Waiting for the Evening Train

In the 1940s, a popular public speaker named Emily Kimbrough published a series of essays. In one moving piece, she witnessed the homecoming of young men from a Pennsylvania town who died in World War II.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Emily Kimbrough edited the Ladies Home Journal magazine in the late 1920s, wrote sparkling books and humorous essays for The New Yorker, charming and astute observations on various brief encounters she had, conversations, different mishaps. In the World War Two days, before television, Emily Kimbrough went on the lecture circuit for six to eight weeks twice a year. She spoke to women's groups mostly on topics like doing volunteer work, selecting professional jobs. Her audiences, in their hats and gloves, hung on, or tittered at her every word.

I stumbled on a collection of Emily Kimbrough's essays not long ago, and one, entitled The Evening Train, struck a chord. She had taken the train from New York to Harrisburg, then Sunbury, Pennsylvania, where she was met by the woman whose group was sponsoring her talk. They had to drive to Shamokin for the 8:15 p.m. lecture and they needed to go quickly, because, said her sponsor, It was particularly important for the lecture to start on time that night.

Miss Kimbrough didn't know why timing was so important. And on the winding drive distracted by her host's, quote, "tendency to emphasize her vigorous conversation by pressing down on the accelerator," Emily Kimbrough never asked why.

They arrived at the church where she was to speak. And again, she was told how pleased everybody was that she was on time. Miss Kimbrough gave her talk. Then the audience was urged to clear the room quickly.

I'll tell you now why we were so anxious about getting started on time, her sponsor said. I didn't want to say anything about it earlier for fear it might upset you. We had to be sure you'd get through before the evening train comes in, because they're brining back on it tonight the bodies of the boys from overseas. All the church bells in town are going to ring when the train comes in, and everyone has been asked to stand in silent prayer for three minutes.

Emily Kimbrough writes that the train was running late that night, as it has for the last few years. One woman said, quote, "You'll hear it whistle at the bridge. We always time our getting down to the station that way." And then they heard it.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

STAMBERG: Emily Kimbrough continues, It whistled twice, one short and one long and thin, but heavy in the air. Two or three of said simultaneously it sounds like rain. We smiled at one another with quick, mutual kinship because we had all, in whatever town we had grown up, heard that kind of train whistle in the night. A whistle that lay heavy in the air, and as children heard our elders say, That means rain.

We moved on, listening. A woman one step below me turned to her friend on her left and spoke so softly that I could not catch all the words. I can't seem to get Lon's boy out of my mind. Is he on this train? her friend asked, a little louder than the first, because she was startled. The first one nodded. He was always so crazy about trains; that evening train especially. He liked to see in the windows when it was lighted up. When he was little he was always after his mother and father to take him down to the station to see it come in. I guess they're down there tonight.

Everybody thought it would be better if they stayed home and waited, but I guess they're down there. The bells began to ring.

(Sound bite of church bells)

STAMBERG: That's the end of an essay called The Evening Train, written during World War Two by Emily Kimbrough, an author and lecturer of the day. The essay appears in the collection which I came upon recently in a friend's library, called It Gives Me Great Pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

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