Archive - September 2015

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So Long, America
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Washington, DC
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Hot-Dogs & Short Dogs

So Long, America

Amtrak to Miami was my final overnight rail journey.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and service. Although the days of elegant rail travel are gone, Amtrak presents a comfortable alternative to the flying oubliettes which infest the airways.  Leo, my cabin attendant, kept me smiling.  He sang popular hits as he went about his duties up and down the car.  When not singing, he was laughing.  I went to sleep that night to Leo’s rendition of ‘Strangers in the Night.’

The following day our train had to reduce speed because of heavy rain and flash flooding warnings in Georgia.  I thought of Sherman’s march through Georgia which isolated Robert E. Lee from supplies and brought the American Civil War to an end.  Like Hiroshima, Sherman’s March remains controversial, but no one denies that it brought the war’s inevitable outcome sooner.

I had an honor guard for the cab ride to my hotel, a young motorcyclist wearing jeans, trainers, police body armor, and little else.  Apparently more concerned with gunshot than traffic mishap, he wore neither helmet nor gloves.  His motorcycle did make a manly roar and his wrap-around sun glasses complimented nicely his black Kevlar chest plate.

Miami, with appropriate double vision, reminded me of San Diego and Las Vegas.  It is beachy, boozy, and built yesterday. On sand.  Panhandling is illegal in the tourist zones, the poor are neatly swept under the municipal carpet.  Tourists on the trail were soft, financially comfortable, and tipsy.  I wore my Hawaiian shirt and floppy sun hat to fade into the pack. Pleasure boats and homes of the super-wealthy abound and, according to our tour guide, the richest of them all is the retired CEO of an American pharmaceutical company. I forget his name.  Now I know where my co-payments live.  Can you imagine the bad karma of becoming a billionaire by overpricing chemotherapy?

On my final afternoon in North America I visited the Everglades by air-boat and cuddled Sunny, a baby alligator. Alligators have tongues, crocodiles do not.  Our host warned us not to french kiss Sunny.  Not tipsy, I wasn’t tempted.  The air boat trip commenced at a tilting totem pole which looked suspiciously contemporary.  Did the Seminoles  now running the Everglades casino worship totem poles before they moved on to slot machines?

Our guide pointed out the Florida State Prison and told us that there were fifteen prisoners currently on death row awaiting execution by electric chair or lethal gas, their choice. Or, he happily concluded, they could escape into the surrounding Everglades and take their chances with alligators, venomous snakes, and speeding air boats packed with tourists.  I’d try running.  Sunny would help me make my getaway.

So long, America, God bless you.

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Everglades Totem

Everglades Totem 

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Washington, DC

The rail trip from New York City to Washington presents a panorama of everyday America just outside the window.  Rail yards give way to shanties, suburbs, waterways, and wetlands.  Barefoot children of every color waive and gawk as polished aluminum carriages fly by.  Then, they return to the more important business of enjoying the last days of freedom before school resumes.

On a similar mission, I went with my grandchildren to Six Flags, a water park, the day after I arrived in Washington.  To my chagrin, I was stopped at the entry because I possessed a pocket knife and multi-tool.  Do they fear I’ll hijack a water slide, sabotage a slushie machine?  Later, disarmed,  I was refused service at the tiki hut for lack of photo identification. (The kindly barmaid, however, drew me a beer, but rang it up as a Coca-Cola.)  The children swam and squealed, splashed and gurgled their way through an intimidating world of high-g slides, mechanically induced waves, and trap doors into tunnels of doom. I thought about the kids I saw from the train, poking around black water tide-pools, throwing sticks for their dogs.

The Pentagon the following day was a complete surprise.  Security, although tight and formal, was also respectful, like that at Tienanmen Square. Inside, are a shopping mall, food courts, and whole corridors of museum exhibits and interpretive display.  The 9/11 Memorial was touching, not bellicose.  I said a prayer.

Mount Vernon, the nearby home of George Washington, also surprised me.  Half shrine, half museum, it carries visitors back to an earlier America, one where agriculture, not cocaine consumption, was the conspicuous evidence of wealth.  Washington and his peers put their lives and homes at risk when they declared independence from Mother England. These reluctant traitors, changed utterly by victory, became heroes and martyrs. Mount Vernon, which still has domestic animals, but no slaves, helps one bridge the centuries back to that life and their great gamble.  As she did in his lifetime, Martha Washington fades into the background.  She feared that revolt from England might provoke a slave insurrection, an ever present concern for white antebellum southerners.  What would happen if today’s enslaved Americans broke harness, unplugged their televisions? 

The Capitol, although a busy, working city, also partakes of museum and showplace.  The monuments and public building are set like gems among lawns, gardens, and water features.  This feels Parisian, there is an awareness of placement, line, and highlight.  The city has the beauty and grace of a woman in full, all eyes turn to her.  Radiant, confident in her splendor, she has a Mona Lisa smile.

The FDR and Martin Luther King Memorials made me proud, hopeful that America may yet fulfill the promise of democracy. Multiracial crowds paused to contemplate these great leaders, to be photographed in their company.

During my visit I stayed with my son and daughter-in-law in their home on Bolling Air Force Base, across the Anacostia River from the Capitol.  Bolling is where the Presidential helicopter is hangered, also the site of the Presidential Communications Center. Security is firm, photography is restricted, but it’s a comfortable little community with its own facilities, including Starbucks, a shopping mall, and grocery store.  What I liked best was its easy cycling access to the Capitol.  I could ride Ms Von B along protected bike paths most of the 6.5 mile trip to Capitol Hill.

Cycling is popular in Washington and there are few restrictions on bicyclists.  The city has several bike tourist offerings and one can rent a municipal bike by the hour.  On foot, walking the major monuments takes several hours.  Cycling between monuments, dismounting to visit them, is a fun alternative and saves your feet.  A tip – the United States Botanic Garden, at the foot of Capitol Hill, is an island of serenity.  Admission is free, the temperature is pleasant year round, and the loos are clean.  It’s a nice place to pause, doubly so if plants and gardening interest you.  If I lived in DC, the Botanic Garden would be my home away from home.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s centerpiece is the Space Shuttle Discovery, but there is much, much more.  I lost myself in the collection of early flight artifacts. You can see the Wright Brothers’ Model A flyer, gyro-copters, ultra-lights, and hang gliders; hot rod aerobatic machines, combat warriors, cold warriors, and Superfortress Enola Gay.  All now hang silently as a daily procession of pilgrims trail by.  The B-29, Flak-Bait, whose patched skin reflects damage from over 200 bombing runs in WWII, is visible in the restoration shop.  At peace now, she holds the record for completed runs over Nazi Germany.  She brought all her crews home.

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FDR & Two Old Dogs

FDR & Two Old Dogs

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Smilin' Jack

Smilin’ Jack

Dr MLK

Dr MLK

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Hot-Dogs & Short Dogs

I dropped my rental car in Amherst, near Buffalo in Upstate New York, and, on a whim, decided to walk the five miles back to my hotel.  In winter, such an impulse could prove fatal, but in summer it’s just lonely.  Suburban anywhere in America is not engineered for pedestrians. I walked along the littered margins of the roadway, through untended wasteland, and across paved strip malls to reach my destination.  Along the way, I passed a middle school so sere I mistook it for a prison and encountered only two other walkers, a young woman who resolutely refused to make eye contact or respond to my greeting and a young man who grinned and shrugged. The woman seemed embarrassed to be car-less,  I think the guy shared my sense of absurdity at being so completely alone in the heart of suburbia, a world of cracking pavement and roadside detritus.

Hungry, I stopped at The Olive Branch, a franchised food trough, where I was offered a nice house red and a gadget upon which one may play video games for $1.00 each. Happily, I had my Kindle reader and could forebear the electronic joys of car-jacking and killing while awaiting my pasta e fagioli.

Back at the hotel, the television was abuzz with the racism, sexism, and bad hair of the Republican front-runner, a billionaire named Trump.  (The name invites a limerick, but I can’t be bothered.)  Given the choice of that or baseball on television, I resumed reading Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, now published together in chronological order.

Buffalo to NYC:

Amtrak from Buffalo to New York City is a long day’s journey. I booked Business Class to enjoy more comfortable seating for this passage through the heartland of 19th Century America.  I fantasized meeting Joanna Lumley and pitching her to re-trace my entire journey with a BBC film crew – ‘Joanna and Jack’s Absolutely Fabulous Journey Around the World in 180 Days.’  We’d have cigars and brandy together at the Roosevelt House in Shanghai, be later ejected persona non grata for demonstrating in support of Falun Gong in Tienanmen Square. Joanna’s tougher than she looks.

This reverie was interrupted by hunger and the reality of Amtrak’s commuter cuisine, microwaved hot-dogs paired with plastic short dogs of Cabernet.  Although the frankfurters had a nice ‘pop’ when masticated and the wine was far better than its presentation, I can’t feature Joanna stooping to such vulgar fare.  Perhaps Amtrak could be induced to offer a brief reprise of a first class dining – hot-dogs and sauerkraut with chips, served on bone china, with real silver, and wine in Waterford Crystal.

The train passed through Rochester, where Frederick Douglass made his home.  Rochester was a hotbed of Abolitionist activity before the American Civil War and the destination station of the Underground Railroad.  Arriving there, escaped slaves had a devil’s choice, remain in Rochester where they were very welcome, but exposed to capture and return under the Fugitive Slave Law, or escape to Canada where slavery was illegal, but former slaves unwelcome socially.  Many chose the former and their descendants still live in Rochester, proudly tracing their ancestry to the bravest and luckiest of the self-emancipating slaves.

Along the way to Albany and on to New York City we passed by acres of auto salvage, shanty towns, and train yards where sprayed graffiti marked the empty walls and carriages. Groups of children, descendants of slaves and slave catchers, played in puddles and wetlands.  They paused to grin and waive as the train flew by.

At the end of the long day, I took a commuter train to New Jersey, to spend the weekend with old friends before continuing on the Washington, DC, America’s capitol city.

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Copyright Jack Kelleher © 2014.