Archives for posts with tag: trains

licensed sue smith
by Rachel Hawk

In August 1965, my friend Barbara and I drove out of Ohio and headed to San Francisco. Unlike our friends, we weren’t ready to get married, buy houses, and have kids. And thought we might never be. We had other dreams and imagined livelier, more varied lives in a beautiful city by the ocean. Because we were nurses, finding work would be easy. Zigzagging across the country, we stopped whenever something caught our fancy. The Golden Spike National Historic Site did just that.

In 1869, two teams of men completed the building of this country’s first transcontinental railroad, laboring toward each other from Iowa and California. For 1,912 miles they  burrowed tunnels, built bridges, and laid down track. It was a massive, arduous, dangerous undertaking. Finally, on May 10th at Promontory Point, Utah Territory, the men hammered a commemorative gold spike into the last, connecting rail, joining east to west. Surrounded by tents, saloons, and boarding houses, the crowd of dignitaries, railroad workers and owners brandished their whiskey bottles, posed for pictures, and cheered. The dangers of crossing multiple raging rivers, deserts, and mountain ranges in horse-drawn wagons had been conquered, making it possible for thousands to travel safely. It had been considered an impossible dream.

When Barbara and I visited, everything — trains, buildings, even the tracks themselves — were gone. As true of many landmarks, there was only a descriptive sign; nothing remained but the story. It was enough. Standing in the wind of that vast beautiful high-desert plain, the excitement of a great endeavor caught us. This was a monument not only to hard work and accomplishment, but also to dreams — and we had our own.

PHOTOGRAPH: National Park Service sign for the Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah, by Sue Smith, used by permission.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Between 1863 and 1869, as many as 20,000 Chinese workers helped build the treacherous western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad that began in Sacramento, California. When not enough white men signed up, the railroad began hiring Chinese men for the backbreaking labor. Chinese workers blasted tunnels through mountains, cut through dense forests, filled deep ravines, constructed long trestles, and built enormous retaining walls. Chinese workers were paid 30-50% less than their white counterparts and were given the most dangerous work. As they approached the meeting point with the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, thousands of Chinese workers laid down 10 miles of track in less than 24 hours. Progress came at great cost: Chinese civic organizations retrieved an estimated 1,200 bodies along the route and sent them to China for burial. The transcontinental railroad’s completion allowed travelers to journey across the country in a week — a trip that had previously taken more than a month. Politicians pointed to the country’s great achievement, failing to mention the foreign-born workers who had made it possible.

Source: “Remember the Chinese immigrants who built America’s first transcontinental railroad” by Gordon H. Chang, professor of history, Stanford University, Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2019.

PHOTO: Chinese workers toil in a treacherous stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, late 1860s. (Source: National Park Service.)

PHOTO: Ceremony on May 10, 1969 for installing the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, representing the completion of the First U.S. Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). They are surrounded by men who built the railway — but Chinese workers are noticeably absent. Many of the laborers who worked their way west on the Union Pacific Railroad were Irish immigrants — about 3,000 in all, many of whom were veterans of the Union Army in the Civil War. They, too, faced dangerous working conditions and hardships. Photo: Andrew J. Russell, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, used by permission.)

PHOTO: In 2014, on the 145th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad’s completion at Promontory Summit, Utah, a group of Asian-Americans, including descendants of Chinese railroad workers, recreate the iconic photo taken without their ancestors in 1869. Photo (c) Corky Lee, All Rights Reserved. 

PHOTO: Plaque at Promontory Summit, Utah, placed in 1969 to commemorate the centennial of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad and to honor “the Chinese workers of the Central Pacific Railroad whose indomitable courage made it possible.”

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Today, at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, visitors can see full-sized exact replicas of the original (and colorful!) Victorian-era locomotives. According to the National Park Service website, the site now features a visitors’ center as well as driving tours, hiking trails, and re-enactments of driving the Last Spike.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Hawk facilitates a weekly writers’ forum. Her personal essays explore both the interior world of the narrator and the nuances within relationships. Her current work utilizes elements of memoir in narrative form.

by Neil Creighton

The Indian Pacific from Perth
has arrived on Platform 2.

We poured from the train.
The platform surged with people.
Baggage handlers scurried around.
Grey day. Spiteful rain. Cold wind.

Better check on your dog, son.

Sammy was in a dog-cage in the baggage car.
He was eight. I was sixteen.
His puppy self had lain in my arms.
Together we paddled the glittering lake,
he in the front, alert, mouth open, excited.
He loped alongside my bicycle.
He bounded comically through high grass.
He lay at my feet in the evening.
He was my brother and my friend.

There’s a dog loose on the tracks.

I barely heard that announcement
as I wandered down to the baggage car.
I’d checked on him on each stop.
Now I’d take him to our new home.

I’ve come for my dog.

Jeez, mate, sorry, he’s gone,
We tried to get him out of his cage.
He held back and slipped his collar
and he bolted.

I ran through the crowd, searching the tracks,
calling and whistling again and again.
No dog loped up happily to lick my hand.

Finally I stopped.
He was gone,
3,400 kilometres from his home,
running in a strange city
full of noise and trams and cars and trains,
increasingly desperate, hungry, alone.

The day was cloudy, cold and wet.
I reached for my sunglasses
To hide my grief, though tears flowed freely.

Sammy, my dear friend,
don’t run too far.
Find someone to take you in.
Let them love you like I do.

In a sad huddle, my family waited.
I walked past them towards the platform steps.
They seemed so very far away.

IMAGE: “Boy with a Dog” by Pablo Picasso (1905).

Creighton for Sammy

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I have always loved dogs, and although my father was in the Royal Australian Air Force and we led a gypsy life, criss-crossing the Australian continent, my dog always came with us. My poem recounts what happened when we travelled from Perth to Melbourne one cold, wet day.

AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: My dogs, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Eliza Bennet (Darcy and Lizzie).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Neil Creighton is an Australian poet whose work as a teacher of English and Drama brought him into close contact with thousands of young lives, most happy and triumphant but too many tragically filled with neglect. It made him intensely aware of how opportunity is so unequally proportioned and his work often reflects strong interest in social justice. His recent publications include Poetry Quarterly, Autumn Sky Daily, Praxis mag online,  Rat’s Ass Review, and Verse-Virtual, where he is a contributing editor. He blogs at

Adele Kenny, Age 9
The Trains
by Adele Kenny

We felt them first. Fingers pressed to the rails,
     a dull rumble filled our hands and hummed into
our arms before the cone of light, the great clatter

of metal against metal. Trestled high, above the
     bridge on Grand Avenue, we knew those tracks
went on forever, between trees that lined the ties

like stations of the cross. The hill was forbidden but
     holy, thick with clover, ripe with berries in spring.
The year I was nine, an April blizzard swept the

sky and we went to the trains in the dark. The wires
     strummed into sparks, the rails were a dazzle of
shadows. Our faces – ghosts of our selves – reflected

in every train car window, lines of breath etched in
     passing glass. Above us, chimney smoke hung like
smears of candle grease among the clouds.

We were grubby and poor, but we believed. We said
     our prayers, ate fish on Fridays, and never rode
those trains. We could only kneel in something like

wonder, something like praise, and wait for the
     tracks’ reverent shudder. The memory is a gauze
engine that time blows through and keeps me small.

SOURCE: Previously Published in What Matters (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2011).

PHOTOGRAPH: Adele Kenny, age nine,  Rahway, New Jersey (Photo by William Kenny). In the poem, the author mentions the April she was nine—that’s the same April this picture was taken.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Virginia Woolf called childhood “a great cathedral space.” “The Trains” is a poem about a “cathedral time” that continues to inform my present.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adele Kenny’s poems, reviews, and articles have been published in journals worldwide, and her poems have appeared in books and anthologies published by Crown, Tuttle, Shambhala, and McGraw-Hill. She is the recipient of various awards, including two poetry fellowships from the New Jersey State Arts Council and Kean University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. A former creative writing professor, she is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and poetry editor of Tiferet Journal. She has read in the US, England, Ireland, and France, and has twice been a featured reader at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Visit her at and

I am Seven on the Train from One World to Another
                                                                                          — 1961
by Gabrielle Daniels

I could not sit still long in coach
—the cheapest seats—after I had
read and reread the few books brought
for a moment’s preoccupation
I wanted to go up and down the aisle
on any pretext,
searching for any other kids
searching for where the brakemen went
finding the cafe or even the bar
close enough to just look
Only to the bathroom where
I could not really rest. Or play,
because Mamma always
brought me fro and to our seats
under the eyes of the conductor
if I strayed too long and too far
even the picture windows
with clacking scenes
of Texas and Arizona
could not restrain me
no matter how many rows of cropland sped by
no matter how slowly we crept by
the occasional train that had jumped its track
spilling its guts from every wrecked freight car
eliciting oohs and ahhs
even from the grownups

It seemed other travelers boarded and disembarked
except for us, but we were not alone
Like them, we were on a longer journey,
from what had been home
and it could have been to the moon
I cannot recall the stops where
Mr. Robinson helped me down,
not the conductor,
with his strong, older arms
and his gray-flecked mustache
his kind teeth edged with gold
like an invitation
from the high steps of the carriage
and we stretched our legs, drank hot sodas,
ignored the drinking fountain,
ate chocolate bars, and waited
for what? Another set of passenger cars,
or another locomotive running in daylight
or with a bloody nose, I didn’t know
I was too young to know
these things yet, except that
we were on our way
even standing still.

Behind us,
swallowed up by hours and miles,
there was always color
Color in the divided want ads
and in the neighborhoods.
Color on the placard in the shop windows.
Until I dreamed in color:
I lathered my face in white suds
and paid the cashier
so that I could see The Three Stooges
with Snow White
the sound of the projector clack drowned
by the overture
and as the white foam melted
revealing my brown face
by the light of the screen
someone towered over me
asking for my ticket, and I awoke
No matter that
my mother’s silver did not bend
and red faces on Canal Street
yelling over Ruby were reduced to black
and white footage on Huntley and Brinkley.

For days, my grandfather kept the watch,
waiting for us to come home, no matter
how many times my grandmother reminded him
that we had gone. For him, his ribs—his daughter
and granddaughter—had gone missing.
Between three and five, he knew,
Mr. Tejeau ferried me and Meemsy and
and Kitty Kat from upstairs
home from Catholic school, and then Mamma
from the Freret Street bus, reception for a Jewish doctor,
learning to type faster and faster—clack, clack.
It was too much for him
to go to the station,
only my grandmother was there to send us off,
perhaps this is why he could not believe it,
could not trust her word.
I see her full figure under her hat not looking
in the window to see me wave
for the last time, pigtailed and barretted,
four-eyed with the new glasses my stepfather said
I needed to see clearly at a distance,
not pretty any more.
I see her not looking,
but going straight ahead
like the rails but behind
through the waiting room and
into the street where
I could not see

And I became like prattle,
daring a whipping under
my mother’s narrowed eyes
her good dress wrinkling by the second
when nothing else filled the hours
not even coloring books or napping
I was singing my song with no melody
to the clack; it did not relieve the heat
but added to the boredom
and the sleepiness and the stiffness
We had air conditioning
that came and went like the sandwich vendors
and the news “boys” that sold comic books
like Peanuts and Dennis the Menace
and ham and cheese and potato chips
but they could not silence me for long

I was going to California
where Disneyland was only a block away
from San Francisco
where everything, everywhere was new
And I wanted bacon and eggs and toast
in the dining car
like Mamma and Mr. Robinson
because corn flakes and Tang were the food
of another time, sitting on a drawer
with a torn phonebook on top
to come up to the kitchen table
In the dining car, the vinyl cushions
made me grown on this journey
I could reach for the salt and pepper
I could touch the napkins
I could eat with more than a spoon

And when we finally reached gold,
the houses tilted close together
on what I learned were forty-four hills
I thought they would smash into each other
like dominoes when the Big One finally hit
but they held on like my mother’s tightening hand
in mine, surrounded by all those Robinsons
my stepfather’s uncles and aunts and cousins
who had come and stayed because of the War
and had made something of themselves
in The Fillmore
and had fetched us up
with their smiles and in their good clothes
and the occasional Cadillac

Then I was shy, all words
full inside me, like Stephen
small and fluttery in Mamma’s womb,
because there were so many smiles
to meet and so many wet kisses to get
from people I didn’t know yet
and when we drove through Yerba Buena
there was sky at the end of the tunnel,
and The City spread before us, glorious at first sight
shimmering in late summer afternoon
brighter than the blue bay water kissed
by suicides, but when I turned
on my knees to see
where Treasure Island might be,
there were no pirates or evidence
of three-masted galleys but lanes
of cars behind us, people
riding in the same direction

I was introduced to Aunt Eva’s clawfoot tub
that night in the house on Broderick Street
and given a towel and a washcloth
and lots of time to explore what was new,
while all the grownups in the living room
smoked and talked and called out for more ice
clicking in their drinks before dinner and
I closed the door;
the mysteries of her medicine cabinet
and pink vanity chair with thin, gold metal scrolls
could wait one more day
Instead, there was Mr. Robinson’s manly treasures
in his crocodile travel case sitting on top of the toilet
–Old Spice, a can of Duke, and some
Colgate tooth powder, and brushes
and his watch and his safety razor by Gillette
that had currency everywhere

However, I couldn’t stop moving
still acclimated to the train’s rocking and
dips and jerks and starts, I could break
something in my admiration, and I wanted
no evidence of wrongdoing
so early with Aunt Eva
I couldn’t walk straight
for a day or so without
holding onto a wall,
I was clumsy in a house
that would not fall over,
roaming in one place
When my new Daddy arrived
and I was banished to the guest bedroom
that night, the world heaved and shuddered
laboring all night in the rain to crack open the earth,
and I dreamed of telephone receivers
that smoked blue mist when they rang
and no one was there for me to answer

Between dreaming and shaking
I would wake over and over
up and down the hall I would go to one door
and then another, from bedroom to
bedroom, but no one would wake
from my soft rapping
to comfort me amid the trembling,
and when I gave up
and crept back to that big empty bed
the blankets and sheets rippling like
troubled waves
the house still rolled like a passenger coach
but I was on my own with my own baggage
and nothing settled down until light,
a mournful, foggy day with no sun
and Mamma didn’t believe my story
until the evening news

That journey was ahead of me,
but all Mamma talked of the trip
it seemed, after taking off her high heels
was how I crushed her sunglasses
that slid over after much shifting
and dropped into my seat. Years later,
I think it wasn’t about being
pretty, but scared
that she wasn’t ready to face
that bright Sunday afternoon
and the glasses would have allowed her
to hide in the way that I could not with mine
because the moment had finally come
and she was compelled to see
everything that we came and hoped for
and everything we would miss

                              — March 11, 2015

© Gabrielle Daniels

PHOTOGRAPH: The author with her friends in the fall of 1959, New Orleans, Louisiana.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem is only the second I’ve written in several decades, and about the singular event of my childhood. One could call it an escape: a seven-year-old African American girl and her mother, lately remarried, traveling for three days and two nights on a train, the Sunset Limited, which had already brought thousands of Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi blacks to California since the early 1940s. For me, the relocation was about embracing the new, the different (like comic books), and saying goodbye to the old life.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gabrielle Daniels was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gabrielle began as a poet before switching to fiction writing. Her poetry was featured in This Bridge Called My Back, a classic anthology by feminists of color, which is now in its fourth edition. Gabrielle is a 1999 graduate of the University of California, Irvine’s Creative Writing Workshop. She has been a resident at Yaddo, and her work has appeared in magazines like Sable and The Kenyon Review. Gabrielle was a recipient of a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant in 2004. She was the 2005-2006 Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, University of Wisconsin. She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin, but wants to go home to the Bay Area.

Sleeping by the Tracks
     Carpinteria, California
by Tamara Madison

The sea casts its song
To the eucalyptus
Tree shadows move
In the night window
A frog chorus sings
In the rank river mouth

The train rushes through
Like a tidal wave
Throws its warning blare
Before the shudder cleaves
The campers’ sleep
And night flows back in

The voices of the surf
Echo again in the trees
We lay ourselves
Before all greater forces
And step onto the raft of sleep.

PHOTOGRAPH: “Train Tracks” (Carpinteria, California) by Kyle Hanson. Prints available at


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tamara Madison teaches English and French at a public high school in Los Angeles. Raised on a citrus farm in the California desert, Tamara’s life has taken her many places, including Europe and the former Soviet Union, where she spent fifteen months in the 1970s. A swimmer and dog lover, Tamara says, “All I ever wanted to do with my life was write, and I mostly write poetry because it suits my lifestyle. I like the way one can say so much in the economical space of a poem.”

When Trains Ran On Time
by Martin Willitts, Jr.

I rode a bike five miles on the edge of a road
between asphalt and ditch like a tightrope walker
just to see the trains switch.
Pass goldenrod, Johnny-jump-ups, and milkweed.
Among insect whir and truck whoosh vibrating me.

Isolation was my life; a train track narrowing
towards the horizon, the crossing bar lowering
while boxcars and cattle cars vanished.
I could see the man in the switch tower, watching.
Tracks would merge, converge, split
to destinations only a young mind could imagine.
If I timed it right, I could see the passenger trains
and faces blurring by, some waving at me.

The coal cars no longer come here. No cords of logs
like telephone poles. No cars on two tiers. No caboose
with a man waving a red lantern. They are gone.
My father called it, the romance of the rails.
Telling me about hobos riding on top the cattle cars,
being tossed off by enforcers, how the hobos would fall
like split cabbages. Telling me, hobos were escaping
to somewhere and did not care where they ended up.
Some lived for it. How Woody Guthrie learned music
riding the rails, listening to poverty like freight trains,
putting the simplest words to express the sadness and hope.

The trains do not come by here anymore.
I do not look for them, given up long ago
of them returning anytime soon. I am too old and lazy
to ride bikes five miles. The switch tower was removed
as an eyesore. They started removing the rails.
What I knew is disappearing into the horizon.
Ghostly memories of coal-burning train engines,
Steam blackened skies like narrow thunderclouds.
How they had different whistles: one for warnings;
one for All-on-board; one for kids waving like me.

The station is gone: The wooden cart for baggage;
the large clock big as a train wheel; the side-switch;
the ticket booth with a telegraph message; the oak floor
whose slats shined from polishing; the destination board;
the scuffle of feet; the hard benches; the anticipation.
I am an old-timer reminiscing about “back then.”
But I cannot help it, when that is all I have left,
my mind still spinning like a bicycle wheel
with baseball cards held by clothespins on spokes
to replicate the clacking of train wheels on metal.
My greatest fear is someday my memory will depart
towards that unknown distance, like milkweed seed,
and I won’t know enough to wave at the kid outside,
his bicycle tilted, wondering where I am headed.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: As a child, I lived close to a switch yard in East Syracuse, New York, where they had multiple tracks, some converging, and a train depot. I am old enough to have seen both a coal burning train engine and a “modern” train engine. I still live relatively close to the same place. However, I would like to think that this could be any place that trains stopped.  It was like living near a large scale Lionel train set for children. Sometimes, we live in memory as a real address. Too often I find myself referring to “the way things used to be.” When we no longer remember, it is when we stop living anywhere.

IMAGE: “New York Central Freight Yards, East Syracuse, New York (1910).” (Onondaga County Public Library collection.)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Martin Willitts, Jr., has seven full-length collections including national ecological contest winner Searching for What Is Not There, and 28 chapbooks. His poem, “I Am Tired of Waiting” will appear in his forthcoming full-length collection, God Is Not Amused with What You Are Doing in Her Name (Aldrich Press). He won the one-time International Dylan Thomas Poetry Award for the centennial.

by Claude McKay

Far down, down through the city’s great gaunt gut
The gray train rushing bears the weary wind;
In the packed cars the fans the crowd’s breath cut,
Leaving the sick and heavy air behind.
And pale-cheeked children seek the upper door
To give their summer jackets to the breeze;
Their laugh is swallowed in the deafening roar
Of captive wind that moans for fields and seas;
Seas cooling warm where native schooners drift
Through sleepy waters, while gulls wheel and sweep,
Waiting for windy waves the keels to lift
Lightly among the islands of the deep;
Islands of lofy palm trees blooming white
That led their perfume to the tropic sea,
Where fields lie idle in the dew-drenched night,
And the Trades float above them fresh and free.

SOURCE:  “Subway Wind” appears in Claude McKay: Complete Poems (University of Illinois Press,  2008), available at

PAINTING: “Self Portrait at 14th Street Station” by Alfredo Arcia. Prints available at


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Festus Claudius “Claude” McKay (1889–1948) was a Jamaican-American writer and poet whose novels include Home to Harlem (1928), a bestseller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). McKay also authored collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously). His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance.

by David Orr

Not that anyone will care,
But as I was sitting there

On the 8:07
To New Haven,

I was struck by lightning.
The strangest thing

Wasn’t the flash of my hair
Catching on fire,

But the way people pretended
Nothing had happened.

For me, it was real enough.
But it seemed as if

The others saw this as nothing
But a way of happening,

A way to get from one place
To another place,

But not a place itself.
So, ignored, I burned to death.

Later, someone sat in my seat
And my ashes ruined his suit.

PAINTING: “Chair Car,” oil on canvas by Edward Hopper (1965).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Orr is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review. Winner of the Nona Balakian Prize from the National Book Critics Circle and the Editor’s Prize for Reviewing from Poetry magazine, his writing has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Believer, and Pleiades magazine. Orr holds a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He is the author of Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011), available at Visit him at

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

PAINTING: “Compartment C, Car 293,” oil on canvas by Edward Hopper (1938).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, the third woman to win the award for poetry. During her career, she was one of the most successful and respected poets in America. Like her contemporary Robert Frost, Millay was one of the most skillful writers of sonnets during the twentieth century — and also like Frost, she was able to combine modernist attitudes with traditional forms, creating a unique American poetry. Her middle name came from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, where she was born. Friends and family called her Vincent.

by Robert Bly

There has been a light snow.
Dark car tracks move in and out of the darkness.
I stare at the train window marked with soft dust.
I have awakened at Missoula, Montana, utterly happy. 

Illustration: Vintage postcard by Curt Teich & Co.