If there is one thing on the plus side of reaching a certain age, it is the accumulation of experiences bridging not only decades, but actual “eras” of human history, as measured by major cultural change. My Dad for instance was born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, fought in France in the First World War and raised a son who would fight in the next one, and another who would see action in Korea. My Dad grew up in a world where horsepower was primarily associated with animals of an equine persuasion but where guys like Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers were in the process of giving a whole new emphasis to such definitions
Unlike his sons, Auburn Cooper, Sr. would never personally experience powered flight, (even though one son learned to fly,) but to his dying day he would pull his car off the highway to watch a powerful locomotive or an entire train go by. For his generation, the sound of a steam whistle (and in a pinch, even the treble note of a diesel’s horn shaking the gleaming rails) was enough to make the heart beat faster. Growing up at his side, I learned to love both “worlds” though climbing the windswept heights more accurately defined my preferred method of high speed travel.
My Dad left home early to “see the world”, hopping aboard a partly empty freight car of a passing train. From his native Washington State he passed across Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota, following the wheat harvest east, jumping off at convenient towns to find just enough work to keep cash in his pocket, more often than not joining with other knights of the open road to share a heated can of baked beans for a meal. During this brief time in his life he apparently witnessed a number of derailments and train accidents which found their way into his bedtime stories. I mention this only as background to my own days “riding the rails”, since in addition to crossing the country from coast to coast by train in uniform several times, there was another deployment which officially assigned me to “life on the train.”
Sometime in 1951, the U.S. Air Force introduced a program designed to rehabilitate some long-term offenders incarcerated in “stockades” around the country, one of which my Air Police Squadron in New York State administered. The selected “trainees” as they were euphemistically labeled, were assigned to a Retraining Center newly-established in Amarillo, Texas. Since I was still a fairly “junior” Security Non Com., I was surprised when I was “called in” by the Provost Marshal” (my big boss) and told I had been selected to help “supervise” this highly-publicized transaction – two “General” prisoners at a time.
Rail travel was still the most economical option for the military, so I had a portfolio crammed with railroad and meal tickets sufficient to take myself and my two prisoners across the country, riding New York Central and then Union Pacific from Albany to St. Louis, and then the famous Texas KT south to our destination in the Texas “Panhandle”. For my return I was issued “open” tickets which gave me some routing options on the way back to my Finger Lakes home base. I was given a 12-day temporary duty (TDY) assignment which left me 4 days to spare.
Before departing New York, I would hold a session with my charges to come to an understanding of my rules. If they agreed, I would remove my arm band, white hat cover and .45 sidearm and we would just be three Airmen in uniform traveling together; no embarrassing handcuffs jingling from car to car. They always agreed and in fact were so grateful when we reached our destination - with me once again dressed and armed like a tough MP -- that they often had a difficult time saying “goodbye”.
One of the great pleasures of traveling in uniform on the Texas Katy in the 1950s was the way the Porters took care of us. These were the same proud and professional lifetime traveling butlers who had cared for our older brothers just a few years before, and their deep-seated devotion to us was touching.
Because of the nature of the relationship my mission imposed on me and my companions, we enjoyed the relative privacy – even luxury -- of a compartment. If I had the same crew on the return, the head porter would take special care of me, often bringing me a “first class” dinner tray instead of the restricted fare my military meal ticket rated; an extra blanket, a second piece of apple pie or a sincere thank you for the kindness they saw me display toward the men I “guarded”. I couldn’t help but notice the “Whites Only” rest rooms in the Amarillo train station and wonder how that must make these kind, black porters feel.
Then there were my “adventures”, like the time our entire train was stalled in a remote piece of barren desert for several hours with an over-heated wheel bearing (or “hot box”). I left the train to wander the bleak landscape where I surprised a nine-ring Armadillo digging for insects before visiting members of the crew in the locomotive cab, or my unplanned respite in Chicago where I took in a visit to Minsky’s Follies, an infamous Burlesque of the day.
Most of all, I remember the sense of freedom on those return trips across America, and the incomparable experience of sleeping in an upper bunk, being serenaded by the click of the rail joints and the wail of the whistle as we passed through darkened towns, and the “small- boy thrill” of being rocked to sleep by the swaying of an old and storied Pullman car on the glorious Texas Katy far from home and war.