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When the Smoke Cleared, the Boys Had Become Gentlemen

July 26, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a Canoga Park free-lance writer.

I'm pretty sure my cousin Ray and I were 15, which would have made Eddie, Ray's younger brother, 13.

Pretty young, but after a lot of pleading, Ray's and Eddie's parents and my mom decided that the three of us could go to Denver on the train.

After all, my father and Ray's and Eddie's uncle, who lived in Denver, would be there to meet us at the station, so why not. Besides, in the enlightened year of 1942, what could happen?

Naturally, we would travel the three days to Denver in a chair car. We each had $6 for the diner, but to make the money last as long as possible our mothers had prepared something for us to eat on the train.

It amounted, thanks to a minor communications failure, to two large, nearly identical boxes of nutbread. To add a little variety, Ray's and Eddie's dad had stopped at a market on the way to the station and bought us a dozen oranges.

Freedom, money in our pockets, food and the open road. What more could the three of us need?

I don't think we were even all the way out of the station when I produced my contribution to our great adventure. In those days, men of the world smoked pipes.

Having worked as a delivery boy at Delany's Drug, I had sold myself three identical pipes and a large package of very aromatic Rum and Maple smoking tobacco. My cousins were thrilled.

Having a pipeful, we decided, was something men did after a meal "to sweeten the stomach."

So, though we had eaten just before being taken to the station, as the train was passing through Glendale en route out of Los Angeles we each had a couple of pieces of nutbtread, covered with butter.

As we were finishing, the porter came through the car, noticed our brown paper bag and stopped. He spread the top of it with an index finger.

"You boys got a lot of citrus there?"

None of us had ever had any experience with black people before. Ray and Eddie, wide-eyed,just nodded. I didn't.

In the early planning stages of the trip, a friend of my mother's, John Burnett, a retired railroad man, had stopped by the house.

On hearing of the proposed trip, he offered to share his vast knowledge. He had then given us such unwanted information as buffeting capacities for rolling stock, or how hard a coach could be hit before every one inside would be mashed to a paste.

That almost sent my mother up the wall.

He had also given me a short course in train etiquette. Part of which was to tell me that the train would be staffed for the most part "by Negro boys" and that all porters were to be called George.

"They just love it when you call 'em George," he said. "Then, you take care of 'em at the end of the trip. Tip 'em a dollar."

So to the porter's inquiry I answered, "Well, George, we packed us a little fruit, to snack on."

He gave me a long, hard look. "Well," he said, "you better finish your snacking before the Arizona border. Can't take any citrus fruit across the state line."

Having no clear idea how far it was to the border, the three of us started eating our dozen oranges.

It was twilight before we finished. We went to the observation car, opened the heavily aromatic Rum and Maple Tobacco container and loaded our pipes.

Shortly after lighting up Eddie looked up at both of us, announced that he thought the tobacco stank and the whole idea was dumb. He handed me his pipe and went back to his seat to read comic books.

Ray and I smiled indulgently at each other, chalked it up to Eddie's youth and went on smoking and watching the scenery flash by.

I noticed that Ray, who was leaning against the back observation car ironwork, was facing into the wind. As a consequence, he seemed to be smoking about three times as fast as I was and the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe was burning bright red. My pipe, on the other hand, kept going out. In fact, I was smoking matches more than anything else, while Ray seemed to be competing with the front end of the train in smoke production.

I knew what was happening.

And there was a demon, down deep inside me giggling like an idiot. Ray was the star of his school's baseball team. I'd made my baseball reputation as the only one trying our for third base who'd ever ducked a line drive.

Ray was a top track man and the captain of his school's basketball team. All our lives Ray had bested me at everything.

At last, with all my extra thumbs and left feet, I'd found something I could do better than Ray, smoke. A small victory, but sometimes you have to take your victories where you can find them.

"Hey, Ray," I said, trying to keep a straight face, as he grew noticably grayer. "I'm going to stay here and enjoy my pipe for a bit, but if smoking is making you kind of sick, maybe you ought to go in."

Wind Whipped Up

He looked surprised. "Sick? 'Course not. I'm going to stay here and enjoy," he gulped a couple of times, "my pipe, too."

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