When Sam Humes Jr. was a teen-ager, his father, a redcap porter at Union Station, pulled him aside one day and told the boy that he faced only two choices in life.
"Because you're poor," Humes recalled his father saying more than 40 years ago, "you can either steal and go to jail, or you can work for your living."
Sam Humes worked. He became a redcap like Sam Sr. and still is one today, a 59-year-old porter who puts in workdays that would exhaust many men half his age.
The days are as regular as a railroad timetable: Up before dawn to load Amtrak's commuter runs along the Atlantic seaboard, a break at 9:30 a.m. when the New York-bound Southern Crescent eases out of Union Station, then back again to load the late morning train to Chicago.
Humes has the right stuff: the biceps of a weight lifter, the smile of a Cheshire cat and the unflappable disposition of a Buddha. He is Union Station's premier porter, treating president and pauper with the same courtesy and attention.
Humes' bosses at Amtrak thought so highly of their redcap foreman's work that they nominated him for the Washington Convention and Visitors Association's annual service award. And last week, after sifting through 1,000 nominations from the District's hotel, restaurant and transportation companies, the association gave its Gold Award and a $1,000 check to Sam Humes.
"Working is no pressure at all for me," Humes said after a luncheon for the city's hotel and service industry managers. "My only thing is to do my little share to make the company successful."
Humes became a redcap in 1941, in an era when black workers, he recalls, often were the butt of "names and nicknames."
Humes, who once toted Harry Truman's luggage, said, "My policy was and is to always act professionally, to always tell a person 'Good morning.' If you treat somebody with respect, you'll get it in return.
"And if a person's rude, just say as little as possible."
World War II interrupted his job until 1944, when Humes returned to work for the Washington Terminal Co., which supplied porters to all rail companies at Union Station. Laid off in 1958, Humes opened a toy store in his Northeast neighborhood, then returned to his old job in 1972.
Over the years he worked at a drugstore and as a cab driver to supplement his redcap income. Amtrak has 110 full-time redcaps, whose average annual salary is $20,522, a spokesman for the rail corporation said.
Railroad legend has it that the first redcap was an inspired porter who tied a red bandanna around his cap so that passengers could tell him from the con artists who used to take the luggage and run. But it was a New York entrepreneur named George Daniels who first established a small army of red-capped men in 1896 at Grand Central Station.
Last year, Amtrak replaced the old flat cap with a red, white and blue visored hat.
Sam Humes does not mind the sartorial changes, any more than the bungled renovations of Union Station or the demise of once-great railroads.
"Oh, things are good 'round here," he said. "Interest in rail travel is picking up again. A train will get you from here to New York in two hours and 49 minutes . . . and right to the heart of the city besides."
Humes plans to retire in a couple of years, possibly to raise horses on a small spread in Madison County, Va. Until then, he will tend the station's cavernous baggage rooms and long platforms.
"The best part about this job are the people," he said. "I love them. Period."