It was a last-minute, serendipitous side trip — a change of plans like so many in retired life as I drive down from Arkansas to Texas to attend Baylor University events in Waco or visit kids strewn across the widest part of the state from Houston to El Paso. I had lingered in North Texas for Christmas music. Monday it was Handel’s “Messiah” at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. Thanks to a Baylor friend with a spare ticket, Wednesday’s fare was Wynton Marsalis’ yuletide jazz at the Meyerson in Dallas.
As I packed Thursday morning for a return home, a phone message from a longtime friend in our former Spring subdivision popped up sharing the George H.W. Bush “4141” funeral train route. Northwest Harris County had been a 10-year stop for us along my sales career path. Fond memories are rooted in that vast, piney-wood stretch of Houston suburbia running from “Old Town Spring” westward to Tomball. The Bush funeral train would run directly across the road from the elementary school where three of my girls began their educations. I would steer in that direction.
I grabbed my gear and raced through the labyrinth of hallways, escalators and garage ramps of the Sheraton Dallas to pop out near an entrance to Interstate 45 South.
“Siri! Can I make it?”
It would sure be close, even for this slow-chugging funeral caravan. As updates continued from my friend, I worried traffic would bottleneck near The Woodlands. The stop-by-stop itinerary was filled with familiar spots from my 1980 sales territory, running from the Houston northern metro up through Bryan and ending in Waco. As I approached the Madisonville exit I changed course — better to shoot for Navasota further along the route. The gray skies from Dallas turned to light rain as I drove southwesterly through ranchland toward Grimes County. Twenty minutes east of my revised destination, a new text chimed in. The 4,300-horsepower train was already bound for Tomball, 35 miles from Navasota. That was good news.
Arriving in downtown Navasota, a town of several thousand, and heading toward the rail tracks, I saw traffic backed up. Police-vehicle flashing lights meant roadblocks. I had been in this town but once, in 1969, visiting my sister’s Baylor roommate, yet instinctively I knew to turn right to avoid the barricades. I found the Brookshire Brothers supermarket, quickly becoming the overflow parking spot. I pulled in, grabbed my late mother’s parasol from the trunk (this vehicle had been her tight little Lincoln sports sedan with the Jaguar engine) and followed the other umbrellas.
As is the case with many railroad towns across America, Navasota’s Railroad Street runs along the tracks in the old business district. Nineteenth-century multi-story commercial buildings overlooked the crowd lining either side of the right-of-way.
A giant banner thanking President Bush for his lifetime of public service stretched across one balcony. U.S. flags and traditional red, white and blue bunting were draped from second- and third-story windows near an occasional Texas Lone Star. One 19th century building of Texas tan limestone had distinctive frames and crown molding painted in dark charcoal. These reminded me of black window bunting at Abraham Lincoln’s home during a re-creation of his famous 1865 funeral trip from the nation’s capital to Springfield, Illinois, by train.
Scanning the scene, and considering the inauspicious starting point of the “4141” locomotive (a rail yard fitted for loading auto transports in an industrial area near the Houston airport named in 1997 for the former president) and the mundane stretches of suburbia or sparsely populated wooded spots, I realized fortune had landed me at this most prime site. Small-town USA festooned in Americana and Texana readied to honor a president: white farmers and ranchers in Stetsons and cowboy boots, black men, some likely descendants of cotton-field slaves, and Hispanics, who were here first in a manner of thinking.
My visit was largely by chance — an old-timer’s impulsive drive down to witness history. Not so with others. One woman near me drove over from Conroe, even though a Harris County viewing spot would have been closer. A train enthusiast motored down from Arkansas of all places. News crews from Houston and Austin were there; news directors apparently pegged this place as the best for visuals. Even a Russian reporter, complete with cameraman, was in Navasota.
Those tracking the train by phone began chattering. The president was coming. Military escort helicopters heralded his approach, then a horn blast and another, louder than any diesel locomotive I’ve ever heard. The train came ’round the bend as flags waved. Cheers and small tears, mine included, welled up. The magnificent and gleaming blue, white and gray locomotive was upon us, as if some glorious entity emerging from storybook into daily life.
Vintage-style rail cars followed, including the windowed hearse coach converted from a baggage hauler and dubbed “Council Bluffs.” Family members and dignitaries aboard the train waved from behind tinted observation windows. And then it all passed into history. The rain had stopped. Umbrellas popped shut. Folks dispersed to find their cars or stop at a gift shop or café amid the old storefronts. It looked and felt like a movie scene. Navasota stood in for a Horton Foote screenplay. Yet it was beautifully real.
At the Brookshire Brothers parking lot an employee returning to work offered how glad he was to see the train.
“I reminded my wife that when we were dating I was a bellboy at the hotel in Houston when President Bush held that big economic summit,” he told me. “He was a kind man.”
Working my car away from snarled traffic, I found a highway loop to Hempstead, just outside Houston. I pulled off to refuel at a slick new convenience store/fast-food outlet — the antithesis of the old retail I’d just stood near. As I returned to my car from the store, an affable twenty-something black fellow nursing a Swisher Sweet cigar asked if I’d seen the president’s funeral train. I guess I had old-white-man-from-out-of-town written all over me. I answered yes.
“My momma and me saw it, too,” he said. “That was somethin’, wasn’t it?”
With my hand on the car door, I ventured a remark I hoped would be taken as intended.
“You know what made my eyes misty was that we were all together there — whites, blacks and Hispanics — gathered to honor a great man,” I said.
He removed the cigar from his lips and smiled: “You got that right, mister. We were all there together to witness history.”