The News Butcher


News Butcher



  • A seller of newspapers, sweets, etc., on a train.

When I was a kid a family vacation meant a two week visit with my grandparents and that meant a train trip to western Nebraska.  The fastest route from Chicago was via The Milwaukee Road/Union Pacific but because we traveled on my dad’s Santa Fe pass for one trip we took the Santa Fe from Chicago to La Junta, Colorado then a Santa Fe local to Denver and an overnight CB&Q train north.

We didn’t travel on the Super Chief or Chief or El Capitan, we took a secondary transcontinental train which, during the summer travel months, had a mixture of lightweight and heavyweight cars—the Grand Canyon.

“Where to, folks?”

“La Junta”, said my dad.

“To the left, any seats except the facing seats in the back”, the attendant said as he pointed up the stairs and to the left.

My mom, dad, two sisters, brother and I lugged our suitcases and a shopping bag up the stairs, through the door, around the ladies’ lounge, past the facing seats and down the aisle about half way to the front.  When we decided on our seats my dad tossed our bags onto the luggage rack as we fought over the window seats.

It wasn’t long before you could tell from the commotion outside the train that we were about ready to leave and then we heard a bang, a thud, another bang, another thud and a moan as a man followed our tracks into the car carrying a trunk out in front of him like a bass drummer in a marching band.  He threw the trunk on the rear facing seat at the rear of the car, sighed and then walked to the front of the car and announced, “I’ll be open after the conductor picks up tickets.  I’ve got newspapers, magazines, candy, mints, crackers, cookies, nuts, apples and soft drinks.  I also have tooth paste, tooth brushes, combs and aspirin.  I’ll be open in a few minutes, folks” and every kid had his eyes on him but then he went to the next car forward to, I guess, make the same announcement.

“Can I go back just to see what he has?”

“Not yet.  Wait until the conductor is done.”

“How about now?” I said five seconds after the conductor was done picking up tickets and my dad said okay, he’d go back and get a newspaper.

I looked at the display sitting in an open trunk on the seat and saw Life Savers, M&Ms and Clark Bars.  I don’t know what I thought I was going to see but somehow M&Ms in a trunk on a train traveling over seventy miles an hour across the Illinois prairie seemed pretty exciting. My dad talked with the guy for a little while and I stared at the M&Ms.  When he noticed me he picked up a pack and waved them slowly in his hand as my dad and he kept talking.

Dad said, “You can get something later” as we got back to our seats and he told my mom, “That guy goes from LA to Chicago back to LA back to Chicago and then back to LA before he has five days off.”

“What a life”, she said.

“Yeah, what a life”, my dad repeated.

“Yeah, what a life”, I thought as I imagined nothing better than riding the trains.

I looked back every so often and when he caught me he held up the M&Ms like bait.  I saw another kid look back and when the bag was raised and waved the kid had a look of longing that still haunts me.

We ate our picnic dinner out of the shopping bag late in the afternoon with the scripted lecture from my mom that eating in the diner was just too expensive. “I don’t know how they expect people to live” she said in the same tone she had used the year before.  Dad said that maybe we’d get off in Kansas City for ice cream if the train is on time.

It got into Kansas City a little early so that meant ice cream if the Kansas City station sandwich shop was still open which it was.  While we ate our ice cream we saw him picking up a stack of newspapers and some more candy.  “What a life”, I thought.

When we left Kansas City he made the announcement that he’d be closing-up because the coach lights were going to be turned off shortly.

“I’ll be open about six with coffee and doughnuts.”

“I’ve got coffee and doughnuts”, he said in a soft voice as he walked down the aisle and the sun streamed through the windows onto the sleeping and dozing passengers but my mom already had her shopping bag open with apples and doughnuts and “you can drink water” as the train passed from Kansas into Colorado.

Even at six in the morning he was working the young passengers with the M&MS.  They’d make eye contact, he’d wave the M&Ms and point toward the adult head next to the kid, the kid would drop down and then pop up shaking his head “no” in unison with the adult head next to him shaking “no” and the kid would have that look.

After we passed Las Animas, Colorado the attendant came in, picked up the seat checks above our seats and said that we’d be in La Junta in about twenty-five minutes.

“You’ll get off from the rear of the car.”

My dad told us to pick up our stuff, got our suitcases down and took them to the rear vestibule.  When the train started to slow down and we walked to the rear of the car he smiled and said, “Bye, folks.”

We stood in the vestibule looking out at the box cars sitting on sidings whiz by and then at the streets of La Junta. When the train stopped the conductor opened the door, popped open the floor plate, wiped the hand rails and stepped off with his step box.

“Watch your step.”

My dad was the first one off and helped us down with our suitcases. When we were all on the ground he made a check of the suitcases like there were hundreds rather than six plus the shopping bag.

“That’s everything” he said and pointed to the depot. “Let’s get a couple lockers and we can go to breakfast” and I looked and saw my mom getting ready with another lecture.

As I picked up my suitcase I glanced up and saw him in the window with a look on his face like I was waving M&Ms.