Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Muncie Boyhood-Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

Me, Mom, Bob, Grandma Alice, and my niece Debbie.  Four generations.
In 1968, Dionne Warwick had a hit single called “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” I used to listen to it at night on my little off-white (nicotine-stained) box radio that sat in the middle of the headboard in my bed before I went to sleep. In 1973, I learned the answer to the question.

Sometime around the end of my first-grade year or early in my second-grade year (approximately 1970), my brother Bob (or Bobby as I called him then) moved to California. He was in his early twenties, escaping from a failing marriage, mourning the loss of our oldest brother, and feeling that he needed a fresh start. So, he took off with his baby daughter and moved to San Jose, California to start over….and hide from his ex-wife.

About four years later, in the summer of 1973, in between my fifth- and sixth-grade years, my Mom decided it was time for her to go visit him.

Dad wouldn’t take time off from his job at Chevrolet-Muncie, so it was just me, Mom, and my grandma Alice. Mom wouldn’t fly, so we booked passage on Amtrak. This was truly an adventure from start to finish. Muncie to San Jose, California…riding coach.

LEG ONE-Muncie to Indianapolis

Amtrak didn’t run from Muncie to Indianapolis, so Mom recruited my sister to drive us to Union Station in downtown Indianapolis to catch our train. We were supposed to board at 8am, so it was an early morning drive. Now, here’s the thing: My sister was afraid of the interstate, so we took State Highway 67 instead of the much faster Interstate 69. Being a kid, I didn’t realize how silly this was at the time, but as slow as it was, it worked. She got us there in time and dropped us off. I remember thinking how weird it was to see all the steam rising up through the sidewalk grates as we drove into downtown Indy. I’d never been there before, and it seemed so….dirty.

LEG TWO-Indianapolis to Chicago

We got off to a slow start. I’m not referring here to my sister’s aversion to superhighways, but rather to our actual departure by train. Our 8am train didn’t even arrive in Indianapolis until noon. I was excited though. I’d never before been on a real train. I think I’d ridden one at a zoo or a fair, but that was just a tiny, make believe train. This was the real deal. It was huge, and shiny, with bathrooms and restaurants and comfortable seats.

It wasn’t long after noon when we pulled out for the short three-hour ride to Chicago. We had to catch a connecting train that evening at Chicago’s Union Station, but we had a good six hours. No problem, right? That’s what we thought.

This crazy train would go for a bit, then stop. Then, it would sit….maybe back up some…and then sit some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

It took us six hours to get to Chicago. We pulled into Union Station five minutes AFTER our connecting train to Los Angeles left the station.

This was interesting. We were stranded in Chicago and I don’t think my grandmother had ever even been to Indianapolis…at least not for a very long time…let alone needing to figure out how to deal with a city as big as this one. My mother wasn’t much better, but I was too young to care. It was an adventure.

I have to admit though that Amtrak took care of us. They got us a hotel room at the Palmer House…boy, was I too young to appreciate that…and they got us a cab to take us there. They even took care of our dinner (It was at the restaurant in the Palmer House where I got my first taste of real cheesecake.). All in all, it worked out. As a young adult, I got to revisit the Palmer House. Only then did I realize what luxury we had experienced.

The next day, we had to return to the train station to catch our new train to Los Angeles at 6pm. We went very early and waited, eventually boarded, and departed that evening without a hitch.

LEG THREE-Chicago to Los Angeles

That was a long ride sitting in a seat that only slightly reclined. We spent two or three full nights riding in coach. The days weren’t too bad with lots of scenery, little towns, and interesting people, but the nights were tough. Back then, everyone smoked and the trains were full of it. With nothing to distract me, and no real way to get comfortable, it was difficult to rest.

I loved it when we started to get near the Rockies. I could see them coming for a long time before we got there. Up to that point, the largest “mountain” I had personally seen was the sledding hill at Prairie Creek Reservoir. My mouth probably hung open for hours.

Now remember, I was a child. I was an obnoxious boy of eleven. I liked to joke, cut up, and generally act sort of silly. It was my way of keeping myself entertained, and I liked it when other people laughed too. (Maybe I still do, and that’s why I write this silly blog.) Anyway, when we crossed into New Mexico, somehow the subject of our upcoming stops was brought up, and I tried to say “Albuquerque.”

It didn’t come out as “Albuquerque.” It came out as “Albacookie.”

So, I started laughing and making fun of myself; repeating my mistake.

“Albacookie! Hahahahaha. Albert’s Cookies. Hahahaha! Albert’s eating cookies. Hahaha!”

It was definintely obnoxious, but people all around were laughing with me. I thought it was hysterical, laughed and kept it up for a long time, but eventually it died down. Soon, I had even forgotten it. A little time passed, and I need to go to the bathroom, so I got up and headed down the aisle. I was about to the end, when a lady grabbed my arm…

“Hey!” she said.

“Uh, yeah?” I responded.

“Were from Albuquerque, and we don’t appreciate you making fun of our city!”

“Umm. Okay. Sorry.”

Wow. Touchy.

She let me go eventually, and I made it to the head without peeing my pants…or being accosted by any additional native New Mexicans.

The last night was much better. There was no one in the seat next to me, so I got to stretch out across the full bench. I slept really well until about 5am when we pulled into Needles, California. I was woken up by the conductor…or someone acting on his behalf…because they had a passenger that needed the extra seat I was lying on. It was a Native American woman, which I thought was cool.  I had never seen an "Indian" as they were called then, so it was intriguing.  The unfortunate part though was that she was reeking with body odor. It was a tough couple of hours more into Los Angeles. Can you say WHEW?

LEG FOUR-Los Angeles to San Jose

This was the most beautiful part of the entire trip! The tracks hugged the coastline the entire way, and the scenery was amazing. Los Angeles with its concrete rivers. Malibu. Santa Barbara. Big Sir. I’d do that part again in a heartbeat. I can’t really remember much detail about it anymore other than it was just incredibly beautiful…for a kid from Muncie, Indiana.


We didn’t stay with my brother. I don’t think my mom thought it would work out very well. Rather, we stayed with mom’s ex-sister-in-law. We got there in early June, and I know we were there for the Fourth of July, so I guess we were in California for almost a month. I got to visit so many fantastic places. Fisherman’s Wharf. Monterey. Carmel. Alcatraz. Redwood State Park. The Winchester Mystery House. The Boardwalk at Santa Cruz.

I rode a cable car in San Francisco. I flew in a helicopter over San Francisco Bay. I swam in the Pacific Ocean.

Eventually, though, all wonderful things must come to an end as I suppose they have to, or we would begin to lose appreciation for the adventure. We boarded another train, or series of trains, back to Indiana.

It was during this time that I grew the closest to my grandma. She had been living with us for a couple of years, and initially Dad didn’t think it was going to work. He was close to throwing her out a couple of times because apparently she was being mean to me. If she was, I was oblivious to it. Suddenly, though, that all changed, and we started to become very close. This train voyage to California and back came at the height of that closeness, and we had a lot of fun with each other the whole time; joking, playing, and generally being silly.

It was Allabitquirky….even in New Mexico.

Enough for now.

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