I was stuck at a railroad crossing the other day, waiting for one of those endless freight trains and I got to thinking back to those far away years of my youth.
People used to ride trains. Oh, did they ever. I remembered my first big train trip, with considerable pain. I was barely 12, and much less familiar with the outside world than the average 12 year-old of today. I had been to Birmingham a couple of times to visit relatives — with the parents, never alone — and that was about the extent of my worldliness.
But Daddy got it into his head that I needed to go to Dallas, Texas, to the Stamps-Baxter singing school they used to have out there every summer. He wrote them about it and made arrangements and told them I’d be there one fine morning in June, I think it was. Dallas, it must be remembered, was to gospel music what Nashville is to country music, the publishing, teaching and booking center.
So we, with me balking every step of the way, got me all packed up and ready to go. The great big old black imitation leather suitcase easily held all my clothes, and there was the guitar in its case to keep me balanced. Daddy went with me as far as Memphis. Then he got me on the right train, aimed in the right direction and I was on my own.
And the train was crowded. World War II was less than half over. There were soldiers and soldiers’ girls and wives and just a whole bunch of people. I stood up a lot of the way, keeping a fearful eye on my bag and guitar case up in the rack overhead. It was gloomy and rainy, I seem to recall. I became homesicker and homesicker. We went through the gray Mississippi and Arkansas farmland through Little Rock, Texarkana and on toward Dallas.
But the worst homesickness was yet to come. The train was, I discovered later, delayed and rerouted because of a washed out bridge or something, so the train was several hours late and the people who had been supposed to meet me weren’t there when I got into Big D. I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t know anybody to call. I’m not sure I could have mastered a city telephone anyway. The kind I was used to responded to longs and shorts made by turning a handle. I did remember that the name of the place where the school was to be held was Bethel Temple. Well, it turned out that was sort of a nickname. It was really the First or Second Church of something or other.
But, eventually I found somebody who had heard of it, and they said if I caught such and such a city bus it should take me to it.. So, big suitcase in one hand and big guitar case in the other, all 85 or 90 pounds of me managed to get across the street — fortunately it was very early in the morning with not much traffic yet — and get a bus flagged down. The driver was nice. He told me that he wasn’t supposed to stop there, that there were bus stops at certain places where you caught the bus, but I looked so lost … .
I found the place, even before it got opened up. I sat there with my bag and case, about as miserable as I have ever been, waiting for them to get underway so I could pay my dues and find some kind of a place to stay. I was having to work overtime to keep from crying. But it came to pass that Mr. and Mrs. Baxter themselves ( Theirs were very well-known names to any longtime followers of gospel quartets and all-day gospel singings) took me in, and l roomed with another boy — three years older — from Alabama whose parents had driven him to Dallas and who had a multitude of suitcases of all sizes and shapes, all filled with clothes. I looked on with considerable wonderment.
The Baxters lived in a posh, wooded residential section out on the Fort Worth side of Dallas, and they, and especially their cook, petted me and looked after me and made my homesickness fairly tolerable for two weeks. It was sad to say goodbye to them, they had been so nice, but not so nice that I ever wanted to go through the experience again. No thanks.
They got me on the train headed back to Memphis when the time came. It must have been an uneventful trip going back; I don’t remember a thing about it, except coming into the station at Memphis and being so glad to see Daddy there that I almost couldn’t stand it. I was, for all practical purposes, home again, and, I said, I never intended to leave again. But, of course, I did.