She was a Harvey Girl at heart

I haven’t written in weeks. It’s the longest period of my professional career that I’ve gone without writing. That isn’t a complaint, just an observation. But in its place, and until I get myself going again here, I’ve had fun with some old stories from my personal archives. This story was originally published in January 1992 when I wrote a weekly people column for The Sun in San Bernardino. It’s one of my favorites.

Mike Gordon’s People: Woman tracks the early days

SAN BERNARDINO – Flo Strano stood at the edge of the steel rails and hoped for a ride back in time.

Strano didn’t have a ticket. Just a prayer.

She wore the white dress of her youth. Ankle length with black stockings and black shoes. A black bow on her chest, a white headband around her white hair.

She wasn’t 16 anymore, and this wasn’t Barstow. She was 88, a great, great, great grandmother from San Bernardino.

But she was still a Harvey Girl at heart.

“I’m the oldest one alive,” she said. “I started in July 1919.”

Friday, at the San Bernardino depot, Strano was a living piece of history waiting for another living piece of history.

Somewhere down the line was Santa Fe Engine 3751, a restored steam locomotive on a special excursion to Bakersfield via Barstow.

Strano wanted to catch a ride on a four-day trip that will bring the engine back to San Bernardino at about 11 a.m. today.

Even though she didn’t have the $1,100 for a ticket, organizers told Strano that she could board the train. But no one sent her a ticket.

She waited at the depot, suitcase in hand and $75 in her pocket.

She’d dance for meals if she had to. She just had to get on that train.

“Because it’s history,” she said, tapping her toe. “I feel like I’m an antique. And I feel like I’m representing Fred Harvey himself.”

From the 1880s through the 1930s, Harvey House restaurants flourished along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

Weary travelers were greeted by the Harvey Girls, who served hot meals, sandwiches and coffee in San Bernardino, Needles, Bagdad and Barstow.

It was a wild west adventure at $40 a month, room and board included.

“No cursing,” she said. “No drinking. Well, it was dry back then anyway. We had to be in our room by 9 p.m. — 11 p.m. on dance nights.”

Strano pulled a photo from her purse — a snapshot of a dark-haired girl, four days by train from Leavenworth, Kan., in a town she’d never heard of before.

She met her first husband in Barstow.

“A fry cook, wouldn’t you know,” she said

He played an ukulele but didn’t know how to sing.

“We used to go out in the desert and light bonfires and sing songs,” she said. “That’s how we entertained ourselves.”

As the depot crowd swelled, the old-timers spotted Strano first.

Some stared as if she were a ghost. Many took her picture.

Strano was their ticket to days gone by, to memories worth remembering.

“I was a hard-working gal then,” she said. “I hope they let me on that train.”

Then a whistle blew in the distance, and the rails began to hum under tons of history.

Engine 3751 had arrived, a hulking, steam-spewing memory come to life.

Now it was Strano’s turn to see a ghost.

She smiled anyway and clutched the elbow of crewmember Jeff Johannsen, who vowed he would get her on that train. And he did.

He took her to the door of a Pennsylvania Steamliner, helped her up the steps.

Strano had had a ticket all along. Her dress. Her Harvey Girl smile. Her memories.

She waved goodbye and for one brief moment, it seemed that Strano had stepped into a faded black-and-white photograph.

Into history.


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