Accumulating furlough time seemed an impossible task for me. Something always popped up before enough days amassed for me to travel to the northwest. However, during the late spring of 1958 I had saved up thirty days. I hadn’t seen my folks in two years. It was time. Visiting the Charleston, South Carolina train station I purchased a round trip ticket for Portland, Oregon and a week later I was aboard a Louisville-Nashville passenger train headed home.
Trusting the station agent to line me up with the best possible route was a dreadful mistake. I don’t recall much about the first leg of my journey. Perhaps the greatest reason is because most of it occurred at night. I do recall my coach moving back and forth in the Evansville, Indiana switch yard and listening the squeaking wheels as the crew assembled a train. If I saw the Evansville sign glide past my window once I saw it a dozen times. Eventually, however, we departed that boring place and I reached St. Louis where I changed to a plush Kansas City bound train and we hauled ass across Missouri hell bent for leather.
Shortly after lunchtime I boarded the Portland Rose, a beautiful yellow train. If I was assigned a chair number for my trip to the northwest I was not aware of it. Traveling alone, I fell in with a half-dozen GIs headed in the same general direction. One of them was a young giant who stood at least a foot taller any anyone else and seemed in charge. He suggested we should move outside onto the platform at the end of the last car and wave farewell to the Kansas City well-wishers as though we were campaigning politicians.
Naturally, I went along and as the Portland Rose began easing out of the station the conductor, a small withered man – father-time himself – who probably should have retired eons earlier popped out the door.
“Hey!” he shouted in a sharp, authoritative voice, “you can’t be out here.”
The young giant, obviously accustomed to having his way turned and moved in close, invading the old man’s personal space and shouted down at the top of his head: “What do you mean we can’t be out here?”
The conductor, displaying a started expression, said nothing more. Instead, he went back into the ca from which he had emerged and closed the door behind him.
By this time we’d crossed over into Kansas and the well wishers were in our wake, so we filed back into the coach and went our separate ways.
The Kansas wheat fields offered little to see. I retrieved a Zane Grey paperback novel I’d brought, just in case, and began nursing a half pint of Old Crow – while the conductor was elsewhere, of course.
That was when I first noticed the two enlisted men, a burly army staff sergeant and a skinny tech – E5 and E6, respectively. They were both in the process of tying one on.
(There’s more to come)