Monday, March 28, 2011

Missing the Train

The news arrived that the Comet would soon be taken out of service.  Some of her crew would be transferred to another ship in Oakland, the Southern Cross; some would return to headquarters for reassignment to other vessels; and a few would go on vacation.  I was one of the few due for vacation.  With my departure date from the ship about two weeks away, I thought I had ample time to make travel arrangements.  Wanting to do something a little out of the ordinary in this, the jet age, I visited the Amtrak office in San Francisco.

My plan was to ride the trains across the country.  I had never been very far inland in the United States, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to see the country.  The Western deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains—these would all be new to me and an interesting change of scene after several months spent on the water.  I studied the timetables and examined the routes the trains would take.  The first train, the California Zephyr, would convey me from California to Chicago.  There I would change to the Lake Shore Limited, which would bring me to New York.  This journey would last about 72 hours.  Enroute, I would sleep in a roomette in the sleeping car, take my meals in the dining car, and enjoy the view from the observation car.

In the Amtrak office in downtown San Francisco, I spoke with a man at the reservations desk and explained what I had in mind.  He turned to his computer and became very busy.  He pounded the keyboard furiously, stared at the screen intently, pounded the keys some more, and puzzled over the screen again.  He asked me several questions about when I could start my journey and which routes I could take.  I was flexible on both points.  This seemed to help him, and he resumed his pounding and puzzling again.  He spent what seemed like a very long time at this, occasionally remarking that he was trying hard to find something for me, but that it was difficult.

Finally, he gave up.  He sat back and said, “The best I can do for you, Buddy, is give you a seat in coach between here and Salt Lake City.  Everything else west of Chicago is booked up for the next six weeks.”  He explained that he could easily get me space on a train between Chicago and New York, but the Western routes, where people went sightseeing in the summer, were just impossibly booked up.

I had a choice, then.  I could ride the train to Salt Lake City and hope for a cancellation that would open a space for me to continue eastward, or I could disembark in Salt Lake and continue east either by air or by the Greyhound bus.  Riding the train to Salt Lake City only to fly home from there seemed pointless, though, and riding the Greyhound bus a thousand miles or more sounded extremely uncomfortable.  Disappointed, then, I thanked this man for his efforts and went on my way.

In considering this experience afterwards, I thought that maybe I should not be surprised.  Some time earlier, an English Channel pilot, Captain John Rawding, had told me that the same thing had happened to him.  When he was still employed “deep sea” before taking up pilotage in home waters, he had taken his family with him on a voyage to the West Coast of the United States.  They were scheduled to disembark in Los Angeles.  Instead of simply flying back to London, though, he thought it would be a great education for his children to cross the country by train and really see the United States up close.  Then, after leaving the train in New York, they could fly to London.  But when he inquired at the Amtrak office, the same thing happened.  The system was booked up solid many weeks in advance.  So the great railroad journey was not meant to be for either one of us.

In the meantime, I had to make other plans.  As it turned out, when I was finished aboard the Comet, I took a night flight from San Francisco to Dallas, changed planes, and then took a morning flight to New York.  It was a pleasant experience, but not quite what I’d had in mind.

Since that time, I’ve wondered what would have happened if I had taken my chances aboard the California Zephyr and gone as far as Salt Lake City.  Perhaps a cancellation would have opened up a seat for me and allowed me to continue.  Or perhaps not.  Therein stood the difficulty.  I did not want to become stranded in a strange place that I knew nothing about.  Not only did I know nothing about Salt Lake City, I also knew nothing about the Church.  I had not yet learned about the great Mormon hospitality that welcomes everyone and extends helping hands to those in need.  In retrospect, then, I’m inclined to think that I would not have been stranded, but that some good would have come from an impromptu visit to Salt Lake City.

Before I left the Comet to return home I had one other near-miss with the Church, although again, I did not realize it at the time.

One afternoon I rode the subway to the Lake Merritt section of Oakland.  There was a railroad museum in the neighborhood that I had wanted to see.  It was a small facility, so my visit did not take long.  Afterwards, curious about the rest of this attractive part of Oakland, I started walking around the area.  I came across a few museums, a high school, and Lake Merritt itself.  I also noticed another large building, very distinctive in appearance, and completely unlike any other structure that I had ever seen before.  I walked slowly past it and paused several times to study it more carefully.  Naturally, I wondered what it was, but I could find no identification on it.  I was very puzzled.  It was obviously an important building, and I felt myself drawn to it, so to speak, but I couldn’t determine what it was.  After a while I thought that maybe it was another museum.  After all, there were several museums in the neighborhood, so this seemed like a reasonable conclusion.  Satisfied for the moment, I moved on and after a while forgot about this building.

About a dozen years later, Miss Patty became interested in the Church.  As she met with the missionaries and got acquainted with the members in the ward, someone gave her the book Temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1  I found this book especially interesting.  I read the text and studied the photographs of the various temples and enjoyed it all very much.  Then I found a photograph of one temple in particular that looked strangely familiar.  As I examined the picture I thought that I had seen this building before.  I quickly dismissed this thought as nonsense, though, because I had never been to a temple, and for that matter, had not even known until very recently what a temple was.  So how could this temple in the photograph look familiar?  Then I read the caption.  It clearly identified this building as the Oakland Temple.  I realized then that there was no mistake about it.  I had seen this building before.  It was the very one I had examined and puzzled over all those years ago when I was wandering around Oakland in my idle time.  And to think that I had dismissed it as just another museum!

About a dozen years after that, my son James attended Brigham Young University for a year and then reported to the Missionary Training Center to start his mission.  Miss Patty decided that since she had brought him to BYU, I should bring him to the MTC.  I arrived in Salt Lake City by air a day in advance of James’ reporting date.  This enabled me to experience what I had missed years earlier when I had not ridden the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City.

First I experienced the famous Mormon hospitality that welcomes everyone.  We stayed at the home of Elder Steve Snyder and his wife and new baby.  Elder Snyder had spent seven months as a missionary in our ward and had taught the discussions to my younger children.  Later, he returned to attend our family’s sealing in the new Boston Temple.  It was good to see him again, as well as meet his wife and daughter.  That day, Elder and Sister Snyder took us on a tour of Salt Lake City.  At long last I got to see Church Headquarters, something I had not even known existed many years earlier.  We also got to see Elder Chet Brooks again, one of the first missionaries that Miss Patty had met with when she became interested in the Church.  Elder Brooks introduced us to his wife and three sons.  Furthermore, over my strenuous objections, he insisted on taking us out to dinner in downtown Salt Lake City, despite having his own family to feed.  More of that famous Mormon hospitality!

The following morning, James gave me a guided tour of the BYU campus.  I had heard of BYU before, although I knew almost nothing about it, and it wouldn’t have meant anything to me at the time anyway.  With a son enrolled there, however, BYU came to mean a great deal to me.  That afternoon, the Snyders and I delivered James to the MTC.  This was also new to me, of course, and like BYU, it meant something to me because my son was enrolled there.

These events lay far in the future, however, when I was packing my bags aboard the Comet.  Furthermore, they were completely unpredictable.  All I had planned to do was embark on a railroad journey across the United States so that I could see more of my own country.  Little did I realize that by missing the train, and in Oakland by missing the temple, the seeds of curiosity were sown.  Years later, I would become interested in Church Headquarters and the temples in part because I had previously missed out on them.  In this way did an invisible power within the Church work “to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness” (D&C 1:30) to my unenlightened mind and unseeing eye.

1 Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1988.

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