Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Travel Now and Then

Once the children of the World War II generation have passed away (and count me as one of them), few immigrant will be able to say that they reached these shores crossing the Atlantic by boat. We sailed from Bremerhaven in Germany and arrived way down there in New Orleans thirteen days later (that number again). The long trip (over to New York took half that time) came about because we thought that we’d end up in Texas. But our sponsor died while we were on the ocean blue; unseen and unheard by us, our sponsoring organization labored away and found us a new sponsor in Kansas City, where everything was up to date.

Yes. Thirteen day at sea—not counting long em- and debarkations, each lasting a couple of days. And ours was a fine ship, the USS General Muir; it escaped retirement after ferrying troops to fight Hitler to bring the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the homeless and the tempest-tost, the wretched refuse of Europe’s teeming shore, to New Orleans. Like many things I count this as a grace from on high. I spent the entire voyage at a port rail contemplating the Atlantic and communing with dolphins and flying fish. I went through, hoping no one saw me, two pretty rough storms; I watched the ocean turn from frowning northern vigor to smiling southern charm. And the first American land my eyes beheld were over-grown wild islands in the vast estuary of the great Mississippi—by the shores of which I later lived for many years—after years encamped next to one of its great tributaries, the wide Missouri. And I once actually jumped across the Mississippi at its place of birth in Lake Itasca in Minnesota. I was with a French geographer, an exchange-family brother of Michelle’s, but we got there by—car.

Right up to and somewhat past my years of adulthood trains carried people. A train took us from New Orleans to KC. A train took me to Chicago, twice, once when as a member of the Lillistrator, the Lillis High school’s high school paper, we all attended a journalism convention there for youngsters—and I came back madly, desperately in love! And again when, having won my state’s oratory championship (and had my picture in the Kansas City Star), I went to the Windy City to compete in the national contest held there. A train also took me part way back to Europe as a soldier, the segment from Kansas City to New Jersey, but the last leg of that long trip was, alas, by air. (Brigitte insists, having read this minus the parenthetical that I’m now inserting—and it fits here best—that I confess putting her and our children on the wrong train in Newark, NJ, on the way back from Europe—and this her first experience of the Land of the Free, with Monique still fed from a bottle in her portable crib. Well, Okay. I do confess it. Wasn’t all roses and contemplation, trains. The ladies always know how to keep things real…)

These thoughts because an old gent in the neighborhood reminded me of trains. He is 84, so that makes sense. And on my walk later I pondered travel, now and then. And it occurred to me that I learned in a visceral way just how far Europe and America lie apart on this great water planet. I remembered endless train-trips, the time they took—and the time they gave, consequently, for reflection on life, people, and to read thick books. We always lose by gaining something—and also gain by losing something of the frenetically new. The old had its adaptations and its compensations; the new offers much relief, and ought to: it causes stress we didn’t feel, in the Anno Long Ago, because it was spread very thin across vast fields of time.


  1. Your putting Mom, Monique and Babs in the wrong train reminds me of when I put you and Mom in the train for Tours without tickets having then gone to buy them I missed the train myself! Me on the platform, you in the train and no cell phones back then to tell you to get off at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps! How did we manage?

  2. A long, long ocean voyage -- out of touch with the world -- has a lot of appeal some days. Somehow, though, I suspect the modern cruise-ship experience isn't what I have in mind.

  3. Michelle: That event has not been forgotten, but it did produce a well-known family joke, namely recounting how, in the train, Brigitte looked out the window as if she had nothing to do with me, while I addressed the conductor saying: “Nous avons un petit problème...” Brigitte gives a great imitation of that...

    John: I think you're right. But people sometimes hitch-hike on freighters (one has to know somebody) and still have the authentic experience.


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