean down and polish Uncle Bill’s proboscis with the greatest attention, all the while Uncle Bill ignoring the whole business.
Then, with a coach load of travellers on tiptoe to see this wonder, Uncle Tom would finish examining the rest of the car most expectantly. When he reached the vestibule, Uncle Bill would get up and join him. And they’d repeat the nonsense in the next car ahead.”
Jim shook his head sadly. All the people,” he sighed, with that much fun and sense in them today are riding in motor cars.
looked at him indignantly.
“How about us?” I inquired. “We’re motor car owners, but we happen to have to travel by train. Is there anything to prevent us from indulging our sense of humor and entertaining these fellow-travellers?”
Jim looked at them anxiously. They had a forbidding look.
“Let’s wait,” he said, “until we get to Fort William and get our parlor car seats. Then, we can try the fight, eh?”
So we looked out the window at the glorious scenery; and fell adozing instead. And by the time we reached Fort William, we were pretty well sprawled out too, with cinders on our tongues.
But we got a refreshing pot of tea at Fort William and exited our parlor car and our chairs. And an obliging porter stowed our stuff in the vestibules and made all comfortable. We went in separately to “case” the joint, so to speak.
It was the usual parlor car galaxy. Much tidier and gentler-looking than the day coach throngs. Middle aged couples, with their chairs swung face to face. Numbers of solo passengers, their chairs swung back to back, deep in magazines; or else gracefully asleep, their mouth shut.
Jim and I met in the vestibule and exchanged winks, “A nice drowsy bunch,” I muttered, “to shake up.”
“I bet they’ve travelled 500 miles,” chuckled Jimmie, “with no more excitement than the hiss of the air brakes.”
“Will I go in and sit?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll be the accuser,” agreed Jim.
So when the train started, I went in and sat down in my chair, taking out a magazine and making myself comfortable in the characteristic parlor car style – that is, giving a brief and inhospitable glance at my neighbors, all of whom were pointedly ignoring my new arrival.
Then Jim came walking down the aisle.
He paused and looked uncertainly about. This got several of the nearer passengers aware of him.
“Oh, pardon me,” he said lightly but firmly. “I think you’re in my chair.”
“I think not,” I replied shortly, resuming my magazine.
Jim studied his ticket. “May I see your ticket?” he inquired.
“Are you the conductor?” I retorted.
“Let me see your ticket!” commanded Jim in a loud and threatening voice.
“Certainly not,” I replied.
Whereupon Jim reached down and took hold of the shoulders of my coat and hoisted me.
I swung a powerful punch that missed, and, Jim demanding “which pocket is it in?”, lifted me in the air and began scuffling at my pockets.
The nearer ladies were exclaiming shrilly. A couple of the middle-aged men were calling “Now, now!” in scandalized tones.
All of a sudden, the entire parlor car seemed to go into action. From my side, a tall, rangy gentleman, obviously a westerner, came plunging and poked Jimmie square on the nose.
From Jim’s side, another younger man lunged and poked my champion on his nose,
“I saw the big bully,” shouted my champion, “pick this little fellow right up…!!”
Amid the pandemonium, bells ringing, voices protesting, ladies crying “Oh, oh!” Jim’s champion shouted back:
“Aw, the little guy wouldn’t have even the decency to show his ticket! I know his type! I spotted him the minute he came in! The measly little …”
Jim was sitting on the parlor car floor holding his handkerchief to his nose.
I, under the protection of my large western champion, was so far undamaged.
And then the porter and the Pullman conductor both arrived, the two strangers stated the two conflicting points of view, I assisted Jim to his feet and out to the washroom off the smoking compartment.
Where we decided to remain for some time, until the humorous novelty had worn itself out.
With ice from the ice water tank, the porter and I got Jim’s nose stopped.
The big westerner came and looked in the smoking room door solicitously.
“Everything under control?” he inquired. “Can you handle him all right?”
“Okay,” I assured him, holding ice on the nape of Jim’s neck.
“Well, now,” said Jim, bitterly, through his handkerchief, “how about the next trick? How about me going along with this handkerchief, through the day coaches?”
“No more tricks!” I asserted devoutly.
Editor’s Note: A day coach is a train car specifically for people who are travelling less than a day. This is different than a sleeping car, for overnight or longer trips. Pullman cars were the common name for sleeping cars. A parlour car was a more expensive day coach, like “business class” today.