The Train Ride to Athens

During the years of 1970 and 1971, I sometimes rode the train to school.
My parents dropped me off at the Oakley station, the same one where we would come to, to pick up my grandparents, who rode the train from Springfield, Missouri.
I haven’t thought about this for a very long time.
Last night, I found show on Netflix that was about a train ride that went 500 miles in Norway, past fjords, through and by mountain ranges, and countrysides and farmland. Its destination was a place where you could see the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun.
My train wasn’t quite as spectacular, at least not in the sense of a variety of landscape.
But I still got a different vision of the trip from Cincinnati to Athens.
I had been by car several times. My older sister had gone to Ohio University in Athens, and once, I went up for Little Siblings Weekend. That was the weekend I got tree dates at a fraternity “tea,” lied to a guy about my age, and decided that the pickings were great at Ohio University, so that was where I should go to further my education.
The drive to Athens was a long one. It wasn’t that it was all that far away, but there was no good way to get there. Most of the time, I got carsick, driving the windy roads and up and down the hills as we got further toward the Appalachians.
But when I took the train, it was an adventure. It was me, joining the world of my grandpa, who worked for the Frisco Railroad.
Grandpa, who looked like one of the cartoon goons, with his bald head, his 6’3 inch frame of stopped shoulders , big eyes and glasses worn on top of his head.
If he didn’t have his glasses propped there, I remember him taking his huge hands and rubbing his shiny scalp. And if he didn’t wear his teeth, his chin nearly touched his nose.
I used to stare at him … just because.
After a hurricane and the crash of ’29, destroyed his large Florida farm and successful business, and, by all intents and purposes, my grandpa, the family went back to Springfield, Missouri, where grandpa got a job with the railroad.
Always good with his hands and building things, grandpa rode the train and built depots and repaired depots along the train route. He slept in the caboose.
And drank too much.
I have a couple of letters that he wrote to my grandma, asking for forgiveness and promising not to drink.
He continued to drink.
Until he didn’t.
And found Jesus. And his church, which he worked so much for and on, that when he died from lung cancer, they honored him by naming a fellowship hall after him.
I wasn’t the train to earn my living. I was learning how to live.
The train was always nearly empty. There were times I had the entire car to myself.
I’d sit in one window seat and then change to the other side, testing seats.
The terrain from the train looks different from that in a car. We rode through farmland, groves of trees, through a couple of tunnels, and somewhat for me, into the great unknown.
I had gone from Norwood High School, where pretty much your day was planned, to college … living in a dorm with two other girls, crating my own schedule, having a bank account, and being responsible for my own laundry and life.
I was not scared. Just excited.
After the first couple of months of senior year, I was “psychologically gone.” I was ready , more than ready to get on with my life. Home wasn’t fun for those few years. From the outside, it looked fine, but inside? Alcohol and depression gripped my dad and mom. And I watched and tried to maneuver through people struggling with their own lives. Of course, I thought my dad’s drinking and my mother’s depression was because I wasn’t good enough.
During those years, I thought almost everything was my fault.
But on those train rides, alone, and onto an unknown future, my focus shifted from them to, well, I didn’t really have a focus.
I can hear the sound of the train wheels turning on the tracks and if I close my eyes, I can rock like a train’s movement.
One time, I had gone home for the weekend. It was winter. Cold and desolate and the landscape was skeletal, grey and bleak. There would be nobody at the depot in Athens, to meet me.
I had a heavy suitcase and other stuff to carry.
The depth was at the bottom of a hill. Athens is very hilly, or at least it was until they moved a lot of earth around to change the flow of a river and alter other landscapes.
It was beastly cold as I walked out of the station on that harsh day. It was before suitcases had wheels and practically pushed themselves. I grow weary and cold and sad thinking of the girl that was, feeling lonely and rather empty. The future was then. But life was not in place, by any means. I knew I didn’t want to go back, but I didn’t know what a future could hold. What were my dreams? What did I want or expect from life? From college? From me?
I had cold snot running from my nose, and waterer eyes, as I trekked up the ice covered street. It was Sunday and the streets of Athens were quiet. Bare. And there I was, 19-years old, with not much more a clue of who I was then than the day I was born.
Walking across the bridge to the West green, where my dorm was in Crook Hall, the winds tore through me, stinging my eyes and whipping through my scarf and into my ears.
My dorm was at the rear of the green. The walk across the green seemed like a walk through a tundra. Never-ending, winds dancing around dorms, causing the snow on the ground to drift and hide the sidewalks.
The warmth of the dorm-room defrosted my toes and hands. I thawed myself out and sat at my desk, looking out the window, wondering what I was doing there.
Susan

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Inga says:

    Rode the train to Athens a few times also. Didn’t realize your sister went there also. When? I also have those connections to a railroad past. My grandfather was a ticket agent at small depots in WVA and also telegraph operator.

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    1. Susan DeBow says:

      Say hey, Inga!
      It has been a long time. Too long. My sister was at OU the 4 years prior to when I went. They had the riots and went students home in the spring. The train was a fun option to have to get to school. How are you doing???
      Cheers,
      Susan

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      1. ingakimple says:

        So she was there when I was. Fun times! Tell me again her maiden name and where she lived.
        All ok here. When I am out at W-K Rd. I wonder if you are there also.

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      2. Susan DeBow says:

        I think of you, too, when we are on that road. Never far from Warren county.

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  2. Judy says:

    Mom’s family was from Missouri. Most were alcoholics, Mom included. And her dad, whom I was too small to remember. Funny thing. I was told Grandma didn’t allow alcohol in the house. there were 11 of them. I finally forgave myself for “causing” all of Mom’s drinking and depression after reading “Adult Children of Alcoholics”. I was probably in my 40’s. Trains also brought relatives to visit from different places. Our station was Spring Grove. It was always exciting to go there and put a penny on the track, waiting for a train to come. I think there must be some other train history as my Dad had a clock from a train station, a few lanterns, and some tools. Wish I knew the history. My train ride took me to Washington D.C. on our jr/senior trip from Norwood High.

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    1. Susan DeBow says:

      Nice memories, Judy. Our class didn’t get to go to Washington DC because it was Vietnam War time and there was unrest. I guess that is why. Maybe it isn’t. I do hope you pronounce “Missouri”, “Missoura.”

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