con·duct

Pullman Parlor Car, 1883

con·duct (ˈkän-dəkt)  n. [<  L.  conductus, pp. of conducere; see CONDUCE],  1. a leading; guidance.  2. management; handling.  3. behavior; deportment; way that one acts.  4. [Obs.], an escort; convoy  v.t. 1. to lead; escort.  2. to manage; control; direct; carry on.  3. to direct (an orchestra, etc.) 4. to behave (oneself).  5. to be a channel for; convey; transmit: as, this wire conducts electricity.  v.i. 1. to lead.  2. to act as a conductor.

SYN.—conduct, in this comparison, implies a supervising by using one’s executive skill, knowledge, wisdom, etc. (to conduct a sales campaign); direct implies less supervision of actual details, but stresses the issuance of general orders or instructions (to direct the construction of a dam); manage implies supervision that involves the personal handling of all details (to manage a department); control implies firm direction by regulation or restraint and often connotes complete domination (the school board controls the system). See also behave.

For a long time, I had a tin can in which I kept prized items. One of the items was a brass button that had been removed from the blazer jacket of my paternal grandfather. On it were the raised letters: P-U-L-L-M-A-N.

Grandpa was a superintendent for the Pullman Company. When I explained his job as a child, I often mistook him for the conductor, imagining my portly Grandpa donning one of those navy and white striped caps and, for some reason unbeknownst to me, always carrying a clipboard. I imagined him standing on the step leading up to the car, holding onto the sidecar handle as the train pulled away.

The truth is that he had at one point been a conductor. He worked himself up the ranks from positions I don’t even know the names of to conductor to vice-superintendent in St. Louis and then superintendent in New Orleans.

My Grandpa was a self-made man. Although he never went to college, he had an insatiable appetite for learning. He always had a stack of a dozen books on the coffee table: library books about sociology, about history, about psychology. He encouraged his children’s curiosity, asking them questions and engaging in their learning process. He died when I was seven so I did not get to know him well. Much of my memory of him has been fleshed out in hearing stories from family members.

Pullman Car Built in 1928

In 1952, he relocated his wife and, at the time, four children from St. Louis to New Orleans to take a promotion to be superintendent there. The family traveled by train.

My dad told me that he and his siblings used to love to look out the windows at the countryside, as they did on every trip they made from New Orleans back to St. Louis to visit extended family. It was still the heighday of trains and the riding coaches. Their sleeping cars not only featured pull-down beds but sofas to relax on. The dining car served passengers their meals on fine china. On their laps lay linen napkins. At night, Grandpa would leave his shoes in a locker and the porter would put a fresh coat of polish on them by morning.

Pullman Sleeping Car Porters

As superintendent, Grandpa was in more of a behind-the-scenes role, managing staff and schedules, making sure everything ran on time. He was in charge of hiring and supervising employees like porters and conductors, cooks and waiters. He had to ensure the cars were in condition to roll on the rails and that his staff took care of their responsibilities. Although he did a lot of this from his office, sometimes he would ride on trips himself, like from New Orleans to Baton Rouge on LSU game days, to directly supervise and make sure everything ran smoothly.

***

The first time I traveled by train was when I was nine years old. As I recall, I was traveling from New Orleans to Atlanta to visit family there. All that I remember about that trip is playing travel Yahtzee and eating Little Debbie snack brownies from the concession car. I had expected the concession car to be more like dining cars I had seen in movies so imagine my disappointment when I saw that it more closely resembled the snack bar at our community pool.

When I studied abroad in Rome in college, I traveled by train frequently, throughout Italy and Europe. Traveling by train felt exotic to me. It was a symbol of my independence and each new trip felt like an adventure. Although I was nowhere near a vagabond, I sometimes indulged myself in feeling like one. I have a vivid memory of traveling through Ireland with my friend Heidi and looking out the window at the blur of the hills, thinking I had never seen anything so green. I remember trying to journal about it and being so dissatisfied with all the descriptions I attempted: verdant, fresh, like a football field. The green there was a sort of violent green, impatient with its beauty.

And then there was the time when I mistakenly filled out my Eurorail pass before the train porter came to my cabin. At this point, I was traveling alone from Barcelona to Madrid, and I didn’t speak Spanish or Catalan. I couldn’t explain myself to the porter. Some compassionate middle-aged women in the cabin tried to communicate with me, me in Italian and them deciphering through Spanish. They tried to argue with the porter for me, but it was to no avail. I had lost one of my trip tickets, and I was angry at myself and frustrated. As I lay on my bunk crying, I felt the opposite of independent.

When the train trips meld together, I experience them in a whirring sort of way that replicates the sounds of metal on metal, the echo of wind banging up against the sidecar. These rides were a contrast of things for me—the calm of watching the landscape pass by and the exhilaration, but sometimes fear, of the unknown. These trips were about discovering new worlds and also about overcoming my hesitancy and timidity to enter these worlds alone.

While I know that my journey to feeling more independent and understanding myself better was a gradual one, I remember a breaking point. It was my last week in Rome, and there were some things I wanted to do: return to the Spanish steps, find an Italian cookbook at this specific bookstore, wander back to the Pantheon. None of my friends wanted to do these with me. Instead of abandoning my mission, I had the sudden realization that I could do this on my own. This might seem like an obvious progression. However, I had spent much of my adolescence deciding  what I would do based on other people’s decisions. I did not like to be alone.

And here, there were added intimidations. I was in a foreign country with a foreign language. I had to navigate public transportation in this other language. I had to risk being lost. I had to risk making a fool of myself. I had to risk being alone. I had to risk finding my way by myself.

However, I had lived in Rome at this time for four months, and I could speak the language enough to get by. I knew how to read the bus maps. I knew how to get around. The biggest motivator, though, was that I wanted to do these things and I didn’t care whether someone else was with me or not. I would get myself there. And also, I felt at that moment that I was enough. I remember intense satisfaction when I returned home from my day adventure. I had figured out how to navigate the terrain, without needing anyone else.

***

My dad speaks of his father with pride, not only because he was good at his job but because he had a commitment to equality and justice in the South during times of deep prejudice and injustice. It was his desire to treat everyone fairly.

Inventor of the Pullman Railroad Car, George Mortimer Pullman --- Image by © CORBIS

While I had misremembered that he retired, Grandpa actually left that job when the Pullman Company went out of business in the late 60s, the company no longer able to keep afloat with competing business from air and interstate travel.

My uncle was still living at home at that point and he remembers that on his last day, Grandpa brought a card table and chair to work because the office furnishings had been sold. When the day was done, he packed them up and came home.

I wonder how it felt to him to have worked his way up the system like that, based on his own willingness to learn and develop his skills. I wonder what it felt like to have to experience that loss, to have to make a change not out of desire but out of necessity. I wonder what it felt like to watch a world, a way of life, so unique and compelling become obsolete. And I wonder what it felt like to him to live a life defined by motion, to hear the wheels, to look out the window as states flew by. I wonder what it felt like to walk from car to car, talking to passengers and reviewing schedules, seeing the inner mechanisms of the railroad run like the engine at the front of the train. I wonder what it felt like to witness family vacations and business trips and honeymoons unfold and know that, in simply doing his job, he had played a role in making them happen.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “con·duct

  1. Jim

    WOW! You brought our family history alive! What a beautiful description of Grandpa’s work with the Pullman Company: complete with photos. He would have loved it: thanks for the tribute to him.
    I also enjoyed your own history with train travel – the mix of excitement, adventure and fear of the unknown. What a great way to conduct the dictionary project.

  2. heidi

    funny, I remember that exact same thing about riding trains in Ireland – GREEN! And I also had a day alone in Rome before I went home and had a similar feeling of pride/accomplishment… I think so often of how incredibly blessed and lucky we are to have had such an amazing experience…. thanks for letting me remember it again!

    • the dictionary project

      ¥ou are welcome. It was an amazing experience. And it’s interesting that I’ve been thinking about it and our travels specifically when I’ve been writing. I’m grateful for fb so I can keep up with what’s happening with you. I remember feeling such a kindred spirit feeling when we hung out in Rome 🙂

  3. Christian

    Your grandpa was a pretty neat fella. I didn’t realize your dad’s side fam had such strong connection upriver. I enjoyed the post very much, and it got me thinking about trains, and also the train riding I did in Italy. The abroad experience just wouldn’t have been the same without trains. They really shaped the context of the experience.

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