I heard it before I saw it. But I knew what it was – possibly the last steam engine to run south on the tracks by my old home place at Lumberton.
I remember the year, 1954, because there was a big drought that year, crops failed, and my daddy lost his prized 1954 Ford two-ton truck, repossessed by the local bank. This was the one with “Always Late,” his favorite song by the country crooner, Lefty Frizzell, painted on the bumper by an itinerant painter at the French Market in New Orleans, where he hauled what watermelons that didn’t dry up and die on the vine.
Growing up by the railroad tracks and marking time by the daily passage of the trains, I thought of them as the epitome of travel, especially when I glimpsed the faces of passengers in the windows of the gleaming dining cars as they flashed by in the night.
Probably more than anything else, the mystique of train travel led to my joining the Navy to “see the world,” resulting in visits to over 100 countries on six continents, all courtesy of my “Uncle Sam.”
The first trip I ever took, however, was on a bus – my high school class trip. The Lumberton High School Class of 1959 chartered a bus and went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, home of the Moon Pie, to see Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls. All 51 of us.
Including some “honorary” members who didn’t actually graduate. We gave them a “pass.” Seems like every other barn in the South used to be plastered with “See Rock City,” so we did.
The old diesel bus couldn’t make it up the mountain with us aboard, so we had to get out and walk along behind it.
There actually wasn’t that much to see when we got to the top. If you knew your Civil War history, you did have panoramic view of the site of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, a day before the terrible Battle of Missionary Ridge, but that was about it.
I was just killing time until my Navy shipping out date.
What really sticks out in my memory about that trip is that Lumberton native, M.C. Parker, had just been broken out of the Pearl River County Jail in Poplarville and murdered by a mob, quite possibly the last lynching in Mississippi.
The tragedy was dominating the national news and the FBI was on the scene en masse. I actually knew the victim, thought he was a decent young man, and believed he deserved due process and his day in court.
In any event, some cretin in our class, now deceased, had made a banner which said, ‘Lumberton, MS, Home of M.C. Parker,” and draped it on the side of the bus. Thank goodness it was reported to the chaperones and removed before we got to Purvis.
If you are like most of us and trying to obey the rules during this trying time of infodemics and conspiracy bingo, being locked down and unable to travel freely is one of the hardest things to deal with.
Supposedly, there are five scientifically proven benefits to travel: improves health, relieves stress, enhances creativity, boosts happiness, and lowers the likelihood of depression.
While travel is severely restricted for most of us during the lockdown, I have a solution. I know you’ve heard the term, “armchair traveler,” where you sit and read your favorite travel book?
Let’s forget the book.
Just get to a quiet place, relax, and think about a favorite trip that you have already taken.
I’ll share one of mine to get you started. We will even coin a new name for it.
I once had a boss at the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, the only person I ever knew with three Purple Hearts and two Navy Crosses, who denied that he took “nooners” or naps at noon.
It sure appeared to me as if he were sleeping, but he always said he was just closing his eyes and “taking a psychic vacation.” So, let’s break out of lockdown and follow his example by taking a psychic vacation.
You pick your destination, and I’ll share one of mine.
France has always been one of my favorite travel destinations, real or virtual.
I lived there three years when I was a kid, and that was enough to make me a Francophile for life, even buying and bringing home my own antique French Citroen 2CV (“deux chevaux-vapeur,” literally “two steam horses”) automobile in which I now putt around Oak Grove on Sunday afternoons.
When I say, “putt,” I mean putt as in two cylinders and 28 horsepower.
This is the car that was designed before World War II to carry two French farmers, two sacks of potatoes, and a dozen eggs across a plowed field without breaking the eggs. I’m not making this up.
The ship I was on, in 1964, homeported in France, only left when General Charles de Galle took France out of NATO. De Galle, like many Frenchmen, always had this love-hate relationship with the United States which I thought was rather “shallow” after we had pulled their chestnuts out of the fire during two World Wars.
The story goes that when de Galle was ranting that he wanted all of the Americans out of France, our Secretary of State at the time, Dean Rusk, supposedly asked him with a straight face, “Does that include the soldiers who are buried there?” You could have heard a pin drop.
Anyway, the virtual vacation I have in mind, taking place about seven years ago, was by train from Nice (pronounced “Neece”) on France’s Mediterranean shore, the Cote d’Azur (Blue Coast), to Rome.
Nice was actually a part of Italy, or at least the House of Savoy, until 1860. Giuseppe Garibaldi, who is given most of the credit for the unification of Italy into its current form and who is known as the “George Washington of Italy” was from Nice.
If you follow Italian politics today, you know that “unification” is almost a misnomer as there is a great divide between the industrialized north and the poverty stricken south, particularly around Naples, a hot bed of the Cosa Nostra.
On regular trains of France’s SNCF and Italy’s Trenitalia systems, both state-run, it’s about fifteen hours from the Gare de Nice Ville to the main terminal in Rome, the Roma Termini, and you have your choice of eight trains each day, with most involving a change of cars at Ventimiglia, on the Italian border.
Unfortunately, because of the topography, around the littoral of the seacoast, the high-speed train, or “Frecciarossa” (Red Arrow) can’t run and you’re stuck on the regional or intercity trains.
It’s only 470 kilometers (292 miles), but there’s very few straight stretches. The scenery is so spectacular, however, with the beautiful water views and quaint historical cities, time is not an issue.
All went well in France, but even though we had reservations (me, my wife, sister-in-law, and granddaughter), someone had our seats on the new train at the border crossing, and it was full.
Welcome to Italy. At least Mussolini made the trains run on time. No problem; I just piled our suitcases in the breezeway between cars, and we sat on them until some vacant seats opened up.
We did have to move, however, every time the registered occupants came onboard.
On Italian trains, your ticket says “da convalidare” at one end. For the past several years, before you board the train, they make you insert your ticket into a little yellow stamping machine on the ramp before you get onboard.
The idea is that if the ticket inspector on the train doesn’t manage to validate your ticket on that date, you won’t be able to use it again, stamped as it now is with a particular time and date: the “convalida.”
The problem is that there’s absolutely no signs telling you to have your ticket stamped, or that there is a 50 euro fine for not doing so – just another “got you” for tourists new to Italy or who can’t read the fine print on their tickets.
On the way to Rome, you pass through two of the three most important medieval Italian city states, Pisa and Genoa, leaving only Venice to visit later.
Genoa, of course, is probably the biggest commercial port in Italy and, as the train rolls right through the dock area, you see scores of cruise ships tied up, awaiting cruises all over the Mediterranean and beyond.
On a virtual trip, at least you won’t get trapped onboard like so many passengers and crew during the current pandemic. Cruise ships, like nursing homes, were not the place to be.
Ironically, in better days, I’ve read that, by careful planning, many older people find it cheaper to spend their retirement onboard cruise ships, endlessly cruising, rather than living in expensive nursing homes.
Genoa is also the birthplace of Christopher Columbus; but two places claim that he’s buried there, and I’ve been to both of them. Spaniards say that he’s buried in the Cathedral of Santa Maria, in Seville, Spain.
People in the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean, on the other hand, say that he’s buried in Santa Domingo, where they’ve built him an impressive tomb – the cross shaped monument known as “El Faro a Colon” (the Columbus Lighthouse).
Who knows the truth? Only Columbus.
An hour or so down the track, you come to the old city of Pisa, and there’s not much there today; however, you can see the famous Leaning Tower (1372) off in the distance through the train’s window.
Actually the “campanile,” or free-standing bell tower, for the city’s old cathedral, it is known worldwide for its nearly four-degree lean, the result of an unstable foundation.
That parable in the Gospel of Matthew, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, about the rich man building his house on the rock and the foolish man building his house on the sand comes to mind. When I was a lot younger, I bought a pizza and ate it on top on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just so I could say that I had.
Pretty soon, the train rolls into Rome. A dirty city. Polluted. Congested. A tourist trap. But still one of my favorite cities in the world. The Sistine Chapel.
Sleeping on the Spanish Steps. The Forum. A chance to see the Pope. If you have any sense of history, this is the epicenter, at least of western civilization.
One could write forever about Rome; after all, it’s the eternal city. But to keep things in perspective, there’s this: when you leave the train station, exit through the main door and look up the hill to your left.
There you will see the largest McDonald’s restaurant in Europe. The last time I was there, spaghetti was on the menu. Somehow, within sight of the old Coliseum, it seemed a little incongruent.
Someone said that the six best doctors in the world were sunlight, rest, exercise, a good diet, self-confidence, and friends.
To that, I would add a seventh – travel, even if it’s only in your mind.
My favorite quote from the dissolute French poet, Baudelaire, is to the effect that the best traveler is the one who leaves just for the sake of saying goodbye.
As far as I’m concerned, you might as well say goodbye and leave on a train so - close your eyes and - “all aboard!”
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com