This is Paul Meyer who some 35 years before this picture was taken in 1975 was the passenger agent on a Great Northern steam locomotive headed from the Pacific Northwest toward St. Paul Minnesota. It was Christmas eve 1944, the crowded cars were full of exhausted, homesick sailors headed east from the Pacific theater of World War Two. In Europe, the terrible uncertainty of the snowy Battle of the Bulge dominated the news and for the young men on the train the next days of Christmas promised to be a plunge into a mountainous snowstorm of their own.
Paul imagined a different journey and began breaking both railroad and military rules big time. Just over the Idaho state boundary he convinced the engineer to completely stop the “Empire Builder” on the main line long enough for him to select and cut a club car size Christmas tree from the surrounding forest. Next he wired ahead to the Whitefish Montana station where ornaments, decorations and turkeys were waiting with the station master when they passed through. At Williston, North Dakota Meyer spent all of his own cash and much of the purser’s till on liquid refreshments and eggnog. By the time the train began rolling again, the dining car was hung with evergreen garlands and set with an on board, home cooked holiday meal and fully stocked bar. For a few hundred American sailors away from wartime and the sea, Christmas 1944 rushed across the snowy western landscape in a blur of passing hospitality and homeland at high speed.
Paul Meyer lived well into his 80’s in a solid brick bungalow in Tacoma’s North End telling stories about his years on the railroad and remembering his rolling wartime Christmas party.
TO A LOCOMOTIVE IN WINTER Walt Whitman, 1875
THEE for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating,
shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle
of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here
I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging
lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earth-
quake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.