Henry Kisor takes an anecdotal journey

March 30, 1994|By Robert Taylor DTC | Robert Taylor DTC,Boston Globe

Although Henry Kisor's irresistible account of transcontinental travel aboard the California Zephyr has no lack of train lore, it is fundamentally a story in which 500 wildly assorted passengers spend 51 hours in proximity to one another.

"What's That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness," Mr. Kisor's previous book, offered an autobiographical portrait of a man who refused to let himself grow isolated from the hearing world: Eventually, he became book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. Deafness was a pivotal element in that work, of course, as were such issues as lip-reading vs. signing. Travel on the Zephyr necessarily involves Mr. Kisor's deafness, but it is a theme subsidiary to his passion for railroads and his gusto for adventure.

He has the journalist's indispensable gift, curiosity about people. Other buffs may have wondered why train crews out West seem more civil and ungrudging than their Eastern counterparts, or how straights and gays get along together on Amtrak, or why dining cars create community among young and old and every stratum of society. But Mr. Kisor's observations have the tang of vintage conversation with a literate seat-mate.

Indeed, who better than a bookman as a guide to a train named for Zephyrus, the god of the west wind? When Ralph Budd in 1933 wanted

to christen his new stainless-steel, diesel-hauled streamliner, he consulted Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" for inspiration.

Like Chaucer's pilgrims, Mr. Kisor in the month of April takes to the road. His journey commences in the yards of Chicago's Union Station so that he can witness the behind-the-scenes preparations of the chef, steward and chief of on-board services.

By the time the Zephyr glides into Oakland, Calif., (mile 2,416) Mr. Kisor has seemingly interviewed the entire train, from the engineer to a couple of teen-age girls smuggling a puppy across Utah. Realizing that he cannot rely on lip-reading to gather the information he needs, he brings along interpreters. They help him with public-address announcements and serve as his ears; but the sensibility of the book is its author's.

Along the way he notes that the family farms of the Plains states are vanishing, and with them the American small town. There are comic interludes in the lounge car, and there is Feydeau-like farce when he encounters an amorous couple in his


There are enlightening digressions about the construction of Colorado's Moffat tunnel, once the longest in North America; Butch Cassidy stealing the miners' payroll of Castle Gate at the entrance to Price River Canyon; the evolution of time zones and mail deliveries; and racism and Pullman porters before A. Philip Randolph organized them before World War II.

The tempo of the trip encourages a changed conception of time: "Train time means large blocks of leisure to rest, to read a book cover to cover, to write a few thousand words on my laptop computer in the warm privacy of a sleeper compartment, or simply to woolgather, letting my imagination carry me where it will."

The romanticism of such reverie, however, serves as counterpoint to the realism of the day coaches. The mix of alcohol and tobacco "sometimes gives the lounge all the ambience of a biker bar where drunken fistfights break out and the police come to haul the unruly to the local hoosegow." A sleeping car will get hot, then cold, then hot again. The female steward must figure out how to cope in the diner with seating a transvestite with a pair of honeymooners.

As Oscar Wilde put it, "I never travel without my diary. One should have something sensational to read in the train." Diaries aside, Henry Kisor proves equally compelling as he listens to and records the voices of a mobile world.


Title: "Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America"

Author: Henry Kisor

Publisher: Times Books

Length, price: 338 pages, $24

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