WOSTER: ‘The City of New Orleans’ comes to life in dad’s talesFather’s talk of World’s Fair trip sparks wonder.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
When my dad was just a young man, he and his big brother, George, hopped a freight and rode to Chicago for the World’s Fair. The year was 1933.
I used to love to hear the stories about that trip. I grew up at a time when the idea of traveling by rail was about as romantic as a Rita Hayworth movie.
In high school I got into Jack Kerouac and his pals, reading “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums,” and reveling to the images of free-spirited folks from the Beat Generation who traveled the land from coast to coast with a few coins in their pockets, a book of poetry in their hands and a jug of port wine by their sides.
My dad was a generally serious, hard-working farmer, and sometimes I wondered at the notion of him and his big brother pulling a Kerouac and traveling from Lyman County to the shores of Lake Michigan with only a couple of dollars between them.
It would have seemed he’d have been wondering who was going to do the chores and the plowing (although in 1933, I guess there wasn’t all that much plowing to be done in a huge section of Middle America).
And, when I thought about it, my dad was a man who loved to travel.
He worked hard on the farm, as I said, but nearly every summer in the lull between the end of harvest and the beginning of the fall work, he planned a trip somewhere with the family. Often the travel ended in the Black Hills, which was just dandy with me and my siblings. A few times, the destination was Yellowstone National Park or Niagara Falls or the Pacific Coast.
Traveling with a wife and five kids in a 1956 three-seater Pontiac station wagon may have been my dad’s version of catching the Zephyr for the midnight run from Kansas City to Phoenix or something.
The family substituted for Neal Cassady on the road, maybe, although we probably made a lot more noise and whined way too much about the length of the trip and the lack of stops for food, drink, tourist attractions and restrooms.
We did a lot of traveling, for sure, but I’ve always remembered the story of the “real” trip my dad took.
I only know about it from what he told in his occasional stories, and when I think back, I guess it’s odd that few of the details in his stories had to do with the actual exhibits and attractions at the World’s Fair that year. Most of the time, when he talked of the trip, he talked of the trip — the actual travel.
He described things that happened along the way as he and his brother hopped off one freight that had finished a leg of a trip and onto another freight just starting its journey and heading generally in the direction of Illinois. He talked of seeing stars at night from the boxcar’s door, which was slid back a ways for ventilation and enjoyment of the passing scenery. He talked of rattling through one small town after another, seeing hobo jungles and factories and, well, just about all the things Arlo Guthrie described in his song “City of New Orleans.” He talked about staying in Chicago for three or four days, sleeping each evening in a 10-cent-a bed establishment and eating relatively regular meals and staying within the budget of two or three bucks for the entire trip.
I sometimes thought of his trip when I lay in bed on summer nights at the farm. With the windows open, if the breeze was light, it was possible to hear the whistle of the freight train that rolled along on the tracks — Chicago and North Western Railway Co. line, I believe, although I could be wrong — that crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlain and stretched along the hilltops through Reliance and off to the west.
I dreamed of riding that freight train just like my dad, and Jack Kerouac.
That dream never came true in real life, but sometimes when I think of my dad’s old stories, it seems like it did.