It was rare. To my brother and me it was always a shock. The lights would go on in our room and dad would say, “Come on kids. Get up. We’re going to the depot for pancakes.”
Then Kirk and I were rousted out, scramble-haired, pajamaed. They helped us into our coats, pulling our little arms through the sleeves. “Put on your shoes.” Shoes and PAJAMAS??? What had happened to the world?
We climbed half-sleeping into the back seat of a green Ford, a 49, then a 55, for a long drive all the way from the suburb of Englewood to the depot in downtown Denver.
“These are the best pancakes you’ll ever have, kids.”
We sat at a table in the green, black, chrome and white diner. People waiting for trains sat on the stools at the counter, reading their papers, drinking coffee, ears cocked to hear their trains called. The diner smelled of trains and maple syrup.
“What’ll it be?” asked a waitress in a green uniform and a white apron, pencil behind her ear, order tablet in her hand, fancy folded lacy handkerchief pinned to her bosom behind her name tag.
“I think I’ll have a short stack.”
“What’s that?” I asked. They spoke a strange language, these two grownups, a strange language I was constantly trying to figure out.
“Three pancakes, Martha Ann. Can you fix up plates with two pancakes for each of the kids?”
“Sure. Off the kiddie menu. What about you, sir?”
“I’m wearing my PJ’s,” announced my brother, revealing flannel printed with rockets and flying saucers.
“You want coffee?”
More strange words. That meant, “No.”
The pancakes came.
“I think this is Log Cabin,” said my mom, “no better than home.”
“The syrup. I think they’re just using Log Cabin. Used to have real maple syrup at the depot.”
“Best pancakes you’ll ever eat,” said my dad. “It doesn’t matter, Helen. They’re good.”
After the pancakes we went out to see the trains. My heart beat fast. Seeing them made me think of getting on one, of GOING somewhere, like MONTANA which was where I went on trains, sitting in big green cars on red velvet seats with white-painted wrought iron arm-rests and racks above the seats. Old cars, built in the ’20’s. It wasn’t a big seller, the trip from Denver to Billings. This was not the Denver Zephyr that went to Chicago or the California Zephyr that went to LA. It was a mail train that carried some passengers.
In 1959, when I was 7, and understood most of what the grownups said, we took that train to Billings. Up there my mom took me into the cellar of my grandma’s house where there was an old trunk. “I took this to college with me,” she said. “All my books are inside.” We opened it. It was truly filled with treasures, books, old lace, letters from people I had never heard of, old stamps, a musty smell. “I’ll ship this home, but lets take some books for the train.”
A few days later, a bright June morning, Hank took us to the depot in Billings. We got on the train that was nothing more than an engine and a car that was half mail/baggage and half passenger car, a kind of rail bus. Mom, Kirk and I took our seats. As the train pulled out of the station, our faces were pressed against the window. Hank, Jo and grandma waved goodbye. Later, the train would stop and let us out for dinner somewhere — probably Thermopolis — and a sleeper car would be attached.
I was looking out the window at a summer storm gathering slowly over the green Wyoming plain, when my mom handed me a book. “You’ll like this,” she said. It was Seven League Boots by Richard Halliburton. It became my first grown up book. I took it outside to the porch on the back of the train where someone had put a straight-backed chair. With my feet up on the railing, I opened the book as Wyoming moved around me. I read until it rained.