Her suave and handsome seatmate made a seven-year-old's journey a heavenly one.
- Posted on Apr 23, 2012
Passengers milled around the platform at Chicago’s Dearborn Train Station. My mother pressed a few dollar bills into my hand.
“Your aunt and uncle will meet you at the train station in Los Angeles,” she said. She handed the conductor another bill. “Look after my little girl.”
It was 1932, and even at seven years old I knew enough about the Depression to sense the weight of the few dollars my mother had somehow managed to scrape together. Dad had died two years before, and Mom worked long hours as a secretary to support my sister and me.
When she could, she sent us to live with relatives. But this was the first time I would be traveling alone. I put on a brave face for Mom.
She kissed me good-bye one last time as the train hissed and gave me a boost into the Pullman car. The inside was enormous, and I was instantly swallowed up by the crowd of strangers. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. Angel of God, I prayed, be at my side.
The conductor took my hand. “Let’s get you in your seat.”
I got settled, and the conductor went off to do his job.
What now? I thought.
A tall, handsome gentleman stepped into the car. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was dressed to the nines. He looked like a movie star. Like William Powell or Gary Cooper. He tipped his fedora as he took the seat opposite me. “Hello there! You must be my seatmate.”
“Yes,” I mumbled, embarrassed that I’d been staring. Mother had always told me never to talk to strangers. But how could I survive a three-day train trip without talking to another passenger?
“Let me stow that for you,” he said, moving my suitcase so I had more room. “Put those bills inside it first. You won’t be needing them.”
As he pushed my suitcase under my seat, the man saw my initials on top: FXM. “Your name must be Frances,” he said. “I’m Michael.”
“Like Michael the archangel?”
“Something like that,” he said.
The conductor called, “All aboard!” The train lurched forward and slowly picked up speed. We pulled out of the station. Sun burst in through the train windows, filling the car with light. Michael and I watched the world go past: first city streets and apartment buildings, and then fields of tall corn and shimmering wheat.
Soon the porter made the first call for dinner.
“You look like you could use a good meal,” Michael said. “My treat.”
The smell alone from the dining car was enough to fill my belly! Once we entered my eyes feasted on lamb chops with frilly white socks and vegetables I’d never heard of, like artichoke and avocado. Michael and I stuffed ourselves. “Did you save room for dessert?” he asked.
After we put in our order, Michael had a quiet word with our waiter. The next time he appeared it was with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and my initials written in fudge over the top. I’d never seen such a thing! Michael flashed the waiter a wink.
There was so much to explore on the train, and in the coming days Michael made sure I saw it all: baggage car, passenger cars, club car and the observation balcony. We stood with our hands on the railing and watched the seemingly endless tracks go by.
The train’s stack spewed a steady stream of black smoke as we moved across the country. We traveled west, the scenery slowly changing from flat, gold and green fields to red-toned deserts and plateaus with pine-dotted mountains in the distance.
“We’re in Arizona now,” Michael said one morning. “We should get off the train and go exploring.” After breakfast Michael held my hand as we walked off the train. On the station platform, I saw a group of Native Americans selling baskets, pottery and jewelry on blankets.
“Do you want anything?” Michael asked. I hesitated. “I’ll help you pick it out,” he said.
I examined the objects for sale in front of me. My eyes fell on a small bracelet. It was turquoise, with silver wings spreading out from it. “It’s an angel!” I said. Next thing I knew, it was on my wrist. Now I had two guardian angels on my journey.
After three days we pulled into the Los Angeles station. Michael carried my suitcase off of the train. My aunt and uncle rushed toward me with outstretched arms. My uncle pulled a bill out of his pocket and looked for the conductor.
“I want to give him a tip for taking such good care of you,” he said.
“The conductor didn’t take care of me!” I shouted. “Michael did!”
Michael doffed his fedora at my aunt and uncle, handed me my suitcase and shot me a wink. Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd. In a moment he was gone.
“He stayed with me the whole time,” I told my relatives. “He even bought me a present! An angel! Look!” I raised my arm to show them the bracelet.
“Why, I think that’s a thunderbird,” my aunt said. My uncle leaned in for a closer look. “It’s the Indian sign of a good protector!”
And for the whole trip, that’s what I had: an angel guarding me. One that liked to travel first class.
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