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  • Writer's pictureKaren L

Two Train Cars

Odd as it seems, my sister, brother, and I embarked on a transcontinental rail trip, with our parents, in August 1968. The train conveyed us from San Francisco to Los Angeles, across the southwest to Louisiana, and further southeast to Tampa, Florida, not a straight path across the country, We visited our dear family friends in Florida. No one traveled by train in those days.The railroads suffered financial setbacks, and passenger routes rapidly diminished in the 1960's. Most Americans traversed the nation by airplane or car.

17 years old on my birthday in June, the assasinations of  Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy occurred in April and June, respectively. These tragedies forced me to face the unrest and conflict occurring in the United States, centered around the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. Unsavory aspects of our country entered my mind, as I faced my senior year in high school. A few years before, I watched a movie about migrant workers, "Harvest of Shame", and digested the bitter truth of extreme poverty in an affluent nation. 

I clearly remember the August morning we boarded the train, wearing nice clothes for travel. I sported a yellow and blue pinstriped summer suit, which I loved. We wore our respectable outfits until Los Angeles. Then we changed into comfortable clothing for the hardcore adventure of traveling across the barren land of the southwestern United States--hot, brown, dry, with isolated cabins and cacti dotting the landscape. Occasionally, if you looked carefully, you might see a lonely farmer or shepherd waving his/her hat in the hot sun. 

Phew. Luckily, we had air conditioning in our car. But, sleeping was nearly impossible for me, in sticky naugahide coach seats that barely moved backwards. The fun aspect of trains is that one can walk through the train which my siblings and I did to asuage boredom. 

Something was very curious in the next coach car, I discovered. There was a strong, musky smell in the hot, stagnant air. I could not avoid noticing that everyone in the train car was black, "negro" as we said. There were large dark women, with huge arms, crowded in seats they shared with their small children. Thinner, weary, wrinkled men, sat together--some ate chicken. The compartment was generally quiet. The people were too drained to talk or laugh. Pitifully, they perspired profusely; the carriage was stifling. There was no air conditioning or ventilation! Horrified and shocked, I knew this was not accidental. How could it be? How did all the white people have tickets for one car and the black individuals for their own car? 

This was 1968 not 1948. Our family--minus my brother who was not yet born--took the same trip in 1958. I was too young to recall much of that trip. However, I do remember separate water fountains, for "white and coloreds". Fondly, I remember popsicles in Tampa and refreshing glasses of iced tea at Lake Ponchetrain (New Orleans). 

Back to 1968, four years post Civil Rights Act--obviously, the segregated cars were accomplished when people bought tickets. In those days, travelers purchased tickets from an agent, at a ticket office. I surmise that the clerk noted the passenger's race and assigned him/her to a railcar. The conductor verified all was in order on the day of travel. 

I asked my parents repeatedly about the situation, but they did not respond with a direct answer. They did not disagree, but they were reluctant to utter the truth of what was in front of their eyes. I had not yet read about the nightmarish freight train cars used by the Nazis to transport Jews and others to their deaths. Did my parents make an association? Or am I overly optimistic in crediting them with connecting the present to the past?

From that day hence, I knew with confidence that a rotten core existed in the center of our country. I learned it was racism. There had already been race riots the summer before, in 1967. After the recent assassinations, there was more violent unrest in cities. And the Chicago riots after the Democratic National Convention were in a few short weeks. 

Never again would I view a scene or situation at its surface level. From that August morning, as the train roared down the tracks in New Mexico and Texas, I began to peer beneath the surface of interactions and scenes. Certainly, I committed many stupid errors. In college, I learned about institutional racism and Jim Crow. My years working in a diverse public school system opened my mind and molded my opinions. I was not consistently fair or compassionate with parents and students. But, I learned unimaginable lessons about disadvantaged minorities, that are the bedrock of my values. I read, watched, and listened. Friendships developed with African Americans.

The years progressed. I dug down deeper, in myself and in our nation's experiences. I usually discovered an awareness that was not so pleasant. Though, there have been times when I have been happily surprised!

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