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The Column: If you're lucky, the LIRR still evokes the thrill of a real train ride

Not having to ride the train everyday, columnist

Not having to ride the train everyday, columnist Fred Bruning finds that when he does, it's still a fun experience.  Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

All aboard.

The trip begins — oh, boy.

Heave of the engine, lurch of the cars, grind of steel on steel — what’s better than a train?

Fares on the Long Island Rail Road have doubled since 1995, Newsday said recently, and could be increasing again.

I’m only a weekend rider — senior discount, you betcha’ — heading to Atlantic Terminal for a couple days in Brooklyn, or, sometimes Penn for a Broadway play, so I don’t feel the pinch of monthly ticket prices.

The romance of the rails might be different, if I were shelling out more than $250 for the ride from Lynbrook or nearly $400 from Ronkonkoma while bracing for another hike, come spring.

But, for me, those one-hour weekend runs are terrific. Settle in, open a magazine, think of what traffic would be like on the Expressway or Northern State. Then, off we go. Horn blows. Tickets, please.

I’ve loved trains forever — which is approximately how long it’s been since, in pajamas and striped engineer’s cap, I sat at the controls and dispatched a black Lionel locomotive and string of passenger cars around the Christmas tree in our little Brooklyn apartment.

“Not too fast,” said my father, offering advice for a lifetime without either of us realizing it. “Careful on the curves.”

There were the subways, of course — Mom and I on the Fourth Avenue Local heading downtown for shopping at A&S — and a little later, the Jersey Central to Plainfield where, to the amazement of all, my grandparents somehow managed to afford a house.

On those trips, Mom would buy me candied nuts, crunchy and red, in a wax paper bag folded at the top like origami to make sure nothing spilled out.

I sat at the window, trying to stretch each sugary bite, and while it was only nearby New Jersey slipping by, I couldn’t have been more dazzled if we were negotiating the Sierra Nevadas. “Plainfield,” called the conductor. “Plainfield, next.”

In college, I took a serious train trip — Chicago to Denver.

This was the idea of Roger, my roommate at the University of Denver. How I, a lost soul from Brooklyn with a night high school degree, ended up at D.U. is a long story having to do mostly with dreamy notions of the Far West and a merciful admissions office, but we do not have time.

One bitter January day, I flew from New York to Chicago to meet Roger, an adventurous Midwestern fellow who rarely did things the easy way.

“Forget the plane,” he said. “We’re riding the rails.”

So we bought seats on the stainless-steel Denver Zephyr — no longer in business — and headed west from Union Station, through the suburbs and into the flat heartland of Illinois: darkened barns, lamplight in some distant farmhouse window, America, all around.

Sometime after 1 a.m. we reached Omaha. In the biting cold, great plumes of steam arose from below the cars, or at least that is how I remember it. Doors opened and passengers stepped off, half asleep, overcoats pulled tight, stories untold.

Until college, I hadn’t been much anywhere — Jersey, Long Island, Times Square. I got off the train for a moment, just to set foot in the place. My breath looked stiff as the wash Mom pinned to our clothesline even on freezing days. I was in Omaha. Unbelievable.

Around dawn, we crossed from Nebraska into Colorado — tractors, cattle fencing, dim horizon — and reached Denver before nine. The Rockies were snow-capped and pale blue behind the city skyline. “Some trip, huh?” said Roger in his confident way. “Fabulous,” I said. “No kidding.”

Many years later, Wink, my wife, and I took Amtrak to Montreal. It’s a grand ride, up the Hudson and into Vermont, and, soon enough, the Canadian border — immigration agents solemnly checking papers — and, all of a sudden, bienvenue, you’re in another country.

Every so often, we talk about saving up and going across the country by rail, national parks and all that, and, if luck allows, maybe we will. Until then, though, it’s the good, old LIRR, our Saturday evening Orient Express.

And, hey, you know what?

In the city, you can still buy those sugarcoated nuts, wax paper bags folded tight. Once in a while, I stop and tell the street vendor, peanuts, please, and spill a few into my hand. I eat every splendid morsel and remember the Jersey Central and those boyhood trips to Plainfield.

Hurry up, Mom, I catch myself thinking. Train time.

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