Last fall, I spent a great deal of time with my mom, helping her settle in after some health issues. She has been sharing stories surrounding the years she took care of Grandma. When Grandma became ill, Mom was determined to keep her from entering a nursing home. Creating a unique arrangement with Uncle Jerry, Mom would take care of Grandma for two weeks if Jerry would take the other two weeks. So began her monthly visits, traveling from Battle Creek to Denver by train. Mom found purchasing a seat on the train (not a sleeper) an economical way to travel the country on a regular basis. Over the seven years, she met some interesting people along the way and began to record her stories. Here is one story from what Mom fondly refers to as “The Amtrak Chronicles”:
…One incident began with an extremely unpleasant confrontation with a conductor when he made me change seats in the middle of the night. I suspected that I bore a close resemblance to his ex wife, the one who had taken him to the cleaners in the divorce. His sleepy yet barbed remark that he was on me like “flies on a gut wagon” also probably didn’t endear him to me.
Later, I found myself in the lower section of coach where everyone had two seats. There were two women and four men in the car. Sometime around 2 a.m. after a quick stop in western Nebraska, my “favorite” conductor walked in with a new passenger. My new traveling companion was a man of Mexican descent in tattered tennis shoes and clean but ragged clothing. Being so early in the morning, I nodded a quick hello and tried to sleep a bit more.
Sleeping upright on a moving train is very uncomfortable when the passage of time seems to slow down to its neck cricking, back stiffening, bone tightening, dry mouth misery. The agony of the clock standing still as the train flies through the darkness. The occasional sound of bells and flashing lights reaching out from an empty crossing. The occasional light of a far-off farm house shining out alone in the night. The occasional snore or breathing of someone near you. The smells of coffee, pop and junk food meld with the combined fatigue of all. That wrinkled tired unkempt feeling of unwashed, unbrushed being.
This is the scene into which my new seat partner and I were settled. A sense of uneasiness, some moments of sleep, a stiff neck, a little stretch. Then on the horizon, some cracks of light and the start of conversation. Where are you going? Denver–so am I. You were raised in Denver, so was I. Where did you go to high school? I dropped out of West. Oh, I went to North and Holy Family. Where did you go to grade school– Oh, you probably never heard of it, the little school on Santa Fe Drive. What a small world. We were there at the same time!
Although we were the same age, he was put in third grade. Just coming from Mexico, he didn’t speak English. We reminisced over cups of day-old train coffee. I remembered my wonderful principal who taught the young ladies to hang upside down on the monkey bars (with modesty). He remembered a nice boy in his class. He thought his name was Jerry. Jerry was my little brother. So as the creeping fingers of dawn created a gorgeous sunrise, we rolled into eastern Colorado, rekindling fond memories of the little grade school on Santa Fe Drive. I don’t think it was the scene the conductor envisioned.
June Bernard Roche was born in Brooklyn, NY, during the depression and spent her early years growing up in Pennsylvania on the campus of Lafayette College. Ironically, she was to live on college campuses for nearly forty years. In 1955, she married George Roche III. They lived in Virginia and Florida while George completed his years of service in the Marines. Later, June taught high school French while George completed his Ph.D at CU Boulder.
They moved to New York in 1965 when George was named Director of Seminars at FEE, the Foundation for Economic Education. June taught French at Dobbs Ferry High School. In 1971, they moved to Hillsdale, MI, where George became the President of Hillsdale College. In June’s words, “We were at Hillsdale until 1999, and we worked very hard to make the college the best institution possible. Since 1999, I’ve dealt with cancer, much memorable travel with family and friends, open heart surgery, the joys of grandchildren and now my first great-granddaughter, and learned how to deal with the winds of change that buffet our lives.”