In fall 1974 I was living in small town Conneaut, Ohio, as a newlywed. Doyle McCormack and I had married on August 28, 1971.
I was a third-year college student majoring in elementary education when a phone call came to our house requesting that Doyle take on rebuilding the SP 4449 for the bicentennial American Freedom Train.
After much discussion, we agreed we couldn’t turn this down. Doyle wanted me to accompany him on the journey. Since I was in the middle of a semester, I could not leave with him. He departed the week before Thanksgiving for Portland and the restoration work without me.
My first glimpse of this great country was our deadhead move to Chicago to join the American Freedom Train. On June 20, 1975, my 24th birthday, I began my adventure of a lifetime.
For someone who had never left Ohio, joining the AFT was overwhelming, but I hopped onboard and became part of the staff. I started in public relations assisting with VIP functions in each city. I became indebted and fond of the crew, who soon started calling me Mom.
For those of you that are recent friends, I was an introvert at that time in my life. I know, hard to believe—right? If in doubt, ask Ed and Rachel Immel to tell stories of my dismay as I slept on a caboose mat in the Hoyt Street roundhouse, once I’d arrived in Portland. I was too fearful to venture out by myself.
I was fortunate to have my father-in-law onboard, and our St. Bernard, Samantha, travelled with us for a big part of the journey. That meant I had a slice of home with me at all times.
We ate, slept and breathed the American Freedom Train. We saw crowds line up trackside in sleepy farm towns in the middle of the night to watch the train roll through town, showing their support of our country.
On movement nights, a few staff worked and slept on board the train.
Upon arrival at each city, the AFT committee would provide “housing.” We had some unique experiences, from first-class hotels to college dormitories. College dorms were strange since they allowed no co-ed living in those days; it was always a dilemma of what to do with the married couple.
Most of the folks that were married didn’t have their partners with them on the train. We were the only couple that stayed the entirety of the journey and didn’t divorce.
By the winter of 1976, I decided I was tired of late-night moves and waiting for hotel vans. In Wichita Falls we purchased my first brand new car, and I became a designated driver.
The 4449 had to come off the train for another portion of the journey in the summer of 1976 due to track limitations. I went home and enjoyed Lake Erie for the summer, while Doyle spent his time at headquarters in Baileys Crossroads. The fun part was deadheading 4449 to Birmingham for summer storage.
For the last portion of the journey I rejoined and helped with ticket sales while remaining the designated driver.
We ended this epic journey on New Year’s Eve 1976 in Miami. My AFT family said adieu with lots of laughter and tears. The milepost from this event is currently included in the AFT display at Oregon Rail Heritage Museum.
However, the McCormack portion of the journey was not done yet. We needed to return the 4449 to the City of Portland, since she was on loan to American Freedom Train Foundation. The return trip was via Amtrak with guests and was another fun adventure.
I’ve had the chance to visit all 48 contiguous states and have since checked Hawaii and Alaska (and some US territories) off my bucket list. America the Beautiful remains my favorite place to be in the world.
Side Note: for several years the AFT family kept in touch via phone or USPS, since the electronic age wasn’t even on the radar. We now have an AFT reunion every two years and alternate back and forth from east to west coast. Unfortunately, COVID has put this year’s reunion on the shop track.
Looking back, it is clear that the friendship bonds, experiences and memories I gained on this journey changed my life.
In 1978, we agreed that we loved Portland and wanted to continue with the 4449. So here we are today with many additional miles on both of us and on the most beautiful locomotive in the world!