I was eighteen and heading home on the train from Charlottesville, VA to Huntsville, AL, for Thanksgiving, watching the autumn leaves pass. I’d enrolled in the University of Virginia as a freshman, and my father drove up there with me in my ’57 Ford Fairlane and flew Southern Airways back. Too long to drive for a brief holiday, I took the train.
Looking out the window, watching the Virginia landscape roll past my window. The song, City of New Orleans, hadn’t been written yet (1970), but the lyrics would describe my first memories well. The rhythmic click-clack of the rails and rocking of the coach would almost put you to sleep, but I was excited seeing the fall countryside. I thought it was the best way to go. Passing mostly farmland, occasional junkyards, and cruising through tiny train stations without stopping, amused me, but soon became so repetitious that I turned to some amusement I’d brought along to enhance my twenty-hour trip home. Besides a Samsonite suitcase, I had my gym bag stuffed with snacks, a book to read, my folding polaroid camera, and a pint bottle of Gilby’s Gin.
College introduced me to some serious drinking with a fraternity drink mixture called, "Artillery Punch." It was a mixture of pineapple juice, Hawaiian Punch, and grain alcohol. You couldn't taste how strong it was, but it'd 'shoot you down.'
It was only three o’clock, and earlier than I’d planned to start drinking, I intended to have just a small drink in a cup of Coke I could get in the club car. I liked gin and Coke, go figure. The first drink went down so smooth and tasty, along with a few salted peanuts I had with me, that I soon wanted another, though I’d planned to space it all out until at least eleven and have one last drink as a nightcap before sleeping in my seat. No, I couldn’t afford a Pullman sleeper.
Heck, I was a college man now, living on my own in the dorm with a roommate from the boarding high school I attended. I joined the Beta fraternity, and it was simple to get the older guys to buy any alcohol I wanted. We kept a small bottle of sauterne in the room and put it out on the windowsill cooled by snow sometimes. I could never do that at home, but I had learned to drink in high school, getting our cook to buy booze for me.
Sipping on yet another drink, my stomach got a warm glow, and I could feel a slight buzz. Watching the landscape moving faster, I smiled at the girls I had already met at the various female-only colleges in the area surrounding UVA, an all-men's university and home of ‘The Virginia Gentleman’ as we always wore coats and ties on Mr. Jefferson’s Grounds. I took a polaroid of each good date I had and kept it in a notebook along with her name and phone number, and if I really liked her, a mailing address for letters. I only had four so far, but I knew I’d add a lot more over that first freshman year, and I did.
Sipping my third drink, I tried to read a bit from Dante’s Inferno for a coming class, but between the jiggling of the train and the alcohol in my brain, it was useless. I concentrated on other passengers and occasionally glanced at what was now the monotonous landscape rushing past my view.
I hadn’t had any lunch getting to the train station, and my mostly empty stomach craved something more than peanuts, but it wasn’t time for dinner yet. So I went to the dining car and got a large order of French fries. They were hot, greasy, salty, and delicious. I also got another Coke to spike with gin.
With that under my belt and feeling full, I decided I’d put dinner off to a good bit later, at eight o’clock or so. It was just getting dark in late November, when my stomach began to feel queasy. But I wasn’t going to waste my last mixed drink, so I woofed it down and reclined between the seatback and window to close my eyes and think about the family Thanksgiving dinner ahead of me in two days.
It didn’t take long before I popped open my eyes, aware that my stomach was churning and the three-fourths of the bottle I’d consumed wasn’t going to go down as smoothly as I thought. If you’ve ever had seasickness or airsickness coming on, you know the feeling. I dashed weaving down the aisle, having to hold on to the tops of other seats, to the small lavatory at the end of the car, went in, locked the door, and barely made it to the sink when the contents of my stomach heaved forth. I heaved and heaved. Then I heaved some more. The sink was filling up, and I ran the water to wash some of the thicker stuff down. I could smell the alcohol in the contents, and my head was pounding.
Not sure how long I stayed, but came aware of someone else wanting to use the facility, so I rinsed my mouth with tap water from the faucet, cleaned the sink best I could, and dried my face.
Let me spare you the rest of a miserable evening sitting in my rocking train seat, mercifully still for two hours waiting in Chattanooga for my car to be switched to another train, and then continue feeling so bad that sleep only came in spurts between agonizing hangover periods. The next morning, I could only keep a carton of milk down, and when I reached the station and greeted my parents, I saw the shocked look on their faces. My first overnight train ride was memorably horrible.
Yes, I did return on the train after the holiday, but I’d learned my lesson. I took healthy snacks like apples back with me and ate in the dining car like normal passengers. I finished my book for school. Unlike my first kiss, my first long 'train ride from hell' was one I’d never forget for the wrong reasons.