Remember When: Remembering the Freedom Train — and Bill

Published 8:00 am Friday, August 24, 2018

The arrival of the Pacolet River Pullman car in Landrum gives me subject matter for another column!

Very few people travel by train anymore, or even by bus, for that matter. Everybody’s got a car — or two or more nowadays! Not to mention the airlines, which have managed to take the fun out of public transportation…

My first train trip was made in 1939, when I was 9 years old.

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My mother put me on the train in Durham and her father met me in Old Fort. Mother entrusted my suitcase to a porter and me to the conductor.

You may read about it in my first book of these columns, “A Boy in the Amen Corner,” on page 240.

My next train trip was courtesy of Uncle Sam when I joined the Air Force. I met a fellow enlistee, one Wallace K. Lavender, at the train station in Spartanburg. We rode first class, in a Pullman car, all the way to San Antonio, Texas. 

When we got hungry, we presented ourselves at the dining car with our government-furnished “meal tickets.” They were worth about 35 cents, far less than the prices on the menu!  

The very understanding dining steward said not to worry, and returned soon with nice plates with open-faced roast beef sandwiches. Tender and delicious!

I cannot remember whether I had an upper or lower berth for sleep, but the rhythmic click of the wheels on the rails was lullaby enough. One thing I do remember is the long, gradual climb on a bridge to cross high above the Mississippi River near New Orleans.

I feel fortunate to have experienced not only first-class train travel, but also an airline trip on a DC-3 out of Love Field, Dallas. I also feel fortunate to have seen the original documents founding our nation, both aboard the Freedom Train, and years later in the archives building in Washington, D.C.

The documents included the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Also included were the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and other significant papers that reinforced the ideals that had been set forth as the nation grew. 

The Freedom Train was proposed by Attorney General Tom Clark, approved by President Harry Truman, and put on the rails by Paramount Pictures and the Advertising Council.

The No. 1776 diesel-electric locomotive that pulled the train was especially built for the purpose.

The Freedom Train was parked at the Spartanburg train station when I went through it. Marines in full dress uniform were stationed throughout the train, urging people to keep moving. We therefore could only have fleeting glances at the documents, but it was a memorable experience anyway.

Rick Powell came over to inform us geezers at McDonald’s Saturday morning of the passing of our friend Bill Booker at Autumn Care.

Bill always came to McDonald’s for his breakfast of oatmeal after dropping his wife, Johnnie Mae, off at St. Luke’s, where she had been on staff in the operating room for more than 50 years. He shared not only his apple chunks, but many stories of his lifetime of hard work. Bill even sang bits of gospel tunes for us with his fine singing voice. 

Johnnie Mae retired when she lost her ride to work, and we have missed Bill from his usual seat along the wall, where he gathered his own group of friends. 

Perhaps one day we all will be able to see our founding documents on display in our Columbus Veterans Plaza, I suggest between the fountain and the row of flag poles.

There will then be plenty of time to take them in, with no Marine guard to hurry us along…