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Traveling by rail regains its allure

On Monday, I came a bit closer to reviving my love of train travel: I bought the new Amtrak Florida Rail Pass. The regular price of the pass is $249, but if bought before Aug. 10, it costs $199.

I spend a lot of time driving Florida's highways. As dotage approaches, I dislike driving more and more. And flying short distances between cities is more trouble than not.

Rail travel is ideal for me. For $199, the pass gives me 12 months of unlimited coach-class travel to 33 cities throughout the state, and I can ride any time I want and stay as long as I want. I can get off at any stop, explore and take the next train.

When I was growing up, no matter the town, we always lived near a railroad. In Mascotte, the track was about 150 yards from our front door. I would lie in bed at night listening to the rumble of the wheels on the track and the whistle crying in the night like a forlorn lover. I dreamed of distant cities, of staring down into green valleys and of following the undulating outlines of mountain peaks.

During the day, I would run to the track. Over time, I recognized the engineer, the brakeman, the fireman and some of the other men waving from the caboose. Whenever crewmen repaired the track, we would watch and bring them lemonade. My cousins and I would put pennies on the track to be flattened.

In Crescent City, the track was within easy walking distance. I would go out early in the morning, dig worms and walk to the trestle to fish. When the streamliner approached, I would scramble down the rocky embankment. Through the windows, I could see passengers in the colorful lounge car and diner. Men smoked cigars and drank whiskey, and beautiful women chatted and sipped exotic cocktails.

What intrigued me, though, were the slim Negro men in crisp uniforms. My grandfather, who had been a railroad worker as a young man, explained that these men were porters for the Pullman sleeping cars.

When I said I wanted to be a porter, my grandfather warned that the work was tough and often humiliating. He told me about A. Phillip Randolph, who helped found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Before the union was formed, Pullman porters worked 100 hours a week, making beds, polishing shoes, cleaning clothes and serving meals. They were paid $15 per week, the lowest pay in the industry. They even had to buy their own uniforms. Worse still, the cost of their meals was deducted from their wages.

My grandfather told me that Randolph _ a Negro who met and dined with presidents of the United States _ was born in Crescent City, less than a mile from our house. Sure enough, the home of this great man stood abandoned beneath a stand of live oaks. I would jump over the barbed wire fence and walk around the house. Fear of poisonous snakes kept me from going inside. Still, the thought of Randolph's being born here fired my youthful imagination and my love of trains.

The summer I discovered the house, I took my first solo train trip. I voyaged from Crescent City to New York's Penn Station, where my father picked me up. From there, we drove in a pickup to a tomato farm in New Jersey. After that summer, my folks could not keep me off trains. When I went to college in Texas, the train was central to my life. I looked forward to Christmas and summer break, when hundreds of black college students, I among them, partied from Texas to Florida. I made lifelong friends during those rowdy road shows.

My greatest train adventure occurred in 1961 when I accompanied my grandfather, a pastor, to church in Palatka. During night service, he let me visit friends in town. We walked to the switching station to watch the activity. Fulfilling a wish, I suggested that we hop on a car and ride a few blocks before the engine picked up speed. We jumped into an empty boxcar, but, almost immediately, the engine sped away like a bat out of hell. The rocky bed of the track zoomed past in the semi-darkness. Panic struck. We would not jump off.

The next morning, we five adventurers found ourselves in Savannah, Ga., more than 200 miles away. Authorities took us into custody and telephoned our homes. Needless to say, our folks were more relieved than angry. The good part was that we received free passage and a delicious free meal, served by a fatherly porter. We did not enjoy the trip, however, for we knew that the worst whippings of our lives awaited us.

Perhaps my Amtrak pass _ which I am breaking in this weekend when I visit my mother in Fort Lauderdale _ will bring some new rail adventures into the life of a graying baby boomer who has spent too many miles behind the wheel and in the air.

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