by Bob Hazlett
“Mom, I’ve got to go,” I said, gently trying to break her embrace.
She was crying. She didn’t want me to leave, but she didn’t want to hold me back either. My three younger brothers, along with Dad were there too. Dad stood quietly, a tear in his eye, but proud. The brothers were secretly glad to see me go. One more out of our small house would give them more room.
Looking west, railroad track stretched to the horizon and the sky, black with storm clouds, foretold tornados or a brutal hail storm. No time to linger, I thought. The conductor agreed. He walked the platform, hustling everyone with a bellicose “All Aboard!”.
Grabbing my bag, I jumped onto the passenger car’s step, suddenly shuddering with the feeling I forgot something. It couldn’t be. The instructions said to bring nothing. A book for the train ride, a bible and journal, and food were the sum of it.
I found a seat and took one last look at my family, waving, framed by endless wheat fields and storm clouds. The train lurched forward then began to pick up speed; taking me east into the morning sun, and a new life.
I felt a combination of fear and exhilaration. The first time away from home and as I calculated, ‘away’ meant thirteen hundred and fifty miles. Over the past few days, I used our family atlas, a ruler, and the railroad timetable to measure travel distance. An average speed of fifty miles per hour, produced a travel time of about twenty-seven hours. For sure this would be a full two days of travel just to get to my starting point. Wow!
The conductor did his thing. His eyebrows arched as he punched my ticket. “You’re with us for a long trip, and a couple of train changes,” he said with a grin.
“Where you headed?” asked the elderly gentleman sitting across the aisle.
“New York … and you?”
“Indianapolis. I’m going to attend a new auto race they’re starting this year. It’s called the Indianapolis 500”. “Five hundred miles on a closed track,” he continued. “What awaits you in the Melting Pot?”
“College,” I replied, trying to comprehend five hundred miles on a closed track.
“I just read about a big fire in a clothing factory there this past March. Killed a hundred and forty-six workers.”, he said. “I don’t think I want to go there.”
We slipped into silence.
As hours passed, I alternated between the window and reading a book about the Battle of Allia River. In that battle in 390 BC, the Gauls defeat the Romans, then sacked the city of Rome. I love military history, but the changing landscape kept drawing me to the window. Short conversations with my neighbor punctuated the long day. Like a passing breeze, the sensation of forgetting something, periodically passed over me.
We had been rolling for about eight hours when we passed through St. Louis and I saw the Mississippi River. There are no rivers so big in Kansas.
At twelve hours, we reached Indianapolis. My new friend said goodbye with a good luck wish, and got off the train. As we began to roll again, a billboard advertising this new race, the Indianapolis 500, passed by. Maybe someday, I’ll get to see it.
Sleeping accommodations were of the most common type – the “open section”. Somewhere between Indianapolis, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio, the porter came through and converted the seats to sleeping berths. I slept some, but not well. Through the night, we crossed Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Sunrise found us pulling into Philadelphia Station. Here I changed trains. Hesitating as I got off, the feeling I forgot something nagged yet again. By this boy’s calculations, twelve hundred miles of journey were behind.
Philadelphia, the city where our nation began, was home to the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose new western route just brought this country boy from Kansas.
Long gone was the food Mother had packed for the trip, and I was starving. I had just enough time to grab a meal at a restaurant across the street from the station, then find the train for the trip north. I never saw a city this big and Modern Gomorrah still lay ahead.
Philadelphia to New York is about eighty miles. The industrial revolution’s newest monument, Penn Station in New Your City just opened last year. To a young Kansas boy, fresh from the plains, Philadelphia, NYC, Penn Station were mind blowing.
A short leg, fifty miles north along the banks of the Hudson River finished the journey – the quaint colonial town of West Point. Pride, confusion, and terror coursed through me as I looked at the giant gray buildings constituting the US Military Academy. Here I would spend the next four years and then what? Signs pointed to the processing center for new cadets. I was not alone.
Eventually, they got to this quaking young man. Dry throat and wet palms showed up right on time.
“Do you have the nominating letter from your congressman?”, asked a very big, crisply dressed sergeant.
Knees weak; I’m about to throw up. That letter is what I forgot!
“You’re going to have a tough time here, son. What’s your name?”
Head spinning; He’s about to send me home!
“What … Is … Your … Name?”, he repeated sternly.
“Eisenhower … Dwight Eisenhower” I replied.