Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas Blog 2007


On this December evening it is feeling a lot more like Christmas than last year at this time. For us in the Northeast, last year’s early winter was warm and sunny with temperatures in the 50s for the holiday itself. When winter did finally make an appearance, around January 15th, it decided it needed to stick around through late April just to make sure we had enough.

This year we had our first major snowstorm last week with nearly a foot of the white stuff falling here in Augusta. Due to work requirements, I haven’t had time to “get the tree yet,” but the view outside my window is very much the winter wonderland.

I’m kinda hoping this means an early spring.

This year was memorable with reconnections with old friends, long and exciting travel, and sadly the loss of some family members.

The reconnections came in several forms and included some contact with people who I have not seen in over 30 years. Some were college friends who appeared at our Treaty Stone Reunion Concert at St. Francis College in Brooklyn in March. Most looked almost exactly the same albeit a bit more gray or sans hair. We had a wonderful night of song and laughs and lots of promises about keeping in touch. We’ll see.

Then there was a lunch date in September with an old work colleague who was visiting Maine with her son who was looking at colleges here. Despite annual Christmas card exchanges, I don’t think I have seen Pat since her wedding over 20 years ago. We had a great visit and have had several phone calls over the months. In both of these experiences, it is clear that women seem to preserve better than the men.

The last reconnection came with one of those weird Google moments when, after hearing the name of a kid who I knew from summer camp in the early 1970s, I went on a quest to see if I could find information about him on the web. He was one of those bright and talented kids who I figured would be the president of General Motors by now. When I couldn’t find information about him, I tried looking up his younger brother’s name and lo and behold, after a few clicks, I was looking at a photo of middle age man remarkably similar to the 12-year-old I knew so many years ago. We reconnected briefly via e-mail and discovered he’s now the father of two and living in California. Despite the picture evidence, he’ll always be 12 years old in my mind.

Sister Mary required a visit from her big brother this summer and I made the trip into a real adventure by booking passage on the Amtrak and traveled from Augusta to Portland, Oregon in three days. The trip entailed an overnight leg from Boston to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited and a two day journey from Chicago to Portland on the famous Empire Builder. The Empire Builder passed through some extraordinary country including the upper Mississippi River valley in Wisconsin, the majestic plains of North Dakota and Montana, the spectacular mountains, rivers and lakes of Glacier National Park and ultimately the extraordinary Columbia River gorge with its rich red stone and transitioning climate.

Five days in Portland did not seem enough, but I had a great time visiting my sister and seeing the sites of Portland and the surrounding country side. On the return leg of the journey I was able to stop and visit with cousin Ralph in Chicago and have a wonderful meal that couldn’t be beat.

By the way, a detailed set of blog entries and images documenting the trip can be viewed here in this blog.

The news of the sudden loss of family members came three times this year. We lost a cousin Warren Smith in April and another cousin, Peter Feeney just last month. Both were still young men and I grieve for their families. The most shocking death was that of my brother-in-law Chris Frawley in August. My sister Sigrid is picking up the pieces and doing as well as she can. No one is prepared, or expects these events, but it does bring families closer together and perhaps this is an intended consequence.

And me, I’m fine. No real changes here on the home front; another year older and hopefully, another year wiser.

BTW, I chose the theme of this year’s Christmas card while viewing the annual A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV. I’ve seen the show so many times I can recite almost all the lines from memory.

But despite the scores of viewings, I am always strongly moved by the scene where Linus’ responds to Charlie Brown’s question, “Isn't There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas is All About?” by quoting scripture.

On an American Masters PBS special this fall, Charles M. Schultz was portrayed and some of the backstory of A Charlie Brown Christmas came to light. What was most intriguing was how the network executives didn’t want the scene included in the show. Schulz was reportedly unyielding about keeping the scene in, responding that “If we don't tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”

And that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas to you
Go to Snoopy.com

~j

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Great Oz Has Spoken.


Over the years, I have been in hundreds of terminals (train, bus, and air) and have often wondered who and where The Voice that makes all the announcement comes from. You know, The Voice is usually one of those distinct, often regionally-accented, tired messengers who alerts you to the arrivals, departures and other important facts. I'm not talking about the The Endless Loop Voice like the one at the airport telling you all cars will be towed. No, this is a real person, in real time, telling you real information.

Well, in Boston's South Station yesterday I actually met The Voice.


She must be one of the busiest people working for Amtrak and in addition to being The Voice, she juggles control of two or three seemingly vital jobs including reviewing various track information by watching over a colorful screen marking the movement of trains in and out of the station. Mind you, she was not controlling these trains, but she was using this information to announce the arrivals as well as the departures. And when someone not on time, she was on the two-way radio giving them the business.

I met The Voice while dutifully waiting to check into the Acela Lounge. I soon learned that I was not qualified to be in the lounge because I had not purchased a First Class ticket. But she was cordial - and fascinating to watch - just the same. Although she didn't offer me a cup of coffee or a nice fresh danish, she did let me stand there long enough for my hands to thaw. She also tried very hard to find out if I was indeed entitled to membership in this exclusive club.

In between the dispatching of the 11:10 Acela to DC and the 11:05 arriving on track 9, she had time (God knows how many hands she had) to call the Amtrak Awards office, punch in my 11 digit account number, file through four or five voice menus and reach the mechanical voice that announced that I only had "400 points." By the look on her face I knew that was probably not enough to get me a free newspaper let alone the coveted danish.

I mentioned that I had traveled cross country on Amtrak last summer and should have had lots of points. She then punched in some more numbers and got a real person on the phone. Two more trains were being dispatched through all this and she read through the script which announced each of the stations along the way without missing a beat. "…with stops in Providence, New Haven, Penn Station New York…" The voice on the other end confirmed I was a loser. I really wanted that danish now.

I took back my $211 business coach Acela ticket and thanked The Voice who was now apologetic. I told her I was glad I had stopped by because I had always wanted to meet the person who was in control of the universe. "It's Oz," she said, her thick Southy accent bending the words almost to the point of being unrecognizable. "They call this place Oz."

Indeed, the Great and Powerful Oz had spoken.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Season of Giving

child

Perhaps it is because Thanksgiving came so early this year. Maybe it was the long warm fall; I did, after all, just put away my golf clubs. Perhaps it is all of the news reports of a potential faltering US economy, a weakening US Dollar and a steady increase in the cost of energy that has driven people to be more concerned about finances this year.

Regardless of the reason, there is a small charity in northern New Mexico that needs your help.

I got involved with the Navajo Child Drive a number of years ago through a friend and former student of mine who was working as a school psychologist on the Navajo reservation in that part of the world. In our correspondences she told often of the plight of these families and the striking poverty many of these proud people were living in. As someone who was working on the front lines, my friend Susan pulled no punches in describing the sad set of circumstances.

In 1993, a group of Susan's colleagues started a small drive to raise money to be able to buy some of the children in the schools some Christmas presents. Twenty-five special needs children were "visited by Santa" that year and I can only imagine their reaction.

In the years that have followed, the Child Drive has grown and grown. Three years ago I got more involved and helped the group get a website, something I donated and have maintained as a gift. In 2006, the Child Drive was able to raise an astonishing $13,636 and provided Christmas presents to 618.

But this year they are having a problem and need your help. Perhaps it is for the reasons I stated above, or perhaps some other reason, but the effect is the same. I've just heard from the director of the Drive and if donations do not increase dramatically in the next few days (they are down by 50% over last year), they are going to have to limit the number of children they can help.

The picture on this page, I think, speaks volumes about the need. There are many more photos on the website. Could you consider a small gift to this small and struggling charity?

All of the information about the Navajo Child Drive, including a gift form, can be found on the website.

I hope you can help. Happy Holidays.


~jeb

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Turkey Day

turkey
I have been totally wiped out by the Northeast ASCD Affiliate Conference; working 40 hour weeks and getting paid for 24. We have 900 people coming; the conference is next week. So I decided to veg this evening - Thanksgiving Eve - read the 2184 blog entries in Bloglines that I have missed and post this.


Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving


~j

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hoppy Holloweenie


The tradition in my Brooklyn childhood home was to carve the "pumpkin" on Halloween Eve. Early in my career as a kid, any opportunity to stick my fingers in gucky stuff and use sharp instruments was a real treat. I recall Dad had the honors for a number of years, but eventually, just like carving the turkey at Thanksgiving and setting up the Christmas Tree, the responsibility for carving the orange fruit fell to me.

Sometime in the last 15 year, I lost interest in carving the pumpkin. I think the fact that I haven't seen hide nor hair of a Trick-or-Treater in at least that long has contributed to this malaise about Halloween.

Five or six years ago, I bought a rather authentic looking "fake" pumpkin that came with a light and wires included. It even had an on-off switch. It was a lot easier to set up, take down and could be easily stored in the back closet along with the multitude of Christmas decorations.

But something mysterious has happened! My faux pumpkin has DISAPPEARED!!!

I looked all over, in the usual spots, the unusual spots, and the weird spots. I think a poltergeist must have taken it.

So, this year I had to once again take knife to fruit and make a real Jack-o-lantern. Hope you enjoy the play-by-play of this endeavor.

Now, if I could only convince that poltergeist to steal the four months of old newspapers stacked up in the living room I'd be all set. Oh, well.

Hoppy Holloweenie

~j

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Integrity vs. Despair?

I developed a fondness for Erik Erikson when I took my first psychology course some time around the age of the dinosaurs. Freud was fine and Carl Rogers was all the rage - I admit never really liking Skinner - but Erikson's Eight Stages seemed to resonate with me. I think it was the fact that his emphasis on life continuing to evolve after the age of 18 appealed to me. All of the other developmental theorists were obsessed with infancy and oedipal issues; I could care less. I remember thinking that having three stages devoted to life beyond acne and masturbation was probably a good thing.

Over the years, I've mapped my progress on the old Erikson scale. Young Adulthood had some interesting twists and spins. The old "Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation" seemed to make a lot of sense and certainly fit my understanding of the ways of the world.

Middle Adulthood's "Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation" also has made some sense. Although I have no children that I know of (and I think I would if I did) my generativity has been mostly about caring for "other people's children" and the various artistic products I have created during this period (music, writing, photography - this blog???).

According to Dr. Erikson, this Middle Adulthood phase is supposed to last until one is around retirement age, but I am finding that I have occasionally slipped ahead into the next stage from time to time. That stage is what Erikson called "Late Adulthood: 55 or 65 to Death;" not very sexy, but probably accurate. Anyway, in this stage, the big conflict is over one's sense of satisfaction of their life. Described as "Integrity vs. Despair" the challenge to the individual at this age is trying to determine if their life has had any meaning and whether one's made a contribution to life.

Well, perhaps it is indeed a bit premature for me to start to engage in this debate, but I've found myself doing a lot more reflecting these days than I have before.

Last spring, you will recall I attended a major college reunion and saw people who I hadn't laid eyes on in over 30 years. In some cases they looked exactly the same but with a lot of good Hollywood makeup on. In other cases, I did not recognize the person at all. Several times I heard my self whisper, "...if he looks that bad, how bad do you suppose I look?" Don't answer that question.

I'm not exactly sure if this is what Erikson was referring to, but you get the point.

A week or so ago I attended the wedding of one of my nieces - see previous blog entry. It was great, but again I remember when she was born and "the nostalgia gods" were poured out heavy doses of retrospection as we tooled around through some of the old neighborhoods where I had spent several of my earlier Erikson stages. The place where the reception was held, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I had not stepped foot in in over 40 years. And it looked almost exactly the same.

Topping this off was the most recent experience of nostalgic rollercoaster. I have "re-connected" with a person whom I first met around 1973 when he was around 12 years old. Now he is a good husband, father of two and a successful businessman. But in my reflection, he's still 12.

I'll spare you the details except to say he was a camper and I was a camp counselor. In actuality, I was (and am) not much older than him, and at this point on our lives, we're practically the same age.

We've corresponded via e-mail a few times and I am afraid I'll scare him off with all of my questions. He's already revealed some of what his compatriots of the time have done over the years and I've been enjoying reading how these other kids have turned out. Most of their choices of occupations seem to fit perfectly with the types of personalities they exhibited those many years ago. Is it all that predictable? Could someone have predicted what I would be doing 35 years later?

The whole nostalgia experience literally has my head spinning. I think it has something to do with those synapses that have been sitting around dormant for a couple of decades all of a sudden getting a jolt. As Jean Shepherd was fond of saying, "it's amazing the crap you remember!" And the net effect makes one a little delirious.

So, even though I should be still focused on that generativity thing, I'm kinda enjoying the "looking back" more commonly associated with Integrity.

This current self-reflection ends with the words of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, "What a Long Strange Trip It's Been."

~j

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Blah Blah Blah


Life has been very busy this month and as a result, finding the time to blog has been nearly impossible. Work at Maine ASCD has been "demanding" with two of our own conferences this month as well as the "Big Boston" event taking place at the end of next month. The Boston gig is part of a partnership of all of the ASCD affiliates from New Jersey north plus Ontario, Canada. The event is in its 11th year and has grown in success beyond belief. We have over 500 people signed up and the conference is still over six weeks away. As a result, the phones have been ringing off the wall and the fax machine constantly running out of paper.

Add to this busy schedule a wedding in New York and my own presentation at a conference here in Maine, and you can understand why I don't know which way is up.

Maybe it was the trip back to Brooklyn that I took for the wedding or the time of the year, anyway, I have been feeling nostalgic lately and decided to Google the name of some old friends and school mates. I googled myself in the process which led me to this blog (one of three that I write) and I realized that several weeks had gone by since my last entry, so I had better post something. So this is the kind of rambling you get at 11 o'clock at night after a long day at work. Sorry.

Here's a nice picture I took of my niece at the wedding with her daddy. Nice huh?

~jeb

Monday, September 24, 2007

The New Fall Season


When I was 11 years ago, NBC introduced a new television show called “Flipper” staring Luke Halpin and Tommy Norden as Sandy and Bud, the sons of Ranger Ricks, a Florida wildlife warden. The story revolved around a single-parent family who among other things, were the “keepers” of the highly talented dolphin, Flipper, who was actually the main star of the show and probably.


It was one of the most unique plots of the time and I became an instant fan as the two boys were about my age and the theme of the show involved being at the beach 24 hours a day and driving around in outboard boats all day long. Add to that Flipper and I was ready to pack my bags and join the Ricks family.


One of the interesting things NBC did that summer was publish a special viewer guide that had lots of great photos of the stars and detailed descriptions of the new shows. I remember sending away for the guide and cherished the slick, full-color mini-magazine when it arrived in its smooth manila envelope addressed to Master John Brandt. I had this fixation at that time in my life for catalogs and other mail order junk and was always sending away for all kinds of neat stuff.


This was the heyday of commercial television and the three networks (Fox who?) reigned supreme. Even Public Television was a blip on the screen (literally) and the networks worked feverishly to grab the largest audiences. The special viewer guide fixed me as an NBC fan for the next 20 years.


In the decades that have followed I have almost always taken an interest in what new shows were to appear in the new fall season. For many years I have made an effort to purchase the “Fall Premier Issue” of TV Guide eager to pore through and pick out what I viewed would be the “winners” of the upcoming season. I think the last time I actually picked a winner was 1999 when The West Wing hit the air. Seeing the “coming attractions” over that summer I predicted correctly that it would be my favorite show. After viewing the first episode, I had my doubts predicting the plot was too complicated and cerebral for the average American viewer. Happily I was wrong, at least that year, but in the years that have followed I have not found anything that garners my interest. I’ll admit to being a secret Heros fan last year, but by the end of the season I thought the show has lost its edge and was becoming too predictable.


So, this summer I was rather cynical when it came to the announcements of the upcoming fall season. There has been nothing in the summer promos that look remotely interesting and it appears all network TV executives now do is find the stupidest idea possible for a new show. I think they have really reached a new low, by my count only eleven new shows on the major networks – nearly all of them losers in my eye. Sorry that does not include Fox or any of the other fringe networks. I don’t even bother to look at those “networks.” So, I’m old fashioned – shoot me.


Last Saturday while at the local supermarket I looked high and low for a copy of TV Guide’s Fall Premier issue. It took quite a bit of doing since sometime in the past year TV Guide changed from its historic pocket sized template to a new larger, magazine size. Completely in full color – gone are the funky newsprint pages and special yellow sections. This is not your father’s TV Guide for sure.


What I was looking forward to was the opportunity of predicting which of the new shows would crash and burn in the first few weeks of the season. I love looking at the issue the following February and seeing if I can even remember the show.


In recent years my ability to guess the winners and losers has just about vanished. It seems that anything that looks remotely interesting to me is bound to be a failure and everything that looks like its design to appear to Neanderthals is a big winner.


So it should not come as a surprise to learn that the only thing I am looking forward to viewing in this new fall season is my old buddy Ken Burns’ new film The War on PBS.


Thank God for PBS.


Do you think a show about two boys and a dolphin might work?


~jeb

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I Triple Dog-dare You


"You'll shoot your eye out, kid. "

Those who know me know I have been a Jean Shepherd coo-coo since I was a preadolescence. I've read all of his books and nearly all of his short stories. I even have autographed pictures and books; real collectors items.

So of course I am the ultimate fan of the now-famous "A Christmas Story" movie which was based on several of Shep's better short stories. Pick your favorite quote.

I've watched the movie a couple million times and have given copies away to many friends over the past 25 years since the movie was released. And although I do not have a leg lamp or my own "Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time," I do collect various junk from the movie and follow various happenings.

One of the things I discovered last year was a new museum devoted to the movie called the "A Christmas Story House." This indeed is the filming location in Cleveland, Ohio where much of the exterior scenes of the movie were shot. Lovingly developed by some eccentric fans, the museum is located across the street from "Ralphie's house" which has been restored to "its movie splendor." Anyway, I'm on their mailing list and they just wrote to tell me all about the special happenings this fall including the first "A Christmas Story Convention on November 23 and 24" and a "special Dinner with the Actors" on Friday, November 23 including Flick, Scut Farkus, Grover Dill, Randy, Miss Shields and the two evil elves. The "special dinner will of course be "a Chinese Turkey Dinner with all the trimmings."

So if you are close to Cleveland around Thanksgiving, why not stop by and enjoy the merriment including a Ralphie look-a-like contest, the official unveiling of the Parker Family Car that caused Ralphie’s “Oh Fudge” incident, and the unveiling of the original movie prop chalk board from Miss Shields Classroom by Tedde Moore who played Miss Shields! Here's all the details.


~j

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The evil navbar


Well Google has not responded - yet - to my request for how to remove the "navbar." Others have posted some hacks to the blog template that allow you to "hide" the navebar from view. So, I have employed that for now.

It is not so much that I am concerns about people seeing things that are inappropriate (all you have to do is read your SPAM mail for that), but when the other blogs appeared to attack my browser and install malicious bots, I draw the line.

I've giving Blogger a little more time for an official response, but I have plenty of options for setting up a different blog elsewhere. After all, I now have four.

Hope you had a nice Labor Day. And, for those of you heading back to school - have a great year!

~jeb

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Don't touch that "Next Blog>" button...


...if you know what's good for you.
I made the mistake of clicking that the other day to randomly check out other blogs for posting in the Blog Day event. Well where that button took me was pretty scary.

First there were all these porn sites which somehow was harvesting my IP address and including suggestions to where I could "find women" locally. For some reason when my IP is traced it shows me in any number of locations, none of which are my hometown. So, I figured the sexy women in Bowdoinham will have a long wait.

Next the button brought me to some bizzare site that literally started to attack my computer. First, the pop-up blocker alarm starting beeping like crazy and some pop-ups actually made it through and then my Norton Anti-Virus program beeped that it had prevented the someone "trying to take control" of my computer.

Needless to say, I have avoided the button and have contacted Blogger to find a way to remove it completely. We'll see. If they don't get back to me with a solution, I will be moving this blog elsewhere.

~jeb

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blog Day

Blog Day 2007
Okay here are my five new blogs (in no particular order). I am supposed to give a description of each one...that's the stuff in brackets:

Now, what they should have asked for were your five favorite blogs. Here are mine in order of choice (drumroll please...):

5. indexed (strange blog where everything is explained in charts and graphs)
4. A List Apart (wonderful blog discussing web design)
3. Will Richardson weblogg-ed (one of my two favorite educational technology Evangelists)
2. David Warlick - 2cents worth (the other favorite)
1. Callalillie (just a wonderful blog - one of the first I every read- from a lovely young woman in Brooklyn)

I'm supposed to put this in Technorati, but they appear to be having technoratiacle problems. http://technorati.com/tag/BlogDay2007

~j

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Blog Day - Should we play?

Blog Day 2007 Why not.

August 31st is the 3rd Annual Blog day (yes that is what this image on the right says - not "3108 day" like I thought). The rules are simple:

  • Find 5 new Blogs that you find interesting
  • Notify the 5 bloggers that you are recommending them as part of BlogDay 2007
  • Write a short description of the Blogs and place a link to the recommended Blogs
  • Post the BlogDay Post (on August 31st) and
  • Add the BlogDay tag using this link: http://technorati.com/tag/BlogDay2007 and a link to the BlogDay web site at http://www.blogday.org

So, I'll do that...in a hurry.

~jeb

Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the future, will we all speak like Jean Luc Picard?


I admit to being a Star Trek fan and, although I am not one to dress up as Mr. Spock and attend festivals and conventions, I have watched some of the episodes so many times I can quote the script in my sleep.

I'll also admit that while Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were my heroes at one point in my life, I was later smitten by Captain Jean Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise - Next Gen.

One of the things I loved and love about Star Trek, were the writers' interpretations of the future. Granted, some of the stuff written for the 1960 TV show, and even the early Star Trek movies, were a bit quaint, but some of the stuff in the Next Generation series was and is pretty cool.
Over the years, reality has attempted to mirror fiction, or science fiction, as various products, particularly electronic gadgets, have hit the market. I know for a fact that the "clam shell" or "flip phone" style of cell phone is directly related to the "communicator" used by Spock and Kirk. There are loads of products whose names are derived from Trekian science. Have you ever wondered if there is really plasma in your plasma widescreen HDTV?

One of the other things I loved was the Star Trek writers projections of the Utopian future where we all live in peace, do not require money, and have all of our needs met. This, of course, only occurs if you are a member of "The Federation."
And, of course everyone in the 24th Century is brilliant, articulate, and extremely well educated - well at least the people serving on the Starship Enterprise. Goodness, even the lowly Klingon, Lt. Worf speaks better English than most people in 21st Century America.

But, for some time I have been thinking that the real people of the 24th Century may not be "talkin' too good." If we simply look at how the quality of discourse has eroded in the past 150 years, we can easily project that by the end of the 21st Century people will simply grunt at each other much the way they do in "rap music."

So here is some new evidence that the future may be even more bleak. This article in the Wall Street Journal details a phenomenon call "Leetspeak" the gibberish our cell phone addicted young people seem to communicate with. And, it has also got linguists apparently concerned.
So, to answer my own question about the future, will we all speak like Jean Luc Picard?
Probably not.

Well, I gotta go, my cell phone is ringing.
Oh yeah, and live long and prosper!


~j

Sunday, August 12, 2007

My Andrew Wyeth Story


Christina's World - painting by Andrew Wyeth, 1948
 I’ve told this story many times over the years and friends have suggested that I write it down for “posterity.” I am not sure if this blog can be considered as such, but I will tell the story anyway.

I can begin by telling you this idea was re-stimulated by an article in today’s Maine Sunday Telegram (MST). The MST and the Portland Press Herald love to have “human interest” stories this time of year – I’m sure to appeal to “visitors from away.” Indeed there are always some great folksy articles and stories in the summer issues, and I always look forward to reading them.

Today’s featured article in the Audience (Arts) section is about Maine’s most famous living artist, Andrew Wyeth who spends his summers in the mid-coast area. His son Jamie, perhaps the second most famous living artist in Maine lives here almost year round. But the article is not so much about Andrew as it is about the whole clan, and particularly Victoria (known to all as Vic) , Andrew’s 28-year-old granddaughter who has become something of a family historian and commentator.

The article provides a delightful insight into some of the background of the family and includes some vignettes of some the family eccentricities including the detonation of “crazy” Aunt Carolyn ashes, and a recent birthday party for grandpa complete with Uncle Jamie lighting off cannons.

If you are a Wyeth fan, you’ll love the article – read it on line.

But that’s not my story, mine is better.

It begins in 1970 when I was a camp counselor at a camp located in the town of Cushing, Maine. Each Sunday, the camp co-director (aka “The Old Man”) would take a bunch of kids and me to Rockland to attend church. This trip was only for baptized and practicing “mackerel snappers” and required a special request from parents. Somehow I was selected to be the token staff person to attend with the campers as the camp’s co-director wasn’t of that religious persuasion.

One of the things I enjoyed about this weekly trip was the opportunity to get off the island where the camp was located and see a little bit more of Maine. One Sunday, we took some back roads on our return from church and The Old Man seemed to be hunting for something and we made our way south of Thomaston and on to the back roads of Cushing. At some point along the way he suddenly turned the van off the road and on to a dirt driveway that led down to an old weather-beaten house. A sign at the end of the driveway noted “Olson House” and the ancient building overlooking a broad hayfield that provided a decent view of the St. George’s River beyond. The Old Man announced that this was the place where “that artist guy painted the picture of the crippled girl on the hill.” He fumbled for more details and then remembered the Wyeth name. For some strange reason, I could immediately visualize the picture he described. Strange because at the grand old age of 17, I certainly was not a connoisseur of American art and clearly had only rudimentary knowledge of Andrew Wyeth and “Christina’s World.”

The visit was brief, we didn’t even get out of the van, and soon we were back on the road heading to camp.

The story may have ended here, but several weeks later, my father and sisters were in Maine to visit me at camp and I had my father take this same route to camp from Rockland. Remembering and relating the story about the old farm house, my father became very interested and insisted we see the spot. Somehow I found the driveway and soon learned that my father was a bit of a Wyeth fan and thought this part of the trip was a particularly special bonus.

This time I did get out of the car and looked around the house and the adjoining “out buildings;” a series of sheds and small building that appeared to have been used to keep farm animals. The house and property did not appear occupied at that time, but the ground otherwise looked cared for. The multitude of years of brutal Maine weather had left the outside of the buildings in pretty tough shape and it was obviously they had not been painted in many years.

At this point I was still a bit in the fog when it came to Christina’s World. My father had immediately recalled the name of the painting as I described what The Old Man had said. He even knew that Olson was the name of the woman depicted in the painting; Christina Olson lived here. But it was only what happened next that burned the image of Christina and her world into my permanent memory.

It occurred when I happened to look through the window of one of the out buildings. There, affixed to the wall with some simple thumb tacks were a series of sketches of the major elements of the Christina’s World painting. Initially perplexed, I quickly figured out that these must have been the practice sketches Wyeth used to compose the final painting. Drawn in pencil and clearly damaged by rust stains that had bled out of the thumb tacks, the collection included sketches of the house and a few of Christina herself. None of the sketches contained all of the elements together and I realized had perhaps I had an insight into how an artist mind must work; dabbling along with disparate pieces before the whole gestalt is formed.

Being a bit of a typical teenager, I think I jokingly suggested that we break the window and take one or two of the sketches. It clearly appeared that these things had been here for ages and it was not likely anyone would miss them.

Christina’s World is perhaps one of the most memorable and famous American paintings. In the years that followed the experience at Olson House, I became fascinated by Andrew Wyeth and eventually made it to Rockland in 2000 to see Christina “in the flesh” when she was loaned to the Farnsworth Museum from the Museum of Modern Art.

I’ve told the “sketches” story a number of times over the years - to anyone who expressed any interest in Wyeth – but most people acted as though this was all a bit of bullshit on my part. As time went on, and memories faded or became confused with other experiences, I too began to doubt my recall. When, as an adult I began to realize the value and power of this painting, I could not imagine that the artist would have left these sketches in a seemingly abandoned barn in Cushing, Maine. After all, Christina’s World was painted in 1948 which means the sketches would have to have been hanging there for over 20 years when I saw them in 1970. In subsequent trips to the Olson house, the sketches were no where to be found, adding to my doubt.

Sometime in the late 1990s the Farnsworth Museum, opened The Wyeth Center, a former church converted into a special gallery for viewing and learning about Andrew Wyeth, his famous son Jamie and his equally famous father, N.C. Wyeth. Indeed it was at about this time Christina made her return to Maine and over the years the museum has held many special exhibits of Wyeth works.

A few years later, the museum held an exhibit of something extraordinary, something that made me drop everything a take a trip to Rockland. It was an exhibit of preliminary sketches of Christina’s World.

There in Rockland on a rainy weekday afternoon, I came face-to-face with the sketches I had seen hanging in the Olson’s barn nearly 30 years earlier. Meticulously restored, the sketches were now beautifully matted and framed. In the adjoining descriptions, I learned that they had indeed been left to hang in the Olson House as the artist had used that space up until 1969 to paint many other scenes in that locale.

So, it was all true. I did see them. And, now they were owned by a rich Japanese collector and worth millions of dollars.

One of the sketches

I told my story, once again, to a docent working at the exhibit. She shuttered at the thought of my adolescent audacity to “help myself” to some of history’s most treasured artifacts. I had to reassure her several times I was only kidding, although I think the security guards might have been keeping an extra eye on me for the rest of my visit.

So, that’s my story and it’s nice to know that it happened the way I remember it. I have often thought of what it would be like to meet Andrew Wyeth and tell him my tale. I think from what I know about him, he’d get a kick out of it. Who knows, maybe he will read this and give me a call. Better yet, Vic will read the story and invite me over for a couple of beers.

More about Christina's World

UPDATE: July 5, 2010 - The Olsen House has been made a national landmark. Here is a story from Boston.com. Currently, The Farnsworth Museum has an exhibit of the "studies" described in my story. Check them out, you can see the rust marks. Finally, from reading the Boston.com story listed above, I learned that Andrew Wyeth is buried in Hathorn Cemetery located adjacent to the Olsen House. See Find-a-Grave for map
~jeb

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

You Know Your Getting Old When . . .

1969 Olds Cutlass
So as I am driving down the main street of a small town in Maine today a car pulls in front of me which looks familiar. I immediately recognize it as a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442. I recognize it because is very similar to the car I took drivers education in while in high school. That one was a brand new 1969 Olds Cutlass, wine colored with a black interior. It was a very slick car to be taking drivers ed in and with the 442 cubic inch V-8 and 4-barrel carb, she was very fast. It looked almost identical to the one pictured on this page with the exception, ours did not have the over-sized sport tires.

I had the misfortune of taking drivers ed with three of the first stringers on the Loughlin basketball team. They were all well over six feet and when crammed into the back seat of the Cutlass, well, breathing was a problem. In all cases, my long-legged friends would have to shove the driver's seat practically into the trunk. I could get by with crossed legs, but the other three would have to their knees wrapped around their heads. It was not a pretty picture.

Ray Hyland had a lead foot and whenever it was his turn to drive, we all held our heads to avoid whiplash, including Mr. Sieve our instructor. Doty and McQuinlan were average drivers. And, I - of course - was the best driver having already been driving for several years. My first drive, at age 13 with Uncle Dick, is story for another time. Suffice it to say, Mr. Sieve liked me best and I was almost always chosen to bring the car back to school as the last driver, and sometimes also asked to be first to drive, bringing the car down to under the Brooklyn- Queens Expressway where we practiced.

The Cutlass was a super car. It had a hare-trigger accelerator that took some getting used too, and power brakes - which our family car did not have - that also took some getting use to; they stopped the car on a dime. Hyland would vacillate between gas and brake to the point of psychosis. It was a lot like bumper cars at Coney Island, without the fun.

So why to I share the story today?

Well, as I got closer to that '68 Olds today, I noticed something that made me feel VERY OLD. The car had "antique auto" license plates.

So, you know you are getting old... when the car to used to take drivers ed in when you were in high school is now considered an antique.

As Mr. Sieve was fond of saying, "Oiy!"

~jeb

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More Pictures of the Trip

badlands
I have posted two new galleries of photos from the trip. And, I have one more set to go.






Remember, if you want to read the entries in chronological order, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up!


~j

Monday, July 09, 2007

Would I Do it Again? – Part I


Another 24 hours have gone by, so I best answer this question before other things interfere with my thinking.


The honest answer is yes maybe, I would do this again. But, if some things did not change or changed for the worse, I am not sure I would do it again. Here are the plusses and minuses.


Plus:




  1. I got to see my sister.

  2. I got to see some incredibly beautiful parts of the country that cannot be seen any other way.

  3. I met some truly interesting, dare I say fascinating people.

  4. I got some great photos and videos,

  5. Relatively little, if any, “jet” lag.

  6. The amenities of traveling by train are far better than those in the air. They are better food, better service, more space, and places to stretch one’s legs.

  7. No anxiety. No sitting on runway for nine hours.

  8. Generally very good service from the Amtrak staff, and in some cases, excellent service.


Minuses:



  1. It was very expensive.

  2. This might partially because I waited so long to book the trip, and took the trip in summer, Amtrak’s busy season.

  3. It took a long time. I was actually on the train longer than my visit in OR.

  4. It was not possible to stop and spend more time in some of the locations along the way – at least not the way I booked the trip. This is possible, but I would have to see what the difference in pricing would be.

  5. “Sleeping” in the roomette is tight and bumpy. One does not really get a good sleep on the train.

  6. Restroom facilities on the train leave something to be desired.

  7. Dependable scheduling; we were off time more than we were on-time.

  8. Meeting “problem” people.

  9. Amtrak Elbow and Amtrak Legs.

Things I would do differently:



  1. Try to find a better fare by considering travel at a different time.

  2. Consider making some stops for several days along the way.

  3. Consider more time and the end destination.

  4. Consider moving up to a full size room instead of the roomette.

  5. Consider an alternate route so I can see more of the country. Several travelers I spoke to too the Zephyr to California, then took a train to Seattle and then Empire Builder back to Chicago.

  6. Bring less clothing and more pillows.

  7. Travel with others – but don’t try to share a room.

  8. Try the trip at a different time of the year.

The Final Chapter – July 8, 2007

SpongeBob Squarepants enjoying the ride on the Lake Shore Limited
I slept like the proverbial log last night at Bob’s. It was much warmer and more humid from what I have been sleeping in for the past two weeks, but I was so tired I think I could have slept through a nuclear attack.

I came out of a deep sleep at 9:55 am and climbed out of bed at 10:00. I still have my Amtrak legs, but they do not seem as bad as the day I arrived in Portland. I think my vestibular system is so overloaded it has closed down completely.

We have a leisurely morning of breakfast and conversation and then I load the car and head the last 80 miles to Augusta.

I’ve started the process of reviewing the hundreds of photos and video images that I collected on the last leg of the journey and many of them are great. I learned a few things about how to take better pictures after reviewing the set from the westbound leg, so I hope that I have more keepers in this set. One thing I also learned was that trying to take “stills” at 80 mph in a moving train is just about impossible, particularly when there is stuff moving in the foreground. It was okay for the long landscapes out in the prairies, but once we were back in the lands of trees, I stuck primarily with videos.

So, I will have to edit the videos and link some together and start posting them in chronological segments on YouTube. Stay tuned!

As for final reflections, I think I will try to decompress a bit more and then provide a post script. My head is still literally spinning, so I think I need some time to readjust and reflect.

The question most asked so far – and I expect to be asked many times in the days ahead – is whether I would do it again. And I don’t have a clear answer yet.
Perhaps the most positive part of the return voyage was a perception of time moving quickly. In fact, the last two days flew by and even the long stretches of flat countryside seemed to be flashing past more quickly. It could be the fact that I was “moving against the sun” on the return and kept losing time as we changed time zones. But maybe it is just that familiar perception of time moving too quickly when you don’t want something to end. We’ll sort that out and have sometime more to say soon.

South Station

tired puppy
Despite the late start, delays along the way, and my impatience, the Lake Shore Limited arrives in Boston South Station only 15 minutes late from its scheduled 9:45 pm arrival time. Once again the Amtrak folks have squeezed the proverbial rabbit out of the hat with this one. We had been over an hour late at one point, and somehow – mysteriously – we are almost on time. One of the passengers comments that if it arrives anytime with 12 hours of its intended arrival time, Amtrak considers it a good day.

While we make the last few miles from Framingham, I hear the people behind me talking and sounding confused about South Station, North Station and Back Bay. I enquire and learn they too are from Maine – Presque Isle, Maine. I thought I had won the prize that day for the longest trip. But theirs from LA, through the southwest, up to Chicago and then to Boston beat mine; and they still had a 10 hour drive ahead of them.

They were on their way to a hotel for the night, a bus ride to Portland at 8:00 am and then the long drive home. I kinda wished I had introduced myself earlier it might have been fun chatting with them more. But I was in a bit of a foul mood as I was expecting the train to be as much as two hours late and worried about my friend Bob having to wait for me.

I grabbed my bags from the platform and headed out to Atlantic Ave and met Bob. We were back at his house in Wells by midnight and after a beer and a little time to decompress, it was bed and dreamland for this tired puppy.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Final Stretch – I hope

Rain Man
This has always been the worse part of the journey. Not because it comes at the end when your butt is so numb you can’t feel it, but because this run is notorious in its lateness. The only other time I made this journey, we left the Albany station about two hours late, rolled down the track about 10 miles and then came to a stop. On that day it was snowing and actually quite pretty. I remembered again that line from the James Taylor song – “the Berkshires seem dreamlike…” And, indeed they were – for about 15 minutes. After 45 it was not fun and I started to calculate just how late we would arrive in Boston and whether there would be any buses left for me to take to Portland.

On the way out here 11 days ago, you will recall we were over an hour late getting to Albany and had to back up twice to let freight come through.

This time I am prepared for a long and arduous final press to Boston. And now at 6:20 we are over an hour late, have already stopped twice and backed up once.

When I got on the train there was lots of chatter as people, apparently unfamiliar with this line, were excitedly waiting for the journey to begin. When we made the first unscheduled stop, I announce, “and so it begins.” Now, having been on this train for over two hours and having not made our first stop in Pittsfield, the mood is, shall we say, more subdued.

By the way, among those on today’s train is the real Rain Man and his brother. Rain Man only looks a little like Dustin Hoffman (same costume and mannerisms) but brother is definitely no Tom Cruise. The conversations are identical to the movie and I am wondering if I am seeing some of Dustin’s research in real life. Remember Rain Man would not take an airplane. I hope to God we don’t miss Jeopardy.

Sixteen Years on the Erie Canal

The run from Buffalo to Albany is essential uneventful. There a couple of slow spots, but we manage to get in to Rensselaer only about 35 minutes late. Again, I think they figure some wiggle room in the time between some stops because at one point we were close to ninety minutes late.

I am on the north side of the car on this run and this has afforded me a better view of Lake Erie, such as it is, and some other sights I have not seen before. Most notable is a large lake (Onondaga) to the north of Syracuse. We also cross the West Canada Creek in Herkimer which runs into the Mohawk River/Erie Canal at this point. On the other hand, I miss seeing the “falls’ in Little Falls which I recall is rather nice.

I shoot some video of the LSL crossing the Hudson, this time I am pointing the camera up river. We then crawl into the station and the mad shuffle begins.

Despite my better judgment, I rush to get off the platform and up the escalator and down the second escalator to the Boston-bound train. But when I get to the top of the escalator, it is a lot more of hurry up and wait. In their wisdom, Amtrak waits to board this train until the eastbound 48 train is in the station. When we finally board, we wait some more.

Shuffle Off

the beautiful old Buffalo train station - left in ruins

I remember coming through Buffalo, New York in the early morning in my last return from Chicago on the LSL. I think they purposefully do this either late at night or early in the morning because it is so sad.

Buffalo, which once had an active manufacturing base and had capitalized on its location at the confluence of the Erie Canal and Lake Erie, has clearly seen better times. In a previous blog, I noted the diminished quality of many of the stations on the Amtrak route. As we approached the new station for Buffalo – which is actually located in the eastern suburb of Depew – we pass the stately old Buffalo station with the remains of its grand entrance, and tall clock-tower building. Most of the windows are broken out, and graffiti has ruined the rest. It is simplythe current Amtrak station for Buffalo in suburb of Depew pathetic.

It's A Grand Old Name

After my mad dash of uploads in the Metro Lounge in Union Station, I headed down to the Lake Shore Limited (LSL) around 9:15. Amtrak changed the schedule recently and the train now leaves at 10:00 pm instead of 7:00 pm. So to placate the passengers riding sleepers, they allow boarding at 8:00 pm and invite them to a wine and cheese party.

So, at 9-something, I board the eastbound LSL, stowed my stuff and head to the dining car where I am met by this red-haired lady who spoke with a bit of a brogue. I am seated with a couple from New York City who are returning from a trip to Milwaukee having attended a concert with Jon Bon Jovi. They currently live in the West Village (West Greenwich Village for you non-New York types) and this has been their first trip by train. We share war stories of NY and I regale them with my stories of Old Brooklyn.

The Village People tell me the red-haired lady is also from NY so I call out to her to find out where.

“Sunnyside,” she says.

“Where in Sunnyside,” I ask.

“Forty-turd street,” she says, her Irish now more apparent.

“Oh, my gawd, 43-09 47th Ave…?” I babble.

“You live on 43rd St.” says she.

“No, but my grandmother lived at 43-09 47th Ave.”

“That’s right up the block!”

The Village People are very impressed. “This happens to me all the time,” I tell them.

“We used to go to the White Castle, down on the corner. And you remind me of a woman who used to work there. Her name was Rose.”

“I live right across the street,” says she. “I remember, Rose. She worked there a long time ago. She’s not there any more.”

“I think she’s be about a hundred now,” I joke.

“Small world,” say the Village People.

We finish our drinks and tell the red-haired lady we will get out of her hair now. She says something about needing to get ready for breakfast.

As we pull out of the station, I tell the Village People to look out the right side and back towards the tail end of the city to see the lights of Chicago. I return to roomette eight to sleep, perchance to dream.

When I awaken we are sitting in Cleveland station. I look out and see the wind turbine making free money off of the Lake Erie breezes. I think of the red-haired lady in the dining car and realize I did not get her name.

I finally get up and it is either 6:30 or 7:30 am. I cannot remember if I reset my watch. I go looking for some coffee, but the pot in my sleeper car is apparently dead. Jose, our sleeping car attendant who looks like Biff Henderson, is nowhere to be found. So, I pull on some decent clothing and go searching for the dining car.

I am again greeted by the red-haired lady. “The Irishman is here,” she says, a tone of Irish sarcasm in her voice. She directs me to an open seat in her section.

“Coffee?”

“Please, God love ya…” I say in my best Irish. I believe I am making a new friend.

As the red-haired lady brings me my first cup, I notice her name tag; Mary - of course.

I have the French Toast and chat with a man from San Antonio and his seven year old daughter. They are heading for Utica, NY, his hometown. This is the little girl’s first trip there. We talk about snow, Maine, trains and travel; the girl tells me she has four dogs and a cat. The man has not been there in years. I wonder if he will be surprised.

The San Antonians finish and leave, and I nurse the second cup hot java. As I am about to leave, Mary reappears with a coffee-to-go. Mary can apparently read my mind. I leave her a five buck tip and tell her I’ll see her at lunch. Now I know I have made a new friend. “Tank you, love,” she says as I shuffle back to the sleeper.

Is it a coincidence that we are riding along the shores of Lake Erie? I don’t think so.

Chicago

I have already blogged a brief description of our arrival into the Windy City – here are the details I left out.

Arrival in Chicago was delayed by “road work” and our encounter with the fuel leak in Havre. When we got to Milwaukee only ninety minutes late, I thought maybe we could make up that time with the “wiggle room” Amtrak leaves at the end of the schedule. But the Chicago Metra trains had their way with us and after cruising south at top speed for the first 30 miles, we came to a dead stop. Then we basically crept into Union Station apparently following two of the Metra as they made their rush hour returns to the city. This is another example of where America needs to make a decision about rail. Either we have an efficient passenger rail system, or we don’t. This half-way business is a lot of crap.

The problems with passenger rail apparently were created when the national highway system and then air travel became the predominant way Americans moved about the country. The freight trains then took over the rail and only kept track they met their needs.

When Amtrak was established something like 30 years ago, they tried to co-exist with the freights. But in many cases, the freights own the track and their rules give priority to freight traffic over passengers. This is grossly evident on the Albany to Boston run where the track is now owned by CSX and a 200 mile run often takes 6-7 hours. If any other transportation system was run this poorly the consumers would be up in arms. Wait, check that. The airline industry in now just as bad and people put up with it. Ugh.

Anyway, we finally made it to Chicago where I was met by Cousin Ralph and had a wonderful, albeit brief visit. We have started initial planning for a family adventure next summer.

Thank you Cousin Ralph for a wonderful dinner and visit!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Just more photos






Editor's Notes - II

I am adding these last few entries from the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago's Union Station. The Red Caps have been kind enough to re-boot the wireless router so I can get better connectivity. The Lounge is relatively empty as the folks with sleepers on the Lake Shore Limited were able to board at 8:00 PM. So, this is a quick update with little in the way of links and photos. I will re-edit them when I get home in two days and post.

But I have taken the time to update these blog entries for my fan club to be able to follow the progress across the country. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to take all of the most recent photos off of the camera and put them in the blog. I have some great clips including the adding of the final coach car in St. Paul this morning and the Empire Builder's return to Chicago.

This evening, we arrived in Chicago about two hours late. We apparently lost time during the night due to "track repair" and this put us out of sequence with other traffic. So we were fairly late coming into the Windy City at about 6:20.

Cousin Ralph met me at the station and took me to a wonderful restaurant down in the Loop and got me back in time to post these entries. I could easily spend hours here doing this and checking e-mail. But I will go to the train now and update the rest in about 48 hours.

Enjoy.

Last Day on the Empire Builder

We are now in Wisconsin speeding toward the City of Beer. I retook pictures of the Wisconsin Dells and the Mississippi River from LaCrosse to Red Wing to make up for the set that somehow got lost. Unfortunately, at this time of day, the light is not as dramatic and, although still beautiful, the pictures are not as nice as the ones taken last week.

In St. Paul we picked up another coach car and an abundance of new passengers. Along the way I continue to be amazed by the numbers of people who board and exit the train in all these little and big towns. I wonder if Amtrak may in fact be the only public transportation in some of these locales. In any case, it is clear the Empire Builder is more than a way of getting from coast to coast.

I skipped the dining car lunch again today and enjoy another Hebrew National hot dog in the club car.

Where the Deer, the Antelope and the Train Buffs Play

Yesterday morning, early, as we were making our way to Whitefish I was overjoyed to see so many deer out grazing in the small meadows adjacent to the track. I started counting and was up to six deer before we hit Whitefish. I was impressed by the size and good coloring of the animals assured this was a great place for deer to live.

The “deer” on the other side of the Rockies did not look so healthy, or so I thought. As we passed Browning on the way to Cut Bank, I noticed quite a few more creatures that were lighter in color and smaller in size.

At lunch, the guy that looked like Jimmy Carter suggested the “deer” I had been counting might actually be antelope. Indeed, we passed one at that very moment and it was confirmed that these creatures with the “fuzzy horns” were antelope.

So the count is all mixed up, but by dusk I was up to 16 creatures.

Throughout the trip there have been other kinds of “wildlife” along the rails. These are the “train buffs” who appear in all shapes and sizes and venture out whenever the Empire Builder comes to town. I’m sure “train buff” is an offensive term to them – similar to calling Star Trek fans “trekkies instead of the preferred “trekers.” Perhaps the correct term is “railroad enthusiasts,” so I will refer to them as RE’s.

The RE’s are everywhere, small towns, and large cities, at stations and at crossroads. Some come with cameras, some come with small children, and some come solo. But they are out there all the time. We just left Minneapolis/St.Paul and I saw a guy pulled over by the side of a busy highway, clicking away. In Albany on the way out, there was an entire video crew made up of college kids who were making a documentary. I offered my services for an interview, but was declined. In East Glacier there was an Asian man who had set up a large expensive camera and tripod on the platform and was wildly clicking away as the train pulled out of the station.

And, at literally hundreds of smaller stations and crossing gates along the route, cars could be seen filled RE’s anxious to see the train.

When we were kids at Point O’Woods, the New Haven Railroad passed nearby. At a place we called Little Beach, the rails sat on an elevated causeway next to the beach. This open area gave us the opportunity to see the train coming from a distance and jump up in time to wave.

Even though they still had passenger trains in those days, we mostly were interested in waving to the engineer – who in my mind always waved back. And he always blew his horn as he passed. We thought he was blowing it just for us, but as I got older, I realized the engineer was blowing the horn because of an unguarded crossing on that stretch of track.

Several years ago I was lucky enough to ride the high speed Acela train from Boston to Washington. I was most excited at the opportunity to pass Little Beach on this trip but was disappointed by the fact that at 100+ mph – the speed the Acela makes on that run – Little Beach was nothing more than a blur. I’m not sure the engineer blew his horn, but I am sure that any little kid standing on the beach would still be waving; even if we couldn’t see him.

Fore

Stanley must be the golfing capital of the North Dakota. As we cross into ND from Montana we are now in the western most section of the Central Time Zone. Similar to the coast of Oregon, the sun sets here very late. I think it was close to 10:00 pm when we made our stop in Stanley just under two hours late. The sun was just setting and when we left the station we passed a rather splendid looking golf course adjacent to the rail. There teeing up were two guys and another foursome could be seen on the adjacent hole. I’m not sure if I was impressed by the fact that there were so many people out golfing at dusk as much as the fact that they were golfing at almost ten o’clock at night. Those farmers!

Did I tell you there was a golf course at the Lodge in East Glacier?

The Woman Who Came to Dinner

I met some nice people at the wine tasting this afternoon. One was a teacher from Orlando, FL who looks like a young version of my friend Betty J. The other couple are from a small town in north central PA – I think they said Wellsboro. I had never heard of it. They indicated it was north of Williamstown and is known for its Victorian houses. Three years ago they purchased one of these old Victorians which they are now restoring. They travel a great deal on Amtrak and have seen a lot of changes. They tell us that the Empire Builder is trying to win back business by improving service, but apparently it is still a far cry from the golden days. They have gotten on in Albany so we will be seeing a lot of each other.

I chose the 5:00 pm dinner reservation which is listed as 6:00 pm because we are supposed to be in Central Time by then. I meet a couple from Mississippi and am looking forward to a leisurely dinner getting to know these people. But guess who shows up and ruins it.

Mrs. Landingham again dominates the conversation with all of her worldly knowledge and her insatiable need to impress the Mississippi folk. They are a sweet couple who are making their first trip. I think it must be their first trip out of Mississippi and the poor things clearly suffer from a poor education. The wife does most of the talking and is in awe of pretty much everything she has seen on the trip. I feel good that they are out there doing things, but Mrs. L is starting to embarrass them. There is a conversational thread that centers on the settlement of various ethnic groups in Arizona where Mrs. L lives. She notes that “Basques have settled there” and the Mississippi people think she is talking about “bass.” It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so cruel, particularly when she asks the woman if she ever reads.

We can’t get to Minneapolis fast enough. Mrs. Landingham is getting off there. If not, I’m throwing her off.

Hello SpongeBob

I spoke with Mary while waiting in Havre. She is doing good and following my progress back across the country on her map. She took time this morning to view all of the photos and video I left on her computer. She thinks the videos are great. I told her I plan to edit them together when I get home. Perhaps it will be a PBS documentary.

Good news and Bad News

The announcement was just made that Mr. Amtrak Mechanic has successfully fixed the leak and we will soon be on our way; emphasis “soon.” The announcer says something about having trouble starting the same engine. I joke that we may have to all get out and push. There is something about things coming in threes and this is the third things.

The bad news – we’re now one hour late.

Mrs. Landingham Strikes Again

I told you earlier about the old biddy who I had breakfast with and how she liked to tell tales about her trying experiences riding the rails. Well about an hour ago we arrived in Havre, MT a little ahead of schedule. I was in the dining car enjoying the conversation with three seniors, two of whom are retired teachers, and one that could be Jimmy Carter’s twin, when the train arrived in Havre. I noted that we were schedule to arrive around 1:15 and would have a half hour here at this coaling station.

When I noticed the freight train to our left leaving in our direction about 10 minutes before we were scheduled to leave, I remarked that I hoped we didn’t get behind him. Round of laughs. But when the time for our departure came and went, my antenna went up.

I heard the ominous announcement as I was heading back to my sleeper car. Apparently we have sprung a leak somewhere in the fuel system and have to wait for repairs. Carl our able attendant indicated it was supposed to be a half hour and now it’s up to an hour. That was a half hour ago and we are still gracing Havre with our presence. I probed Carl for more information with carefully scripted questions to get a sense of how serious this all might be. He made some comment about cars, planes and buses. I hope he is kidding.

As I reenter the sleeper, I see Mrs. Landingham heading for the shower.

Glacier

There are not enough superlatives to describe the magnitude of Glacier National Park. I’ll spare you the travelogue description but just say that waking up and eating breakfast on the Empire Builder in the Flathead region is something everyone must do at least once.

It is clearer today than last Thursday when we came west through here. I am on the same side of the train so I am seeing the same terrain, yet it looks completely different. Presently, we are between Essex and East Glacier and still climbing. A stark brown ridge is to the west gathering the direct angle of the morning sun and above. The contrail of an eastbound jet is visible in contrast to the deep blue sky.

Early this morning I woke when the train made an extended stop in Libby, MT. It was 5:30 MT – 4:30 Pacific Time - and the bright sky was already starting to fill the sleeper. We appear to be exactly on time. I felt the train pull in and stop in Spokane sometime past 1:00 am. When the power was turned off to hook us up to the Seattle train, the sudden quiet lulled me to sleep. So, I am operating on only about four hours of sleep and they were not my “beauty sleep.”

It always takes me a night or so to get used to a new bed, and despite the fact that I haven’t lost my Amtrak Legs, I did not find sleep easy to come by.

The most exciting thing to happen today – so far – was the ride through what I believe is the Flathead Tunnel. For a few moments I thought we were accidentally transported to the NYC Subway tracks. I climbed to the upper deck to get my morning java and decided to occupy my rear window perch for a few minutes while I sucked down the warm juice. I had just arrived on station when the lights went out. I thought it was a bit odd when I suddenly saw a lighted sign with the number 19 on it and the evidence of a ventilation tunnel and what appeared to be an emergency exit. These numbered signs continued to appear once every 50 seconds. So, by the time we got to sign number 16, I knew this was going to be a long time under the ground. Indeed this was a two-cupper as I was able to return to the coffee pot and suck down a second cup, all the while underground. In all we were probably only in the tunnel for about 15 minutes though it seems a lot longer. I can only imagine the confusion of the passengers who awaken at that time, looking out and seeing the stark blackness.

Despite the early hour, I decide it is a good idea to get to the dining car now. You will recall that the leg from Portland to Spokane is sans dining car, so I took this opportunity to check out the new chow house.

Fortunately, there are not too many early diners and I join two people. The first is a woman who I shall call Mrs. Landingham, because she reminds me of the character on The West Wing who played the President’s secretary. She has a bit of that matter-of-fact style of personality and the same pixie haircut. She boarded in Pasco last night and looks like she will be a handful. When she boarded, she made sure Carl the attendant knew she was to have an extra blanket in her sleeper. I also heard her tell him that she wanted her feet facing the front of the train in case we crashed. After she boarded, the head conductor came down to tell Carl the same thing. Mrs. Landingham has apparently been rather vocal about her needs.

Our other breakfast guest was a Coastie on his way from Seattle to Camp Lejeune, NC. I thought by his appearance that he was a Marine as he was sporting a cap that said Port Townsend covering his tight crew cut. But he corrected me and explained he was on his way to Lejeune for advanced “tactical boat driving.” Sounds like fun.

Coastie is riding in coach and talked about how he will be making this trip again in a few months with the rest of his family. I am shocked to learn he has four kids; he looks about 20 years old; must be all that fresh air.

Mrs. L had to have the last word in most of the conversation; I think I will be avoiding her. She did indicate that she travels frequently by Amtrak and proceeded to detail the various mishaps she’s had traveling by train. Now, I really want to stay away from her.

Just before 10:00 am we are in East Glacier and about to leave the park. The Lodge from this perspective is quite beautiful and I’m thinking this might be a great place for a vacation. Perhaps we should arrange for a SpongeBob and Patrick reunion here?

With my ears now popping we have passed Browning and are again descending to the high plains. Carl has just announced that there will be a wine and cheese tasting event at 3:00 pm and we need to sign up. I suspect the family of Amish/Mennonites that are in the sleeper across the aisle from me will take a pass on the wine. I only hope Mrs. L does too.

Passing Pasco

The Portland branch of the Empire Builder is rather empty. I chose this date to start my return to Maine based upon an expectation that not many people would want to travel on the 4th of July – I am apparently correct in my assumption.

After dinner, an interesting and delicious cold salad plate with slices of roast beef and a teriyaki glaze, complimented with a small fruit salad, biscuit and chocolate torte, I make my way to the observation lounge for more viewing. There are some beautiful scenes including a cascade (Bridal Veil?) across on the Oregon side of the river, but I can’t get the camera clicked fast enough to capture the beauty.

As was the case on our inbound trip, the change of vegetation color is dramatic. But unlike that trip, the river and the banks are now filled with people. On many of the small islands that appear to be nothing more than sand banks and eddies, dozens of boats have landed and their occupants taken over the beach to bath in the water and sun. There are many large fishing boats and dozens of personal watercraft buzzing around the river.

Along the shore line I notice numbers of trucks with campers that have found that special place for a 4th of July cookout and some fishing. Some of these camping spots are nothing more than a small grassy knoll between the rails and the water; I wonder how they found this spot and more importantly how they managed to get their vehicles perched on these narrow points of land.

With time, the sun gets lower and now moves from over our right shoulder to over our left. We have started to make the broad turn following the river as she moves north and then teases us briefly with a short western jog. I take my last look at Oregon and watch as the orange sky turns to many shades of purple and red. I calculate our position as just outside of Pasco, the place where five days ago we crossed the Columbia for the first time. I look to the south west and think of my sister now about 200 miles away.

The light on the horizon is fading fast as we make our way across the bridge into Pasco. The conductor had announced when we boarded that we might be able to see some fireworks in Pasco, but it is still not quite dark enough.

Pasco is one of the smokers’ stops so I take the opportunity to get out and stretch my legs. The air is still very hot, but feels good as I watch a small army of passengers head toward the train. The Pasco station is one of the newer ones on the line, but it sits near a neighborhood with some tired little houses and trailers. As we sit in the station taking on our new passengers, a few bottle rockets suddenly pop-up from that neighborhood. I think that these be the only fireworks I will see this 4th.

Within minutes of leaving Pasco we are back to dry open prairie land. I can make out the occasional farmhouse on the ridge off in the distance, the silhouette of an irrigation tower off to the north. We have turned north east and heading for high country.

Saying Goodbye to Mount Hood and Oregon

The Empire Builder picks up speed as it leaves Vancouver, WA. I vary my positions in the train trying to capture as much as I can. It is a stunning ride up the valley past hundreds, if not thousands of pleasure craft, their occupants enjoying everything the river can offer on this hot afternoon.

The sun starts to make her descent toward the Pacific and soon the shadows are growing longer. The hot air is crystal clear and, unlike our westbound arrival, we have clear views of Mount Hood as we ascend into the higher land. Passing Hood Valley, the mountain is resplendent in shape and size. I am now the closest as I will be on this trip. And as the miles stretch into hours Hood can still be seen but growing more distant and obscured as the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge steepen.

Somewhere past Wishram, WA, I lose sight of the mighty mountain altogether. I’m very, very sad.

Heading Home

The morning sun fills my room when I open the curtains at 7:50 am. I am getting acclimated to Pacific Time and waking at a time closer to my norm. I decide we need some real coffee this morning, not the stuff you make in the diminutive coffee pot they have placed in the room. It is the only part of the Homewood Suites that is less than satisfactory. I mean, if two or four people are staying in this suite how are you supposed to manage with a coffee pot that only make two cups?

I let Mary sleep in and fetch two BIG cups of coffee from the bottomless pot in the lobby. I also bring back the local paper, The Oregonian and read it cover to cover. Mary rises around 9:00, too late to get the free breakfast, and we decide to pack up and leave around 11:00.

Returning to Mary’s apartment, I spend the several hours doing laundry and watching the SpongeBob Squarepants Movie – first time for me, second for Mary. It is very silly and we laugh openly, most of the jokes would go over the head of a young child.

At 3:30 pm, Mary announces it’s time to leave. Sadly, we pack up the remaining pieces of my detritus stuffing everything into one of the three bags I am carrying.

We drive to Downtown Portland taking the scenic route over the mountain that Mary takes to work. This circuitous route takes us through a delightful park and winds through some hairy turns that would be a real challenge in bad weather. We soon descend into a series of pretty, affluent neighborhoods in Northwest Portland, past fancy restaurants and eventually to our destination, Union Station.

I am hoping to have some time to soak in the final minutes in Portland, but time is now moving too fast. I take some last minute photos of the station – a grand lady with a feel of the Old West and a fitting terminus for a train called The Empire Builder. I will have to research more information about Union Station when I get access on-line again. And I want to come back here and spend more time soaking in its history and warmth.

We go to the Metropolitan Lounge, the special area for those traveling First Class in the sleepers. The attendant announces that the train will boarding in a few minutes and I ask if there is time to buy some souvenirs in gift shop. Time is now in hyper speed and I am tense with the fear of missing the train even though I know I have 30 minutes left.

We drop the bags and then go to the gift shop for some final mementoes of Portland and Oregon; gifts for my neighbors who have been caring for my plants and a final present for Mary.

A few more photos, hugs and kisses and waves; I make the walk around to the train and look back one more time.

The Empire Builder leaves exactly on time. I am again in the last car although this time on the lower deck. I ask Carl, our attendant if it is okay to stand by the back window and take some photos as we leave the station. He says it is fine and I once again take my perch at the second best seat on the train.

I run the video on the camera and capture the scene of Portland as it is disappearing in the view finder. As we start to cross the Willamette River my cell phone rings and it’s Mary. She is already home and we are both sad that our time together was all gone. She wants me to come back at Christmas; indeed she would like me to move permanently to Portland; an interesting proposition.

We make some small talk and I describe the ride as we continue across the Columbia into Vancouver. We say good bye again and I promise to call her again tomorrow. I’m very sad.