A Train That Filled Our Field With Dreams
It could be of historical interest that as a youngster growing up in a small coastal Maine village 75 years ago, I had no particular awareness of black people. There were none in our town. True, many doughty Maine sea captains and crews, some from my town, had brought slaves from Africa, but not to Maine.
In 1820, Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state, to balance Missouri, which was not. The railroads and the steam-ships had brought a few blacks to Maine who got jobs as porters and stewards, but they formed small communities in the harbor and terminal cities. We small-towners were well apart. The African-American I'd heard mentioned most often in my boyhood was Old Cuffee, and I was in college before I learned he was black. Otherwise, the only blacks I saw were Pullman porters going through on the Halifax trains. It took the high-speed Down-East trains about 13 seconds to pass our town. And while we were coastal, we did not have Eastern steamships on schedule.
Old Cuffee was a legend rather than a person. Out of New Bedford, he went to the Banks, later became a merchant marine master, and then was prominent with a kind of seagoing "underground railroad" that helped freed and runaway slaves to return to Africa. I've been told the Whaling Museum at New Bedford, Mass., has much information about Old Cuffee. My mother spoke of him frequently in some such sentence as, "And there he sat, smug as the cat that et the canary, and big as Old Cuffee." Old Cuffee was by now a folk allusion, a simile.
Old Cuffee was not a big man. He was slightly over four feet. His deeds were bigger than he was, and reference to his size was comparable with our Down-East custom of calling bald-headed men Curly. Shorty Towle, in our town, stood seven feet tall.
Old Cuffee was in and out of our North Atlantic ports often enough to make him well known, and the logical tenant of a metaphor. I did not know he was black until I was in my 20s.
All this in preface to the Pullman porter who entered my life the year I was 10.
In 1918, our town did not subsidize school athletics, and we lads who played baseball had to own our own gloves, bats, and balls. We had no school uniforms. If a baseball went into the weeds, our game was suspended until we found it. If the cover got smacked off a ball, we all put in 10 cents and sent Pokey Foss to the store for a new ball, or we took the wounded one to Dave Longway's garage and he'd mend it with friction tape.
WE had no diamond as such, but played on a small lot between the high school and the town hall, and to frustrate our line drives all exposed windows were slatted and screened. From school-out to evening chore-time, we'd play baseball there, and along about 4:30, or the fifth inning, an evening work train would pass at slow speed on the Maine Central Railroad iron, which was east-west about 50 feet in the outfield beyond second base.
Now and then this work train would have a Pullman car being returned to Portland or Boston, and we could see the black porter in the vestibule. After the train passed, we'd resume.
One evening, Hank Soule hit a soft liner just before the work train appeared, and the ball sailed directly into the open vestibule door of a parlor car, where the porter reached up and caught it. He waved it to show it was a clean catch, and then with his other hand waved at us boys, and the train was gone. That was our only baseball.
I had nothing to do with what followed, since it was carried out by the older boys. Perry Taylor asked Charley Bailey, the station agent, for the number of that work train, and then he wrote a letter to the president of the Maine Central Railroad at St. John Street, Union Station, Portland, Maine, and asked him to return our baseball, please. All we boys signed Perry's letter.
Perry got no reply, of course, and meantime we took up a collection and Pokey Foss got us a new ball at the sporting-goods counter of L.L. & G.C. Bean, gents' clothing, Walkover shoes, and Sweetorr work pants.
Then, maybe two weeks later, another work train came along at about the same time, and it had another Pullman car, and the same porter was standing on the steps of the open vestibule. He waved, and then he tossed a baseball. The train passed.
The baseball was unblemished, except it had the autographs of all the first-string players of the American League Boston Red Sox. Among the signatures was that of George Herman Ruth, at that time a very good left-handed pitcher. We never played with that ball. It was put in a small wood box with cotton batting, and the last I knew, Perry Taylor was its custodian.
But this began an association with the only black man our town knew anything about in those days, and if nobody else feels it has historical importance, I do.
WE never knew the porter's name. Nobody in town knew him. If he ever went through our town on anything except that deadhead work train, it would be in a first-class sleeping-car section at 100 m.p.h., eastbound or westbound, Halifax and Boston. But when he went through on his work train, standing on the steps of his open vestibule, he would wave, toss out a baseball, and be gone.
There was no way we could say thank you except to wave back. The baseballs he "returned" to us were all clean, new baseballs, some autographed, some not. By fall we had almost a bushel.
With the help of our parents, who became interested in the happening, we surmised our porter, perhaps reprimanded by the railroad's president, felt sorry for those kids and enlisted the aid of many friends who began shagging baseballs for us.
Every baseball we got from the Pullman vestibules could have been a home-run souvenir caught by a fan in the 50-cent bleachers at Braves Field or Fenway Park. Or even in a church league; we never knew. All I can tell you for sure is that the porter, tossing us another baseball, looked full as big to us boys as Old Cuffee.