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My First American Train Ride
by Fred Natividad

Train travel in this country has been around forever, of course. But in 1967 there was no outfit called Amtrak as we know it today. This was the year I immigrated to America and the last leg of my immigrant journey was a train trip from San Francisco to Chicago after an eighteen-day passage from Manila to San Francisco on the SS President Wilson.

My wife Francisca, purchased first class tickets on what I recall simply as a Santa Fe train. She and our ten-month old son Reggie, who both arrived in the United States a few months earlier, flew in from Chicago to meet me.

Since we will leave the next day we spent a night at a YMCA hotel. That's where I had my first American dinner - a cold hamburger from a vending machine. No, I think I should take that back. My first American dinner may arguably be on the SS President Wilson while she was anchored on Manila Bay taking in passengers. An American ship, in my perception, is already American turf although Manila Bay is on the other side of the world where sometime in the past a U.S. navy hero named Dewey once demolished the Spanish fleet.

Our train was supposed to leave at 10:30 am so we felt we had time to visit a fellow immigrant, a young widow who has been living in San Francisco for the past few years. She fed us old-country stuff when she learned it will take us two and a half days to get to Chicago. She warned us that we may get tired of train food although she was not sure what train food is like.

To her horror she discovered that we asked our cab to wait while we were visiting. We thought it would be tough to find a cab again and we want to be sure we had ready transportation to catch our train. She hastily went out to pay and dismiss the cab and assured us that we had plenty of time since she will drive us to the depot herself.

Then it was our turn to be horrified. She forgot that we were strangers to San Francisco and when she asked where to take us back we didn't know. Not used to taking train trips herself she did not know where the Santa Fe offices were. Instead of going thru a phone book or the train literature that came with our tickets we raced downtown and flagged the first cop we saw and asked for directions! We have only ten minutes left before our train departs.

There was no train in sight! Our panic mounted as seconds ticked away and a few minutes before our supposed departure we timidly asked someone at the counter where to board for Chicago. She pointed to a bus and when I protested that we were supposed to ride on a train she explained that we will ride the bus to some place called Oakland across some bay where we will find our waiting train.

We were the last passengers to climb up the bus. Reggie was a bit uncooperative until we were seated where finally Francisca was able to pacify him with his milk bottle. Then we remembered we had baggage. Fortunately, the ticket agent earlier suggested that we check them in so they were already loaded into the bus.

As the bus negotiated the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge I noticed that Reggie was getting uneasy again. He smelled and Francisca assured me that he only passed gas. I looked around but nobody seemed bothered. Either everybody was too polite or nobody was sure that the smelly culprit was the cranky kid.

A woman asked how long the bridge was and the driver cheerfully said it is about seven miles long. I wondered why an American would ask a question like that as if she was a stranger like me. It did not occur to me that she could be a tourist from some other part of this huge country. Or she could have been British or Australian. Anyway I could not distinguish various accents.

At Oakland there was the train! Showing our tickets frequently to anyone in a railroad employee's uniform we finally found our train car. A porter helpfully loaded our baggages into our cabin. Seeing how inexperienced we were he explained that it was customary to tip him. I didn't know how much a normal tip is so I handed him uncertainly a five-dollar bill. He gave me a testy look and decided to hand me back three dollars!

It was our first time to ride an American train, in first class, too, which I have seen only in movies such as when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint starred in "West by Northwest." I know now that early March, 1967 was off-season for travel. This explains why the counter person back in San Francisco said he will give us the biggest room at the price of the smallest room so that our ten-month old Reggie, will have plenty of space to crawl around.

He also sold us a wad of tickets good for all the meals of two adults all the way to Chicago. In those days meals are not included in the price of a first class ticket.

The first thing Francisca did as soon as we closed our cabin door was clean Reggie up. He smelled badly all the way back on the bus while we crossed into Oakland. Which is why he was so cranky. He made a mess inside his diaper under his watertight rubber panties.

That first night when there was nothing to see anymore but darkness outside the train window I wrote on postcards and letters to folks back in the Philippines that in America we can have dinner from a vending machine and sleep in a rolling hotel room. Our cabin had three beds that can, except for the upper bunk, cleverly become soft sofas by day!

I remember always wearing a tie and a suit jacket (as opposed to today's comfortable jeans and polo shirts) everytime I came out of our room and especially when we went to the dining car. At breakfast on the second day we opted for room service because Reggie was simply too difficult to handle. He emptied a salt shaker and tried to eat the fresh flowers at the dining car.

The waiter who brought food to our cabin asked if we didn't like American food. He noticed that we ate only about half the servings. I explained that we are not used to eating such heaping servings. We are a small people and we don't eat THAT much. Francisca was about ninety five pounds and I was a hundred five.

Little would we realize that part of our Americanization began at this first train ride. There was so much food to eat and we gradually ate more than we did on the first day. Twenty nine years later Francisca hits the scales at one hundred thirty. I am only five and a half feet tall but I now weigh a hundred sixty five pounds!

On the second evening we went out to the lounge and the train conductor passed by. We were the only foreign-looking people and he struck up a conversation with us.

Eventually he asked:"How long will you folks stay in the United States?"

"For good," I said, "we have immigrant visas."

"Oh, good luck with your citizenship lessons then," he said cordially. "I thought you are tourists or people from your country's foreign service."

"You thought wrong, but you flatter us," I said. I was pleased that we could pass for more than what we are.

Did he think I was a diplomat or something? I was merely a jobless accountant with a visa as a dependent of my wife who was admitted to this country as a nurse at the huge Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He gave Reggie a friendly pat and walked away.

All along a young marine with a single stripe on his sleeve was sitting next to us. When the conductor left the marine picked up the conversation. He said his father was also a marine and has been to the Far East. He said he was on his way to the great lakes. I didn't ask him aloud but I wondered which of the great lakes he was going to. I knew from guide books that Chicago is by the shore of Lake Michigan, one of the "great lakes."

It will be sometime before I will discover that there is a naval training center called "Great Lakes" for short. The young marine must have been on his way for some kind of technical training at that naval facility just north of Chicago.

Coming from a small country where my longest bus ride is a mere four hours from my rural village to the big city of Manila I was awed by my new adopted country. My first train ride showed me the seemingly endless expanses of these United States. I have seen mountains and flat plains before but not in the towering scale and vastness that I am experiencing on this train ride to Chicago.

On the third day I began to see patches of snow (first time I saw snow in person) still on the ground as the train knifed through the great plains. I was seeing for the first time farms without bamboo clumps and the foot-high dikes that are common in rice paddies back home.

When we pulled into Chicago's Dearborn Station (now extinct and replaced by tony housing) I was further awed by the skyline even if the tallest structure at the time from which tourists could climb to have a look-down view of Chicago was the Prudential Building with its forty-odd stories. In a few years this will be dwarfed by the Sears Tower, about three times taller.

The years rolled by. We had another son, Philip. We took the two boys on trains on most of our vacations. From our home city of Chicago Amtrak has taken us to Seattle and San Diego, to Florida and New York, to Philadelphia and Las Vegas, to the whole length of the west coast.

But the next time Reggie travelled again on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge it was a reverse crossing. When he and Philip graduated from college their gift from us was a trip to San Francisco, our last train ride as a family foursome.

Fred Natividad
Berwyn, IL
Magandang araw po sa inyo! (Have a nice day!)

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