20th Century Limited (1902-1967)

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called America, there were big machines called railroad trains. One of the most famous train lines was owned by the NY Central Railroad and operated between New York City and Chicago from 1902 and 1967. It was named the Twentieth Century Limited. If you’ve never heard of this train, you can get a close-up look at one in Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, North By Northwest, where it was used for one of the most iconic and sexy final movie scenes ever made.

Sadly, the subtlety of that scene would be totally lost today on a generation raised on X-Men movies.

So what does the Twentieth Century Limited railroad train have to do with anything in the year 2015? What relevance could an archaic, outmoded form of transportation have for this super modern, hi-tech, twenty-first century world of iPhones, supersonic jetliners, Mars landings and flybys of Pluto. Pluto? Seriously? Yes, Pluto the planet, not Mickey Mouse’s dog.

That is certainly a long way from an overnight train ride between New York and Chicago, but here’s the link: many of us grew up when that train was still running. In a metaphoric kind of way we are still riding on it, though the name might more appropriately be called the Twentieth Century EXPRESS. I don’t know about you, but somehow I managed to lose track of about fifty years on that train ride from there to here.

What once seemed like a long and tedious journey now seems like it passed by in a flash. I sort of remember looking out the window and seeing a few things along the way, but mostly it’s all a blur. Of course it’s been said that if you can remember the 1960s or 1970s you probably weren’t really there.

So who today cares about a bunch of aging old baby boomers, cranky and creaky, most of whom now consider their “drugs of choice” to be Flomax or Premarin? The actual answer is “nobody.” However, I still identify with Bill Mauldin’s WWII cartoon character Willy, who in one frame exclaimed, “This is the most important foxhole in the war…I’M in it!”

In my previous decade I wrote a book, For Boomers Only, in which I tried to express some of the difficulties for baby boomers in dealing with the new millennium. Over a half decade later it’s a lot harder to find any humor in today’s divided, acerbic world, but there are still observations and stories to tell about how we got from the mid-twentieth century to now.

Please join me aboard the Twentieth Century Express…the time is 19-something, and the world looks like an old black and white movie. The train is sitting regally on its exclusive track at Grand Central Station, truly the king of the rails. A pervasive humming sound comes from the big diesel engine and fills the air with anticipation, as passengers on the platform say their good-byes and search urgently for their assigned cars.

…to be continued.