A Bag of Silver Dollars

Tales of Vashon

Sean and I were sitting in front of his window facing out to quartermaster.
“Well what are we going to write about this week”.. i asked.. ?  
Just then Sean’s marine bell sounded 6 bells.  
“Sounds like a train whistle to me! “ i said.
I was twirling sean’s world globe around..
We talked a bit about where we had been and then the subject of ‘train’ rides came up because my wife and i had recently taken the train from Chicago to Seattle to bring back young grandchildren..  a most memorable experience.. Well, that started a conversation about our various experiences with train travel.  
Sean is one of the few people i know that have traveled the length of the ‘trans’ Siberian railway.  Yes … both of us have read Agatha Christie and the ‘murder on the orient express’.. but Sean actually went totally across asia to europe in cold war Times..
Sean related his experience in the early 70’s and as he tells it, well it’s quite a story. Here is what he experienced:  

“I had studied documentary film under Susumu Hani in Japan and worked under the Korean director, Yang Chong Hae on the island of Cheju, smack dab between the two countries.  After several months in Korea we, my wife and I, had returned to Yokohama to sail for the east coast of Russia and the port city of Nahodka in Siberia.  The travel agent told me that the Russians had questioned my application for a visa and sent me to the Russian Embassy to apply.  The massive wooden door to the embassy had a smaller door with bars on it at eye level which opened after several knocks and I was asked what my business was?  The embassy official and I had a few good laughs and I left for the 137 ft. long ship that was going to take us to Russia, or the USSR.

The band on the ship was straight out of a Tommy Dorsey tour and two Aussies and I were bored and I didn’t like the way the Captain was dancing with my wife.  We took our shirts off and proceeded to do a Maori war dance, complete with horrific faces, much widespread pounding of feet, and the sounds of war.  The effect on the dour Russians was captivating as they cheered and yelled for more.

We docked in Nahodka and they told us not to go outside the gate, but to wait for the bus for the train station; for an hour or two.  They didn’t want us going into the village outside the wharf, the CCCP only allowed our travel between a certain number of cities and only then with visa approvals.

About that time, I looked down the wharf to see that the gate was partially open and I stopped at a little store by the side of the road, to practice my Russian; when I can only say “thank you” but can’t remember “good-bye.”  I had never been on Russian soil before.  There were several students in the store as I surmised from their boisterous behavior.  When one asked: “Do you practice English?” His friends laughed at his grammar and another asked: “Could you teach us English.”  When I left the store an hour later, I was saddled with three full bottles of Russian wine that was to be drunk in the back of the tourist bus that was taking us to the train.  The “aussies” and I were singing old drinking songs as we navigated the corridor between the drab two story cinder-block buildings on the way to the train, one was a New Zealander.  We couldn’t understand the tour guide’s constant bragging about the accomplishments of the CCCP when there was nothing apparent to be seen of it, out the window.  We had drowned out the tour lady’s propaganda with our drinking songs and when I stepped off the bus, she asked: “What is wrong with my English, you don’t understand me?” And ever since, I’ve wondered why I brought politics to the Russian tour bus; possibly the inherent need to fly the flag as in the “Ugly American.”

The train was like a pullman car with an aisle and small compartments.  There was a red army guard in every car and I wanted his knee-high black boots as a trophy of the red army.  He refused for obvious reasons and we became friends.

I’m remembering that there was a Russian school teacher in our compartment between Leningrad and Helsinki who had witnessed me trying to beat our Russian guard out of his beautiful knee high-black-Russian army boots.  I had brought several pounds of “juicy-fruit” gum with me from Japan because I heard it was good trading material. I supposedly could get five or ten times what I had given for it.   Also short sleeve button down collar shirts were in big demand in the underground urinal under the red bricks of Red Square.  I tried to explain the hole my pet chipmunk had made on the shoulder of the shirt that i was trying to sell or trade, but the Russian would have nothing to do with it and gave me fifty rubles for the holy shirt.  I wasn’t able to do much with my “juicy fruit” gum and had some left over.  I offered the school teacher a package of gum, which she graciously put in her purse, but when we were approaching the border with Finland, I noticed that she took the package of gum out and laid it on the table between us.  When the Russian customs guard came into the compartment and wanted to know why I was leaving Russia with more money than I had come in with.  I couldn’t very well tell him that I was playing the black market underneath Red Square; all of a sudden, the red-army soldier grabbed  the customs agent, while jabbering in Russian in his ear and they both left our compartment together and that was how I left the dour Russians to face the beautiful women of Helsinki parading in front of jewelry stores, selling Finnish silver.

My story is earlier and not so adventurous as Sean’s one, but like his.. a story that could not occur in these times.

It was 1951.  I was not yet eight years old and was invited to go visit my cousins in Montana.   I had earned money by peeling and drying cascara bark from local logging operations and had quite a stash drying in our quonset hut shed.  It was enough to buy a train ticket To Thompson Falls Montana and then on to Helena in the same state.
My mom and dad took me to The big city of Seattle where i stayed with my grandparents.  My grandfather and grandmother from Bainbridge then took me to the Great Northern station at King street and carefully placed me in the train.  Only later did I realize that a generous tip was given to a porter, whose name I remember as ‘Jones’ , and was the first black person i really met.  He told me he was from Chehalis in Lewis county. My grandfather gave me a large silver coin, i suppose maybe 50 cents or maybe a silver dollar and explicitly instructed me to hand it to  Mr. Jones at Thompson Falls.   Mr. Jones gave me.. a small child, constant  attention throughout the train trip.   He and I read books together and he checked up on me with precise regularity.  I remember the grilled cheese sandwiches he brought me and then shared.

At that time there were giant steam engines that assisted the regular engines. The passes over the mountains were steep and windy in addition to being slow, but slowness brought great scenes into being.  We had to stop because of a derailment, but that just meant i could stand outside while Mr. Jones brought me a nehi orange soda and a hot dog..

I remember the great clouds of steam and enormous chugging of the slow passes such as ‘fourth of July’ leading down to Missoula.

When i got off the train in Montana I presented Mr. Jones with the silver coin and he shook my little hand and made sure my aunt was there to meet me.

Coming back later,  my cousin and i had made so much money from gold panning, selling  lemonade  and mowing lawns with an old push mower, that i could barely carry my bag of silver dollars back home.   I had converted all my profits to silver as it was a montana thing to do. The summer was hot but late rain made lawns grow.

We also had enough time, extra time to fish and run along the railroad tracks looking for neat rocks lost from cars heading to the smelters.  We placed pennies in the tracks and picked them up later as they would squash down to the size of quarters.  That was entertaining fun but pretty much useless as nobody was interested in our ‘Great Northern’ flattened pennies.
As a result of a hard and fun summers work, Christmas was good for my siblings that year except for what I spent in comic books and my newly found affection for stamp collecting.

Sean@vashonloop.com