DELAYED TRIP REPORT - I've been meaning to write up this trip report and this thread seems to be an appropriate place for it.
The whole trip occurred on one day, Saturday, 24 May 1969. I was staying with my brother in Manhattan while I was on leave before reporting back to the Army at Fort Dix, there to be shipped to an unknown destination and assignment in Germany. I had made a side trip to visit the Nation's Capital and was returning to New York City.
Twenty or so minutes before 4:00 p.m. I was in line in Washington Union Station for the Afternoon Congressional, still the premier train of the failing Penn Central to New York City. The portion of the trip from Washington to Philadelphia, 135.2 miles, was scheduled in 126 minutes with only two intermediate stops. On the busy Philly to Penn Station segment, 89 minutes were allowed to cover 91.4 miles and three stops.
Somehow I got to discussing this with the man standing in front of me. He asked me about my visit to some of the landmarks and a purported major league baseball game in the grim confines of RFK Stadium (Washington Senators vs. Kansas City Athletics). Ahead of him his wife was carrying on a conversation with a young woman who they were seeing off. I was in uniform so that I could travel on the discounted Furlough Fare. A question dawned on me.
"Should I be addressing you as "sir"?" It turned out that I should -- he was an Air Force colonel. In the typical mellow Air Force style he was unconcerned about that. In eight months in the Army I had spoken with a colonel once, when we were seated next to each other on a short flight. In my eventual assignments I spoke with all sorts of brass but as an unassigned private who had already seen some office politics I was a bit wary.
I learned from him that they were seeing off a Frenchwoman who was daughter of a family friend. She had flown from a visit with another military family in Texas and now was on her way to Middletown, New Jersey to stay with an Army colonel and his wife, more family friends. That meant changing trains in Newark. I was intrigued by foreign tourists, much rarer then than now.
I volunteered to make sure she was off the train with her suitcases -- promptly. Part of the way that this train was the fastest on the line was that they squeezed every minute out of the run that they could. He asked the two women -- I wouldn't have been surprised to be turned down -- and they agreed that it sounded like a good idea. Perhaps it was the Adjutant General Corps brass that I was wearing? Graduates of the Personnel Management school seemed safe?
At 4:00 p.m. we eased out of Union Station, slowed for the required brake test, and then the GG-1 did its thing and we were flying low by 1969 standards. On the way down I had been bitterly amused to see as many boxcars from Western railroads as I might have between Portland and Seattle. The charges for using a boxcar were rigged by the Interstate Commerce Commission to subsidize the crumbling Eastern lines. A boxcar of lumber might leave Oregon and never return.
In this direction I was not thinking of boxcars. I was learning that Isabel D. lived in the Loire Valley, of which I had heard. Her English was excellent. A good thing, as my French consisted of literary phrases and words that had migrated into English. She got into one of her suitcases and pulled out a photo album. I began to realize that Isabel D. was thoroughly organized for this trip, bringing pictures of family and landscapes to show her parents' friends.
I stopped her when she showed me a picture of her home. It looked like a chateau.
"That looks like a chateau!" I blurted.
"Of course, it is a chateau."
Somehow I managed to reframe the American question of "what does your father do?" It hit me that from what I had learned so far that was not the right way to put it.
"What is your father's position?" I queried.
"Oh, he's a marquis." He also had been an officer in the French Army and a few other things. When we got around to my father's position it was difficult to explain what a Country Circulation District Supervisor did in Oregon for the Seattle Times. Not that she did not catch on quickly when presented with the concept, but in her world newspapers had just appeared.
We were getting hungry and the Penn Central invited us to the Coach-Snack Bar. Well, alerted us. Rail magazines had already warned me. The full dining car service was gone. Cheese sandwiches on white bread were offered. Nothing -- nothing! -- would satisfy her. Only three years earlier I had enjoyed the pickled herring appetizer served in a silverplate cocktail dish with a trident seafood fork on the Great Northern Empire Builder. Now -- thanks to valuable U.S. Army training -- I would eat anything claimed to be edible.
Back in our seats she starved and the long days of travel were catching up with her. Tired lines showed on her face. I unwrapped the pre-prepared Penn Central sandwich and munched. And thought.
Newark Penn Station did not have a good reputation. I had never been in it but had the suspicion that the decaying Penn Central would not be spending money on Saturday night security. I could interrupt my return to New York City, assist with her luggage, see her off, and then catch a PATH train into the city.
This seemed reasonable to Isabel D. As best as I can recall we were on time into Newark at 7:20 p.m. Her connection was on an entity named the New York and Long Branch Railroad Company, jointly operated by Penn Central and the Central Railroad of New Jersey. The complex, overlapping managements had decreed that our French visitor was due to become their guest at 8:10 p.m. on the train to Middletown.
Then I got a better idea. (This is usually the part where a sound, effective plan is overrun.) I had never been to Middletown before, so could I escort her all the way to that stop? We checked the schedule. Her train was due to arrive there after the last returning train had departed. But if I stayed on the train to Red Bank I should get there at 9:23 p.m. I could catch a train to Penn Station that was due to depart Red Bank at 10:01 p.m. The northbound night trains scorned Middletown.
On the other hand -- if anything went wrong I would be walking around in my Dress Greens looking for a place to sleep in Red Bank. That had already happened to me with a Penn Central delay in Columbus, Ohio so I should have known better. Being 22½ years old I decided to take a chance.
Our train pulled in on time and we grabbed our bags and boarded. I paused for a moment and asked the conductor if he would make sure that Middletown was called in time as we were both new to the route. As I outlined what we were doing and her status I could see that he was interested. It did not occur to me that I was in a U.S. Army uniform and that it seemed to him as though it was some sort of official business. Now this was not the train to Bay Head Junction -- it was almost the Orient Express!
It was easy for Isabel D. to find one of the unoccupied decaying seats. In a few minutes the conductor came by to lift tickets. To my amazement and our guest's surprise he paused to ask if everything was okay, inviting us to enjoy the trip. This was in an era on the rails dominated by grouchy old men who had seen their life's work falling apart.
"What did you tell him back there?" she asked.
"That we were visitors and needed to be sure to be ready for Middletown," and I left out the part about her being French aristocracy.
That seemed to suit her. In a bit less than an hour her journey into the New Jersey night would come to a halt. She offered to give me her address in case I wanted to visit. I had to explain that I had no idea of where I would be stationed or whether I would be suddenly shipped off to Vietnam (which happened to others). I also was not sure that her parents would welcome an enlisted man as a house guest.
Out of Hazlett the conductor appeared at the end of the car and announced "Middletown next!" A couple of other passengers stirred. And then he came back to us.
"Middletown next, may I help you with your bags?" I was flabbergasted. Commuter train conductors in 1969 did not do that, I thought. We trooped down the aisle behind him, Isabel D. just carrying her purse. The conductor set down her suitcase and handed her down as she gracefully alighted. I set down her other bag.
The Army colonel, in civilian clothes, and his wife were at the other end of the platform. In the dim light they hurried up to us. I snapped a salute -- I was never very good at that -- and the conductor shouted "All aboard!" and gave the highball sign. I remember the colonel's puzzled face as I turned away to reboard.
A few minutes later I was grabbing a quick bite in Red Bank, a city that looked as though both sides of the tracks were the wrong side. And then I was on the Penn Station bound train.