The other morning, I was thinking about Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” and its main character, Billy Pilgrim, who occasionally drifts off to visit Tralfamadore — another world whose inhabitants can see in four dimensions and see all of time.
They’re historians and collectors and are forever inquiring, studying and writing about what they observe. If they’re bored or don’t like what’s happening in one era or a particular subject, they blink an eye and move from one time to another.
My wife, Marcia, calls me Billy Pilgrim because I do the same. If there’s something happening in the real world that has me depressed and overwhelmed, I’ll go to my bookshelf or photo file, find a book or a photograph and do some time travel. Of course, it’s escapism, but sometimes to keep sane I have to get away, and Tralfamadore is as good a place as any. As a tourist stop, I highly recommend it to others.
This week, the chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the “unmatched wisdom” of its current occupant were too much, and I resolved to ignore The New York Times, the Star Tribue, the Washington Post and MSNBC and retreat to another era and a more elegant time. My time machine was “Dining Car Line to the Pacific” by William McKenzie.
It was first published in 1990 by the Minnesota Historical Society and republished by the University of Minnesota Press in 2004. I’m proud to say I have a signed copy of the first edition. I knew Mr. McKenzie. For 30 years he was the editor, public relations manager and corporate historian for the Northern Pacific Railway — now part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
I grew up around trains and railroads. My grandfather was with the Great Northern. I did a lot of train riding in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1949 my parents moved to the East Coast, and I commuted with my grandmother on trips to and from St. Paul. Grandmother refused to fly and would never go coach, so we always had a Pullman room and enjoyed the best of everything.
Then, the two top trains in the Chicago-New York trade were the Twentieth Century Limited and the Broadway Limited. They were all Pullman sleeping cars with private drawing rooms, compartments and bedrooms, no coaches, with amenities that included an observation-club car, a café car, a barbershop, a train secretary and a lady’s maid.
The dining cars featured chefs and specialty entrees. Everything was prepared on board. Dinner was by reservation. The stewards wore morning coats and formal trousers. You dressed for the dining car — dresses and flowered hats for the ladies, suits for men. I was compelled to appear in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, which I detested, but I was on a train in a dining car, and I would do anything for that.
Between Chicago and St. Paul, it was the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha or the Burlington’s Zephyr and, again, another dining car and parlor observation.
By the ‘60s it was obvious that 707 jetliners would triumph over the passenger train as more and more travelers swapped elegance for speed. It was then, fresh out of college, that I resolved to travel as much as I could by rail, hoping to stay ahead of the “train off” notices.
I succeeded and logged thousands of miles of rail travel on the likes of the North Coast Limited, Empire Builder, Super Chief, Coast Daylight, California Zephyr, City of Los Angeles and the Canadian Pacific’s Canadian. All that ended in May 1971 when Amtrak took over operation of what was left of the nation’s passenger service from the private railroad companies.
I’ve traveled on Amtrak since then, mostly on trips in the Northeast Corridor, but after sampling some of its long-distance trains and a few bad experiences, I thought nevermore and surrendered to the airports, the interstates and the Holiday Inns.
The Washington Post reports that Amtrak’s dining cars are going away. Its Sept. 21 edition was headlined: “The end of an American tradition: The Amtrak dining car.” It may not be too great a loss because the white napery, crystal and china disappeared not long after 1971 along with stewards in morning coats, fresh table flowers, onboard chefs and attentive service.
Henceforth, Amtrak travelers can enjoy boxed entrees, plastic tableware and buffet service. An Amtrak spokesperson in the Post article calls it “an evolution more in line with the demands of this era” — a time absent feathered hats and dresses, business suits and, thankfully, Little Lord Fauntleroy suits as well.
So much for Tralfamadore. It’s time to go back to The New York Times.