“OH BOY, WE’RE GOING TO NEW YORK CITY”
As a young boy in Virginia, when November came around I began to get excited about a special trip we took each fall. Usually close to Thanksgiving, Dad would take the family to New York City for a long weekend. We’d leave on a Thursday afternoon and return on Sunday and what made it so special was our method of transportation. Instead of driving, Dad would take us to Richmond where we caught an overnight Pullman from Richmond to the “Big Apple.” That first year was before I started school, so I was ready to go all day. My older brother and sister came in just before three with Dad right behind them, and we were off to Richmond in minutes due to Mom’s efficient packing and organizing.
Arriving at Broad Street Station around five-thirty, Dad checked on the schedule and said boarding would start at half past seven. And then he suggested something that made us all very happy.
“How about we go across the street to dinner,” he said. “There’s a great home cooking place a block away and we can get a nice meal.”
As we walked out of the station, there down the street was the restaurant. I don’t remember its name, but it was right below the Fine Foods of Virginia (FFV) sign and Dad said that was a good omen. Actually, he had been there before and loved it. As we walked in the doorway, we loved it, too. It was decked out in red and white checkerboard tablecloths with a large smiling rooster looking down from the wall. It was Southern tradition at its best with fried chicken and a variety of other chicken dishes, pork chops, dinner steaks and all the trimmings.
I was the only one who wanted chicken, but Mom figured after it came someone else would like some, so she ordered a whole friend chicken and when served it was in a basket with coleslaw, red potatoes and homemade biscuits and honey. Everyone else was busy talking and eating and I was only devoted to filling my stomach. When Mom looked over, she said that it looked like I was eating the whole thing. In reality, I made it about two-thirds of the way through it when my eyes told me enough is enough. They all laughed about that for the entire trip.
As we boarded the train I noticed that an engine was being back into place for hook up and that porters and train personnel were switched out. Dad told me how the tracks from Richmond to Washington were owned by the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, which would provide the engine and staff on that route. In Washington, another switch would be made to the Pennsylvania Railroad. In those days train engines and crew had to be from the railroad that owned the tracks. I had seen the pictures of the Southern Railroad classic The Champion, which ran from Miami to Richmond and thought we would be pulled by that beauty on to New York.
I fell asleep quickly in my comfortable Pullman berth, waking up in Washington when I felt a sudden thud. I thought something ran into the train. Mom and Dad laughed when they saw me look out the window and point out the lighted dome of the Capitol in the distance, and they told me the jarring motion was due to the hookup of the Pennsylvania Railroad engine which would carry us the rest of the way to New York. Shortly, I fell asleep again.
I was awakened around six by Dad, telling me to get up and get dressed. We were going to breakfast in the dining car. Walking into the car, it looked like a narrow but fancy restaurant. There were white table cloths everywhere and fancy drapes on the windows. Each table had a small vase of flowers and the silverware shined like pure silver. The napkins had the Pennsylvania Railroad logo, as did the pat of butter in a small butter dish on the table. The waiter, dressed in white shirt and tie with a crisp white serving jacket came and took our order. He brought us a beverage, my choice was chocolate milk, and we could see out the window the beginning of morning dawning. We were moving slowly, all because of the requirement to time everything just right. We took our time with a wonderful breakfast, then went back to our compartment as the Pullman was picking up luggage. He smiled, telling us we would be in New York in fifteen minutes and where to find the luggage on arrival. It was then that I realized why Mom was so late joining us for breakfast; she was getting things ready to go without our disrupting her effort.
Suddenly, it was dark again outside as we entered the Holland Tunnel and then, just a few minutes later we started pulling into Pennsylvania Station. Dad found our luggage, generously tipped a porter to get him a cab and load our things in the trunk and as we walked out into the now brightening light, I looked to the right and saw for the first time the Empire State Building. Coming from a town where the highest building was about six stories, and few of those, I marveled not just at that landmark but the volume of other tall buildings in front of me. It was as if I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon looking up for a glimpse of blue sky.
We checked into our hotel, the Barbizon Plaza, a wonderful hotel in the 1950s and walked out on our room balcony to look out on the beauty that is Central Park. Dad said we would go there in the afternoon but first he wanted to show us some of the sights. Since he and Mom were both at Bellevue Hospital in the early to mid-1930s, he as an interning doctor and she as a student nurse, the old hospital was where they met and fell in love.
After visiting the hospital on the East River, we rode down Park Avenue, saw Times Square and went to lunch at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. It was a cool and pleasant day to walk and we visited the zoo before heading back to the hotel. I had no idea what treat was awaiting me and was disappointed we were going back so soon. Dad saw my disappointment and told me to be patient, that we would have an early dinner and then we’ see. What did he mean by that.
We had a nice dinner in the hotel dining room. I even had my favorite dessert, banana pudding which was richer than I ever had and served with two fancy cookies. Then Dad said he had a special treat. He had tickets for seven-thirty but he wouldn’t tell us. From the look on Mom’s face I knew that she knew and was smiling at we three kids, especially me. We departed the dining room and a bellman hailed a cab. Soon we were off to Fiftieth Street and what was then Madison Square Garden. I could read at age five and immediately saw the marquee sign which said, “World Championship Rodeo with special appearance by Gene Autry.”
Dad had ringside seats and as the show began, here came Gene Autry on Champion to the center of floor, welcoming everyone to the rodeo. And since it was almost Thanksgiving and the holiday spirit was in the air, he rode slowly around the ring singing a song that was still fairly new and loved by children of all ages, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” And he stopped wherever he saw children up close, including me, tousling my hair as he made two circuits around the ring before exiting the stage. That was something I’ll always remember as well as the entire rodeo.
The next morning, Saturday, we were up early with great plans. Dad was taking us to the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium, afterward we would go up to the top of the Empire State Building for a soda and sandwich and a view. The picture shown is, of course, of the city below today, but it was not dissimilar to that back then. The buildings were maybe a little smaller and a little older, but it was a glorious view of the lower Manhattan, both he East and Hudson rivers, New York Harbor and New Jersey and the Atlantic. It was an unforgettable moment.
That evening, on our last night, we went to see a special pre-Christmas performance on ice at Rockefeller Center with dinner. Sitting there later and watching the skaters on the ice below with the Christmas decorations all decked out early, it certainly got us all decked out in the mood.
Our return train ride brought us back at ten in the morning on Sunday. It was a beautiful day and as we passed through New Jersey, moving from the heavily industrial to the more open areas downstate, I thought of what a great country we had and how lucky I was to have such opportunities. We made it back to Richmond around six, got home to Newport News shortly after eight and were exhausted. But late in the morning after my older siblings were off to school, I went outside to play with a few of my friends, anxious to tell them about my weekend. Later, when Dad said we’d do it again next year, I when I went off to school I was excited to tell my friends about the great weekend. And later, when Dad said we’d do it, I was doubly excited. I vowed that the next year we would get to the Statue of Liberty; we just ran out of time.
We actually made three more annual trips to New York before my dad’s untimely death. But I am still, to this day, thankful for my loving parents and the things they did for us to make growing up so special. Between places such as New York, other travels and "Summers at Old Nags Head," and the places I’ve seen as an adult, I’ve been just about everywhere I’ve ever wanted to go and I’m truly blessed.