I was at the post office downtown sending a friend an Hawaiian shirt. I don’t know if he’ll like it but the shirt is soft, freshly pressed and looks good as new.
“Would you like anything else?” asked the woman behind the counter.
Yes, I would. A beach house, enough money where I could start fires with it in my beach house and my youth with all the fun and none of the turbulence.
“I’ll take some stamps,” I said, figuring stamps were the next best thing.
Turns out they were because the pleasant woman behind the counter became excited. Animated. She almost vibrated with happiness.
“I have the new train stamps in,” she said. “Would you like to see them?”
Would I like to see them? Andrew, my grandson, loves trains, his sister Lillian does, too, and their cousin, Nora, likes to ride the train at CALM during Christmas. Trains run in the family. Trains run in most.
She took out the black plastic binder filled with stamps as colorful as butterflies. Thumbing carefully through the pages, she stopped near the end of the book.
“Look at these,” she said, as if this was one of the proudest moments of her 30-year-tenure with the post office.
I did. I couldn’t help it. The stamps were beautiful.
Beautiful and trimmed in gold. These were Transcontinental Railroad," Forever USA" stamps, marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
I bought two sheets, 12 stamps per sheet. When I got home, I cut two stamps from the sheet, slid them into an envelope and sent them to Andrew with this note:
“I thought you would enjoy these stamps.
No reason for more. The stamps were liable to steal the show. Steal the show and stoke his imagination because that’s what trains and train stamps can do.
The last time we visited San Diego, we took Andrew and his sister to the Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park. I’m not sure what was better — the trains or the faces of the volunteers, mostly older men with mustaches and mutton chop sideburns, who had a keen interest in trains and the children who shared that interest.
When the kids would stop, transfixed and stare at the trains, joy would radiate back and forth between the children and the volunteers like light between planets.
Trains inspire train songs. Raffi’s “Morningtown Ride” was one of the first two songs I played for Andrew:
“Maybe it is raining
“Where our train will ride...
“Rockin' rollin' ridin'
“Out along the bay
“All bound for Morningtown
“Many miles away.”
The second song, because I thought Andrew might need some toughening up after Raffi, was the “Old Tanker Train,” by Merle Haggard:
“Loaded with crude oil, headed for town
“The boxcar would tremble from the top to the ground
“And my mother could feel it even before it came
"Get up son to the window, here comes the oil train"
Trains are different than cars. You can think in a car but you can dream on a train. The train doesn’t have to be the Orient Express, the bullet train in Japan or the Surfliner.
It can be the Amtrak from Bakersfield to Hanford. Eighty-six miles or one hour and 19 minutes. A meal at the Imperial Dynasty (now closed). Rocky Road ice cream at the Superior Dairy Company (still open).
A couple of days from now, the mail will arrive in San Diego. There will be a letter for the youngest man in the house, a railroad man of 4. Inside, he will find two stamps.
He may be nearly as excited as the woman who sold them to me. They may never meet but if they do, trains will be their common language.