Remembering ‘The Mainline of Mid-America’ in Fiction

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IClogoKnown as The Main-Line of Mid-America, the Illinois Central (chartered in 1851), connected Chicago with Sioux City, Omaha, Mobile, New Orleans and points in between. Perhaps its most famous train was the City of New Orleans which began running in 1947 and still operates today under Amtrak. Steve Goodman’s 1971 folksong “City of New Orleans,” celebrates that train with its “Good morning Anerica how are you” in recordings by everyone from Judy Collins to Willie Nelson.

When I was in college in Florida and working in Glacier National Park in the summer, I traveled by train. Even though the Great Northern Railway sold its historic park hotels in 1950, the railroad still provided low-cost tickets to seasonal park employees such as bellmen, maids, desk clerks, and waiters. On my return trips, I rode the Illinois Central’s lesser-known train called the Seminole. Since Tallahassee had no north-south rail service, I got only as far as Albany, Georgia (100 miles away) where my parents picked me up.

Passenger Timetable

Passenger Timetable

My worst experience aboard that train came one winter when I was coming home from a visit with friends in Chicago. Somewhere north of Albany in Central of Georgia Railway territory, the train stopped in the middle of a forest recently glazed over by an ice storm. A trainman came through after a while, and said we were free to get off and stretch our legs because we were going to be there a while. A huge tree lay across the tracks. The train crew, with help from the passengers, attacked that tree with fire axes. It took four hours and many blistered hands to clear the tracks. (My parents saw more of Albany that day than they planned.)

Nostalgia Through Fiction

In my recent contemporary fantasy The Seeker (Vanilla Heart Publishing, April 2013) my main character travels from Chicago to Albany via the Seminole to see his girl friend. Since I rode that train many times, it was fun re-creating ambiance of 1960’s train travel in the novel.

Several months later, the sequel called The Sailor, included some of my memories of the Great Northern Railway. In fact, my protagonist David Ward got to do what I always wanted to do: run the train.

In both novels, train travel is a relatively minor part of the action. But I like to make my settings real as well as historically accurate. Train travel was by no means perfect, but it was how we got where we wanted to go when airline travel was still too expensive for most people. There’s nostalgia in the memories, and that’s another reason I included them in my fiction.

Illinois Central Excerpt from The Seeker

When the taxi dropped David off beneath the clock tower of the 72-year-old Romanesquestyle Illinois Central terminal in Chicago for his May 1 trip to Florida on IC train #9, the Seminole, he wondered if Anne still considered the spontaneous marriage proposal he sprang on her while the Empire Builder raced between Williston and Minot, North Dakota last September with a no-holds-barred, unconditional, leap-of-faith yes.

I loved IC Station in Michigan Avenue. It was built in 1893. It was torn down in 1974 when municipal vandalism won out over preservation and common sense.

I loved IC Station in Michigan Avenue. It was built in 1893. It was torn down in 1974 when municipal vandalism won out over preservation and common sense.

Thirteen stories up, the clock read 4:00 PM. Roughly 21 hours later and 940.7 miles down the Main Line of Mid-America, Anne would meet the Jacksonville-bound train at Albany, Georgia as —she claimed—a “different person.” “Za aníwaz?” Eagle would ask. Had she become a blonde? Taller, thinner, shorter, heavier? Or, more like Katherine Hepburn and less like Elizabeth Taylor?

As he found his seat in the old heavyweight coach in the chocolate and orange colored train, the “different person” comment, made so lightly on the phone several weeks before, played on his mind in a minor key.

By the time the pair of General Motors E9 diesel locomotives eased the train out of the station at precisely 4:45 PM, the minor key was dangerously close to a dirge. He was going south from Chicago with love, but was his blind date Daniela Bianchi, playing the sexy Tatiana Romanova with the bedroom eyes; or Lotte Lenya as the sinister agent Rosa Klebb with a lethal knife in her shoe?

At 63rd Street, he opened Barnard Malamud’s A New Life to the first page in hopes that “S.Levin, formerly a drunkard” would be entertaining enough to distract him from idle speculations about the Wicked Witch of the West vs. the Good Witch of the North.

Journey's Beginning

Journey’s Beginning

Dinner—between Champaign and Effingham—distracted him. For one thing, he shared a table with Ed and Mary Saunders of St. James Street in Waukegan, Illinois, who were heading to Miami for their gala fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration at the Fontainebleau, and Mary had a lot to say about Ed’s failure to book them on the more luxurious City of Miami instead of the more utilitarian Seminole. For another thing, the Canapé Lorenzo set before him on the railroad’s coral china was actually quite good—as were the Athens Parfait (compliments of Ed Saunders who, according to the waiter, was a snake when it came to forgetting the tip) and coffee for desert.

David fell asleep south of North Cairo, Illinois, soon after Laverne told S. Levin, “I’ve never done it before with a guy with a beard.” He awoke abruptly 245.9 miles later in Haleyville, Mississippi. A New Life lay on the floor at his feet. He looked at his watch, almost 5:00 AM. The car was quiet until a woman leaving the restroom at end of the coach misjudged the uneven movement of the train through a pair of switches, screamed “shit” in a voice loud enough to wake the unborn before falling against the push-down door handle and careening out into the noisy vestibule. The sleeping passengers’ heads moved, shoulders scrunched or unscrunched, feet slid out into the aisle or were pulled in tight, and arms stretched out like the legs of large insects in a continuing wave from the front to the rear of the car. And then all was at rest again.

Then the squalling wheels in the coach’s rear truck in a tight curve fetched up the memory of the caterwauling panther of a nightmare that must have stalked him thirteen miles up the track at Hackleburg … he had been running between small ponds beneath a bright moon … Coowahchobee sprang out of the dark stand of hatrack cypress and chased him through shallow water … trapped, suddenly, in an unyielding thicket of titi … the small white flowers exploded over head like a dying constellation when … brown eyes above a deep growl that ran through him seconds before the claws snagged his left arm … as the large cat dragged him away from the water, he was conscious first of the pain and then of the dance of its exceptionally long tail … a vague sound deep in the swamp—the novel hitting the floor or the horn of the diesel at an ungated crossing—brought him back to his reclining coach seat on the southbound Seminole. The name Anne wrote in her last letter—Coowahchobee—was the Seminole name for the increasingly rare Florida panther. He had looked that up in the college library.

Kindle Version

Kindle Version

David wandered into the dining car a little before 8:00 AM as the train arrived in Birmingham. Couldn’t sleep. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the panther’s eyes. He tried to read, but S. Levin’s fate—teaching English composition in a college with no love of the liberal arts—ticked him off. Was he destined to end up like that? Long before Laverne commented about his beard, Professor Fairchild told Levin to focus on the college’s pet grammar book and “give your students plenty of wholesome, snappy drill.” Holy shit. Death by panther was a more merciful fate. Ed and Mary were nowhere to be seen, and that fact alone almost nullified the impact of the Coowahchobee nightmare. He ate his bacon and egg soufflé in peace and drew strength from the sunny Alabama morning.

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I hope you enjoy the book, including my memories of the old trains.

Malcolm

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4 responses

  1. Love reading your memories, Malcolm, and how they tie into your writing. Always fascinating.