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Sleeping on Railway Time

NOBODY connected with the mails today knows anything about the Railway Mail Service. My father was a railway postal clerk for 42 years, retiring about the time the railroads stopped hauling mail. Dad's "run" was back and forth, Bangor to Boston, on the crack Halifax Express, a steam train that held the North American title for over-the-route speed. The equipment was Canadian National, but Yankee crews handled it this side of Vanceboro, at the New Brunswick boundary. Dad worked "six and eight."

Since train schedules don't jibe with hours and days, he would do the equivalent of two weeks' work in six days, gaining the eight days for "rest and study" at home. His long hours at the sorting case in the mail car, with the locomotive clocking off 100 m.p.h. through the Maine night, set up a routine to which his always-weary body never wholly adjusted. We didn't know about jet lag in railway mail days, but Dad was a constant victim of "catching up."

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When he returned from his stint "on the road" he would crawl into bed and sleep for at least two days, letting things normalize into the decency of morning-noon-night. Until he arose, bathed, shaved, and showed up in the kitchen, our house was a place of utter silence. Even our dog respected that. Privileged to announce somebody at the door otherwise, the dog knew better than to bark during my father's adjustment hours. And we children spoke in whispers, careful not to bang doors, rattle dishes, or profa ne the silence with unseemly mirth.

When his eight days were over, he would depart again, and ours became a different home. In our town, we had a dozen grade crossings right in the village, and when the Halifax Express went eastbound and whistled for each crossing, it made a midnight clamor that people found objectionable, but to us it was just Dad saying good night on his way to Bangor. When he was "on the road" our mother would unwind the necktie from the bells, and we could use the telephone again. We protected Dad in every way.

So one time our father came home and went to bed, and we were quiet. And in due time he had "slept out" and arose as usual to join his family. He appeared down in the kitchen, where my mother was cranking the churn in the butter-making exercises. There was a belief that once the churning began, the crank should be kept going until the slap-slap of separated buttermilk should be heard in the land, so Mother kept on cranking and turned her face upward for a good-morning kiss. Just as Dad bussed her, the ch urn went slap-slap.

"Aha!" she said. "It's separated!"

And Dad said, "Who's in the bathroom?"


"Somebody is. I hear splashing, and water's running in the tub."

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"Can't be. The bairn are to school, and I'm here alone."

"Somebody's in the bathroom all the same."

Mother, perhaps leery that Dad might have flipped his lid, hurried upstairs to find the bathroom door locked on the inside, and from beyond the door the unmistakable sound of splashing and water running in the tub. When she pounded on the door, it was opened from within by a gentleman she had never seen before. A gentleman who had clearly been interrupted during his ablutions.

This was not meant to be a mystery tale, so I will offer the explanation forthwith and straightaway.

That morning our younger sister had a late start, and left the house with her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in a bag after we others had gone to school. Upon the porch steps she met a gentleman of the highway, known then as a tramp. We were by no means strangers to tramps, as Mother would feed any who called. She started to tell this tramp to knock and our mother would fry him an egg sandwich, but he prevented this by saying, "I was hoping I might use the bathroom."

At this my sister laid a finger to her lips, commanding silence, and in her childish naivete but proper benevolence led the tramp upstairs and pointed at the bathroom door. Then she scooted to run and overtake us.

That's the way it happened, and that's all there is to it. Mother made Dad and the tramp some breakfast, and the tramp went his way.

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