Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr

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 six-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 Fransisco 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.

For 32 years, Pat has worked at the Osceola station, south of Des Moines, Iowa. She loves it and is proud of the passing years.

“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.

Quick with a smile, John says that he’s heading to Reno for a stamp show where he has an exhibit. A hobby of many years.

“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, which gets us back to the sleeper compartment. A clever conversion of two chairs into bunk beds. A wonderfully economic approach to sleeping. Narrow step leads up to the second bunk, where the sheets are nicely tucked and the pillow 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 window, and some kind of safety belt bolted into the ceiling that straps on to the top bunk like a straight 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.






5 thoughts on “Another marriage saved on the California Zephyr

  1. Joe,
    Loved the travelogue and hope you had a good time in Denver. Your story reminded me of a recent celebration of life service for our friend Jim Fox. Jim lived his entire life in Dallas Center (except to graduate from Grinnell College.). He sold insurance from the former Dallas Center depot, the third generation of insurance salesmen. Jim loved everything about trains and railroads. At his service we all sang “Riding on the City of New Orleans” and the service ended with the playing of the Wabash Cannoball. We then adjourned to add our final farewells to Jim writing with magic markers on his pine coffin to carry our final words with him. Jim was such a great guy and I will always think of him when I hear a train story or “hear that whistle blowin’.” Thanks for your travel adventure story and another remainder of Jim.

  2. I love this because I took a grandson on a train adventure from Osceola to Chicago. The train came from Denver. We traveled in regular seats during the day. The snack bar ran out of food between Denver and Osceola so the only snacks for lunch were frozen breakfast biscuits, and scant few of those. The train was full of Amish with their beautiful, blonde headed daughters who flirted with my eleven year old grandson. He was smitten. He also kept track of how many small liquor bottles graced the table of a woman traveling alone. By the time we pulled into Chicago she was passed out and was taken from the train by ambulance. It was a grand adventure for a young boy and his grandma.

  3. Dear Joe,
    Loved your funny story. Had the same experience on the ferry to England and still married!
    We miss you at Monique’s Pilates, getting harder each time but the “Enough” still works!
    Looking forward to your next story,
    Best wishes and enjoy your trip

  4. Great post, Joe! Son Chuck took the train from Chicago to Mt. Pleasant last month. He is notorious for sleeping on trains so I told him to rouse himself periodically or he’d end up in San Francisco. Sadly for him, the Megabus has reinstated a new Chicago-Omaha run, provided by Windstar (the show choir buses from high school), so no more cushy California Zephyr. He isn’t married so he can tough it out on the bus for a while.

  5. As usual, great column and funny! Larry and I had talked about taking the California Zephyr to San Francisco this summer….. A good reason not to put things off.

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