Copyright 2004 by Tim Dempsey
In December 2002, I seized the opportunity to take a thirty-day Amtrak Rail Pass trip around the country and into Canada. This is my account of one day during that trip.
It was just after midnight on Wednesday morning, December 11, 2002. The freight train was hurtling along the Union Pacific tracks in northeast Arkansas. None of its crew noticed the problem.
Maybe the indicator light was burned out. Perhaps the connectors were malfunctioning. Possibly the crewman whose job was to keep an eye on such things simply wasn’t paying attention. He may have been deep in thought of some romantic entanglement. He may have had a hangover. Maybe he was just dog tired, working too hard to make ends meet. Maybe he was worried over a gambling debt. Maybe he was asleep.
A wheel bearing overheated. Bearings, when properly fitted and lubricated, are designed to compensate for the tremendous powers of friction from the axles of a fast-moving freight. When not properly lubricated—or when they malfunction in some fashion (and no one notices)—they heat to extreme temperatures. That heat radiates to the surrounding metal. Stress on the metal can cause fatigue, and in a worst-case scenario—the wheel collapses off the axle.
And this is what happened to the freight train on Union Pacific tracks in northeast Arkansas just after midnight on Wednesday morning, December 11, 2002.
In a situation such as this, heat is also spread by convection to anything else in the immediate vicinity. In a worst-case scenario, the freight car over the disabled bearing is full of explosives or dangerous chemicals. This was not the case here. The freight car in this case—was full of paper.
And so it was that a freight train (lengthy as freight trains tend to be) found itself disabled and on fire on the Union Pacific tracks in northeast Arkansas just after midnight on Wednesday morning, December 11, 2002. Did I mention that these were the main freight and passenger tracks running through Arkansas? And that where this occurred blocked the tracks for both northbound and southbound rail traffic? South of the wounded freight with one less wheel than it needed to roll were two other freight trains and Amtrak’s northbound Texas Eagle. North of the burning car full of paper were two other freights and the southbound Texas Eagle. And so it was that I, in a sleeper compartment onboard that latter passenger train, awakened just before dawn to the view of a flat, mottled, puddly field alongside a stationary train—the same view I would have for another six hours.
Everyone was mostly amiable about the situation—to begin with. The day before, during boarding in Chicago, a flaky kind of fellow wandered in behind me, asking questions of the staff of which he would have known the answers had he only gotten there earlier. He was told to board where I was headed, so he said to no one in particular, “Okay! I’ll just follow you!” I thought, all right then; just be sure that you are in fact going the same place I’m going. Once we emerged onto the chilly platform, I heard him utter an audible breath of awe at something or other—the length of the tracks, the fact that trains really exist—I don’t know. I dubbed him Mr. Too Happy, and he followed behind me to the sleeping car for the Texas Eagle, alternately shuffling and stopping to offer thanks to some god only he could see. Now, aboard the motionless train, he was bounding, Tigger-like, up and down the passageway, going on about how “This is a vacation! And what do you do on a vacation? Nothing! So I’m gettin’ my money’s worth!”
Passengers came to dine just the same as though they’d have been moving instead—perhaps even more eagerly, since to dine gave one the opportunity to listen in or ask questions of the dining attendants. Information from the engine was at a premium; as I learned, the train engineer and his one assistant went off the clock as soon as the train stopped moving. The dining attendants, however, kept working. One was crowing, “My check’s gonna look nice next week!”
I observed with amusement two couples who dined across the aisle from me during both breakfast and lunch. The one gentleman’s voice preceded him; it was from the Gregory Peck-Charlton Heston-Jason Robards school. He sounded like The Voice of God. It was fascinating to figure out later what he actually did. These couples must have been sent from central casting; the role of one couple appeared to be as foils for the other couple, to allow them to talk about themselves—and boy, did they! Voice of God went by “Gumby,” and his wife was known as “Blix.” The other man noted how that was the same name as the UN Iraqi weapons inspector. I gathered that these two couples had just lately met onboard the sleeper and had decided to bond.
I missed the early part of one conversation where it was noted that Blix had been in a movie—I didn’t catch details, or what kind of a movie—but her grandchildren were just enthralled, and they bragged to all their friends. The only thing the other couple could counter with was that the wife’s brother had been on some sort of dating show in L.A., and the family used to pass the tape of that show around as if it were a holy talisman.
Here’s the kind of people Gumby and Blix were: they had a bottle of wine at the table (this was at lunch, not breakfast), and apparently Blix had done her share of moving the product. Gumby said to her, world-weariness oozing from every pore, “You didn’t use to do that, drink so early in the day.”
Blix replied, “No, I think it was Africa where I started.”
“Yes, Africa. I think it was. You used to only drink after sunset.”
And Barney and Betty Boring chimed in, “Well, it’s always sunset somewhere in the world.” Yes—tee-hee, oh my word.
They developed quite the faux rapport with Michael, their dining attendant. Michael had a noticeable British accent; turned out he was from New Zealand. They asked all about his circumstances, finding out that he lived in Chicago, where he had married a young American woman and become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Blix asked him, with a straight face, no sense whatsoever of irony or manipulation: “So Michael, did you marry her for love?”
Dead, dead uncomfortable silence. Gumby groaned and buried his face in his hands. Anything Michael may have said was inaudible. I’m sure his supervisors had long ago warned him of passengers such as these.
“Dear,” Gumby said, “I can’t believe you just asked that.”
Blix, unashamed, replied, “Well, there ARE these enforced green card kind of arrangements, you know.”
Gumby can’t turn back time, so he just barreled on ahead absurdly, piling on with, “So, Michael, how much do you make?”
The Ken-and-Barbie couple could muster no good lines; at this, they just laughed and laughed.
Blix, not to be outdone (or undone), said, referring to her distaff colleague, “And tell me Michael, how many ladies do you get like us who travel with their fathers?”
Oh, chortle, chortle. They’ll be talking about this at the Club for many months. And they spoke of Colonel Harris, who had been Gumby’s boss at the station (TV station? Yes, I imagine). The Colonel, who treated Gumby like a son, was said to have once been the liaison officer for General Douglas MacArthur. Indeed, everyone in earshot was informed that the good colonel could be seen standing beside MacArthur at the World War II armistice signing ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri.
Gumby delighted in telling how the Colonel ran (owned?) the station but refused to fire any of his staff in person. He would either do it over the phone, or have someone else do it, or just leak it to the press and then take a quick trip to Europe. That’s also how he avoided for the longest time being served papers by Gumby’s first wife during the divorce proceedings. Gumby mentioned some woman who did a show called “Midnight in Marietta.” Apparently she ran long all the time, and the first inkling she had of her pink slip was reading it in the paper. Oh, Colonel—you slay me. Gumby said the Colonel died a year after he retired, in the mid ’90s.
I figured Gumby to be a retired TV news anchor. His voice certainly qualified, but his looks would have given him the boot (after his patron the Colonel retired, of course) in our appearance-driven media. I also gathered that Blix and The Other Wife must have gone to Oregon State University. I say this because when the four of them left the dining car from breakfast, Gumby said to The Other Guy, “Let’s take our little beavers back to their rooms.” Oh, can’t this train move at all?
Finally, around 10:00 a.m., we got rolling again. They had put out the fire, cleaned up the debris and moved the damaged train to the side. We were eight hours behind. It would get worse.
With all the arterial congestion created by the freight incident, relieving the pressure was about as successful as what follows any conventional traffic jam. Most vehicles were sorely impatient to move along, and the traffic cops (rail dispatchers) were giving priority to some. At the end of the pecking order came Amtrak.
Then there was the perplexing matter of relief for the engineer. Apparently engineers are restricted by federal regulation to work no more than twelve hours total. The crew that started the Eagle in Chicago (an engineer and an assistant) would normally have been relieved around 3:30 a.m. in Little Rock. But with the delay, even though the engineering duo was not on the clock while the train was stopped, the cumulative time required for them to get to Little Rock would have exceeded their dozen hours. So, rather than roll on into Little Rock to meet the relief crew, we had to pull over to the first available siding track and wait for the relief crew to be trucked up from Little Rock to meet us. This, and having to stop on sidings for freights, made us now nine hours behind.
It was just a matter of time before the general temperament of the passengers began to cloud over. I can only imagine what it was like in coach. In the sleeper, Mr. Too Happy’s spring gradually went out of his step. He started to wander about, looking mildly shell-shocked.
A couple of guys across from one another in the sleeper started a conversation fueled by boredom. One worked in securities in Boston (and, interestingly enough, wore a jersey emblazoned with the name and number of ex-Patriot Drew Bledsoe); the other one worked in marketing, he said—though it seemed as though a majority of his clients were politicians. He mentioned how he had been to the White House and knew several of the kingmakers on Capitol Hill. But some of his clients were nonprofits. He told Boston that he tended to be away from home on work as much as half of the month, but his wife did not mind. He showed off photos of his wife and little girl.
“Oh,” said Boston, not shy about speaking his mind. “She’s got something going on the side! You know she does. She wouldn’t be so agreeable otherwise! Come on!” Marketing Man let it all roll off. He was quite insistent that she was simply an angel. He said he would be gone on this trip for fourteen days.
Nothing personal against Arkansas—it’s just that the rail path through the state is probably best performed after dark. There isn’t much to see—lots of barren, brown weed fields, dismal sloughs and sad little homes on scruffy little yards. It doesn’t get much better around Little Rock. How could it in a city where one of the major landmarks (and the tallest building in the state) is the TCBY Tower (yes, named for the frozen confection chain The Country’s Best Yogurt)? The only mildly picturesque Arkansas sights were a few railroad towns closer to Texas, such as Malvern. And then there’s Hope. Interesting story, there.
Our dining car supervisor—the man Michael reported to—was Mr. Martin. He had been with Amtrak for 23 years. He must have developed his announcing style by listening to Michael Buffer, the guy who announced for wrestling matches and the Chicago Bulls—you know, the “Leeeet’s get reeaady tooooo rrrrummmbullll” guy. As in all other dining cars, reservations were required for lunch and dinner. Whenever Mr. Martin came on the P.A. to announce that dinner was being served, he also specialized in the inappropriate pause. “All passengers who have . . . reservations for the 6:30 dinner seating, please come to . . . the dining car. But let me remind you to pleeeeeeeeease . . . WAIT to be seated!” This was his shtick every time, without fail.
Some of the diners asked him if, in his experience, this was the longest time the train had ever been delayed. He said it didn’t even compare.
“Last year, we had that terrible ice storm. Nothing could move through the whole state of Arkansas—no emergency vehicles, no train crews, no trucks to pick up cargo from the freight trains. So much ice was accumulating on the power lines and the trees, and they were afraid for the train to continue at the risk of getting hit by falling limbs without any way to get relief to where we were. So we sat on the track in Hope, Arkansas, for 23½ hours. It was time to fix breakfast, the last meal we would serve before they let us on our way, but I was almost out of eggs and pancake mix. There was a guy who lived beside the tracks; I saw him out in his yard and flagged him down, asked him, ‘Do you know where I can get some eggs and pancake mix to feed the people on my train?’ He said, ‘Hold on a minute,’ and he went inside his house and brought me out enough eggs and pancake mix to finish serving breakfast.”
I’m sure that all card-carrying Republicans on board that train felt like asking for their money back at having to sit for nearly a day in William Jefferson Clinton’s hometown. Its downtown appeared pleasant enough, but I wondered how it looked before its Favorite Son went to Washington.
By the time we pulled into Texarkana, the Eagle was ten hours late. It was announced that some of the passengers would be placed on buses at the next stop, Longview, in an effort to best make their connections.
My situation didn’t look all that great. I was originally supposed to arrive in Austin, Texas, at 8:30 p.m.; so, factoring in a ten-hour delay, I would now get there around 6:30 a.m., just in time to check in, take a shower, sleep maybe three hours and then check out. I had been really looking forward to my lodgings—the Hotel San Jose, a funky retro kind of place on South Congress Avenue said to be a frequent pad for visiting musicians—but I decided to use my cell phone to call them and cancel. The clerk said that normally such late cancellations would have to pay full amount, but given the circumstances of the train being late (he said it as though it happened a lot—huh!), they would waive any charges for me. I thanked him graciously.
I figured I would just grab a short night’s sleep on the train, wash up before leaving and see Austin without lodging. I’d find somewhere to store my luggage in the meantime. The next Texas Eagle (presuming it would be on time) would come through at 8:30 the next night to take me on to San Antonio.
Whoa, hold on there, champ. Not so fast. John, our sleeping car attendant, announced that this train would end its route at Fort Worth, where all passengers would be placed on buses to be taken to their final destinations. I think the twelve-hour engineer rule had a lot to do with this; the shift that had taken over above Little Rock wouldn’t be able to make the rest of the trip without relief, and it seems that buses and bus drivers are easier to find in the wee hours than are fresh engineers. We were scheduled to get into Fort Worth sometime after midnight. So there went any notion of a decent night’s sleep; it would just be a couple more hours until time to hop on the bus, and it’s not possible (in my opinion) to get as good a rest on a bus as on a train. I might actually get into Austin as much as an hour earlier, but the prospect of seeing the city in a state of sleep deprivation just didn’t do it for me.
So I told John to put me down for direct delivery to San Antonio. At worst, I would have to wait a few hours before I could check into my hotel room there. Sure, I hated to miss all of Austin’s good clubs and seeing the Texas State Capitol (modeled after the U.S. Capitol; given the nature of Texans, they made it bigger)—but especially, I hated missing the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge.
Only a few years back, a new bridge was built over the Colorado River in downtown Austin. The underbelly of the bridge turned out to be perfectly constructed for a bat colony, and millions of them moved in. After an initial period of concern, the Austin city fathers and mothers decided to welcome their new neighbors. The bats were perfectly harmless (they weren’t vampire bats, after all, but Mexican free-tails), they ate many times their weight in mosquitoes, and their routine massive exodus from the colony at dusk, strangely romantic by the river’s edge, became a top tourist inducement. It is the largest urban bat colony in the world. Austin even went so far as to name their minor league hockey team the Austin Ice Bats.
But I subsequently heard from some authorities that the majority of the real bats take the winter off and migrate into Mexico. Oh well, I could always come back to Austin another time. A bona fide traveler has to be flexible.
In the meantime, I grabbed as much fitful shuteye as I could while the train kept a’rollin’. We diverted many of our passengers at Longview to buses en route to Oklahoma City, Houston and points east such as Bossier City and Shreveport, La. I got to see Dallas’ impressive skyline, including the geodesic dome of the Reunion Tower. We passed within view of Dealey Plaza, site of President Kennedy’s assassination.
At Fort Worth, we were all herded off. I asked John if the train wasn’t going on to San Antonio anyway to pick up passengers and start the return trip to Chicago in the morning.
“No, they’re all going to have to come to Fort Worth by bus. I don’t imagine they’ll like that too much.”
Guess not. If Gumby and Blix had to ride on a bus, they would simply die—they’d be driven to drink wine coolers. Or Zima.
I was the last passenger off the train. All the others had gone on ahead, riding in a golf-cart-like vehicle with a flatbed trailer pulled behind for luggage. John was offloading trash and removing his belongings from the train; he asked a fellow attendant if she knew in which hotel they were going to stay. After a few long moments, the cart and trailer returned for me and took me to the bus, a standard, big long-haul model. We loaded baggage underneath. The driver suggested that I carry my laptop onboard rather than leaving it with the other gear; I didn’t argue.
I boarded with a seatmate who looked like a genuine Chicano Hell’s Angel. I think he’d been waiting to board the train at Fort Worth, so he’d been cooling his heels for about ten hours. Wound up and testy, he was complaining about the police having hassled him earlier. I can’t imagine why. Leather Harley jacket, tattoos—he so looked like a good citizen.
The bus ran a milk route, dropping passengers off at Temple, Waco, and Austin before heading to the last stop, San Antonio. I couldn’t tell you very much about the scenery.
The train station in San Antonio is immediately adjacent to the Alamodome, home of the Spurs. It is also near the former Southern Pacific depot, redeveloped and renamed Sunset Station. All the establishments in the neighborhood were shuttered by the time our bus pulled in. A motley crowd was gathered at the train station, relatives and friends patiently waiting for their long-delayed travelers. I waited for a cab, then decided that this might not be the best approach—too many cabs had given up on the train a long time ago, and none were hanging out at the station. So I asked the station attendant if there was a particular company they recommended. He offered to call one directly for me.
It was a fairly short trip to my hotel, the Riverwalk Plaza on Villita. As daylight was breaking, I noted the welcoming melodies of San Antonio’s resident tropical birds, waking in the trees along the San Antonio River. I lugged my luggage to the front desk. As it was not yet 7:00 a.m., I said to the clerk, “I doubt that you have a room available for me yet, but if you could just allow me to store my luggage until one is available, I’d certainly appreciate it.”
Surprisingly enough, she said, “Oh, we have a room for you, sir. That’s no problem.”
Wow. Just what I needed. An early check-in. This was my second visit to San Antonio, and I liked the city even more now. I took the elevator to the fifth floor, navigating a catwalk above an open courtyard where you could hear raindrops hitting the leaves of the plants, and see them splashing the surface of the pool. I had no concern for any of that; I dumped all my gear inside my room, pulled the drapes, hung out the “Do Not Disturb/No Perturbe” sign, locked the door and started my exploring of Texas, prone across a tremendously comfortable bed.
Tim Dempsey is a student in the MFA program at The
University of Memphis. He has been published in the Vanderbilt
Scrivener and earned a scholarship to the 2004 Lost State Writers
Conference. A member of the Tennessee Writers Alliance, he
lives in Giles County, Tennessee.
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