Every girl is entitled to a Pete in her life. I am lucky to have known two; Pete and rePete. It's Pete I think of when telling stories about trains.
As my first year in college unfolded with many new adventures my experiences as a military dependent left me with a penchant for, When in Rome do as the Romans do. The speaker at Freshman Orientation had encouraged us to register as voters saying Make sure to register as Republican. . Having absolutely no clue, I was more than happy to register and even vote Republican that November. It was the Great Cosmic who proposed to play his joke on me with Richard Nixon.
No matter where we lived in the world Dad had always been big on going for walks in new places. He holds that there is always something new to discover and Grandma confirmed his beliefs saying that traveling was an education in itself. Walking is a family tradition and rarely disappointing in what is unearthed in the journeys. Local color and conventions have always been of interest to me and while I lived in Kansas I came to discover a number of interesting trivia.
For example, according to the City ordinance 349 in Wichita, 'Any person caught using or carrying bean snappers or the like shall upon conviction, be fined.' Another notable specific to the inhabitants of Winfield is that it is surrounded by rivers one of which was the arKANSAS(...and it had to be pronounced arKANSAS like that, because if one were to say it as ARC-an-saw ; the Kansan would appear dazed, confounded, or even downright nonplussed as to what the subject was). Even more so this small fact is that Winfield is popularly regarded as, historically although not verifiable, tornado-proof. More than one inhabitant of this small community nestled among river ways will opine positively that for sure tornadoes cannot cross water. This, however, is not a presentation of the features and peculiarities of a particular locality but more so as a story about one of its inhabitants.
A farmer bumpity squeaked past on 6th Street in his pick up sounding a short startling toot. Startled I looked up in time to see him waving in a wild manner at the top of the railroad bridge that crossed the Walnut River. The sun was behind the figure perched painting high upon a train trestle crossing the river in the dappled shadows of tall cottonwoods, a young man tow headed with dimples that deepened when he returned the halloos to the driver of the truck. More remarkable though was what he was applying with broad bold strokes of his brush on top of the bridge in tall white letters; simply the word LIONEL. I supposed for the time being that it may be the name of a recently deceased uncle for some peculiar reason, perhaps because the farmer that had just jostled by in a hay scented cloud reminded me of one I that adored.
It was a secret passion and I suffered it fearlessly and boldly in spite of my sisters relentless teasing of constantly calling it Spaaaaace Traaaaack much to my great annoyance. I'm still a Trekker and was greatly dismay when NBC decided to discontinue the original series. A few years later I had discovered the show in reruns and it became a mad dash from the bus stop to home, to squander down a lavishly and spread thickly peanut buttered and jellied sandwich on Rainbo bread, with large glasses of cold milk replete with jeweled ice crystal floating around to almost give me one of those ice cream headaches.
The sandwich had to be followed, of course, with 5 Oreos No more, no less. If there weren't at least 5 I didn't have them, they were for dunking and soaking and melting chocolate and creamy good while I watched Harry Mudd connive his way into and out of trouble with tribbles. Romulons and Vulcans populated Gene Roddenberry's universe with tales of morals and values that I still enjoy today.
When Gene Roddenberry's name appeared in the college newsletter that semester--attendance of his presentation at the Christy Hall auditorium was mandatory. He treated our rather small group of us science majors to his story of using a sci-fi setting to get across his ideas about Civil Rights and what direction he would like to see the space program take; all very important issues to our generation, one that he tapped into very uniquely. The show was at once cleverly controversial and at the same time presented in a setting that was so highly fictional that it generally acceptable to the censors, as well as palatable to the public.
He was visiting a variety of campuses across the country in an attempt to revive the series and along with the pilot he showed us quite a few very funny bloopers of Bones and Spock running smack dab into doors face first when stage hands missed a cue. It was there that I learned Majel Barrett was his wife, he showed us the pilot for the series and shook all our hands; Mr. Roddenberry was a very nice man indeed.
After the presentation I ran into the young man who had been courageously painting names on top of the steelwork a few days earlier and inquired about Lionel. I had asked around and discovered his name was Pete. He joined our group and we set off to the cafeteria where we watched him enjoying a rather good lunch of French fries and chili. While it was his opinion that fries were to be specifically eaten with ketchup drizzled just so over the top and then lightly salted to bring out the best flavors. It was his enthusiasm for chili that became renown and he entertained us by quickly clapping a package of saltines and at the same time giving it a twist just so. Like magic the crumbs would rain down from between his hands on top of the spicy stew of beans and meat. Then as a final garnish he piled high shredded lettuce (of all things!) and cheese. It was a dish transformed from bland and boring canteen food to an almost gourmet treat!
Scandinavian blue eyes twinkled across the table at me and those remarkable dimples grew so deep I thought I would drown in both. I had asked my most serious question regarding his recently deceased uncle and he stifled a chuckle explaining that Lionel was the name of a toy maker. By putting the name Lionel on the trestle it became was a way of bringing attention to the plight of one of his favorite hobbies, trains. In 1965 Joshua Lionel Cowen had passed away, by 1969 the Lionel company had filed for bankruptcy and licensed its electric train manufacturing to the breakfast cereal conglomerate General Mills and there was talk of doing away with it all together. I soon learned that all the town of 20,000 people was abuzz with his adroit and skillful joke.
He picked me up the following Sunday afternoon after church. Pete was more than serious about trains and his enthusiastic collection of them. Wearing a favorite pair of hiking boots, a warm blue and white plaid shirt tucked into well-worn Levi's, a turtleneck under that. I decided to pin my bra to the turtleneck layered beneath the shirt. A few weeks earlier I had spent a rather miserable time with Rod. His idea of a terrific date was drag racing up and down Main Street in an orange and blue Charger, stopping at the Taco Tico to see exactly how many tacos could be eaten in one sitting. He then drove back to his dorm where I spent the remaining evening fighting him off. It was with gratitude that the ten o'clock curfew was a good excuse to leave since it was a strongly held belief and wish to wait for marriage. Southwestern College is a private Methodist campus where women’s dorms had curfews and men were not allowed on the floors with out signing in and announcing Man on the floor! which was met with massive amounts of hilarity.
Pete arrived on that cool crisp autumn afternoon and we took off into the surrounding flat farmlands. Uncertain as to where we were going, but on the promise of a great surprise while tucking my turtleneck deeper into my jeans; we set off towards the far edges of a waist high wheat field where sat a red boxcar with Santa Fe emblazoned proudly on its front, high numbers were stenciled on the sides, its sliding doors in the front were wide open in welcome. Sitting at least five to six feet up off of the ground on blocks it was a wonder as to what they had to do just to get this great beast of a red roofed machine to the edge of the field and for an even better question why?
It sat there shaded and protected by a copse of trees typical found in the Kansas countryside. They serve as natural windbreaks and wheat farmers typically plant them along fence lines. Climbing into the car I was met with many entertaining surprises! Made into one of the most unique living quarters, I soon learned that Peter, his uncle and father were all train enthusiasts. By dividing the car into three sections they had created a small living room in the middle, a bedroom at one end and kitchen at the other. In the kitchen was a small table with two stools from a diner, a hot plate and an old Coca~Cola machine, the kind you put your nickel in, open a narrow glass door and give the blue green curved necked bottle a good yank. But wow! This Coke machine was converted into a refrigerator with the compulsory half gallon of sour milk that any good man worth his weight in bachelor food is required to have.
He showed off a sleeping loft and built beneath this was his desk adorned with a model of the Starship Enterprise on a black pedestal as it orbited in place. His favorite character was Spock and it was a treat to see his great collection of slides from the show. We listened to a few audiotapes from his favorite episodes on a reel-to-reel tape player. And peered together in close quarters through a one person slide viewer at our favorite scenes sharing much-loved quotes. All the while I marveled about how greatly this person must be treasured by the father and uncle who helped him build this wonderful retreat at the threshold of a windy Kansas wheat field.
It wasn't long before a few brightening of eyes there evolved a true kiss, shy, hesitant, lingering, a hand endeavored toward my pinned garments and somewhat flustered; embarrassed even, by my mistrust that had been wrongfully presumed. His hand was met and embraced by interlacing fingers in a warm hopeful grasp. It was wonderful when he stopped, just like that, he understood and respected my wishes.
With out hesitation he sprung up and rushed into the living area reaching up above the open door pulling down a large wooden swing tied together with a great white rope. With an invitation to sit, his strong arms encircled my waist in a warm hug and he launched me with a rushing hurtle into the air. I was propelled screaming out the door over the great drop off of the steps, above the wheat. Oh, I will never never forget that great whooping flight as Pete laughed and my loud cries wavered from inside the boxcar to outside the boxcar. The red bandana that kept my long hair in check floated across the undulating grasses. There in the distance on the horizon, across the golden wheat in the wind stood sunflowers standing tall and all soldierlike as they watched the sun. Across the field was Pete’s father looking towards the sudden piercing cries of wild delight and he yielded homage to this harvest of joy with a crooked grin that echoed his sons dimples.
Pete and I became near and dear friends. I sobbed out loud when we said goodbye as he left to work in with the Peace Corps. It was the seventies and the Dark Continent was in a great struggle for her independence and it was his dream to teach agriculture in Africa. We exchanged letters for some time; even one containing unrecognizable and crushed remnants of seashells he had thoughtfully sought to gather somewhere on the coast of Africa. Along with it came a dutifully enclosed letter of explanation from the US Post Office that they were sorry to report the damage occurred when the letter went though their sorting machine. The mail was iffy and we eventually lost track of each other. Still tonight as I sat at the table having dinner with my family I was quiet for a moment and smiled at the memories while I watched my son clap a package of saltines between his hands and giving it a twist just so. Like magic, the crumbs rain down between his hands.