When America traveled by train, the well-to-do went first class in state rooms. Serving this prestigious clientele brought status to the Pullman porters who attended them, but nothing like the glory of the select few who served U.S. presidents on the Ferdinand Magellan.
Fred Fair, 85, who held that special position throughout the Magellan's service life, now lives with the faded mementos and memories of private details of the public men who shaped that time.
Surrounded by scrapbooks, yellowed newspaper clippings and old copies of "The Pullman," magazine of the sleeping car line, in his Connecticut Avenue NW studio apartment, Fair recalled his two decades of service to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
"I don't think he [FDR] could have been any better. He always had a cheery word or a pleasant smile," said Fair, who retired in 1967 after 50 years on the rails.
A Spartansburg, S.C. native, he joined the Pullman Sleeping Car Co. in 1917 when all the porters were black and referred to as "George."
When the government acquired the presidential car in the 1930s, Fair was among those assigned to it, partly because of his good employment record.
Although President Eisenhower used the car briefly before retiring it in the 1950s, preferring to fly, the car had its greatest service during the Roosevelt and Truman years.
While tips helped to augment the porter's $72.50 monthly salary on the regular Pullman cars--and $25 bonus for service in private cars-- Fair said there was no extra pay for working the presidential car and usually few tips.
"FDR, he didn't have any money to tip with," laughed Fair, recalling that once the president had to ask an aide for money, saying: " 'I want to tip these people.' "
Fair, a former vice president of the District local of the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, worked with founder A. Phillip Randolph in initial efforts to secure overtime, vacations and other benefits.
Fair remembers one hair-raising experience in which a Secret Service agent got locked on the platform at the end of the train just as it entered a mountain tunnel.
"Everyone was afraid to disturb the president" who sat reading with his feet up against the platform door, Fair said. "So they motioned to me. . . . I went in took his feet in my hands and moved them away from the door . . . and let the man in," said Fair, who still wonders if FDR even noticed. "They say I saved that man's life . . . he could never have survived the fumes in the tunnel."
During his almost 20 years on the Magellan, Fair never heard either president argue or be unpleasant. He did, however, hear FDR on the telephone hassling over his 1944 election ticket.
"We were in Chicago and the president was talking back to headquarters before he accepted the fourth term and he wanted [former associate Supreme Court] justice [James F.] Byrnes for vice president. Apparently, there was a problem . . . . He [FDR] kept saying, 'Byrnes! Byrnes! Byrnes!' " Fair chuckled. "I guess he lost 'cause he got Truman."
In two envelopes, one from the White House, Fair keeps the dried petals and stems of flowers from FDR's casket.
"I had no clue that that would be his last trip because . . . the president's doctor didn't come along," he said.
Describing the crowds who lined the tracks on the long trip from Warm Springs, Ga., back to Washington with the presidential casket, Fair recalled how people would come up to him seeking mementos from the president's car.
"I had never really thought about [getting souvenirs] until then, but before I left I got these," he said, holding a drinking glass, a bar of soap and a half-used box of wooden matches with the blue and white Pullman company emblem. "This was his drinking glass. It is just like he left it. It's still got his fingerprints on it."
Unlike FDR, who was confined to his wheelchair, Truman was known to roam the 85-foot car. Fair recalled that one night, "there I was smoking my pipe and I look up and there he is" looking for a cup of coffee. After that, a pot of coffee always was brewing when Truman was on board, he said.
Although Fair was not mentioned in the porters' union documentary film "Miles of Smiles," which premiered last year on public television, and even though the traveling kept him away from his wife and son for months at a time, he said he remains satisified with his life's work.
When he was a young man, a friend "begged me to come to Hampton Institute with him. He went on and . . . ended up working in the post office in Chicago," he said, smiling. "I just stayed on the train. Being a Pullman porter was the best thing in the world."