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Go By Train

June 11, 2014

Shortly before my dad unexpectedly passed away in 2008 he drove across town to our house to spend the afternoon with me. Mom and Dad had only lived in Portland a few years, having recently relocated from the Bay Area because a health scare had convinced them it was time to move near us in case they needed assistance.


Dad was a gregarious guy but we sometimes had difficulty finding subjects to talk about. I suggested we go for a walk. “Have you seen Portland’s old Union Station?” I asked.


“Yes, but it was a long time ago. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.”


It was a pleasant day, bright but not too warm, perfect for a stroll. It only took us twenty minutes to reach the station but Dad was having more trouble with his back than he wanted to admit. I pointed to a bench with a view of the station and we sat down for a few minutes. But Dad didn’t want to linger. He struggled to his feet and we continued towards the station.


Portland’s Union Station opened in 1896. Many great train terminals have been torn down due to the decline in rail travel, but Portland preserved its monument to rail, what Arlo Guthrie called, “Our fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.” Union Station has appeared in several movies because of its authenticity and vintage flavor.



Dad and I entered and wandered around. The building was a time machine, a portal to eras long gone when people dressed for travel and put on faces to meet the faces they met. The cavernous terminal was nearly empty, but it wasn’t hard to imagine cigar smoking men with broad silk ties and fedoras, hustling to catch trains and briefly gawking at lovely ladies with feathers in their hats, lines inked on the back of their calves to simulate nylons made scarce by war.


I bought gum in the tobacco shop. After paying the wizened guy behind the counter I noticed Dad had wandered off. I found him staring at a mural-sized photograph of Mt. Hood, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I remember this picture,” he said wistfully. “It was in 1946, after I was mustered out of the Navy. I was nineteen and returning from Guam where I’d been stationed with the Seabees to prepare for the invasion of Japan. I don’t know why, but instead of returning us to the West Coast our troop ship passed through the Panama Canal and dropped us off in New York City. I caught a cross-country train to Seattle and another down to Portland. This station looks the same, but the area around here was much rougher then.”


There’s an expression called seeing someone with “new eyes,” when you view someone you know very well as if you’ve never seen them before. I’d studied every line on my dad’s face, had painted him more than once, but at that moment he looked very different to me. His back wasn’t bent, his shoulders were straight and lines no longer creased his face. He was nineteen again, in his bell-bottomed Navy uniform, back from war and surprised to be one of the fortunate ones to have survived. In my eyes he was just a kid, similar in age to CJ, his grandson.


“It’s a beautiful mountain,” he said, referring to the yellowed Mt. Hood photograph. “I remember wishing I’d had time to see it before catching my train home. Of course back then I had no idea I’d have a son living in Portland.”




I decided then and there to drive Dad to Mt. Hood, spend the day with him at venerable old Timberline Lodge. We’d make a holiday of it and have a great time. 


Dad passed away before I could arrange the trip. I’m thankful we made it to Union Station. On cold rainy nights when I hear the plaintive sound of trains rolling through the darkness I reflect on the glowing “Go By Train” sign at Union Station. I think of a gawky young man waiting in a drafty train station for a ride home, his entire life ahead of him, the man who would always be there for me even though my unorthodox views and questionable pursuits must have confounded him over the years—my dad. 




That's a great story. My dad always liked trains but like most people today I haven't really ridden them, though there is a certain nostalgia to the idea, especially the idea of ridin the rails like the hobos.
By: PT Dilloway on June 11, 2014
What a wonderful memory you have of a special time spent with your father. I know exactly what you mean "seeing someone with 'new eyes'...." That is a glimpse of someone that is like a memory tattoo. Forever inked in our minds. Those are the insight moments into life. Lucky you. Great story. Thanks as always
By: Oma Linda on June 11, 2014
Touching story on several levels.
By: Cranky Old Man on June 11, 2014
Great story Stephen. Men of that era were a breed apart!
By: John on June 11, 2014
what a wonderful story- perfect for upcoming Father's Day in a few weeks. Your Dad sounds like he was a lovely Father. Lucky you!
By: Kathe W. on June 11, 2014
A lovely post, Stephen. I enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing such a special memory.
By: Sharon Bradshaw on June 11, 2014
Nice story. I wonder how many Union Stations there still are in the U.S.
By: Tom Sightings on June 11, 2014
There's something magic about trains, and about our parents when they relive some of those old memories.
By: mimi on June 11, 2014
what a sweet and bittersweet memory.
By: TexWisGirl on June 11, 2014
A great story about your dad, Stephen. When my dad was a teenager in North Dakota they hopped a freight one night but someone saw them get on and alerted his father. He drove to the next big town on the line and picked up dad and brought him home. But the next time he tried it, gramp said "well, let him go then." He made it to the West Coast and spent a season picking fruit before he decided to come home and finish high school.
By: Catalyst on June 11, 2014
What a nice memory. Thank you for sharing it.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on June 11, 2014
Great story! I wish your plan had worked out, but at least you had that special day.
By: Val on June 11, 2014
This is the perfect story for Father's Day. What a nice tribute to your father! Love trains and train stations - I used to ride the train from my home town to the town where my high school was. Fond memories of copying math homework from my class mates on the train ride... :-)
By: Pixel Peeper on June 11, 2014
Thanks for a wonderful story and great Fathers Day gift. It's a beautiful reflection and time trip.
By: Tom Cochrun on June 11, 2014
A beautiful story beautifully told. It's wonderful how important these seemingly unimportant activities become.
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 12, 2014
What a tender story.. a touching memory. Beautiful and just on time for Father's Day coming up.
By: Hilary on June 12, 2014
What a lovely post -- so beautifully written. I can picture your dad in the station. You paint with words. too. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 12, 2014
A moving tribute to a thoroughly decent human being.
By: Bryan Jones on June 13, 2014
Your stories always leave me with visual impressions in my mind. You words alone create a painting... in my mind.
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 14, 2014
What a lovely tribute to your Dad. The way you told the story I felt like I was there with you. I'm glad you got to take that trip short with him anyway.
By: LL Cool Joe on June 14, 2014
Alas, one of the things Arlynda and I really wanted to do "someday" was take an extended tour of our country by rail. Since that tour would not have been complete without getting up to Alaska, western Canada would have been also explored. We would have probably skipped the train ride to Hawaii, though.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on June 14, 2014
What a lovely story, Stephen. I think it's hard to see the underlying youth in a person we know in their aged body. I sometimes can see the youth of an older person when they reminisce. It's a shame that you didn't get to take your trip. Still...after reading some of your posts that talk about your dad, it sounds like you have some wonderful memories.
By: Cheryl P. on June 25, 2014

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