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Dinner in the Diner, Nothing Could Be Finer

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 08:50:00 AM

I posed for my high school Class of 1944 Yearbook picture without my glasses and wearing faux pearl beads my father had handed me— “Here, you can have this”—while clearing out Wife Number Two’s things. I had tweezed my eyebrows. I wouldn’t smile because my teeth were crooked. 

Veterans with G.I. Bill support were already flocking to higher education. In order to apply for grants-in-aid, nonveterans had to shell out for the first term until they demonstrated both need and ability. No Pell Grants or effortless loans in 1944. At least I had the smarts to know there were differences among colleges. I would have to compromise and consider small denominational colleges in the boonies. 

Tennessee’s oldest college was church-affiliated and sufficiently eager to have me come on down! that they provided a partial scholarship, sight unseen. A high school friend who was already enrolled doubtless vouched for my presumed Protestantism and whiteness. Little did they know . . . 

Once part of a pioneer village, four miles outside town, the college began as an elementary school and was chartered as a liberal arts college in 1794. College histories declare that before the Civil War, only men were acceptable as students. During the war, women were allowed to enroll, but it reverted to a men’s school after 1865. 

Student enrollment fell to its lowest in 1944. “A constant stream of boys left school for the armed forces … as did some girls, either to marry or to take up war tasks.”     

The president was also concerned about attracting and holding “the proper type of teacher to maintain our standards. When the drafting of 18 year olds was begun the prospects of the college remaining little more than a girls’ school for the duration became a reality.”   

I got a ride from the depot with a local gent who had picked me up on the train. Out in the countryside the little campus was in turmoil. Food, beds, plumbing and teachers were inadequate. More veterans than could be accommodated had been admitted. Most were there because they too couldn’t get into their first-choice colleges. We were referred to as “the outsiders” and “the no’then students.”  

Some of the G.I.s managed to get in before the food ran out. They claimed there was saltpeter in the pie crust. In his 1946 report, the college president lamented that “their frequent lack of academic ability or social restraint compounded the already difficult situation.” 

I saw no women veterans although they were well represented as both students and teachers at such institutions as Barnard College, where I ultimately matriculated. 

Food, plumbing, and randy males notwithstanding, when classes began, I quickly realized that I was wasting my time and energy if the point was to earn my college education. I had better clear out and not become further obligated. My roommate from New Jersey wept as I packed. She, too, left a few weeks later. The friend from high school wrote that two students had been found alone at night in a classroom “engaged in an immoral act.” 

I managed to get into town to the railroad depot, a one-story wood building on a dusty plot. I purchased a coach seat ticket and sat down to wait in the heat for the daily northbound train. The waiting room doors were propped open, presumably for cross ventilation. Two silent rednecks—men, not boys—loomed outside leaning on the door frame, leering and spitting tobacco cuds in a narrowing circle around me. It dawned on me that I had plopped myself and my luggage down in the Colored Waiting Room. It was very quiet, everyone else silently looking straight ahead.  

Outside, snarling scrawny doags lifted their legs on the cotton bales and other agricultural freight piled by the tracks ready for the incoming train. I hauled myself and my luggage out of the waiting room and over to a location by the tracks where it appeared the passenger cars would be stopping. I figured my best bet was out there in the dust with the doags under the noonday sun.  

A slight Caucasian male in a business suit sidled up and said something innocuous about waiting for the train “north.” I couldn’t be sure whether to welcome the presence of another human being, especially a man, or if this meant more trouble. His clothing and accent suggested that he, too, was from a-way. We stood there a long while. I probably said something about going home to New York after a disappointing experience at the local college, and it’s likely that I mentioned my mother. By the time the train pulled in I understood that he was on a routine business trip throughout the South—something to do with a company that manufactured cotton “linens.” I can’t be certain that he had witnessed my harassment by the gents of Tennessee. The Pullman car porter greeted him—they seemed to know each other. We said good-bye as he headed for the Pullman car and I in the opposite direction, to the coaches. 

The crowded, noisy, dirty coach was just as pictured in movies of wartime America. People sitting on luggage and standing in the aisles, women with wailing kids, enlisted men smoking and gambling. I was prepared to sit right there for the next 21 hours, glad to get a seat, and self-satisfied, having made my own way out of a sticky situation. Perhaps a half hour later, I noticed the Pullman car porter roaming the aisle. He stopped at my seat and with a straight face said that “the gentleman” had made “an arrangement” for me, which could have meant anything.   

The traveling salesman, as I thought of him, had influenced the conductor to discover an unoccupied upper berth, and the porter had been dispatched to collect me and my stuff. I didn’t hesitate to follow him through the other crowded, noisy dirty coaches into the Pullman car. 

My benefactor gave me his business card “for your mother” and invited me to dinner. Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer. It was an expensive glorious meal in a pre-War Dining Car—linen table cloths, big napkins, crystal, silverware, finger bowls with lemon slices, and marvelous food. Then, without a second thought, I crawled up into my wonderfully horizontal berth and went to sleep. Out like a light.   

When the porter woke New York-destination passengers, the gentleman was gone, and he was rapidly making up the berths vacated at Philadelphia. As he stripped one lower berth, he pulled out an empty whisky bottle and showed it to me with a sad expression. My mother wrote to the name and address on the business card in anticipation of two free bedspreads for twin beds, specifying pink or rose. 


Helen Rippier Wheeler is a Berkeley resident; she can be reached at