The Train Shaped My Life:
Recollections from the Son of a Pullman Porter
By Thomas Gray
Every May, Amtrak celebrates National Train Day and reminds us that trains are more than just a means of transportation. I never needed that reminder, since the train is the backdrop to my family’s entire story. I can trace my first memories back to either riding on a train or being near one. From an early age, I learned to love and appreciate my father and grandfather by watching them work on the trains.
We lived near the railroad tracks. My grandfather, Henry Jones, would take me down to the tracks and let me sit on older trains that were no longer in service. My father, Thomas J. Gray, was a Pullman porter, and used to come through Albuquerque on the train. My mother would take me to see him, and from my growing years to college, I only saw him once a week when he came through on the train. I always admired my father for the important role he played in managing the train experience of all the passengers.
My favorite childhood memory is riding in the Pullman car. Every Pullman porter was so friendly and took the time to speak with me at length about his responsibilities. I also remember sitting in the dining car, anticipating the delicious French toast. I have since acquired the French toast recipe and have tried to perfect it. I’m getting close.
It is probably no surprise that I worked on the trains during my college years. My grandfather helped get me a job on the Santa Fe. I worked as a train attendant from Albuquerque to Kansas and Colorado. One of the perks of the job was seeing different family members during my travels, depending on the route.
Since I had grown up around trains, this summer job was a thrill. That experience, and observing my father’s and grandfather’s interactions with passengers, taught me skills that served me well even when I began my career as a Boeing engineer. I learned how to work with people diplomatically, which was essential when I was promoted to customer service and flight sales. A lot of our work revolved around communication and it was my good fortune that I was able to hone these skills at an early age.
My father and grandfather, and men like them, left an important legacy for me and for so many others. I wanted to make them proud because I saw them work very hard. The Pullman porters supported so many families and made it possible for others to get ahead. Individuals like the men in my family built the black middle class.
While my train background is deep in my roots, one of the most fulfilling moments of my life was my experience flight-testing for Boeing. In 1968, I met my father in Los Angeles and took him to the test base in Southern California. Showing my father what I had accomplished is one of the proudest moments of my life, because it was through his example and hard work as a Pullman porter that was I able to pursue my passion. This year, on National Train Day, I remember not only how enjoyable train travel can be, but also the legacy of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Thomas Gray is the son of a Pullman porter and a third generation railroad worker. National Train Day is an annual observance when communities around the country join together to celebrate the ways trains matter. Join the movement! Visit www.nationaltrainday.com