Miss Virgie, who proudly hails from Pascagoula, Mississippi, is my Southern mentor. She believes in white paper doilies placed properly on silver serving pieces, thank you notes written on heavy stock, engraved paper, monogrammed everything and the romance of trains and New Orleans.
It was, in fact, Miss Virgie who introduced me to the charm of something called “railroad silver.” She mentioned one day that she had just purchased a giant soup tureen from an antiques dealer and how gorgeous it was. I had never heard of such.
“What is railroad silver?” I asked.
She, who has theoretically adopted me as the child she never had, a Southern daughter worth investing in, launched eagerly into explanation. It is, she explained, the silver plated hollowware and flatware that railroads used in their first class dining cars during the heyday of train travel in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Each railroad line ordered its own ornate, specially designed silver and stamped with its name such as Pacific Union or Southern on the bottom.
Immediately, I was intrigued by the romance of it all and began my own minor collection. I have four small serving pieces now which I sometimes hold in my hands and dreamily think of the other hands that touched it on those railroad trips and what their stories were. I think of women in padded broad-shoulder suits and hats that perched at an angle on their heads and of men with wide, long ties and double breasted suit coats. And I wonder if a star like Ava Gardner or Betty Grable might have touched a piece of that old, somewhat scratched and worn silver. I have a large and romantic imagination as you can see.
It was, I suppose, this introduction to railroad silver that got me to yearning for a train trip of my own, to travel the rails and see my beloved South as it whizzed by in a blur of images tinged with a good doze of yesterday’s nostalgia and romance. Like many in today’s world, I enjoy retreating into yesteryear when things weren’t so fast-paced, where communication wasn’t constant with cell phones and instant messages and life was, well, just less stressful and demanding. When there was time to think, contemplate and enjoy.
And, that is how I wound up on Amtrak’s Crescent, a silver bullet of a train, headed from Georgia across Alabama and Mississippi to wind up in my favorite town – New Orleans.
One morning I left my house at 6:15 a.m., dropped Dixie Dew, my dachshund at the sitter, then pulled into the train depot at 6:40. No hassle, no security lines, no folks rushing hectically, which are things I encounter with what has become unpleasant airline travel.
I walked into the station and was greeted by Lucille – the queen of the depot – who was sitting on a bench, doing needlepoint.
“Getcha an Amtrak luggage tag over there and put it on your bags.”
I did as I was told then settled down on the old, church-like wooden pew next to her. I peppered her with questions about the train, explaining it was my first trip. Patiently, she answered, proud of what she knew that I didn’t, prouder even that she had 37 years with the railroad.
“Now, the train leaves at 6:58, what time does it get here?”
“Oh, ‘bout 6:58.”
I did a double take. “6:58? That’s not much time to load and unload.”
“Girl, you better grab them bags and jump on that thang ‘cause it don’t stay long.”
Advice heeded, I scampered aboard the Crescent, settled into a roomy first class compartment and, like the child I once was, watched with wonderment as we passed through towns I had visited previously but never seen them from the railroad tracks. Atlanta. Anniston, AL. Birmingham. Tuscaloosa. Meridian. Hattiesburg. Slidell, LA. And finally, the always enticing – at least to me – city of New Orleans (by the way, the train that runs from NO up to Chicago is called the City of New Orleans). I loved every mile.
Romantics, of which I am one, love the allure of trains. Too-many-to-count black and white movies show great love either arriving or leaving in the smoke-billowing, wheel-squeaking, whistle-blowing of a sexy-looking train. Every time Dolly Parton leaves her lover in a song, she goes on a train not a plane. Aw, the romance of trains.
This latest romance of mine began with an attraction to railroad silver but the love affair has just begun to blossom. It’s going to be a long term relationship.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know About Faith.