To our family, the ultimate train was not the Broadway, the 20th Century, or the exalted Dominion that plied our home Canadian Pacific rails out of Toronto. For us, the train was CPR’s nameless workaday No. 25, leaving daily at 10:30 (reading as 9:30 in the days when timetables were printed in Standard Time regardless of the time of year) for a nine-hour odyssey to Sudbury, Ontario, with 53 stops en route. Stop number 36 was Pointe-au-Baril, the jumping-off point for our summer cottage amidst the enchanted isles of Georgian Bay, hence the importance of No. 25 in our family folklore.
Our annual northward trek on 25 was a very different one in 1949, when I was 10. My father had been felled by a heart attack the previous March and, like all First Things after such an event, a journey that should have been sheer delight, with an ambiance parallel to that of Christmas morning, was instead tainted by the sorrow that haunted us without mercy. Father and I had done considerable train-watching together and, in a time when the word “interactive” was still long in the future, every train journey was accompanied by a CPR timetable, a vigil for passing trains, and debarkations at division points to watch the oiling and watering of the locomotive. Therefore, in my own effort to stay in touch with normalcy, I brought along the latest timetable and resolved to carry on as usual.
Robert Plant would not write “Stairway to Heaven” for the better part of 30 years, but the title could certainly apply to the flight of steps leading up to Track 9 of Toronto’s august Union Station and to that first glimpse of the burgundy-red consist of No. 25 standing to our left. Once we were stowed aboard, it had been Father’s and my custom to go up front, look at the engine, and see that it was properly groomed and prepared for its most important assignment of the year. Father was gone now, but Mother, good sport that she was, went forward with me.
Sentiment and association aside, and despite its lack of a name, No. 25 was a stylish train indeed. Assigned as motive power was usually one of CPR’s small but elegant (and nearly new) 1200-series Pacifics. The train itself consisted of a couple of head-end cars, a heavyweight coach for local passengers, a couple of vaguely British-looking lightweights for through service, and a parlor-diner-observation car with a brass-railed rear platform and a striped awning. Trailing behind were two wooden coaches to be cut off at Ypres to take military personnel to and from Camp Borden. All this was duly noted, in the battle against the terrible bubble of sadness lodged in my chest, as were the baggage carts laden with ice for air-conditioning and grimy sacks of Royal Mail being put aboard a pea-green Canadian National mail car on an adjacent track.
“All aboaaaard!” Those were words of magic, of sorcery, for they made the train go, and go it did, ambling out of Union Station, past the familiar landmarks of the Toronto Abattoir, the Massey-Harris tractor factory, and an industry of indeterminate purpose called the Canadian Hanson and van Winkel Co. Ltd. The suburban stops of Parkdale, West Toronto, and Weston were put behind. Then 25 entered its element, puffing along the single iron of the Mactier Subdivision, in pursuit, as author Lucius Beebe would have put it, of its homely occasions. A meet with a hulking 5300-series Mikado at Bolton with a stone train; cattle fleeing across fields from the fiendish iron horse; smoke shadows chasing each other over the pastures and woodlots; dusty pickups stopped at country crossings—all these sights helped to pass the time agreeably and to ease my loss for a brief while.
In those golden days of rail travel, there was what was called a “news butcher,” a curious term that suggests dismemberment of magazines. The news butcher was the bringer of many good things: the major Toronto newspapers, Maclean’s magazine (the Canadian counterpart to Time), and for the 10-year-old stomach, raucously a-growl with hunger by mid-morning, fresh sandwiches in wax-paper envelopes decorated with the CPR beaver-and-shield emblem. His carrier cart clinked with bottles of Orange Crush and Muskoka Dry ginger ale.
No. 25’s news butcher was the same man year after year. He was a wiry little fellow, slightly stooped, and quite dark in complexion. He may have been black or part black, I really don’t know, but no matter. He did have a phenomenal memory and, as it turned out, a heart of the purest gold. I believe his name was Harry Taylor, but we are at too much remove (Lucius Beebe again!) from the event to be absolutely certain. However, we’ll go with Harry Taylor; it works far better than The Unknown News Butcher.
Year after year, Mr. Taylor had said hello to us, of whom there were four: the parents, me, and my sister, Deirdre. This year, there were only three, a fact that didn’t escape Mr. Taylor when he came around. He said his usual “Good morning, nice to see you again,” then frowned and said to Mother, “Where’s that nice young man who is always with you?”
“He died in March,” said Mother quietly.
“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry. What happened?” From some people, this would have been an intrusion. From Mr. Taylor, it was like talking to a neighbor.
“It was a heart attack,” explained Mother.
“Oh, what a shame. Such a nice young chap. I’m really sorry. My condolences. Can I get anything for you folks today?”
“I’m O.K.,” said Deirdre.
“Nothing for me, thank you,” said Mother. “Steven?”
“Oh, yeah, a ham sandwich. And an Orange Crush.”
Mother cleared her throat ever so slightly.
I took the beautiful, fresh sandwich (no plastic-wrap embalming then) and the chill, sweating bottle. Mr. Beebe was welcome to Sherry’s or Delmonico’s. I had my CPR ham sandwich and an Orange Crush, my own precious viand and rare vintage.
“How much do I owe you?” asked Mother.
Mr. Taylor paused a moment. And then, “Nothing, my dear. This one is on the house.”
“But . . .”
But nothing. Mr. Taylor was already on his way through the cars, incanting, “Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, magazines, sandwiches, and drinks . . .”
I have witnessed and received many kindnesses in my life. But there never was one quite in the same league as Mr. Taylor’s gesture of sympathy to a bereft 10-year-old and his mother on CPR No. 25 on that long-vanished forenoon.
First published in Winter 2002 Classic Trains magazine
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