Thursday, August 31, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the California Zephyr - Dispatch #4

The Lakeshore Limited arrived 2 hours late to Chicago (all that stopping in the middle of the night), but luckily my layover was long enough to not create a rush. I got my 43-pound checked bag back, as there is no checked baggage for the short trip to Mount Pleasant. This is something important to remember, as it means you have to wrangle your suitcase through the train station and onto the train. I spent my layover time wandering around Union Station and taking photos of the classic, historic architecture.
Much of it had recently been repaired after an unfortunate incident in 2016 when a train passenger was hit in the head by falling concrete that fractured her skull.
Depending on what train you are leaving on, waiting passengers are asked to sit on specified areas, i.e., A, B, C, D, etc. My train was in the C group, and 30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, we were called to line up, just like you do in the airport.  However, after lining up, we had to walk all the way across to the other side of the station — something I expected that mature people with tickets for guaranteed seats would do in an orderly fashion. This, unfortunately, did not happen. 
As we approached the platform area, people began walking faster and faster. Some people began passing others who were ahead of them in the line. Once our tickets were scanned and the line proceeded to the platform things became even more disorderly.
The train stretched out for quite some distance, and the conductors instructed that all coach passengers (which we all were, since sleepers and business class get boarded first) had to proceed waaaay down the platform. (Describing the platform is also important to the rest of the story.) The platform is concrete, with tracks on both sides. Huge concrete pillars run down the center of the platform. From each trackside edge to about halfway across to the pillars is a bright yellow, bumpy covering of some type, presumably to caution people from walking there. However, if you are going to your train with one very large suitcase, and one small suitcase, it is pretty impossible to stay on the smooth concrete. In addition, at this point, anything resembling an orderly line breaks down. People rush past on the left side, on the right side, around the columns. Some are running. If someone stops to ask a conductor a question it creates a bottleneck with people careening to a stop, or bolting past.  
I was ridiculously trying to maintain my place in line as the crowd just surged around me. One of the wheels of my big suitcase got caught in the yellow plating material; it fell over and pulled me and my other suitcase down with it.  I fell flat on my face — actually my elbow and knee  —and slid a little bit on that skin-ripping surface. Not a single person stopped to help me, and I pulled myself back onto my feet as quickly as I could, despite the pain, because I really thought I was going to be trampled. This was probably one of the most disappointing moments of my life. (I rarely pull rank, but damn, I AM 62 years old) No one even bothered to tell a conductor, hey, a lady fell down back there, I’m in too much of a hurry to help her, but maybe you should.
When I finally limped down to the coach car assigned to my destination, it was really empty. I just don’t know where all those people were rushing to, whether it was for window seats or some other preference. However, this train is double decker, with great views from a regular seat, and then the famous sightseeing car with glass walls and ceiling, swivel armchairs, and tables with seating.
After I climbed up the steps and took a seat — a window seat — I stopped a passing Amtrak employee, showed him my bloody knee and asked for both first aid materials and an incident report. An ice pack would be especially nice, I told him. He found some Band-Aids and some alcohol wipes (OUCHIE!) for me, and told me the conductor for my car would return shortly to assist me.
The conductor was a lovely woman, and she was very concerned, even offering to get me off the train for medical care. I assured her that I didn’t need that, but in light of the fact that things always hurt worse the next day, I really wanted some ice and a report form. She supplied me with both. I was surprised that the first aid materials were so sparse on the train. She had to bring me a plastic cup with ice in it, and eventually got me a plastic trash bag to put the ice in. It was a bit leaky, but the quick application of ice did provide pain relief and kept down the swelling. I put the footrest up at my seat, took some acetaminophen, cleaned out the abrasions, and tried to relax.  It was going to be a 5 hour trip to Mount Pleasant and I didn’t want to be a bloody, limping mess when I got off the train and greeted my family.
More in the next dispatch.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lakeshore Limited - Dispatch #3

Good morning Ohio! It was an interesting night aboard the Lake Shore Limited. I had a reservation for dinner at 8:15 and arrived at the dining car to find there were no seats available. Those of us who had reservations were asked to stand in the “vestibule” of the train to wait for seating. The “vestibule” is a fancy word for that no man’s land between train cars. Feeling uncomfortable and usafe, we decided to wait in the car immediately in front of the dining car instead. We heard someone say that the dining car closed at 9, and I said, half-jokingly “I hope we don’t stand here until 9 and then get told it’s closed.” This infuriated someone behind me in line so much that she went back into the dining car and complained enough that she was given immediate seating. That didn’t sit well with those of us left out in the vestibule who were ahead of her in the line.

Eventually I was seated, joining a dad and his son at a table where they were already eating. The fun discussion with young Nick about his trip to New York City was thoroughly delightful. We talked about the statue of Balto in Central Park, dinosaurs, animal rescue and dogs. It was the highlight of the evening.

I then returned to my seat to settle in for the night. I had purchased a comfort kit for $10, which included a blanket, blow up neck pillow, earplugs and an eye mask. I noticed that more experienced travelers had brought full size pillows and blankets with them. Good thing to remember next time around.

The seat has plenty of leg room, and there is a foot rest that comes up. Too bad there are not instructions at the seat to show you how to operate it. Eventually, I stopped fooling around with the stick-shift-looking knob and just pulled it up by hand.

The car was quiet, but for those who need complete dark to sleep, I highly recommend the eye mask, as the center row of light on the ceiling stay on. Bringing your own blanket is a good idea also, as the Amtrak blanket is way too small, and the car gets really chilly. I was glad to have an empty seat next to me so I could eventually curl up across the two seats. For some reason, my legs were just restless and I had a hard time getting comfortable. 

I apologize to my fellow passengers who were serenaded to “Baby Shark” at 7:15 am. I forgot to turn off my workday wake up alarm. I turned it off pretty quickly. A few minutes later, though, everyone forgot about my alarm when a the “Dining Car Open for Breakfast” announcement blasted over the PA system. Apparently there are only two settings on that system — earsplitting and unintelligible.

The train seemed to stop on the tracks several times during the night —and this morning we were crawling along at a snail’s pace for quite some time. We are finally zipping past foggy fields of corn and other crops as the sun tries to break through. I’ve got my coffee and a protein bar and the internet came up and allowed me to post my first two dispatches. 
Even with some of the glitches, this has been a fun experience. Good thing, because I have to do it again for my return trip.

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lake Shore Limited - Dispatch #2

It has been a pleasant ride so far, and I have been lucky to have the seat to myself so far. I’ve noticed that some passengers have filled the two seats with bags and things, and are stretched out across both seats. However, we are now stopped at Albany-Rensselaer where we will be picking up more train cars, and more passengers. The conductors have come down the aisle to tell people they have to move their bags off the seats, but I can see some who just didn’t listen.

What may become an issue is the bathroom situation. There are two bathrooms in this car, and to my surprise, they aren’t any better appointed than other short-distance train bathrooms. One is already showing signs of not flushing correctly, and the trash bin is overflowing onto the floor. I am wondering if there is any provision on the train for bathrooms to be cleaned, trash emptied, etc. The smell is pretty bad too, and I was feeling sorry for the passengers sitting directly in front of the bathrooms, but the air system seems sufficient to control that. Again, so far.

I thought that someone would offer passengers the comfort kit, which contains a blanket, a pillow, earplugs and eye mask for us overnighters, but now I see on the website that you have to buy that in the Lounge or Café car — neither of which is on this train. However, apparently, there will be a café car attached with the new cars, so I guess I will get that when we resume moving and it go back to the dining car for dinner.

Something I find disappointing is the so-called “wi-fi where available.” Although my phone and my laptop say they are connected to the Amtrak Wi-Fi, the screen never gets past, “Join Amtrak Network” and sometimes doesn’t even get that far. 

Right now, outside the left windows I can see a thin ribbon of pink along the horizon, telling me that the sun is setting. The outside temperature here in upstate New York is very fall like, and I took advantage during this stop to get outside the train and walk around a bit. This still beats being squished in an airplane or driving endless miles by myself. I’m getting hungry for dinner.

Taking the Train to Iowa - All Aboard the Lakeshore Limited - Dispatch #1

After taking the Northeast Regional train into Penn Station in New York City, from Metropark in Iselin, New Jersey, I was greeted at the Amtrak waiting area by smiling Amtrak employees giving out snicker doodle cookies. They asked where I was going, and whom I was going to see. When they heard I was going to Iowa to see family – specifically two grandchildren, they fixed me up with extra cookies. I promised to try my best not to eat them all on the way.

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for quite a while. I’ve missed my son, his wife and their two little girls terribly. They left New Jersey for Iowa almost three years ago, and I am still not used to it. I’m a mother who like her children close by, and that feeling is more intense now that I am a grandmother.

I’ve been to Iowa three times before, the first time to accompany my recently-knee-ligament-replaced son and his daughter via airplane to their new home, while his wife and mother in law drove the car from New Jersey to Iowa.  That trip was a whirlwind of helping with unpacking with an extra-special side trip to the future birthplace of James T. Kirk. We had just missed the annual Star Trek festivities by a week.

On the second trip, the Love of My Life (LOML) came along to meet the new baby girl, and last year I flew out solo for her first birthday. 
While there, I was introduced to a yearly event in Mount Pleasant Iowa that must quadruple the population every end of August. The Old Thresher’s Reunion is more than a farm machine extravaganza, although the rows and rows of steam-powered equipment is mind-boggling. These “threshers” and other things are paraded around, judged in competition, their smoky presence giving a distinctively different aroma to what looks very much like a country fair.
Most amazing to me, was that this little town accommodated the thousands of visitors, many of whom fill the surrounding camping areas to capacity. A huge dining pavilion offers nightly dinners prepared by local organizations such as boy scouts and churches. Craft vendors sell their wares both on the fair grounds and in the center of downtown that looks just like the town square in Back to the Future.

Railroad tracks encircle the fairground, and there are daily rides on several well-preserved steam trains. A passel of cowboys accompanies the riders, and sooner or later there’s a train robbery and a shootout that takes places in a reconstructed old-time village. We enjoyed stepping into the jail cell (as long as the door remained open) the country store, and a genuine post office.As if that wasn’t enough, on the other side of the fairground you can ride on electric trolley cars that come from as far away as San Francisco and Italy. The trolley drops you off at another historic reconstruction, this being typical log homes and buildings of a bygone era. 

So, here I am, heading there again, this time having an adventure by train. I’ve just boarded the Lake Shore Limited in Penn Station, and will be riding overnight to Chicago. We have just passed Croton-on-Hudson, and although it is a cloudy day, I can still appreciated the beauty of the Hudson River on the left side of the train, and glimpses of the towns, homes and roads out the right side window. Someone from the Dining Car has just come by to take dinner reservations, and I have chosen 8:15 PM, a very cosmopolitan time for dinner, after the sun has set and we will be riding through a darkened landscape.

The car is quiet, some people are already napping, others, like me, are tapping away on laptops, or looking at cell phones, or read actual paper books or e-readers. I feel sad for the person who is already asking when the train will stop so she can have a cigarette – the train is absolutely no smoking.

I can see out the window that the land is becoming hillier as we head north, and across the lake I can see another train. I am guessing that there is a big loop around and we are going to pass each other shortly----oh there they go!

I am going to settle back for a while, listen to my audiobook and watch New York go by outside my window.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Thoughts on Hiroshima -May it never happen again

A poster of the last poem in this entry.
Despite my love of laughter, and my desire to help others find laughter and happiness, I am not immune to the troubles of the world.

Listening to talk of growing nuclear threats, use of poison gas, and mass slaughter, my heart becomes heavy. I wonder why humanity seems hell-bent on destruction — and taking the planet and all other lifeforms with us. 

This week, we should pause to remember the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki — putting an end to a war that had seen millions die because the "War to End All Wars" hadn't.  And since that time, wars have burned and boiled all over the world. I still hold out hope that we can choose peace, but I realize now, probably not in my lifetime. I've written a few poems expressing my feelings, and on this anniversary, I thought I'd share.

The Ruins of Valhalla

The gods of war, while still farmers,
planted the seeds of glorious death
promising that dying in battle
would secure a place among immortals
in the hall of Valhalla beside Odin.

But now that the gods of the Norse
have become nothing but stars in the sky
where are all the souls
of those who fought
from then until now?

Perhaps they are also set up in the heavens
tiny lights burning on through the years
embers of the fires of wars
that they fed
as the flames continue
to consume their children.
©Noreen Braman

On August 27, 2003, the orbit of the planet Mars
brought  the Red Planet the closest to Earth
it has been in 50,000 years.

The God of War

The god of war approaches
for 50,000 years he has marched
steadily across the cosmos
each year sharpening his vision
making clearer his handiwork
his influence increasing
the nearer he comes.

The god of war approaches
a bloodstain in the sky
each day growing larger and stronger
the smell of death increasing
the smoke of destruction spreading
the rituals of slaughter repeating
in corners once peaceful.

The god of war approaches
sounding his trumpet call of violence
reaching his hands out
to gather the souls of the fallen
his voice driving the faithful to madness
rivers of blood flow from the heads of children
who clutch weapons instead of their mothers.

The god of war approaches
those crossing his path are destroyed
he raises his standard in triumph
and puts poison in the mouth of the leaders
setting them one against the other
their strife his welcoming fanfare.
©2003 Noreen Braman

This poem was written on the day I came home to find that my PEACE BOX had been delivered, and left outside in the rain. I still hold onto this Hope, both for myself, and the world.

Peace Arrives
It was a stormy day when Peace arrived at my house
and finding no one home huddled against the brick wall
motionless and silent as Peace is wont to be
as thunder rolled and lightning flashed across the autumn sky.
Peace waited for the barometric war to run its course
rivulets of rain running down its sides, moisture fouling its beauty.
I returned home from the day’s office battles, weary of spirit and body
to find Peace had survived and was waiting for me
battered in body but spirit intact —bathing my wounds in Hope.
©2007 Noreen Braman