Our train came into Hartford at about one o’clock. The Vermonter eased into Union Station, and we deboarded after the ticket collector shouted, “Hartford, Connecticut!”
The station is built of brownstone and gracious glass windows. It’s a trip backward in time. Like visiting the 1880s.
No sooner had I deboarded than I met an old man, struggling with his heavy baggage. He was using a walker, limping. I helped him into the station. Soon we were seated on oaken pews in the old depot. He was breathing heavily from exertion. I was breathing heavier.
“Thanks for the help,” he said. “Sometimes I forget I’m an old fart.”
“No problem,” said I.
Hartford Union Station is just a giant room. Because that’s all train stations were, long ago. Big rooms. This particular room housed thousands who would embark and disembark for parts unknown.
There’s an adventurous feeling you get inside old train stations. A feeling you don’t get in, say, LaGuardia’s Fifth Circle of Hell.
Long ago, you could have come to Hartford Union Station to travel anywhere you wanted to go. North to Montreal. West, to Santa Fe. Or south, to the Big Easy.
The old man looks around the station. He’s overcome with nostalgia. My granddaddy always said nostalgia was a crippling narcotic.
“We came to this station all the time when I was a kid.”
He grew up in Hartford. He visited this station with his mother. Each year, as a boy, he would take a solo trip to his aunt’s Pennsylvania. His mother would pin a strip of paper inside his little coat. The paper was labeled with his home address.
The note would read: “IF THIS CHILD IS LOST, PLEASE RETURN TO…” Then, his mother would tuck five dollars into his shoe.
“Everybody’s mom did that back then. People were very trusting.”
The old man points to the ticket booth and rifles through the last 100 years as though thumbing through the Yellow Pages.
“Mark Twain bought his train tickets right there. He lived in Hartford. He rode these trains all the time.”
So did multitudes of American soldiers. During the War to End All Wars, this station would have been filled with young men in tweed suits and spats, kissing their mothers’ foreheads, heading for basic training.
This town also saw the Spanish Flu, which hit Connecticut like a sack of hammers. In three months, 9,000 died in Connecticut.
“My grandmother died of Spanish Flu,” he said.
Then: Prohibition. America’s worst idea. Some trains which came through Hartford Union were nicknamed “The Boot.” Because passengers often carried liquor bottles in their boots.
There was a lot of booze flowing through The Constitution State. Namely, because in Connecticut, nearly anyone could get a prescription for alcohol from the local doctor.
“This station would’ve been crawling with Feds.”
Then came a Great Depression. Then, the flood of ‘36, which inundated the streets of Hartford. Then, the Great New England Hurricane of ‘38, which punched Connecticut right in the mouth.
Then Pearl Harbor. Once again, this station was filled with an aquarium of soldiers. Teenage boys, clad in olive drab, wearing peaked caps and golden eagles. Young women, with rolled hair and candy-apple lipstick, kissing G.I. Joes goodbye.
And time plunged forward, locomotive-like. Because that’s what time does.
We built hydrogen bombs, launched men into outer space, and sang Rock and Roll. We had Modernism. Mccarthyism. The Korean War. Civil Rights. We lost two Kennedys and a King.
“I came to Hartford Station when I left for Vietnam,” the man said.
We put a man on the moon. Hello, Lyndon Johnson. Goodbye, Nixon. A peanut farmer’s son from Georgia became president and rode the rails through these train sheds.
The Space Shuttle “Challenger” exploded, killing seven crewmembers. Iraq invaded Kuwait. Y2K was a flop. The World Trade Center towers fell. The space shuttle “Columbia” exploded, killing seven crewmembers.
More wars. More death. More senseless acts of pop music.
“But, hell,” the old guy says, “Look at us. We’re still here, Americans are still riding trains, still sitting in Hartford Station. I’m 81 years old, but inside I’m still that little boy with his address pinned inside his jacket.”
And for a brief moment this afternoon, so was I.
Melanie - February 15, 2023 3:41 am
Now you are very close to where I grew up, Sean, but left decades ago for the left coast. What a small marble we live on. Sounds like they’ve fixed up the train station since I was last there. My guess is you are going to visit Mark Twain’s home. Hope you enjoy a pleasant visit.
Joan - February 15, 2023 3:48 am
Just lovely. Happy Valentines Day and thanks for talking and sharing memories with us oldsters.
Lynn B - February 15, 2023 3:55 am
“… two Kennedys and a King.” I love your writing. Every day.
Karen Snyder - February 15, 2023 4:11 am
Not many writers could take us by the hand and lead us so gently through more than a hundred years of history in one column. Thanks. I’d bet Mr. Twain was tuned to every word you spoke in his home today, and approved of that, too.
Happy Valentine’s Day.❤️
Nancy Grinstead - February 15, 2023 4:47 am
David in California - February 15, 2023 5:09 am
Rode a lot of trains with Granny from El Paso, TX to Mansfield, AR as a child. Still love riding trains.
donnaworkman - February 15, 2023 5:28 am
Sean, I love the way you “listen” to people. What a gift – to get people to talk to you and tell you about themselves, their lives. I’m trying to learn, wish me luck!
Debbie g - February 15, 2023 7:48 am
Loved the train ride Mark Twain is waiting for you have fun love you and Jamie i am enjoying yalls vacation so much !!! Love to all
Pass it on
sonyatuttle6762 - February 15, 2023 11:48 am
So happy I get your BLOG every day. This one is a capsule of time. Your words transport us!
Lynne Pickens - February 15, 2023 12:21 pm
“We are always the same age inside” a Gertrude Stein quote and also quoted by my mother who I’m sure didn’t realize she was quoting Gertrude Stein. It’s still true.
mccutchen52 - February 15, 2023 12:53 pm
You made this “old fart” sit back and remember all the things that I have been through in my 71 years.
Diane Smith - February 15, 2023 1:19 pm
We enjoy your stories and posts.
stephensauer1gmailcom - February 15, 2023 1:25 pm
Sean, your stop in Hartford Station was nostalgic for me. With all due respect to your Granddaddy, I don’t think of it as a crippling narcotic. Rather it is a warm and loving visit with places and people who were gone too soon. I grew up in New Jersey, but moved to Connecticut in 1986 with my wife and 2 daughters when they were ages 4 and 6. The daughters, not the wife. They both grew up there, one of them still lives there with her 2 children. All of us have warm memories of CT. I stayed there until 2020, with a few transfers along the way to other places due to job requirements, and then, a couple of years later, back to Connecticut. In 2020, at the height of Covid, I made the obligatory move to Florida. Yes, it’s warmer. But I still miss the change of seasons, the foliage, and even the snow. I miss the little churches with the white steeples on every town green. It remains to be seen if I’ll make it back to Connecticut this time. But I still think of it as home. My advice to you is next time go to Connecticut during the autumn. The colors are so compelling sometimes it makes your mouth water. Eliminates any questions as to whether I believe that God exists. Also, visit the Mark Twain House which is in Hartford. Next door is the Harriett Beecher Stowe House, the two make for an interesting, amusing and uplifting way to spend an afternoon. Sorry I’ve gone on so long. As you can see, you struck a chord, as you do every morning. Thank you again.
Kathy - February 15, 2023 1:40 pm
I love it when you travel with someone via nostalgia. Good essay.
Susie - February 15, 2023 2:01 pm
Sean, you are a talented writer. Thank you for you.
David Britnell - February 15, 2023 2:20 pm
Another great one!!!
Helen De Prima - February 15, 2023 2:47 pm
My father was a railroad man with the old Louisville & Nashville. I rode the trains with him as a child, Louisville to Chicago, to Mobile and New Orleans, to St. Louis and points west. Now I ride Amtrak every chance I get, coast to coast. Not like to wonderful old trains of my childhood but a valiant effort.
Dorotha Coltrane - February 15, 2023 2:49 pm
As one of your readers near the age of the elderly gentleman you met in Hartford’s train station, I remember many of the events the two of you talked about.
Children traveling alone felt safe then, and they were. Our world has changed. Your writing today captures nostalgia, losses and being kind to fellow travelers perfectly. Thank you, Sean!
Gary - February 15, 2023 3:19 pm
Saw you last night – enjoyed very much – redefine old please – make next “old” guy 91. Plenty of us near 80 still don’t huff and puff. McCartney had said “When I’m 64 “ so you did much better😀
Patricia Gibson - February 15, 2023 4:32 pm
Being 74 years young, I really enjoyed that story❤️
Julia - February 15, 2023 4:35 pm
and for a brief moment… thank you Sean…
Jerry Caldwell - February 15, 2023 7:08 pm
What a wonderful memorial to an old, historic train station. Sean, you add poetry to the mundane. I especially found your posts about the 9/11 memorial in NYC to be very heart-warming and heart-breaking.
My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing you last night at the Mark Twain house in Hartford. I think Twain would have been happy to know you were there. Your performance was terrific and you were so gracious after the show, it was like meeting an old friend, for the first time. We read your posts daily and are happy to be among your many followers.
Sandy - February 15, 2023 8:10 pm
I just love your writing!
Linda Moon - February 15, 2023 9:53 pm
I love a pair of 81-year-old twins who are still the little boy and little girl they were long ago. You took me on that train ride just now, and I’m glad I “travelled” with you before I get too old, because I’m a little girl myself. May you stay forever young, Sean!
Dorie Kelly - February 15, 2023 10:51 pm
You do have the “gift of gab” so when I read your musings I feel them inside. Thank you for my pondering. And…your performance at The Mark Twain House last night was brilliant!
MAM - February 15, 2023 11:25 pm
Sweet! Nostalgia may be a narcotic, like your granddaddy said, but even though it’s addictive, it’s a good addiction to have. I love these history lessons you send us, lest we forget. And, Sean, stay that little boy, and please keep on writing your wonderful words for us.
George Robert Leach - February 16, 2023 12:29 am
I enjoy train travel. Was truly in 7th heaven when I took a course that traveled acroo America and back by train learning about rail travel connecting the USA from coast to coast.
Mike Sellers - February 16, 2023 1:02 am
I’m so glad you became a writer
Gigi - February 16, 2023 1:25 am
Sean, I love how you have a gift for connecting with people, and we are the blessed beneficiaries. Thank you for sharing your God given talent with us everyday. 📓 ✍️
Stacey Wallace - February 16, 2023 3:43 am
Thanks for this story, Sean and for being kind to an elderly man. God will bless you. Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.