Averyell A. Kessler
Every year my grandfather WG treated Mama and me to a weekend of Christmas shopping at Marshall Fields, Chicago’s famous department store. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the store donned its holiday attire and housed an eight story Christmas tree covered with glittering lights and miles of sparking tinsel. I was nine and wildly excited. Trudging behind Mama as she wandered through the store’s thirteen floors was ok. But the best part was an overnight ride on the Panama Limited, shining star of the Illinois Central Railroad. I didn’t know that this year’s trip would include an overload of craziness, sudden exposure, and try Mama’s patience to the limit.
It began as we waited on an elevated platform at Union Station in downtown Jackson. Only a few hours of daylight remained. WG had driven us to the station and stood with us until the Panama arrived. The wait seemed endless, but finally the train roared into the station and a thousand tons of muscle and steel screeched to a hissing stop. A red cap loaded our luggage and we settled into our tiny nest for the next 18 hours. In Panama language our room was called a parlor. After we kissed WG goodbye, he jumped into his car and sped north to his Mill Street plant, immediately adjacent to the train tracks. He parked his car and waited until the Panama streamed by so he could wave to us. I was perched at our wide parlor window so I could wave back. This was his habit and he did it every time we went north. I remember him waving jumping jack style as the train crawled out of town.
Everything went well until bedtime and we were speeding through the deep darkness of the Mississippi delta. After supper, we returned to our parlor to find an upper and lower berth waiting for us. Mama insisted on taking the upper berth because she was convinced, I’d fall out. After we put on PJ’s she pulled a new Little Lulu out of her bag, as well as a book for herself. It had a bright cover she wouldn’t let me see.
“What’s that?” I asked. Mama was a voracious reader and always told me what she was reading.
“It’s a grownup book,” she answered, holding it behind her back.
“Who’s that lady on the cover?” I whined. “Let me see.”
“No. Get in bed and read your comic book.” My curiosity grew like Jack’s beanstalk.
I was halfway through Little Lulu’s antics when the noise began. Thump, thump, thumb. I sat up and peered out of the window. Nothing. Still acres of flat, empty land with no light except the opal moon.
“Settle down and go to sleep,” Mama ordered. She was knee deep in the mystery book.
The noise continued; sporadic thumps interrupted by an occasional moan. When we heard someone shout, “Yes, yes” Mama leaped out of her berth and rang for the porter. He arrived promptly and an intense conversation occurred outside our door. I had just enough time to climb the upper berth’s ladder and identify Mama’s mystery book. I memorized words Peyton Place so I could look them up in the encyclopedia when we got home. Then, I turned my attention to the porter standing outside our door.
“Honeymooners,” he said, winking. “Other folks been complaining too.”
“Do something,” Mama said. My daughter is nine and we can hear everything!”
“I knocked on their door, but they didn’t answer,” the porter explained. “Can’t last all night,” he continued. “Or they gonna drop dead.”
“Not a bad idea,” Mama huffed. She slammed the door and returned to the safety of the upper berth.
“Mama, what’s Peyton Place?” I asked. By this time, my gentle ladylike mother was completely overwhelmed.
“Nothing. I’ll tell you when you’re older. Go to sleep.”
The next morning Mama and I woke early. She seemed to have recovered from last night’s ordeal. We dressed quickly and feasted on the Panama’s sumptuous French toast before heading to the club car. The Panama was streaking into southern Illinois now, and we’d be rolling into Chicago shortly before noon. We passed wide fields, not unlike Mississippi’s, but I knew I was far from home when I saw the massive General Mills plant surrounded by a thousand cars and tall smokestacks scraping the sky.
Gradually the club car filled with passengers eager to enjoy the scenery as the Panama slowly rumbled towards Chicago. As we passed under a low viaduct, a naked man suddenly jumped from behind a scraggly hedge and waved as we slowly glided by. Horrified women screamed, and a nun whipped out her rosary beads. Red faced men hid behind newspapers. Mama jumped to cover my eyes, shouting “Don’t look! Don’t look!”
“What was that?” I yelled, not quite certain of what happened.
“Nothing,” Mama said, her standard answer for the last twelve hours. “A man waved at us, that’s all. She failed to mention he was stark naked. As the club car buzzed with outrage and indignation, I stood and announced.
“Don’t worry. It was just my grandfather.”
A woman screamed again. A conductor torn into club car, shouting. “Who is that guy? We been trying to catch him for months!”
Our fellow passengers listened intently as Mama explained that my grandfather was a businessman quietly living in Mississippi and always waved at us – fully clothed- when the train left Jackson.
“Sorry ma’am,” the conductor said, after long minutes and many questions. “He’s called Panama flasher. We never know when he’s gonna……..you know.”
“Maybe he’ll stop when it snows,” Mama hissed. Everyone in the club car laughed. WG laughed too when Mama told him about the Panama flasher, as well as my announcement.
“Averyell must have inherited some’o my genes,” he said. “Hope so, anyway.”