- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
THIRD OF FOUR INSTALLMENTS A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Getting undressed in the berth of an old-style twelve-section sleeping car meant that you almost had to be a contortionist. Getting your pants off, for instance, required you to lie on your back, arch yourself until you were supported by your heels and your shoulders, and start fumbling. I always shared a berth with one of my brothers, and how the two of us managed it I do not quite know; but we always made it, wadding our discarded clothing in the hammock netting over the car window, getting into our pajamas somehow, and then sliding down beneath the covers and turning off the light. Nothing on earth today is quite as snug and secure as a Pullman berth used to be once you were fairly in it, and it seemed to me at the time that to lie there feeling the swaying and jiggling of the car’s motion, listening to the faraway sound of the whistle, getting up on elbow now and then to peer out the window when we reached a station, and at last drifting off to sleep, was to know unadulterated happiness. It was best of all if one happened to wake up when the train reached Grand Rapids, which it did along in the small hours. Here there was a cavernous train shed, with cars on other tracks, a switch engine puttering about, people coming and going—none of your small-town depots where the station agent doused the lights, locked the door, and went home after the last train went through. This place was in action all night long. From the car window you could see the station dining room, with its gleaming silver coffee urns, doughnuts stacked under glass domes on the counter, belated travellers here and there having a final snack before going off about their business, and it looked so inviting I used to want to be there myself—except that it was so cozy in the berth, and it would be even cozier when the train began to move again, and it was sheer heresy to wish to be anywhere else.
If we went to Chicago we finished the journey to Minneapolis on railroads which I considered far superior to our lumber-country lines. Our roads were deteriorating as the lumber business declined—the Père Marquette was often in receivership, and was half-affectionately referred to as the Poor Marquette, while the Ann Arbor, although solvent, never did have any pretensions to style—and with their bumpy roadbeds, cinder ballast, and aging passenger cars they offered transportation without frills. But at Chicago we boarded the Northwestern, or the Milwaukee, or the Burlington, and these were famous railroads: double-tracked, with rock ballast, automatic signalling systems, and steel cars, according to the blurbs on the timetables, which I read with great interest. To ride on these was to be part of the great, bustling, well-groomed outside world, and it was noteworthy that instead of stopping at every run-down hamlet, these trains would go hammering along for two or three hours at a stretch, halting at only the important places. (There did not seem to be any important places in Michigan.) Furthermore, on these trains we ate in the dining car instead of getting along with the shoe-box lunch Mother always prepared for lesser trips, and that was highly glamorous. To this day I do not remember anything I actually ate on one of those diners, but the experience was memorable just the same; the table linen was so white and crisp, the waiters so starchy in their fresh white coats, the silverware so impressive and, I judged, so expensive that what you finally got to eat was not of great importance. Just being there was enough.
The trip back home always had a moment of anticlimax when we left Chicago. After coming down from Minnesota on one of the big-time railroads, here we were, boarding the old, familiar, slightly seedy Pere Marquette again, descending from the first class to the jerkwater. For the first half-hour after leaving the Chicago station the train ran on somebody else’s right of way, with two, three, or even four parallel tracks flanked by innumerable sidings, and it was possible to imagine that this railroad had miraculously been upgraded so that it was the equal of the fabulous New York Central or Pennsylvania. All too soon, however, our line would branch off and we would be jolting along in the old accustomed way on an unkempt single-track line, leaving the great world, heading for Thompsonville—which, after Chicago, no longer seemed metropolitan. Oddly enough, this letdown always passed away before we got back to Benzonia. This was the home town, and although we understood that in some ways it was nothing much, we liked it, and it was always good to be back. Maybe the warmest, most uncritical patriotism on earth is the feeling a small-town man develops for what he can see when he looks out of his bedroom window.