This is one of our favorite Guest Columns we’ve ever run on Offenburger.com. The author is a lifetime friend of ours who grew up in Chuck’s hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa, and spent his career in radio – first as an on-air personality, later in sales and marketing. King says that what happened to him on a 2001 train trip to the great northwest is a “masterpiece travel faux pas.” He adds, “It is to my extreme chagrin that it ever happened at all.” This was first published here in 2010.
By RONN KING
October 22, 2013
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
Let’s see, if I were writing a book, how would I title this chapter? “Portland in Pajamas”? “The Night I Left My Wife”? Or, “Stranded in Spokane”?
Oh, it all started innocently enough, back on July 20, 2001. Rita and I were on our way out to Tacoma, Washington, on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” to visit our son Troy, who had taken a position working in group ticket sales for the Tacoma Rainiers AAA baseball team. We got on board in the Twin Cities, and were on our second overnight in our sleeping compartment.
All of a sudden I awoke and realized we had stopped. Looking at my watch, it was 2:30 a.m. We must be in Spokane! There was a scheduled 45-minute stop while the train could be split. The front half would go on to Seattle, and the back half would hook-up with another engine and proceed to Portland. Naturally, we were assigned to one of the Seattle cars.
Quickly, I pulled on a T-shirt and sneakers, and ventured off the sitting train, thinking I’d watch it unhook. I saw right away that the cars were still connected, so I walked through the relatively vacant depot, and stepped out on the street side of the building to admire the Spokane skyline with its array of night lights. After all, I’d never been in Spokane before.
It never occurred to me that we might have been in the station awhile before I woke up!
About 12 to 15 minutes later, I nonchalantly strolled back across the terminal to the train platform, still believing I’d watch the train be split. Just as I walked out to the tracks, to my horror I saw the Seattle section of the train gliding down the track, disappearing into the oblivion of night.
I freaked out!
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach as I raced back inside and frantically explained my dilemma to the Spokane ticket agent. Could he stop the train? No! He said the only thing I could do was get aboard the Portland section of the train, then connect with another train later in the day from Portland up to Tacoma. He would call ahead and make arrangements.
So there I was, standing in the Spokane train station, clad in my pajamas and T-shirt. NO wallet, NO money, NO identification, NO ticket, NO cell phone – not even a pocket comb!
The agent was very kind and understanding, but he was chuckling a little too much to suit me. The guy truly tried to comfort me. “I know this isn’t funny now,” he snickered, “but some day it will be.” Not at all amused, I grumbled “Yeah, this’ll make a dandy anecdote next Christmas!”
I asked him if I could use his free phone to call my wife who was asleep on the vanishing Seattle section of the train, and he obliged.
So I awoke Rita at 3 a.m. on her mobile phone, and announced, “I’m not on the train!”
“I got left in Spokane, and I’ll have to go to Portland, then meet you and Troy in Tacoma at 3 in the afternoon.”
By then, she was wide awake.
“That’s 12 hours from now!” she said.
“Yes, I know.”
Suddenly, I heard the last boarding call for the Portland portion. Taking no chances, I immediately ran out and jumped on the back half of the train, where an eager engine had connected, and away we went to Portland, where I inadvertently picked up my 49th state.
At 10:15 a.m., there I was, in this cavernous Portland railroad terminal full of people. I was looking positively, pitifully pathetic – unshaven and hair disheveled, wearing nothing but a red T-shirt over blue checkered pajama pants and tennis shoes.
To say I was mortified as I shuffled up to the lady at one of the ticket windows would be putting it mildly. Somehow, I sucked up the courage to utter, “This is extremely embarrassing, but…”
Before I could get another word out, she looked at me sympathetically and warbled, “We know who you are, and we have a complimentary ticket to Tacoma ready for you.” (I was originally booked and paid to Tacoma via Seattle.) Sigh! What a relief! I didn’t inquire how she knew me, but I guess it was obvious. My red & blue checked night attire gave me away – loudly!
Unfortunately, I had two hours to kill in the Portland station, before the north-bound “Cascades” train was to arrive, the one that would take me to my ultimate destination.
Wishing to keep a very low profile, I slinked down an obscure hallway that led toward the restrooms, looking for all the world like a hobo! I asked every guy that passed by if I could borrow his comb. You should have heard the excuses. It took six people before I found a college kid who decided I wasn’t a bad risk. A woman washing windows walked past and gave me a quizzical, cold, disapproving stare. Undaunted, I squared my shoulders, looked her straight in the eye, and exclaimed, “Don’t mind me ma’am, I’m just gathering material for my next Christmas letter!”
Eventually I was re-united with my wife and son, when I sheepishly presented myself at the Tacoma depot. Troy was in hysterics!
We had five days of fun, getting to go to the Space Needle, Pike’s public fish market, Underground Seattle, a Mariners vs. Royals baseball game at Safeco Field. We took ferries to Bainbridge Island and to Victoria, British Columbia. We also spent a day in Vancouver, B.C. We saw the Tacoma Rainiers play the old Omaha Royals, and had several outstanding West Coast seafood meals.
When we left for home, my son was still laughing.
The return trip was totally uneventful. My wife kept me on a short leash!
But for me, this misadventure gave new meaning to the air-conditioning company slogan, “It’s hard to stop a Trane!”
Ronn King grew up in Shenandoah, Iowa, where he got an early start in radio broadcasting at the local stations and did his college work at Northwest Missouri State. He spent much of his 44-year career in radio, the first half of it as an on-air personality, the second half in marketing. He said much of the creative writing he has done has been on radio ads. He retired in 2003. He is also an accomplished singer who has sung with a choir at Carnegie Hall and has soloed on the National Anthem before many baseball and basketball games. He has lived since 1990 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his wife Rita, who is also a native of Shenandoah. They have three sons and “seven precious grandkids – aren’t everybody’s?” He reports that his current activities are “biking, hiking, writing my autobiography, going to concerts, playing the piano, singing.” You can write him at email@example.com.