Good Friday morning ...
In June of my fourteenth year I took my very first and only trip on a train. It was an overnight trip from Portsmouth, VA to Mobile, AL.
I was accompanied by one of my mother's seven sisters (there were thirteen children in her family). Aunt Elva had been visiting our Virginia family from her home in Alaska where she lived with her husband, Gordon, and her two children, Simeon and Ellen, both adopted Eskimo Indians.
I am uncertain if I had ever met Aunt Elva before her visit to Virginia (there were a number of aunts and uncles on my mother's side that I never met) ... but for sure I had never met Simeon and Ellen. They were both younger than I, and as I remember, he was a bit rambunctious (that's the word we would have used back then to describe what today we label hyperactive or ADHD or high-energy).
It had been prearranged that my trip to Alabama, where I would spend the summer on my grandfather's farm, would coincide with Aunt Elva's visit to Virginia and her trip to Alabama to visit the Jersild family. I was more than excited! ... for several reasons!
This would be only my third trip to Alabama to visit the plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins who lived there AND I was going to spend the entire summer on my grandfather's farm AND it was my first trip away from home without my family AND, as I said, it was my very first trip on a train. I was literally beside myself with excitement!
It was early evening when we pulled out of the Seaboard Airline Railway station on the waterfront in downtown Portsmouth. Intrigued as I always had been with how things work, I was fascinated with watching the activity from my window seat. I was eager to see workers switching tracks and cars in the train yard as we pulled out of the station, to look down on the water and marshes below as we crossed the numerous trestles that traversed the tributaries of the eastern Elizabeth River, and to observe the behind-the-scenes life that existed along the route of the railroad. It was all very fascinating to me.
That was until I was unceremoniously disturbed by the uncontrollable exuberance of the rambunctious one. Once the train was underway, his interference was constant, disturbing, persistent and increasingly annoying. By the time we reached Suffolk and linked up with the Atlantic Coast Line tracks, I had already had enough! I was ready to get off the train! We were less than twenty miles from Portsmouth and I had a feeling it was going to be a LONG night with an even LONGER day to follow. My idea of a pleasant and enjoyable journey had rapidly faded into an unpleasant, interrupted excursion. What was a fourteen year old to do?
Even at that age, I was quite good with children. I typically enjoyed them, got along well with them, and was able to win their affection with ease. It was not to be so with the rambunctious one. I guess I should have known, having witnessed his behavior while he visited our home before the trip. But somehow I figured, like most boys, he would be so fascinated with the train and what went on around it, that he would settle into a quiet interest. Not so with Simeon! If anything, he became more rambunctious! I was not happy!
I waited for my Aunt to do something to calm Simeon down. It didn't happen. I offfered to take him for a walk through the train and that worked for the duration of about fifteen minutes. I tried pointing out things that I thought might be of interest to a boy his age, but they had little effect.
At some point passing through North Carolina, an evening meal was brought to us and we ate it in our passenger seats since we did not have dinning car privileges. The meal (as I remember it, a sandwich of some kind, beverage, piece of fruit and a cookie) tapered Simeon's rambunctiousness as we sat side-by-side and ate. I was delighted.
After our meal as the train sped southwest through North Carolina and darkness descended upon us, I asked Simeon about Alaska and what it was like to live so far north separatred from the rest of the United States. The question seemed to settle him down.
He began to tell me about life in Alaska. Since I had never been there, I was intrigued and asked more questions. He was happy to oblige with answers. He told me about fishing and hunting around his home in Katzebue located above the Arctic Circle, about living in a quonset hut, about the COLD winters with their LONG dark nights lasting for most of the twenty-four hour day. Then he told me about summertime when the snow and ice melted and days had more normal daylight and when the fishing was particularly good. He told me about dog sledding and how his mother was injured in a dog team accident. Being an avid reader of Jack London books (Call of the Wild and White Fang - stories of the Klondike Gold Rush) ... I was even more intrigued to hear his first-hand stories of life in Alaska.
Simeon went on and on telling one story after another until he suddenly became very still and quiet. He had fallen asleep. His mother covered him with a sleeper blanket, gave me one for myself and thanked me for being a good traveling companion for Simeon. As the lights dimmed in the coach car, I, too, fell asleep. Awakening several times in the night when the train stopped at various points, I always found Simeon leaning heavily into my shoulder ... sound asleep. He was there in the morning, pressing into my shoulder, when the call came for breakfast.
The day I had dreaded the evening before, never materialized. Simeon had settled down. He fell asleep several times during the day. As I pumped him with questions, he continued to tell me tales about Alaska and enjoyed doing so.
Upon our arrival in Mobile, I was met by another aunt and uncle from my father's family, while Aunt Elva was met by one of her sisters. We parted with hearty goodbyes, I to stay a few days in Mobile before joining my grandparents on the farm in Baldwin County and they to go directly to Gulf Shores where the Jersild clan lived.
I never saw Simeon again. He returned to Alaska after their trip to the lower 48, later spent several years in Seatle going to high school and eventually became one of the "few and the proud" as a member of the US Marine Corps. With a family the size of mine having twenty-some aunts and like-numbered uncles and well over a hundred twenty or so first cousins, it is not hard to understand that we didn't see a lot of each other.
I look back on that train experience with Simeon as one of those initial learning experiences of how to deal with people of different cultures, backgrounds, behaviors, ideas, amusements and attentiveness. I was to encounter many more such learning experiences, especially as just one year later, this freckle-faced, southern white boy, started his tenure at Concordia Prep School in Bronxville, NY. The learning and adjustments in that environment were remarkable and have shaped me to this day. But that's a story for another time.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." [Galatians 5:22-23]
Have a blessed weekend ... being molded and shaped by the Holy Spirit to bear His fruits ...