Panama Limited


Good morning America how are you? Say don’t you know me I’m your native son? I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans, I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done. In 1960, when I first rode this train, Illinois Central ran two trains between Chicago and New Orleans. The Panama Limited was the all-sleeper night train and the City of New Orleans was the significantly cheaper, coach-only day train. Most ‘colored folk’ rode the City of New Orleans, but they also worked on the Panama Limited. I don’t remember much from when I was five, but I do remember trains. And I remember that I was five for a long time…   [This is under construction, but to feel free to read on...]

I grew up in Iowa City, Iowa. Every summer we traveled to Louisiana to visit my grandmother, who lived alone on a sugar cane plantation. As far as I can remember, she was the only white person anywhere near those cane fields, with the notable exception of Sidney Hebert (pronounced A-Bear). Sidney was the foreman. His skin was a leathery auburn color that contrasted with his black hair and deep blue eyes. It was too hot to wear cowboy hats, so he wore a short brimmed straw hat with an intentionally loose weave that encouraged circulation of air and dust.

Each summer Sidney and I rode around the fields in his big white pick-up. He talked to me and squeezed my neck with affection. I couldn’t understand a word he said. Sidney was Cajun. The only phrase I understood was his daily greeting, which I also found impossible to answer: “What you say?” Each morning I stood there perplexed and befuddled, unsure how to answer. Did he mean, what did I just say? Or what would I like to say? I shuffled my feet and looked at mom. But then we got in the pickup and drove around looking for the lost watermelon patch. And each summer, we eventually found it. Usually on the hottest day. Sidney had a knack for that.

The Panama Limited was the middle part of a great adventure we took one summer to Louisiana. It started with taking a Greyhound bus from Iowa City to Chicago, then catching the big train down to New Orleans, then getting from there to my grandmother’s farm, which in the south they call a “Plantation.” I don’t know why we took this one train adventure; we usually drove in mom’s tiny Ford Anglia, a car that makes my Mini Cooper look like a Cadillac. Four of us usually made the trip: my mom, my sister and I, and the cat. My sister was one year older than I and we fought whenever we got a chance. We fought for the coveted front seat, and whoever won that fight was made to suffer for the entire duration as the other sat in back and kicked, tickled, nudged, and bumped the entire way. “Mom, Michael’s kicking me!” “Mom, there’s no room for me to sit back here, Becky pushed the seat all the way back.” Only if you are an only child, could you not relate to this.

The cat hated the car trip because it hated the heat and it hated the motion and it hated being stuck between my sister and I, since mom placed it under the passenger’s seat in a little box. Of course you can guess what happened each time we stopped for gas – the cat jumped out and hid under the car or, if it was really pissed, it ran off into the bushes and we had to camp there by the roadside until the furry devil had cooled down and decided to rejoin us. The timing of capitulation usually coincided with hunger.

I was very confused as a five year-old. I should mention that I was five for a long time . I think it lasted five years. During that time, my sister progressed up the age, maturity, and responsibility ladder without me. She never waited for me. I was always left behind. And this was why I was confused. As I recall, I would be sitting in the living room minding my own business, playing with my perpetually tangled marionette or one of the nifty free prizes that came out of a box of Cracker Jacks, when suddenly mom would come into the room and say “okay, we’re going to the Gorf Corst. Just hearing those words, “Gorf Corst,” threw me into a panic. See, there were two “Gorf Corsts.” One was just a few minutes drive and consisted of some very nice hills in open space that were great for a thrilling toboggan ride. We went there when it was winter. In the summer, people played Gorf there. The other Gorf Corst was this big ocean with white sands, and it was a bunch of days drive from our house – in the aforementioned Ford Anglia. We always went there in the summer. Of course, being a kid, I had no idea what season it was, from day to day. So when mom said “Get your things ready, we’re going to the Gorf Corst,” I had no idea whether I needed to bundle up, or grab all my favorite possessions for the summer. It was traumatic because with one Gorf Corst, we were home for dinner. With the other, we would be eating hamburgers at drive-ins for several days, then Gamma’s wonderful buttery biscuits.

The Panama Limited was the first train I ever rode. It had private rooms for each person. Each room had a big picture window that you could stare out of and watch the world go by. It was like having a television without the bad reception. At night, the conductor came around and turned the couch into a bed with freshly starched sheets and a blanket if you needed it. The bed was right next to the window so you could just lie there and watch the night scenery go by - these spooky sparks that came flashing past, people huddled around street lamps in the small towns, sometimes an old De Soto or Plymouth making its way down the highway full of people hanging out the windows, but you couldn't hear what they were saying as the train's window was so thick that no sounds could come in. The only sound was the rhythm of the rails that came up from below - a deep, primal rhythm that infused me with the opium of wanderlust - of course unbeknown to me at the time. Eventually the rhythm lulled me to sleep, but I woke up at each and every stop along the way, and peered out the window at the people in the stations. People getting off the train, people getting on the train, people meeting people getting off the train or saying good-bye to people getting on the train.