I FIRST met Bill and Anna Wilkins at a flea market on Maryland's Eastern Shore. They had been dead for several years.
They had left a legacy, however, a simple scrapbook that had found its way onto what some might call the junk heap of history. I would not call it that. I have a deep commitment to the past, which I keep telling my friends and family is not an obsession but a belief that understanding what has been helps illuminate what is and what will be.
So, from the moment I set eyes on the old scrapbook stuffed with postcards, timetables, hotel stationery and countless other souvenirs of a very special 1937 train trip to Florida, there was never any doubt that I would buy it; the purchase was almost a preordained sacred rite. And considering that some people spend hundreds on courses that promise perspective and insight, $20 for the scrapbook seemed dirt cheap.
A few words about scrapbooks. Once upon a time, everyone made them. There were movie star scrapbooks, trip scrapbooks, you name it. There was nothing artificial about them, nothing mass-produced. Each scrapbook reflected its maker and an era. My own scrapbook of a 1965 trip, for example, gives a watershed portrait of America about to be transformed by the interstate highway system. It also shows an almost fearless young couple crossion the continent in a 1956 Chevy with no reverse gear, sleeping under a plastic tarp strung between two trees, somehow surviving for nine weeks on $600.
But this is the age of the color slide. And because color slides cry out for narration, future historians will find them frustrating. Scrapbooks, on the other hand, offer self-contained snatches of the past. With their scrawled notations, they speak for themselves.
Even as scrapbooks capture a moment in time, they also raise tantalizing quetions: What happened to the world they contain? The hotels? The movie theaters? The old familiar places? Or, in the case of Bill and Anna Wilkins, what was left of 1937?
Their scrapbook's pages were faded and crumbling. But the contents gave their trip presence. It was like peering through an old-fashioned stereoscope. The scene is still, yet three-dimensional. You are there.
From the pages and a little background research, Bill and Anna Wilkins sprang to life, an unpretentious couple of modest means. Both came from northeast Baltimore, where they lived most of their married lives in a Tudor-style rowhouse. Anna, 35, looked a little dowdy. Bill, 36, had the look of Everyman.
At a time when millions of Americans were out of work, they seemed to represent working America. Bill had gone to work for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1921. His job, as a rate clerk in the traffic department, was not the kind they write songs about. Nonetheless, it was a job that did not disappear in the Depression. And it had its fringes, including free train travel. While the legions of jobless hopped the midnight freight, Bill and Anna rode Pullman.
The train they rode on their nineday Florida trip was the Havana Special, which used to take passengers all the way to Key West. There the cars were loaded on to steamships bound for Cuba. That ended with the Labor Day hurricane of 1935; after that the Havana Special terminated in Miami.
"No train anywhere better fulfills its purpose of transporting passengers, swiftly, surely, safely and comfortably," gushed the brochure in the scrapbook, Among aficionados, however, the Special is remembered today as a slow "milk train" that stopped at every tank town on a two-night trip to Miami. "Only one day en route from New York to South Florida, relieved by two nights of real honest-to goodness sleep," is how the brochure gently said it.
Bill and Anna, however, made the most of it. Getting there was half the fun. And, although they spent as much time on the train as off, they also managed to see five movies, take innumerable side trips and make new friends and acquaintances.
Telescoping their nine-day trip into three, I would somehow follow in their footsteps, armed with my 1939 Rand McNally Road Atlas , my American Automobile Assocition Southeastern Tour Books for 1930 and 1945, my WPA Federal Writers' Project guides to U.S. 1 and Florida, and, of course, Bill and Anna's scrapbook.
Bill and Anna had been assigned a lower-level berth, the economy class in a luxury Pullman car. My quarters were fancier: A "roomette," which is not as fancy as a full "bedroom" but beats the hell out of coach, is a compartment about 4 feet wide by 7 feet long. It is sometimes seem in 1940s mystery movies.
My "roomette" seethed with mysteries of sorts. The wall behind the passenger's seat hid the bed, which unfolded downward. The compartment also had a fole-down sink and a fold-up toilet. There was more. Unfamiliarity bred an attempt to search the compartment's seemingly endless nooks and crannies. In time, they revealed a "shoe locker," a disposal slit for used razor blades (the oldfashioned thin double-edged kind), an overhead fan borrowed from Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca," an individually controlled air-conditioning vent.
Marvel of marvels was a switch marked "radio." A dial with three locations and a ceiling speaker completed the illusion of '40s chic. Of course, it didn't work.
"Nice to have you with uw," said the soap wrapper in the fold-down sink compartment. Class.
The classes come together, now as then, in the diner and club car. Long distance train travel encourages a sort of social dynamic foreign to jet aircraft. A passenger train becomes a community in motion. Passing acquaintances and lifelong friends, it is said, are made along the way.
The Wilkinses had made a friend of Dr. W. B, Boyston of Charleston. In the diner, I met Nancy, a throatyvoiced-voiced former jazz singer who had moved from New York to Florida eleven years ago, after a divorce. In Florida, she had found a new husband and happiness, she said, helping him run a drapery store 40 miles north of Miami. A seasoned veteran of train travel, she had come prepared for the ride with radio, cassettes and a pocketbook full of paperback novels.
After dinner in the diner, we moved to the club car which was filled with somoke and people. It was not the "full-length lounge car" of the Havana Special, complete with library, "baths, soda fountain, trained attendant," barber and manicurist. It was, rather, a bar car.
"A couple of years ago, we came down when Amtrak was trying to impress," press," Nancy said. "We had games and movies and a social director."
By 10:30 p.m., the coub car had emptied, and I returned to my roomette for my one night "of real honest-to-goodness sleep." But sleep did not come quickly. A full moon lit up the landscape as the train sped southward, illuminating the dark outlines of fields and trees.
At 11:55 p.m., the train pulled into Rocky Mount, N.C., paralleling Main Street, just as Bill Wilkins had diagrammed it in the scrapbook. The town had not visibly changed from his description. Framed by my window, the scene looked like an arrangement of pieces on a model train layout.
The bright sun woke me at 8 a.m. I had slept throughh South Carolina and Georgia and now we were entering Florida. The train passed orange groves, palm trees and small scrubby pines, dirt roads, rural shacks and stores with unfamiliar-sounding names like Li'l General, Li'l Champ, and Winn-Dixie. The images blurred, begging to be frozen in place for a longer look.
Breadfast in the diner was better than dinner the night before. Each linen-covered table in the Art Deco car sported a fresh white carnation.
Between meals, I found Harry, a semiretired ex-Teamster gradually shifting his base of operations from Newark, where he had property, and Providence, where he had children, to Fort Lauderdale, where he had a condo.
He was a short man with a mustache and slicked-back hair, sitting in the coach club car with a pocketful of cigars and a copy of Reader's Digest. At 61, he had spent the last 18 months "looking for a place to stay whatever time I have left."
After rejecting California ("large cities overrun by blacks and unsafe at night") and Las Vegas ("gamblers make lousy conversationalists"), Harry and his wife had settled on Florida, but not without reservations.
"I have difficulty identifying with senior citizens," he said. "Most of them are rigid, have definite ideas about whatever. It's hard to turn them around."
Harry had boarded at Newark, where he had been "looking after my investment. You got to catch 'em when they got the rent. Otherwise, they promise you the Brooklyn Bridge and give you the News and Mirror, if you get my slang."
Time passed quickly. Soon, the train pulled into a station called Jack -sonville, although Jacksonville was nowhere in sight.
The passengers filed out at West Palm Beach, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood. After that, although there were 40 minutes left on the schedule, the train was nearly empty.
In the coach club car, Nathaniel Frederick was wrapping it up, preparing an order for the next shift. In 35 years, he had worked his way up from fifth cook and potato peeler to bartender and waiter in charge.
"It was fancy," he said. "You'd serve meals, stand by your tables, see what your guests need. The waiters made you feel like you were home. That's when yor'd cook all fresh food. Those trains are gone and those waiters are gone and those cooks are gone."
As the train slowed, something seemed wrong. We were not anywhere near the city. We were out in the middle of nowhere, approaching a modern, nondescript box. It was the end of the line.
Bill and Anna had detrained at the Florida East Coast Railway depot at 200 NW lst Ave., within walking distance of their destination, the Everglades Hotel. This new station wasn't even in Miami. It was in North Miami. The Miami international Airport was closer to Miami than this new $2.9 million Miami Amtrak station, which, I later learned, had been ceremoniously dedicated June 20, 1978. It had replaced the closer-in Seaboard Coast Line passenger station.
I felt lost in the new station, with its acres of parking but no rental car windows and no visible public transportation. The doors, sensing my presence, opened automatically. The signs overhead directed me -- in both English and Spanish -- to restroons and phones. But, for me, the station did not work.
Outside, I found several taxicabs waiting to whisk me to my rendezvous with yesterday. In an old station wagon passing as a cab, the radio dispatcher's voice crackled instructions in Spanish as we sped east on 79th Street, past crumbling cottages and auto courts, and then south on Interstate 95. Traveling at speeds up to 90 miles an hour, the cab arrived minutes and $8.80 (plus tip) later at the Everglades Hotel, on Biscayne Boulevard at 3d Street NE.
In 1937, it had called itself "Miami's Oustanding Hotel." By my visit, it was faded but still serviceable. But the pinball arcade on the lobby level made you wonder.
As was the custom in his day, Bill Wilkins had reserved his room by letter more than a month early. Manager Walter Chandler had personally replied, "I take pleasure in offering you a large, pleasant, double room, with twin beds and private baths at $3.50 per day, special rate. Hoping to have the pleasure of your patronage and assuring you of our best efforts for your service."
The Wilkinses were assigned Room 903, a "large spacious room overlooking the Bay and Miami Beach," according to Bill's notes. My reservation for Room 903 had somehow gone awry, and the room had already been rented.
I found myself in Room 914, which does not overlook the Bay or Miami Beach but rather the changing skyline of Miami, with its mixture of old and new buildings, an inner city seemingly walled in by an elevated expressway that Anna and Bill never saw.
My $19.76 room contained a color television set that barely worked, a single table lamp, a writing desk that wobbled, a double bed, furnishings which could most charitably be described as cheap motel modern. My efforts to penerate Room 903 later that night led only to embarrassment. The next morning, I convinced a maid to let me peek inside. Room 903 did, indeed, overlook Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach.
Unable to linger at the window of the room belonging to someone else, I decided to savor the view from the roof. The elevator did not reach the roof, which was, the man at the desk said, "closed for repairs." I found the stairs that ld to the 17th floor just below it. There I found a large, empty banquet room. Years ago, it had been an indoor miniature golf course. More stairs led to a door that was missing its knob. It opened onto the roof, a ghostly world of overturned tables and louvered windows missing panes and handles. the pool, which must have been the centerpiece in the '30s, was empty. A charred bed spring rested on the concrete. The huge "E" on the tower that stares down at the city needed new paint.
But the view was still spectacular.
Their first night in Miami, Bill and Anna had walked around the corner from what the 1930 AAA book called their "new, modern, fireproof hotel, centrally located," to the movies. At the Paramount Theater, 237 E. Flagler St., they had paid 40 cents each to see "Exclusive," a newspaper story starring Fred MacMurray.
The Paramount marquee survives, as does the Paramount Hotel next door. Both were empty.
"There used to be four theaters on Flagler, but they all closed up, one by one the last two years," the lady in the hotel gift shop said. "There was only one class of people went in them."
Ifelt confused, disoriented, like the man who had stepped out of the Twilight Zone into the future.
Only the future was now. Yet, my frame of reference was 1937. The scrapbook, the old guides, the maps, the transcendental presence of Bill and Anna had all spirited me into a time warp.I had begun to view the world through 40-year old lenses. But reality intruded and I suddenly suffered from both culture shock and future shock, and it woa beginning to sink in: Times had changed.
The Miami of 1937 was a self-contained, essentially American city of 127,000 people. The Miami of today is a predominantly Latin American city of 385,000, with predominantly American suburbs. In 1937, Miami Beach had 13,300 people, and you could see the ocean from Collins Avenue. Today, there are more than 100,000, and all you can see are high rises.
The tabloid Miami Tribune ("THE SOUTH's SMARTEST NEWSPAPER --- ALL THE NEWS WITHOUT FEAR OR FAVOR") for Aug. 17, 1937, pasted in the scrapbook, carried banner news of a Chinese-Japanese naval battle and a report inside of Hugo Black's confirmation to the Supreme Court. For all its self-styled smarts, the Tribune is no more. And the big headlines during my visit told of the Camp David accords and of the Nicaraguan civil war, which topped the Middle East in the afternoon paper.
Downtown Miami was closing up. By 6 p.m., the Avis office two blocks from the hotel had shut down for the night. I grabbed a taxi for the $6 ride to Miami Beach, where rental prospects were brighter.
As darkness descended, I had dinner in a Cuban restaurant next to a Collins Avenue burlesque house. The Miani Beach I glimpsed was people by young expatriate Latins, who breathed life into the setting, and by aged expatriate New Yorkers, sitting in front of their hotels and condos, barely speaking, wating to die.
Bill and Anna had found another Miami Beach, a vibrant "Atlantic City of the South," Bill called it. They had gone wading at Cook's Casino Bath House, which no longer exists, and then had taken a streetcar and then a bus to admire "the gorgeous homes along the ocean" further north on the island.
The two of them were always going somewhere, it seemed, usually by bus or on foot. They saw three movies during their two-night stay, they went to Miami Beach and, despite a soft rain, they journeyed to a wonderland known as "The Venetian Pool" in nearby Coral Gables.
The city of Coral Gables, a developer's dream come ture, had converted a rock quarry into an ersatz Venetian lagoon for swimming. "Its irregular outline, little islands, rock towers, cascades, grottoes and tropical setting make it one of the most unusual pools in the country," said my 1945 AAA book. My 1961 AAA Florida guide says essentially the same thing. The 1978 edition does not mention it at all.
In 1937, 50 cents got you in, "if you have [your] own suits," Bill Wilkins noted. "They have such a lovely pool," Anna added.
When I arrived at the Venetian Pool, the water was still, the admission price a flat $1.30 and the parking lot virtually empty. Two women were waiting for the gate to open at 10 a.m.
The last time I was here was 29 years ago, and it was old then," the older woman said to her companion. "I'm disappointed. Years ago, it was really beautiful."
"It looks like it's falling apart," the younger woman said.
Little details showed the pool's age, like creeping crow's-feet. A pane of glass was missing from a lamppost. The wading pool was empty. Here and there, paint was peeling from the imposing Spanish-style bathhouse behind the Venetian Pool itself.
I left the Venetian Pool before it opened, saddened.
After a return visit to the Paramount to see Edward Everett Horton in "Wild Money," Bill and Anna had boarded an overnight train bound for St. Augustine. They arrived at 6:30 a.m., Aug. 19. They checked their bags, ate breakfast and went sightseeing in the nation's oldest city, a title time could not erase.
It was evenitn instead of morning when I reached St. Augustine. I stopped for dinner and drove on to Jacksonville, where Bill and Anna had next gone by bus, across a flat undeveloped stretch of U.S. 1 that is little changed.
In Jacksonville, they had stayed at the Seminole Hotel, in a room overlooking the St. Johns River. From my room across the river in the Jacksonville Hilton, I could see the new bank building that recently replaced the old hotel. tThe Seminole Hotel had been within walking distance of the Florida Theater, which still exists, and the inveterate moviegoers could not risist. The hotel was also close to the old railway station. tThey would return to Baltimore by way of Atlanta, then over the North Carolina and Virginia piedmont. In today's shriveled rail network, there is no Jacksonville-to-Atlanta link.tThe old Jacksonville train station, imposing and deserted, its tracks and platforms overgrown with weeds, can be seen from the elevated interstate on the way to the airport 15 miles north of the city. The new airport, with its modern interior, its many shops and facilities (including a chapel), stood in stark contrast.
"Today's air traveler," the advertising sign said, "realizes the inportance of time... travels for business more than for personal reasons... maintains a high annual income."
Less than two hours later, after one bloody mary, one prepackaged dinner, no conversation and a smooth flight at 29,000 feet, I was back in space as well as time.
The Wilkinses had arrived home at 11:25 a.m. on Aug. 22, and there the scrapbook ends with the homily, "Be It Ever So Humble -- There's No Place Like Home!"
The trip for me did not end at a physical destination. I talked to Anns's brother, contacted Bill's employers, looked at records of deeds and mortgages, better to understand their world .
Bill liked to swing an occasional golf club, I learned, and he dabbled in family history. Anna, her brother recalled, "kind of went along with him on things."
In 1947, Bill made chief rate clerk. Five years later, he assumed what railroad officials decribe as a lower management position, commercial agent in the office of the vice president for freight traffic. In this post, he often went on short notice to New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati. He always went by train.
Bill retired in 1958. The next year, at the age of 58, he died of a heart attack. Anna, who also developed heart trouble, lived until March 10, 1973, when she passed sway at the age of 71. The Wilkinses had no children, and less than seven months later, their house at 4325 Berger Ave., Baltimore, was sold.
They survive in their scrapbook and its new companion, a scrapbook of an unusual trip to Florida taken tack in 1978 . CAPTION: Illustration 1, Bill and Anna came from Baltimore on a local B & O train that arrived in Union Station at 8:13 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14. With their train, the Havana Special, still in New York's Pennsylvania Station, they went to see "Can't Have Everything" in a Washington movie theater that no longer exists. The Havana Special would leave Washington at 3:15 a.m. Before boarding at 12:45 a.m., Bill pasted in the scrapboor a postcard of the waiting room at Union Station, noting, "Washington should be proud."; Picture 1, The old waiting room is now the National Visitor Center through which railroad passengers must trudge a seemingly endless distance to a much smaller waiting room. Overhead, television computer screens list arrivals and departures, a bit of modern technology that does not make the trains run on time. Twenty minutes behind schedule, the Meteor was ready for boarding. Here I am on my passage into the past, down a long flight of steps onto an old platform, past ancient baggage carts and aboard Car No. 8332, where I had a "roomette" reserved for the 21-hour trip.; Illustration 2, Bill and Anna had headed straight down the Florida coast to Miami (below), but such direct routing ended a decade ago after a merger and a strike. The Silver Mteor swung inland from Jacksonville, stopping in Waldo, Ocala, Wildwood and Sebring before veering back to the coast.; Illustration 3, 4, My French toast, sausage, home fries and coffee was $2.95, with tip. Bill's breakfast -- an omelet with chopped ham, rolls and coffee -- had cost $1.08 in depression dollars.; Illustration 5, 6, 7, The location of the Everglades Hotel, fronting on Biscayne Bay had not changed (the "new" postcard of Bayfront Park still shows the Everglades in the background, diminished by palm trees with 40 years more growth). The hotel had. It was now "The New Everglades Hotel." What was new, mostly, was the clientele, almost exclusively Latin. "Bienvenidos al Everglades... " said the tourist brochure at the front desk.; Picture 2, W.E. Kite, 38 years on the rails: "Used to be everybody went to Miami."; Picture 3, The Wilkinses found a friend in Dr. W.B. Boyston of Charleston, who signed their book, "Best Wishes to you on your Trip South" before being picked up by his wife at the North Charleston station.; Picture 4, I decided to wend my way to the roof where Bill and Anna had lovingly photographed each other against the backdrop of the Miami skyline. The view was spectacular.; Pictures 5, 6, Anna, on the roof of the Everglades. In 1937, it was an elaborate roof garden, complete with a manicured manicurd lawn, potted palms, flowers and a plll as centerpiece. Now, the visitor finds it a ghostly world of broken chairs and cracked concrete but still offering the enduring pleasures of a panorama.; Picture 7, Bill