REMARKABLE. A sink, table, and tuck-away bed fit cleverly in an area of about 7 by 4 feet. Cabin No. 216 aboard the Canadian Pacific line reminded me of a Chinese puzzle box - the kind with panels that you must slide in sequence in order for it to function. I was en route to Montreal from Vancouver in mid-February. A three-day-and-two-night train ride - or so it was intended. But, I am getting ahead of the story. Evenings the best place to be was the game and snack car with glass viewing dome. The first night we passed through Jasper, Alberta. Matterhorn-like peaks glittered romantically at the moon's bidding. Too excited to retire, I played cards and Parcheesi until dawn. My partners were members of a hockey team from Washington on their way to ski the slopes of Alberta - a good-natured bunch, if a bit high-spirited.
It was nearly noon when I awoke on the following day. The hockey players had disembarked earlier and the snowy peaks given way to the wide, wintery plains of Manitoba.
Our next stop was Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital, and - as we had a few hours layover - I ventured out with great plans to take a brisk walking tour of the city. Quickly I discovered how ``brisk'' and found refuge from the clear, Canadian sub-zero weather at a youth hostel nearby.
I spent all my layover time at the hostel drinking hot chocolate and swapping travel tales with Canadian, American, French, and Australian students. Happily absorbed in their adventures, I had to run to avoid missing my train. Gordon, a local Canadian student, saw me off. His parting gift - a generous scoop of hot popcorn carefully wrapped in that day's newspaper. It wasn't until later, when finishing the popcorn, that I noticed the date on the paper - Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. I saved the butter-stained newsprint as a memento of the day's events - not knowing that the adventure had only just begun.
The most popular person in the games car that evening was a gregarious gent we dubbed the ``Canadian Johnny Carson.'' He was a terrific card player and looked the image of the famous talk-show host. I joined the group having a ``serious'' Hearts tournament. The intrepid five consisted of a dance major from Bennington College in Vermont, an anthropology professor from McGill University in Montreal, a first-year Harvard law student, ``Johnny Carson,'' and me - a student from California celebrating midyear graduation with a vacation.
On the outskirts of Toronto, the train came mysteriously to a stop. A blizzard had set in. Oblivious to everything but the cards fanned before me, I hadn't noticed the rapid change in the weather's intensity. Now, at a complete standstill, the train cars shivered as the wind whistled plaintively and snow blew horizontally by.
At dinner hour, the train crew reopened the snack bar. We had been scheduled to arrive in Montreal before dinner, so the supplies for a full meal had not been stocked. Bags of nuts, candy bars, chips, and soft drinks were equitably divided among us. Just as the final can of Seven-Up was passed reverently around, the conductor triumphantly announced we could again safely proceed. The cloistered hours together waiting out the blizzard had developed an esprit de corps - we all hugged one another and cheered the conductor.
The professor from McGill, Bill Kemp, invited me and the students from Bennington and Harvard to bunk at his home in Montreal, as it appeared likely we would arrive unreasonably late to look for a hotel or hostel.
We arrived in Montreal after midnight. Bill hailed a taxi and we slid through the snowdrifted streets. Our stomachs rumbled so that Professor Kemp stopped at a bagel shop miraculously still open. Eagerly we munched the fresh, hot bagels along the way.
Professor Kemp explained that he, his wife, and three children lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly Greek. His daughter played with Greek children and attended a French private school. They were an American family who had moved to Montreal a year earlier, when Bill had received a teaching post at McGill.
The kitchen was our first stop. We were greeted by a heart-shaped cake and note: ``Welcome Home - couldn't wait up any longer. Happy Valentine's Day!''
At last, sweetly sated on cake and bagels, I nestled under the warm covers of my bunk - but couldn't unwind. Pulling out the newspaper - my souvenir from Winnipeg - I read a human-interest story that had earlier caught my eye.
A Canadian orphanage that had a walkout of personnel had to send its nearly 200 small charges into the homes of local residents. The strike went on for several months. After the walkout was resolved, only one child was returned to the orphanage - all the rest remained with families which had opened their homes and, obviously, their hearts as well. The child who returned did so at the request of its mother, who had found she could keep her child after all.
The surprising compassion demonstrated by this Canadian community for these orphans, plus the generosity of our hosts that Valentine's Day - filled my heart with renewed faith in the ever-available human potential to love. Before finally falling to sleep, I recounted the day's adventures in my journal - closing with a statement I recalled by Anne Frank in her famous diary, a valentine message written for all time!
In spite of everything
I still believe people
are really good at heart.