Today I took a ride on Amtrak. Max is at a meeting in Kansas City, and while I could not go with him on Tuesday because I have choir practice on Wednesday, our plan was for me to meet him for dinner on Thursday – and to do some research at the law library on Friday. Dinner was the hook. The research just happened to be necessary, and the book I need is not available in Sedalia or on line without charge. So to avoid having two cars – and two parking fees – I decided that Amtrak would be my mode of transportation.
As I boarded the train in Sedalia, I remembered other trips when riding a passenger train was as common as getting on a plane is now. I am the product of a railroad family; my great-grandfather was a conductor, and some of his memorabilia are now on display in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, at the Frisco depot museum. My mother’s father was, as I like to call him, one of the first computers; he scheduled the trains along a certain route so that they wouldn’t collide.
As first the daughter of a railroad man and then the wife of one, my grandmother rode the train at will, starting at age 13, when she went weekly from her little burg of Williford, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee, where she studied piano performance at the conservatory. Such things were unheard of then, in 1921 – a girl of 13 traveling alone on the train!
She took me on my first train ride, and on many others. I remember vividly when I was about 10, we traveled from Thayer to Paragould, Arkansas, where my great-grandmother lived. Only a few months before, I had decided to learn to play the ukulele. Marilyn Cover played the ukulele, the baritone ukulele, the mandolin, and the guitar, and I wanted to be like Marilyn.
So my parents bought me a cheap little ukulele; soon after it was in my clutches, I could pound out “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” with the best of them. I mastered a repertoire of at least a dozen songs pretty quickly, and more important, not only did I play them, I sang them as well.
So on the way to Paragould, I, a naturally shy shrinking violet at age 10, entertained the entire train car with my renditions of all the songs I knew on the ukulele. The applause was real and I loved every bit of it.
My grandmother loved it, too, and was not at all embarrassed by my lack of understanding regarding humility and “such things are not done.” After all, she had bucked society’s conventions when she was 13, traveling by herself, studying to be a professional musician. I think she was pleased that I was not afraid.
I found that ukulele when we cleaned out the basement last month. It was broken and dried out, and no longer able to make music. I thought about trying to fix it, because ukuleles are really popular right now, but my better judgment said to toss it. So I did.
But as I sat in the train car today, I smiled when I wondered what would have happened if I had pulled it out of my suitcase and started strumming. Five foot two, eyes of blue, boy! What those five feet can do …
Maybe next time.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.