Once Upon A Time......


Never thought I'd be a blogger...but have been persuaded to give it a go.

When reflecting on a blog title, the first thing that popped into my mind was something to do with the Blue Mountain Express. No, it's not a quick-effect premium Jamaican coffee. It is a place and time from another world that shaped how I see the world and people and life.

World War II was won by the summer of 1945 and by fall the Foths--Oliver, Gwendolyn, Louanne, and Dick (that's me)—sailed out of New York harbor on the M.S. Gripsholm (a Swedish liner on its last troop-ferrying activity) for Alexandria, Egypt. From there, we embarked for India and the most formative four years of my life. I was three and a half.

We ultimately settled in the scorching plains of far South India in the city of Madurai, a bustling city of 500,000 then and millions now. Schools for Europeans were many miles to the northwest in the Nilgiri Hills (the Blue Mountains). To be more precise, about 180 miles. It was there that Louanne and I went, she first and then both of us. Coonoor was one of several beautiful and cool "hill stations" created after 1799 when the area was acquired by the East India Company in a treaty. It was—and is—the home of Hebron School.

Hebron was British and female to the core. So, my education began in an English girls boarding school, which—true to such traditions—accepted little boys until they reached 10. At that point, they were shipped out to Breeks, a boys school in Ooticumund, the "queen of the hill stations," 20 kilometers further up the mountain. Hebron was my home from 1947 through 1949, except for a three month vacation each year with my family in the plains during the cooler season.

That education was an experience unto itself. But that is for another time.

The part that thrilled my little boy heart was how we got to the school. We went by train. A narrow-gauge, cog railway steam train. Engines made in Switzerland with open-windowed wooden railway carriages, it still runs at this writing. Mandated by the Indian government as a historic railway. It is, literally, the little train that could.

They called it The Blue Mountain Express.

The rail trip from Mettapalayum to Coonoor is 29 kilometers (about 19 miles). The train climbs to about 6,000 feet in that distance. But, since the average speed is a bit over six miles per hour, it’s a three-hour trip! The gradients are steep, switchbacks many. You cross scores of deep gorges and the views are breathtaking.

My dad wrote on January 16, 1947:

"I had promised Dickie a ride in the front coach. The mountains are very steep, so the engine pushes the train up instead of pulling it....you can get a wonderful view of all the scenery as you come up. Dickie was quite thrilled by it, and it was a lovely sight. It was a clear sunshiney day and everything sparkled. There were lots of wildflowers out; wild canna lilies and morning glories, and the orange lantana are at their best now... there was a scarlet flower, about the size of a small morning glory, that trailed all over everything. The numberless waterfalls are very pretty right now, and many of them come down like ribbons dropping down hundreds of feet over the rock cliffs.
 At the start of the journey on the plain, there are rice fields, sugar cane patches, banana groves (with bananas growing so close together that a person can scarcely squeeze between them). As you begin to ascend the mountains, you notice the huge growths of bamboo. Each one grows to a great height and thickness. Farther up at about 2,000 ft. there are coffee plantations everywhere, and then at about 4,500 ft. the tea plantations begin."

I don’t know about Hebron School, but the Blue Mountain Express (the slowest train in India!) captured my heart. Open rectangular windows...heads in, so as not to catch a cinder in the eye.

What a ride! Gaggles of people in multi-colored saris and turbans; vendors hawking wares on train station platforms; the smell of curry and engine smoke. Bands of monkeys roaming the platforms where the train stopped for water to replenish engine boilers!

This is the train that put the wind in window. The higher it chugged the cooler the air and the cooler the views. It was just the coolest thing. And, still is.

The Blue Mountain Express remains for me to this day a metaphor for adventure and learning. And, when I close my eyes to remember, it fires every sense.

We hope this place and these blogs will help do that for you. 

All abooaard!