Ridin’ The Rails To Detroit City

If you could somehow look into a geezer’s head and identify all the various segments and what they contain, you’d almost certainly find a train-buff section. It might be big, it might be small, but it would be there. Mine is pretty large and well-developed (my train-buff portion – not my brain) and I think I can trace its beginnings back to a couple of things.

While I was growing up, my Dad rode the rails and sorted mail, which I thought was pretty neat. He worked as the train moved between St. Louis and Pittsburgh and then would get time for a layover, where he’d stay in grungy hotels and live out of his suitcase. The expense money wasn’t great for those guys to begin with, but most of them tried to save a little of it by living on the cheap. I remember he’d take all kinds of canned food, crackers, etc, along with him (remember Vienna sausages?) so he wouldn’t have to pay big city restaurant prices.

It sounds a little shabby in the telling and was probably drudgery to him, but to an impressionable kid at that time it sounded like a great adventure. Because of that, I was all primed to think that there was something really intriguing about train trips, and that’s about when the second event in my train-buff creation occurred. At the age of around 8 or 9, I was sent by myself on the train to visit my paternal Grandparents in Detroit, a 400 mile trip. It was a simpler time and people didn’t worry quite as much about the bad things that could happen to kids alone, but as I recall they did sit me down next to a nice older lady who promised to keep an eye on me. (Again, a simpler time – in today’s world, nobody would want that responsibility.)

It was a long all-day trip, and I don’t really remember anything much of significance, but I must have enjoyed it because I’ve never lost my affinity for train travel. I do remember some things about Detroit though, and one thing that has stuck with me is an appreciation of Detroit’s favorite soft drink, Vernor’s ginger ale.

If you don’t know about it, then it would be hard for you to understand how popular it was in that area. It started in Detroit 140 years ago – making it much older than Coke or Pepsi – and everybody had a few bottles in their home refrigerator. I grew to like it so much that my Grandparents had to limit me to a bottle a day. And I still remember how surprised I was to see the green and gold Vernor’s fountain dispensers in drugstores and diners, where I was used to seeing Coke or Pepsi.

Of course, Detroit was (and is) best known for the auto industry, and that’s where my Grandfather was employed at that time. He had migrated to the city years before, as had countless others before him. It was quite a few years later that I first heard a song that reminded me of the city and of my trip, and it still tickles my memory whenever I hear it. Bobby Bare’s classic “Detroit City”, from his album, Essential Bobby Bare.

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