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Jack Smith

Too Young for the Mysteries of Train Travel

February 14, 1989|Jack Smith

Taking the train is still a thrilling experience.

One recent Sunday my wife and I were scheduled to take Amtrak to San Juan Capistrano, but she had a calendar conflict and couldn't go. I was to speak that afternoon to the Friends of the San Juan Capistrano Library, and they had sent us two round-trip tickets.

Not wanting to go alone, I invited my 11-year-old granddaughter, Alison, to go with me. Her mother drove her into Union Station and I met her at the entrance. She was wearing a red sweater, a plaid skirt and long red nylon stockings. At least, I thought, I wasn't likely to lose her.

The great waiting room had become a barn. I remembered waiting in it during World War II, when it teemed with servicemen and women going to their posts, or home. They formed long lines at the train gates, their loved ones clinging to them until the last moment.

Now there were hardly a dozen people in the large brown leather chairs. The San Diegan was scheduled to depart at 10:50. A few minutes before that hour, the passengers began streaming in.

Our seats were Custom Class, in the first car behind the locomotive. Alison took a seat facing forward, the way the train would go after it backed out. She was afraid she would get sick if she sat backward. She sat next to a woman who said she had to face forward, too. I sat opposite them.

When the conductor came for our tickets, he asked me who my fellow traveler was. I pointed to Alison. He asked her, "Do you know this man?" Either he was a kidder or he wanted to make sure I hadn't kidnaped her.

The train began to roll, so slowly at first that I was hardly aware of its movement. We backed out, then began to go the other way. I had none of the anxiety I feel on accelerating airplanes.

We rolled through the industrial core of the city: large warehouses, storage tanks, yards of lined-up cement mixers, yards of trash trucks parked neatly at an angle, side by side, yards of heavy equipment, yards of junk steel. It had rained Saturday; everything glittered in the brilliant air. It had a kind of beauty: Ashcan Art.

On we rolled through the little communities: suburban houses backed up against the tracks; oil refineries; high-tech factories; enormous car lots; schools, civic buildings. First stop: Fullerton. Second stop: Anaheim Stadium. Third stop: Santa Ana. The next stop would be ours.

A little girl appeared by our seats. She told Alison that her sister wanted to talk to her. Without consulting me, my granddaughter got up and followed the little girl, leaving her purse and jacket.

"Hey," I called after her, "don't forget to come back."

She vanished through the vestibule. I began to grow uneasy. It had been a strange ritual; perhaps a ruse. Where was the little girl taking her? Why? Would she come back in time to disembark at our destination? I waited five minutes.

I got up and walked through the car and into the next car. It was the cafe car. She wasn't there. I went through the next car. She wasn't there. I began to feel an edge of panic. She had simply vanished. Things like that didn't happen on the San Diegan. It wasn't the Orient Express, after all.

The conductor came down the aisle. "I've lost my granddaughter," I told him. He said, "Yeah, I saw her with a man whose picture I've seen in the Post Office."

I wasn't amused. I was beginning to think it was all too possible. I would never see my granddaughter again. I was responsible. He saw my concern. "How was she dressed?" he asked.

"She had bright-red stockings." It was all I could remember.

He went back toward the next car and I went back to my seat. I sat wondering whether something sinister had happened; whether I would ever see her again.

In two minutes the conductor came down the aisle. She was behind him. She took her seat. "I suppose you're annoyed with me," I said.

"Yes," she said. "I was coming back."

I had failed my first crisis.

Well, what's the point of riding a train if you can't fantasize a little?

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