Crossing the tracks, stuck in a fog, traveling on the Lost Highway does not mean that it is not an interesting ride.
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And so it was that yesterday afternoon, in a light falling snow we took Mom down to the station and helped her up to the platform. As per her request, I dropped the needle onto the long playing record so we could listen to and sing along with Rosemary Clooney in her rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You (. . . in all the old familiar places)." Following that, just to be certain, I checked Mom's ticket, and pulled out my Grandfather's gold pocket watch. Indeed the time was 3:30pm on December 30. Just then, right on the appointed time, it grew incredibly dark as a huge but comfortable fog bank enveloped us. The train appeared as if from nowhere, 16 black coaches long, just like Junior Parker sang.
I heard the conductor shout out "All Aboard" and, time being tight, we guided Mom onto the last car, which had lighted windows but with all the curtains drawn, presumably to protect the privacy of the other passengers. My brother, sister and I waved our last goodbyes. For some reason, I glanced to my right, toward the front of the train, and saw the lantern held out to signal the engineer just as it was being pulled back inside. We stepped back. Then I did a double-take. That lantern was the same very same lantern that sits atop my bookcase in Montauk. That's when I thought that the old trainman, my Great Grandfather J. M. Smith, must have been appointed as head conductor. So I began running along the platform toward to the front of the train. I wanted to make it up front, and in a hurry, because if my Great Grandfather was conductor then his old compadre, Casey Jones, must be the pilot. Maybe I could get a glimpse. I sped past the other cars and as I drew close, I could make out the engine, "ol' 382", its numbers printed on the side of the cab just ahead of the fully-loaded coal car. It was enormous -- the six driving wheels each 6' tall. My heart now pumping wildly, I caught a glimpse of the mighty Casey at exactly the moment that he pulled the whistle cord to let out his trademark song. It started out soft, rising in pitch and volume for a long held note before eventually dying off to a whisper. The steam hissed, the stack belched, and the big wheels spun into powerful motion that was initiated so masterfully by the great man that it began pulling the train out of the station without any perceivable lurch whatsoever. Casey glanced back. I waved. He smiled at me as he raised his free hand to the tip of his striped cap even as the train pulled away in a slow, gentle gliding motion. So I turned to watch the cars go by and I easily counted fifteen coaches before that last car came up even with me. It was a long, long lounge car and by now, I could clearly see that the curtains had been drawn so that the warm glow of the interior lights brightened the surrounding darkness. In the first window, in a plush arm chair sat my Grandfather, Richard A. "Dick" Smith, dressed in a beautiful tuxedo and, naturally, and intentionally eccentric, wearing his colorful, be-jewelled Shriner's fez. He turned as he passed and winked as he held up his gold pocket watch. In the second window, my Grandmother, Margaret Mae, elegant as ever, smiled her wonderful smile at me as she patted the head of a little black Scotty dog sitting next to her. Behind them in the car were more strange and marvelous sites. The interior was gloriously decorated in a style that I could not mistake for being anything other than that of the Skyway Lounge atop the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. It was cavernous and filled to the gils, as they say, with a marvelously attired audience seated at tables, small and large, each lighted with glowing soft candles. As the windows went by one by one, I continued to spot other familiar faces. I'm certain it was Judy Garland sitting with Shirley Temple I saw as they looked toward the rear of the car and began to applaud and shout encouragement. Then I could make out a huge band fronted by a virile young trumpet player, obviously the leader. He looked familiar though at first I could not place him. Quickly, though, my hand slapped my forehead in recognition: of course(!) it was Louis Armstrong. Yet he, too, was facing further back even as he raised his hand, the drummer began a roll and a spotlight came onto a figure in the last of the car, at the top of an edge-lighted runway. Yes, there she was. It was my Mom, once again Peggy Smith, costumed in her famous black-spangled & sequined short dress and wearing her legendary gold tap shoes. She was poised and posed, arms outstretched, hands placed just so. She was ready to go on. As the last window was passing, and I was about to lose sight, at the very last of the very last second, she looked to me, smiled her brightest smile, blew me a kiss and then waved quickly. And she was gone. As that last car ran beyond the end of the platform, all I could make out then were its silhouette and the red glow of its lanterns, but I could hear Mr. Armstrong, in that famously raspy voice, call into the microphone, "Okay, Folks! What say we get this party started!" Then he launched the band into that concluding song on my Mom's playlist: "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." Of course, the arrangement was precisely punctuated in order that you clearly could hear those rhythmical tap-tap-taps of my Mom's Golden Shoes.