The Journal Gazette
Saturday, November 07, 2020 1:00 am

Journey of a lifetime

Boy's train trip offers insights on race, manhood

Dave Harpham

My childhood was spent in the “Golden Age of Baseball.” I ate it, drank it and slept it. My favorite players were Black or Hispanic (Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, etc.).

I wanted to field like Willie Mays, hit a ball as far as Willie McCovey, throw like Roberto Clemente, run like Lou Brock, or pitch like Juan Marichal.

I hated white players like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. They played for the New York Yankees, and that was like “rooting” for U.S. Steel. My folks never told me I was wrong in my thinking.

The summer before my fourth grade year, our vacation was to be spent in Alaska and Oregon. My sister and brother-in-law were living in Anchorage, Alaska. Max had continued to work there after being discharged from the Army, and my sister was always calling and telling how beautiful Alaska was.

On the return swing we would stop in Fall Creek, Oregon to visit my grandfather (my Mom's Dad). He was my Mom's favorite Dad because he was the only one she ever had!

We had to go. Mom would not get a moment's rest until we did.

Before we left, the airlines went on strike. Not to be discouraged, my Mom threatened never to cook another meal unless Dad figured out a way to get us there.

After a couple of meals of cornflakes, Dad put his thinking cap on. We would take the train from Garrett, Indiana, to Seattle, where we could catch a plane to Anchorage.

This was going to be a thrilling experience, and I was looking forward to it. I was going to visit my Grandpa, ride a train and a plane, and see my favorite sister because she was the only one I had!

Upon departing from Garrett, a Black conductor took our tickets and we were on the road, like Willie Nelson, riding the rails to Minneapolis. We caught our next train to Seattle.

When riding a train across the country, you cannot stop wherever you want, jump out and get a burger from McDonalds. You are stuck with whatever accommodations the rail line has to offer. We ate our meals in the dining car and got our refreshments from the club car.

In the dining car worked a couple of Black gentlemen. One was an older, short, skinny man and the other a younger, tall, heavier man. They took an instant liking to me or maybe me to them.

I'm sure I asked stupid questions, like “Are you any relation to Willie Mays?”

They probably thought things like,”What an innocent little white kid; he sure doesn't know much about the world, does he?”

They took me under their wing, or maybe I pestered them until they did. But every time we entered a new state, they would send for me. Or if some awesome site of the Northwest was approaching, they would have me by their side, sometimes lifting me up to get a better view.

What grand men they were and what goodwill ambassadors for the railroad. I can still see them perfectly in my mind today.

And, I can still remember what the older man said to me when we got off the train in Seattle: “For hours you will feel as if you are still riding the train.” And so right he was.

Since that fateful journey, I have met plenty of individuals from all walks of life. And I don't know anything about the Black condition, or the white condition, or even about the human condition.

But I do know one thing: It is not the color of a man, but the Man.

Dave Harpham is a resident of Pleasant Lake.

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