Great Big Train to D.C.

4 min read

I love trains. I love hotels. And I love Washington, D.C. This I found out when I was five. Gazing up at the world from my princely perch of three and half feet, I discovered adventure and wonder on a family junket to our nation’s capital. I also found God. Sort of.

1950s Washington D.C.

The plan was for me, my sister and my mother to take a train from our home in New York to Washington where we would meet my father. He was in the army reserves and was doing something or other down there. Not that I had any idea where Washington, D.C. was – it could have been a half an hour or a week away.

But just days before we were to leave I came down with a cold and sore throat. Suddenly our departure and the trip were in jeopardy. I remember my big sister, who was 8, telling my mother that she had prayed to God so that I would get better.

Suddenly, there were several new concepts for me to absorb. I had only a vague concept of God then… and still do, but now here was the idea that some invisible force had it within its power to make me better. Someone besides my mom and the doctor.

How does that happen? Do you just have to pray and you’ll be all better? Could my sister do this for me? She was bigger – did she know special things I hadn’t yet learned?

Grand Central Station

Well apparently, she did because, just a few days later, the three of us walked into the great hall at Grand Central Station. I had been cured.

This train station is immense for an adult. For a small child it’s about the size of the universe. It even has the constellations painted on the ceiling.     

Gargantua

But as big as that space was, it was nothing… nothing compared to what came next. We went down to the tracks and there before us stood a monolith of unimaginable size – the unblinking, metallic face of a colossal locomotive.

Child looking up at Locomotive

Have you ever been close to a locomotive? They are quite massive. But to a five-year-old it looked like a 20-story building on wheels. I had never seen a machine so enormous. The fact that I was about to climb aboard this monster was very exciting. To my mind it was probably even bigger than God.

The steps were so high my mother had to lift me up into the train. And from there I exploded, running past the infinite rows of seats.

                   The Congressional

                  The Congressional

The train’s name was the Congressional, which was appropriate. But this was in the days when American trains had truly evocative names - Afternoon Hiawatha, Boardwalk Flyer, Zephyr Rocket, Wolverine, Tomahawk, Prairie Marksman, Phoebe Snow, Cannonball, Connecticut Yankee, City of New Orleans…    

Each region of the country was proud of its lightning fast trains, bringing people and commerce to its home territory. This was before the days of massive air travel or our web of an interstate highway system. Back then it was the magic of train tracks that bound the country together.

The Congressional pulled from the dark of Grand Central Station into the blinding light of the New York train yard and we were on our way. I stood on the seat, face pressed to the glass and took in the world.

The actual trip down to D.C. took about 2 years. At least it felt that way to me. I just remember jumping from my seat and walking up and down the aisle. While my sister patiently worked her coloring book, I explored.

I have vague memories of my mother getting a little impatient with me. I also distantly remember not really caring. She gave me some kind of camera toy to play with.

Then a porter came by rolling a giant metal cart, absolutely spilling over with candy, juice and sandwiches.  

Riding the train

My mother plied me with pieces of Hershey’s chocolate and tomato juice. Then I set about running down the aisle again to see what I could discover. There were other kids and tourists in our car, plus businessmen with dark suits, fat ties and serious faces.

You ever have those moments when you’re on a public conveyance and you see some kid, staring at you, unblinking? He’s sizing you up, figuring you out, trying to make sense of you? Maybe you smiled at the kid, but he just stared back, the little wheels in his head quietly spinning. Well, I was that kid.  

I was just trying to make sense of it all. Still am. 

But now we have to cut from our train scene because, as sometimes happens with memories, this one abruptly ends and we go directly to Washington’s Union Station, because that’s where my next memory picks up.

Columbia

Union Station

With my mother firmly grabbing my hand, I was pulled into the bright, soaring arches of Union Station. This visual theme repeated itself endlessly in D.C. – magnificent towering structures of white stone, standing sentinel wherever we went.

The architectural metaphor of our nation’s greatness was both awesome and comforting, though I probably wouldn’t have put it in quite those words at the time. Still, the feelings a young boy models from these gleaming spires were unmistakable. And never forgotten.

Speaking of towering giants, this is where we reunited with my father. Though his effortless smile and gentle demeanor usually made him an easygoing, fun giant.

With the four of us reunited, we were off on our family vacation! First stop, the hotel.

J.W. Marriott

Marriott Motel

In 1927 J.W. Marriott, opened a root beer stand in Washington, D.C. figuring people would appreciate a cool drink in Washington’s hot, sweltering summers. Thirty years later Marriott opened his first hotel, just past the Potomac River in Virginia. It had views of the monuments, featured a black & white TV in every room and cost about $10 a night.

This is where we stayed, in this brand new, fancy hotel. I remember my mother talking about how wonderful the place was – clean, modern, mid-century perfect. It had a plush white carpet and I remember my sister and I planted ourselves on that thick pile as we watched cartoons on the new TV.

My mother made us a light breakfast for which we were required to sit at a small table so as not to make a mess. But in my case, it did no good. Within moments I was wandering across the room carefully balancing my cup of hot cocoa.

Marriott interior

Maybe I was distracted by the TV, or maybe my P.F. Flyers got caught up in the new carpet’s thick weave. I just remember I tripped, dumping my entire cup of cocoa all across the nice, white carpet.

Where moments before the Marriott’s idealized décor held the promise of an immaculate modern future, now it was just another food-stained carpet, delivered by a 5-year-old. 

My parents were in shock at my defacement of our pristine lodgings. For my part, I retreated to the safety of early morning cartoons as mom and dad tended to siphoning and scrubbing the cocoa off of J. W. Marriott’s dream.

I think my parents thought we might get thrown out of the place. But we didn’t; we survived the incident. And soon headed out into the bright sun with Brownie cameras to capture the shining city.

Such are the vagaries of life that 50 years later I had the good fortune of meeting Bill Marriott at a travel convention in New Delhi, of all places. I was helping with an interview he was doing. When we were wrapping up I walked over to him and mentioned the hot chocolate incident from some 5 decades earlier. 

Mr. Marriott seized me up, his eyes narrowed, “So it was you… Ok, mystery solved.”

A life-long weight had been lifted.

The Ike Years

cherry blossoms

Washington, D.C. was a marvelous place for a kid. There were lots of fun spaces to run around, museums with airplanes, Eisenhower was president and I remember many other families and kids everywhere we went. We all loved it. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, so it must have been spring in our nation’s capital.

Jefferson Monument

As I mentioned, there was a lot of young neck-craning on this trip – the capitol building and the immense monuments of Jefferson and Lincoln. What had these men done that they were forever carved in soaring stone? This had to be a place of great wisdom.

Washington Monument

But the Washington monument was a problem. All the other monuments looked like men. This giant needle didn’t look anything like the picture of George Washington. It didn’t make sense. I tried to get an explanation but the best that was offered was, “That’s just the way it is. Want to go up to the top in the elevator?” 

Nevertheless, these are the sorts of concepts and challenges a young mind needs to tease out abstract and poetic thinking. A childhood vacation should be an encyclopedia of firsts – new experiences to bring home and enrich one’s young life.

For instance, I had never been exposed to firearms. But on the FBI tour we went to the firing range where the agents practiced. There our tour guide, or someone, (perhaps an agent?), fired at a target.

FBI shooting range

I just remember the explosions of the rounds as they burst from the agent’s gun. It was the loudest thing I had ever heard, my hands quickly flying up to cover my ears. How could such a little gun – not much bigger than my toy gun - make so much noise?

That too was a discovery of sorts…

I Left My Heart…

This is where our story ends - in Washington, D.C. Not for any poetic or symbolic reasons, it’s just that my memory goes blank at this point. I assume we went back to New York, as I proceeded to grow up there. But as far as my 5-year-old self is concerned, I’m still back in D.C., as according to my recollections, I never left. Perhaps a small part of my psyche still resides there.

I’ve gone back to D.C. a number of times through the years – there was another childhood trip with the Cub Scouts, hitch-hiking there at 18 to join a protest against the Vietnam War, a jaunt with a girlfriend during the time of Watergate, and years later, a visit to interview a congressman for a screenplay I was writing.

But can I just say… whatever my purpose was in going to the District of Columbia, each journey there conjured up the same excitement I felt when taking that first big train. I think I’ve been imprinted with the thrill of that initial adventure.

The Capitol

And there was something else I learned on that first voyage. Washington, D.C. was special. It looked like nothing I had ever seen in my young life. Certainly, it was very different than the shopping center which we regularly frequented.

I think I intuitively knew this was where all the important stuff happened in “’Merica”, our country. This was a different kind of place because it was safe and protected us.

And no matter how much our poor District of Columbia has been defiled, mocked and scorned since those long ago innocent years, to me, a part of it remains that beautiful eternal rock – one that continues to spark any spec of imagination or wonder that’s still left inside.  

Lincoln Memorial

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