Veterans on a train

May 7, 2023

Dell Franklin, Jewish in California

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.


I was at the starting point—the waiting room at the San Luis Obispo train station at ten in the morning—sitting beside my lone bag and small thrift store blanket rolled up and tied together, when I spotted the two elderly gents walking in together dragging two large suitcases a piece. Paunchy, graying, clad in blue jeans and heavy coats unrecognizable in this part of the world, their ball caps and T-shirts told me they were proud Vietnam vets.

Later, we all boarded an Amtrak bus to take us to the train station in San Jose. A miserable ride. But once at the station, we were the only three left to take a train to Sacramento, where I was going to stay for two days and resume the rail to Denver and visit family,

We nodded to each other. I was in knee-high shorts, sneakers, hooded sweatshirt, my usual beach garb. While they both seemed bald, I had a thatch of wild, two years growth of hair and a full reasonably trimmed beard.

I asked the taller of the two if the train to Sacramento was going to be on time.

“My guess is it is,” he said in a clipped, midwestern twang. “We were held up six hours going from Denver to LA when a rock slide covered the tracks.”

“How was that?”

He winked. “Not the end of the world.”

Later, as I stood beside him and his friend as the train rolled up, it was already established I was going to Sacramento to play tennis and visit an old best friend I hadn’t seen in 16 years, and they were staying with family in Sacramento.

When I clambered onto the commuter train and sat down on one side, they saw me and automatically sat together on the opposite side facing me. The shorter man, gray, stocky, but somehow with a jaunty bounce, was from Mississippi. Tom. The bigger man was Mike. They had served together in Nam in 1968 and ’69.

“The worst of times,” I said. “Tet.”

They nodded. Mike did the talking. There was a twinkle in his eye, a wry slyness. He was from Kansas, 60 miles south of Kansas City, and owned a farm. He and Tom had met in Nam and became such close friends that they met yearly and took train trips together, often visiting family throughout the country—a ritual.

There was this easy camaraderie about them, unlike brothers or serious companions. Of course, they were curious whether a specimen, like myself, from their generation had served, and when I told them I’d been in the army three years everything opened up because there was immediate trust. A bond. We were brothers from the same generation, sons of fathers and uncles who served in WWII.

Tom had just acquired a retirement home out in the country in northern Mississippi after working his whole life in Memphis. He had a deep, slow southern drawl. When I told him I once had a firecracker of a past girlfriend from Taylorsville, Mississippi, he pepped up and suddenly I became Debbie Nelson of 1986: “Day-uhl, y’all such an asshole,” I drawled in my best imitation. “Y’all jes’ keep pissin’ me off no end.”

Tom laughed so hard he almost fell out of his seat. From then on it was like we were fellow soldiers at the Enlisted Men’s club, sitting at a table drinking Budweiser. There are no stories like army stories. I told them I had joined late in 1963 and spent my tour in Europe, before the war started and the nationwide round-up of those who didn’t have the money or pull to get out of it, began.

Mike nodded. He shrugged. “You had to do what you had to do as well as you could and hoped to get out of it.”

“Seemed like it was part of the job, the duty of being an American citizen,” I said. “You expected to serve.”

They both nodded. Mike said, “That’s why I don’t like being thanked for my service.”

“Me neither.”

“But I’m proud of what I did.”

I said, “I think there’s a certain pride in doing the dirty job for your country, and the military is the dirtiest job there is.”

“It is,” Mike agreed. He gazed at me. “Sometimes I think they ought to bring back the draft. So many of these kids seem too involved with themselves. They don’t have that feeling of giving back. Maybe they could get into the Peace Corps. Anything. Picking up trash along the highway.” He shrugged. “I don’t ever propose war, but the military did me some good. It gives you a different perspective on life. An appreciation”

It was three hours to Sacramento, and Mike and I talked and talked while Tom listened and gazed out the window at the East Bay. Mike raised emus for twenty years. The second tallest bird. A delicacy. Now he rented out his land to small farmers. The small farmer was disappearing into the jaws of the corporations. He was divorced and had six kids. He appeared farmer-strong. There was a peacefulness about him, a reassurance that our country was still in a good place.

We discussed what it was like having friends while in the military as compared to civilian life. As Tom dozed, I asked Mike if he felt the friends, or best friend you made in the military, was the best friend you’d ever make, and he nodded, strong conviction in his eyes. “Absolutely. Tom and I are best friends. We are family.”

I then told him the best friend I ever had was also in the army, John DeSimone, a gangster from Chicago. “We visited each other over the years,” I said. I was starting to get choked up. “When he died, guess who his wife called first, before his own brothers?”


I nodded.

“He had your back.”

“All the way down the line. And I had his back.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Mike said, that proud glint in his eye.

The trip went fast. When, after he asked me what I did these days, I told Mike I was a writer for Cal Coast News and had a book–“Life On The Mississippi, 1969”–on Amazon, and explained what it was all about. He dialed it up on his phone, grinned, and said, after hitting a few keys, “I just ordered it.”

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Thanks to Mike, Tom, you and the millions that have served to protect us. I enjoyed your piece Dell.

Dell writes:

“… sitting at a table drinking Budweiser.”

Please tell me you didn’t pay the $6-a-Bud (plus a buck tip=$7-a-Bud) for the beers. I mean, c’mon, $21 for 3 Buds?!

As an Amtrak veteran, here’s how you do it: In the vehicle that takes you to the station, have an ice chest filled with ice and beer (important point: Make sure the beer is a type they serve on Amtrak, like Budweiser, or else they’ll bust you for it. When it’s a type they serve, the attendants just think you purchased it at the cafe car. I prefer Heineken.)

Once you get to the station parking lot, in a backpack that you pre-packed with a one-gallon ziplock bag, put three cold beers in the ziplock bag, then pack the remaining space in the ziplock with BIG chunks of ice (“big” because it’ll prolong the melting process). Then put 2 more beers in the backpack, one on each side of the ziplock bag, that you then replace in the ziplock each time you take one out.

Be sure to also pack a beer coolie! The thick ones work best because they provide a sound foundation when you set your beer down on the rattly Amtrak table/tray. (Spilling a beer on a long Amtrak trip sucks! WAAAYYY too precious.)

And away you go: Cold beer for about a buck a piece instead of $7. Plus, as long as you keep it on the down-low, you could have had a few pops on that “miserable” bus ride as well. Takes the edge off.

You’re welcome.

Finally, Dell writes:

“Mike raised emus for twenty years. The second tallest bird. A delicacy.

I swear, if you ever live with an emu, like I have, you would NEVER eat one. Emus. Are. Awesome!

They are filthy birds with raptor claws. Their eggs are beautiful though. Not too beautiful for an omelette.