Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr5/3/2017
My wife is stuck. Having climbed up into the top bunk of the sleeper car, legs forward, head tucked, she can’t unfold. The ceiling is just a bit too close for her 6-foot frame to unbend. And now here she is. A human sandwich traveling to Denver on Amtrak.
How did this happen? And, more importantly, am I at fault?
The California Zephyr, the long-distance Amtrak train from Chicago to San Francisco and back again, cuts through southern Iowa with the rhythmic beat of the steel wheels and the mournful wail of the loud whistle. In the dark, the big engine rumbles past small Iowa towns like Red Oak, Villisca and Stanton, where I imagine the residents are long used to the clickety-clack of the wheels, and turn over in bed like synchronized swimmers, only dimly hearing the passing racket.
The Zephyr crosses Iowa twice each day. One train going east, and another going west. It isn’t complicated. Catch it early to go to Chicago. Catch it late to go to Denver and beyond. It’s all about which side of the track you stand on.
Fortunately, Pat Green will set you right.
“Met a lot of wonderful people. All those years you get to know people well. See the kids grow up from little ones all the way to adults, and then I see their kids.”
Pat’s eyes crinkle with laugh lines. She is where she wants to be on this late night.
And how do the Amtrak conductors treat you?
“The train folks are like family to me. They treat me very, very well. Cindy, one of the conductors on today’s train, actually made my hat.”
Pat proudly dons the pink hat made by her friend.
And if a train is running late and people are angry or frustrated?
“I’ve always try to be nice to everyone. If the trains are late, I try to get the people to go with the flow.”
But the train is not late tonight. Right on time. Pat corrals us all up and marches us over to the westbound track as the train comes in with a roar.
My wife and I are taking a sleeper car for the first time. An adventure to be sure. Although there is the small problem that I am large, inflexible, mildly claustrophobic and an easily-motion-sick kind of guy. A closed-in sleeper on a moving train may not be the smartest idea.
The porter, apparently sensing that I’m a little uneasy, immediately takes us in hand, gives us fresh bottled water, asks after our needs, and shows us our small cabin of two facing chairs that turn into beds and a wonderfully large window the size of the compartment. And then off we go to the dining car to get a late supper under the direction of our waiter, Armando. All very civilized.
And it is civilized. For example, at breakfast the next morning we sit with John Pare, a retired teacher, principal and assistant superintendent from Wisconsin. Someone who has been around.
“I had a little time, and I wanted to do a little something for myself. I could have done it cheaper on Southwest Air, but I wouldn’t have met you, and I wouldn’t see the mountains. I took this trip before. I just remember how spectacular the trip was.”
And the sleeper car?
John gives an easy laugh.
“I haven’t been in a sleeper in a long, long time.”
Ah, this gets us back to the sleeper compartment. A clever conversion of two chairs into bunk beds. A wonderfully economic approach to sleeping. A narrow step leads up to the second bunk, where the sheets are nicely tucked and the pillow is fluffed and ready. It’s like the upper story of an Amsterdam canal house. Fun and adventurous.
I point this out to my wife, as I warily look at the narrow mattress pad, the low ceiling, the lack of a window, and some kind of safety belt bolted into the ceiling that straps on to the top bunk like a strait jacket, presumably to keep you from jumping in terror.
I’m certainly not going up there.
Yup, look at that fluffed pillow, dear.
My wife gamely gives it a shot, which, of course, results in her transforming herself into a human sandwich. Turned in half. Head against knees. Nowhere to go. Stuck forever in the top bunk.
So, folks, here we are one more time at that juncture where a marriage can go several directions. Most not good for the spouse who wants to remain married.
But she laughs. Yup. I do not lie. She reverses her steps. Tries again. And successfully unfolds to lie flat on the bed.
I wipe my brow and quickly attach the safety belt before my wife rolls out of bed and finds a normal husband.
Whew. Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr. ♦
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www. joesneighborhood.com.