“Jackson, are you sure about taking this train? It looks kind of scary here with the lights gleaming off of it,” Anna wanted to know after they arrived at the station that evening.
“Anna, please don’t be scared of riding on the train. Have faith in God, He’ll protect you,” Jackson told her.
“That’s easier said than done,” she replied.
They walked along the platform in New Orlean’s Union Passenger Terminal, making sure that train Number Two, the train they were scheduled to travel on, was the one they were looking at. It had arrived in the station moments before.
“This isn’t Europe,” Matt said, “But train travel should still be an easy way to ride. Lean back in your seat. Put your feet up. Close your eyes. And the next thing you know, we’ll all be sipping orange juice with Mickey Mouse. We’re just lucky they didn’t stick us in with the luggage, trying to get three seats at the last minute. Anna even had the audacity to ask for a First Class bedroom.”
“I didn’t know I was asking for a first class room. I just said that I wanted a room with its own bathroom. Besides, the train tickets were a lot cheaper than the airplane tickets, so don’t complain. Too bad no rooms were available.”
“I’m not worried about the money,” Matt admitted. “My parents don’t care how much I spend. They just wish that I’d get serious about medical school, and pick a specialty. Personally, I would have been happy to stop with just my biology degree. I once told them that as soon as I found someone willing to pay me to dissect frogs for a living I’d be all set.”
“Matt, you comedian. Hopefully you didn’t really tell them that.” Jackson said.
“No, but I was thinking it. Since my dad’s a clinical surgeon he really wanted me to go to medical school and follow in his footsteps. I’m just not ready to put in those kinds of hours. What I did tell him was that I was taking the summer off to ‘find myself.’ He didn’t like it, but he did agree to drop the subject for the time being. Now we’re back in class, and the whole thing is starting again.”
“I’ve always felt the Lord calling me to be a preacher or a missionary,” Jackson admitted. “I can see myself boarding a train like this in Africa or India or South America, and taking it into the untamed wilderness with my Bible in hand. Look out natives, ’cause here I come.”
“You’re starting to sound like an old movie,” Matt laughed.
“Laugh, buddy, but just you wait and see. A few more years of seminary here in New Orleans, and I’ll be out saving the world, making a difference for God, while you’re still trying to find some frogs to dissect.”
“Preach on, brother, preach on!” Matt laughed.
During this friendly tirade between the guys, Anna had been quiet, looking at the train sitting on the tracks. It was so big, and the front of it looked a little bit like a silver airplane. She shivered at the thought of an airplane.
Jackson held her hand, and must have felt her shiver, because he asked, “Is something wrong? Are you going to be OK riding a train?”
“Don’t you think it looks like an airplane?” she asked him.
“No, I do not think it looks like an airplane. It does not have wings. It only goes where the tracks take it. It does not sound like an airplane. And we get nice big comfortable seats to rest in on the train. What part of that is like an airplane? This will be an adventure according to Matt, so we should sit back and enjoy it.”
“You’re right. I’m probably being oversensitive,” she admitted. “Maybe it will turn out to be an interesting adventure to write home about, like you two keep telling me.”
“That’s the spirit,” Matt assured her. “I plan to mail a letter at each stop. Where do I buy stamps in this joint?”
Anna felt like hitting him.
As usual, Jackson found something that grabbed his attention. He was looking at the front engine of the train. “This first engine must really be new. Look how shiny it is.”
One of the train attendants overheard him, and added, “That’s a keen eye for trains you’ve got there, young man. She is new – just twenty days old. She’s got the latest in everything. The conductors tell me that she practically runs herself. This is the maiden voyage of the Sunset Limited train across the country to Orlando.”
The words ‘maiden voyage’ made Anna think about the Titanic. An iceberg sank that unsinkable ship on its maiden voyage, killing most of the people on board.
She pulled on Jackson’s sleeve to get his attention. “Maybe the ‘maiden voyage’ is not a good one to ride on. Remember the Titanic. I’m not so sure about riding the train after all.”
“Anna, please stop looking for things to be scared of,” Jackson counselled her. “Driving from your aunt’s house to the French Quarter, and then here to the station, was probably more dangerous than riding this train. We made it fine. Just try to relax.” She could hear the exasperation at the edge of his voice.
“Besides,” Matt added, “what’s the worst that can happen on a train – a derailment, right? So if it derails off the tracks what happens? It stops in the dirt at the side. Have you ever heard of anyone getting killed from a train derailment?”
“I’ve heard of people getting killed when their car was hit by a train,” she told him.
“But not people on the train. Trains are one of the safest forms of transportation there is. Trust me. They only go where the tracks go.” Matt seemed to know what he was talking about.
Anna thought that Matt was so arrogant and cocky that she didn’t know how he and Jackson could be such good friends. They were so different, even if they did both have biology degrees from Loyola University in New Orleans. She assumed that must have been where they met.
Jackson was tall and thin, with dark hair. He was a good listener, and usually quiet and serious. But he could be very outspoken about something he was passionate about – such as his religious beliefs. Like Anna, his family was not rich. But he was a good student and had used scholarships to help him through undergrad school at Loyola, and now seminary in New Orleans.
Matt, on the other hand, was several inches shorter than Jackson, although still taller than Anna, and tended to be much more laid back. He liked to joke and clown around most of the time, and rarely took anything serious. His family seemed to be very wealthy. From what she had heard, his dad was a doctor, and his mother had inherited a large fortune when her parents passed away. Therefore, it seemed like Matt never really had to work too hard for anything that he got. As a result, he also never really seemed to appreciate anything either. Somehow he had managed to get admitted to medical school at Tulane, although Anna still didn’t know how. She wondered if his dad helped, but she didn’t know.
She had often accused Matt of being spoiled, but that didn’t really capture his character exactly. It was different than that. Maybe “unencumbered” would have been a better description, or maybe simply uncaring – a free spirit.
“All aboard!” came the call from the conductor.
Anna looked at her watch. It showed 11:00 PM already – twelve hours since they had attempted to fly in the airplane that morning. “I thought we were supposed to leave the station at 11:00 PM?” she said accusingly to Matt, “not just start boarding the train at 11:00.”
“Don’t look at me,” he told her, shrugging his shoulders. “I just report what I’m told. So we leave a few minutes late – what’s the big rush? We still get there don’t we?”
They boarded the first passenger car through its side door. It was the fifth car from the front of the train. There were three engines, including the shiny one in front, followed by two older ones. After the three engines was the baggage car, the crew dormitory car, then the first passenger car where their seats were located. Four other cars followed that first passenger car, for a total of ten cars making up the entire train.
“Let’s put our luggage in our seats, then head to the eating area,” Jackson suggested. “I’m thirsty.”
The platform entrance into the train car led to two sets of stairs inside the car. One set of just a few stairs led down to a lower area containing several seats and tables. Some teenagers were in this area playing cards. The other set of steps led up to the main upstairs seating area. Many people in that area were asleep. Others were quietly reading.
They found three seats together – two on one side of the aisle, and one on the other side.
“Window or aisle?” Jackson whispered to her.
“Window,” she answered. “I’m going to need some sleep.”
They stowed their luggage in the racks and under their seats, and sat down to relax. After the conductor moved on, the three friends went in search of a snack. The passageway to the other train cars was at either end of the upstairs aisle way. Doors at each end of the train car led to a small noisy passageway between the cars.
At 11:38 PM, according to Anna’s watch, the train pulled out the station and started down the tracks.
Matt had been right – the train was quiet, with a gentle sway from side to side occasionally.
The attendant came around punching tickets. Jackson struck up a conversation with him, “I’ve always heard that you could set your watch by the train schedule. What was the delay? The train arrived on time, didn’t it?”
“Yes sir, it did arrive on time,” the agent told him. “I don’t know the exact reason for the delay. Sometimes freight trains delay this one a little bit. Although tonight I think I heard one of the conductors say something about some mechanical adjustments that needed to be made on one of the cars. Nothing to worry about. We’re on our way now. Before you know it we’ll be at your destination. Tickets please. Besides, we’re only thirty eight minutes behind schedule. What harm could that do? Enjoy the ride.”
A few minutes later they were seated around a table sipping some Cokes and snacking on pretzels and chips. Anna was tired, but not scared on the train. She smiled contentedly, prepared for a relaxing ride to Florida through the night, never suspecting that things don’t always go as smoothly as planned.
Train Number Two left New Orleans and picked up speed. It was soon out of the city, as it pierced the night eastward toward Mississippi, Alabama, and on to Florida.