Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Toot-Tooting Down Memory-laden Tracks

In the midst of a way too busy schedule, yesterday I decided to take time out for lunch with a friend. Sometimes I just need to air out the old brain so that I can return to the heavy work load in my office with a sense of refreshment. You know, change the scenery, think about something for an hour or so that doesn’t relate to my own “issues,” deadlines and why-is-everything-so-last-minute?! frustrations. I find when I don’t do this, I end up spinning my wheels and getting cranky. Very cranky.

My friend and I decided to meet at a nearby and relatively new restaurant, one that delivers the food to your table (or seat at the counter, where most of the eating takes place) via Lionel electric trains. Decades ago, there used to be a little independent cafĂ© in a neighboring town with this same unique attraction. I remember going there as a kid, watching, waiting for that little train laden with my burger and fries to make it’s way out of the kitchen, down the counter, until it chugged to a stop right in front of me.

Upon entering the 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, I was happy to see the same type of setup. After I got seated, I couldn’t help but watch the anticipatory eyes of the little boy seated between his grandparents on the other side of the loop. It was like catching a glimpse at what my excitement must have looked like way back when.

Here’s how the food delivery works: the flat bed train car containing say your hand-pattied burger (their specialty), tuna salad, or egg salad sandwich, stops in front of you. (video here, but for the Downers Grove location, not the Glen Ellyn location which we frequented.) Then your waitress “unloads” your order (all meals come in a plastic basket, aside from my soup, which did not arrive via train) and asks if you’d like anything else. Occasionally someone blows what sounds like a train whistle mounted on the wall; occasionally one of the children orders the Train Whistle Cupcake that comes with a plastic train whistle on top, and of course the first thing they do is to toot-toot away too. If that isn’t enough ambiance, the theme restaurant in Glen Ellyn is located right next to real train tracks, and you can actually feel the building vibrate when a train goes by—total-package effects better than any 3-D movie.

Although the food and the company were good, what I especially enjoyed about my brain break was the trip down memory lane. For much of the lunch, we chatted about our own railroad recollections, including those of the restaurant from our past. But mostly we talked about real train rides. In fact, our dining adventure is still igniting memories, including annual childhood trips (then those with my own children) on the local Metra to “downtown Chicago” to ogle the Christmas windows in what used to be the grand old Marshall Fields, but which is now a Macy’s which, in my opinion, lost its lure during the switchover.

My husband, soon to turn 70, owns several train posters he sent away for as a youth. I keep telling him he should go to one of the monthly Great Midwest Train Show gatherings right here in our county (billed as “The World’s Largest Monthly Train Show”) and show them off, see who else might own them, swap a few yesteryear stories. One poster is from the Monon, a railroad both my grandfather and uncle worked for. I just Googled “Monon train” and wow, the memories those results evoked! I learned there’s even a book called Monon: The Hoosier Line. That’s the one my relatives, who lived in Lafayette, worked for! I am this close to clicking the “buy” button.

I remember my cousins riding the Monon from Lafayette. We’d pick them up in Chicago and go straight to Riverview. I recall taking what I believe (could be wrong here) was the California Zephyr--all the way to California to visit another cousin. I was in high school, and oh, the array of young service men riding the train on that particular Christmas break! Be still my beating heart!

George and I once traveled from Chicago to Albuquerque with our two young sons. During my very short college days at SIU, I can still remember the exhaustion I felt after taking what we referred to as the cattle run from here to Southern Illinois. I think it took 8 hours—when things went well—and stopped at at least a bazillion stations.

Then there was my brother’s Lionel; the train I rode from Thirsk to York to celebrate my 50th birthday trip to England; the entertaining and champagne swilling stream train ride on the Grand Canyon Railway wherein the bad guys rode up next to our steam engine powered train on horseback and “robbed” those of us who paid to experience the reenactment; that little train at Kiddieland I rode as a child, then later stood waving at my own children in it when they passed by…. I even learned about a brand new steam engine (who knew?!) while a-Googling, chasing first one rail trail, then the next, each memory launching me into a new one. Plus, check out this cool site that enables you to find all the surviving steam locomotives in the whole USA!

All this spawned by a lunch break to air out my brain.

I highly recommend you stop what you’re doing and schedule a brain break for yourself. Who knows what mind’s-ride journey you might embark upon.

If this post triggered a train-riding memory for you, rather than email me privately, please share it publically here under COMMENTS. A memory shared helps multiply memories for its readers, and the next thing you know, even in the midst of our otherwise overbooked schedules, we’ll all be traveling—chug-chug, toot-tooting along--to our happy places, even if we don’t have those cute little plastic whistles in our mouths.


Anonymous said...

My mother worked as a ticket clerk for the Seaboard Airline Roadroad, later known as the Seaboard Coastline Railroad, which became Amtrak. Her sister had the same job, albeit in a different city and state. When my sister and I were young, Since we could ride for free because of Mama's job, Mama would plop us on the train to go visit our cousins. She'd tell whichever conductors were working the train that day to keep an eye on us and away we'd go, traveling solo and feeling so grown up!!! There are so many train stories I could tell from my childhood but that's the first one that comes to mind. Thanks so much for taking me on this special trip down memory lane...

Janice in Virginia

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Janice in Virginia,

Thank you for sharing this lovely memory. You sure can't beat "free" and somebody to keep an eye on you, ey? If only all our travels were that glorious ...

Rachel said...

In the early 1950s my parents moved us all 20 miles beyond the suburbs into a great big house that was just about 300 yards from the B & O railroad line that ran through the town. My first night in that house was in November, when the woods between our house and the railroad were bare. Late that first night a train whistle announced that a train was approaching. I sat bolt upright and wide awake, hearing not just the train whistle but also the chug-a-chug-a-chug of the engine (back in the steam-and-coal-powered days). I was convinced that the train was headed straight for my bedroom. But, of course, it didn't take long before I slept through the night.
There were a few times that first year when my younger brothers would wander up to the train station and sneak into the coal bins - for some reason they liked to try to climb to the top of the piles of coal. So they came home looking like a pair of tiny coal miners.
Our dad caught the morning and evening commuter train each workday. Once in a while during the first few months, he'd fall asleep, the conductor would forget to awaken him, and we'd get a phone call from the next town down the line, "Josie, please come pick me up."
Rachel in Suburban Washington,DC

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Wonderful story, Rachel. I can almost hear that train a comin', and hear the voice on the other end of the line ... Thank you so much for taking time to share the rich details.