When my grandfather received this coat, it was too big for him. He was used to getting clothes that didn’t fit. When you’re poor, you never get clothes in the right size. At the end of the 1940s he was thirteen years old, the same age I am now. The coat was bare except for his name embroidered on the collar. The label inside says, “Carters. Watch-the-Wear. Union Made.” He was about to travel from Hartford, Connecticut, on a train trip (which he won in a writing contest) across the United States and Canada. The train conductors would be his guardians. He would eat, sleep, and live on trains. He saw the entire country, and for each train line he rode, he collected patches. He gathered them from the Shawmut Line in Massachusetts, the Lackawanna Railway in New York, the East Coast Railway in Florida, the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest Railway, and countless routes in between. He saw every part of this country as well as some of Canada. He sewed a patch from each train line onto his coat. He watched out the window, witnessed sights he had never imagined, including the mirror-like lakes of the Canadian Rockies, the vastness of the midwestern plains, and the never ending rows of crops state after state. He filled his days and took in the sights, read books, and talked to strangers. There wasn’t the internet to look up what he was going to see; every day was new.
The coat was covered in patches by the time he returned home. Each patch was an artifact, which told the story of its place and its time. The coat itself tells the story of my grandfather and the patches tell the story of the American train lines. Some of the train lines still exist, some have been renamed or merged, some are gone. Each patch represents a conductor proud of his route when train travel was more common in our country. This artifact is a reminder of a different time when it was okay to send a thirteen-year-old across the country alone. Trains connect every part of this country. I am wearing my grandfather’s coat, looking at train tracks near my house. When I look down the train tracks, I think of him, his journey, and how he discovered his country through travel. “People are a lot like the train lines,” he said to my mom. They may look different on the outside, but they are all connected. This artifact connects me to my grandfather, a man I never had the opportunity to meet. When I wear his coat, I imagine how he felt on his trip: nervous, excited, and proud. His coat reminds my family about the value of making the most of what we are given, and of saying yes to opportunities when they are offered, no matter how scary they seem because you never know what you might see, learn, or get to do.