Arriving, Departing or Just Passing Through

I stood hard against the tiled wall and made room for the rush of human traffic trying to pass me.  I was thinking about insanity and the blindness of powerful people to hold sacred something that once had beauty and class.

Beauty and class are rare commodities these days.

I was in the bowels of Penn Station, somewhere between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave.  Somewhere between 34th St. and 31st St. Somewhere below the giant oval that is Madison Square Garden.

Somewhere, somehow something was missing.

I was waiting for the Adirondack, the train that would take us to Albany where our car was parked.  I looked around for the great wooden benches.  All were gone.  I had to wait inside an enclosed “waiting room” filled with plastic and metal seats.  The fast food outlets all sold the same wraps and bags of chips.  Somewhere, I’m sure, was a bar.  The small kiosk that sold the several daily newspapers were now Hudson News stores where I could get a hundred copies of Elle, Glamour and Men’s Health. I’m sure there was a shoe-shine, but I wouldn’t know where to look.

OldPennStation

I thought of the thousands of GI’s who kissed their Bronx girlfriends good-bye during WWII.  Some of them came home.  I thought of the many others, soldiers, men and women, who went off to conflicts.  Some came home.

I thought of an out of work salesman heading for Chicago…there was a possible job waiting for him.  Sometimes he came home to get his wife and head back to the Windy City to start life over.

There were the thousands of runaway girls (and boys) who could afford a train ticket from Wichita or St. Paul who came to the City in search of fame or fortune, or just wanting to disappear into the masses.  A few made a new life.  Most didn’t.  But at least they were solvent enough to afford a coach seat.  The ones who couldn’t save enough from the waitressing job in Akron, had to arrive at Port Authority Bus Terminal.  So many ended up on 8th Ave. selling themselves for a bottle or a vial.

PennStationSign

I looked for the Grand Staircase.  I found only escalators.  Where were the places where people stood and embraced?  Saying “Good-bye” or “Thank God you’re home”.  There was no place to stand and embrace.  Everyone was hurrying to somewhere.

Pulling rolling luggage, everyone stood looking at the big black board for the next LIRR departure or the next Amtrak arrival.

There was no place to stand and think.  So, I stayed pressed against the tiled wall.

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I’ve looked at the archives of Old Pennsylvania Station.  Things looked better in Black & White.  That’s the insanity.  The City razed the old station and built the place where I was now standing.

TimeTableatPennStation

I saw my wife through the glass partition.  She was waving at me to hurry over because the Red Cap was going to help us get to Platform 7.  The northbound Amtrak, the Adirondack was on time.

The small bottle of water (water used to be free) cost about $3.00.  A bag of peanuts made me $3.25 poorer.  I looked over the turkey and cheese wraps.  More bread than turkey and cheese combined.  I thought about Ptomaine.  I passed on the wrap.

I slipped on my backpack, walked past four National Guard soldiers with AK-47’s on their shoulders and met my wife.

Before we boarded, I swallowed the diuretic I was taking.  Try dealing with that forty-five minutes later in a small bathroom on a train that swayed like sailboat in a gale.

 

 

Passports 3: Passing Through the Fields of Death

We left Paris on a crisp bright May morning.  This was the only day-long excursion we booked in advance.  We were going to visit Mont St. Michele in Brittany.  The trip would take us four hours one way, in a northwest direction to this 850 year old Abbey mountain.

Our route took us through the hills of Normandy, north and west of Paris.  This was the precious ground, the holy ground that over a million Allied troops were to fight for in the weeks after D-Day.  It all looks so gentle and peaceful since those times, 70 years ago, when the troops headed to liberate Paris.  It took them two months to reach this city.  It took us just hours to pass through.  We wanted to visit the beaches, Omaha, Juno and others on another excursion but found the cost too prohibitive.  So, we simply passed through to make a more affordable trip to this beautiful Abbey.

The photos that are inserted below were shot from the bus window.  They are not the best quality…how could they be when you’re moving so fast along a motorway?  But these fields, hedgerows, stone farm houses and small villages were not picturesque in 1944 like they are today in 2014.  No, each hedge, each small field experienced death and conflict.  The Germans were defending the French soil.  The Allies were intent on freeing France from the tyranny of Nazism.

The very soil that now grows the famous Normandy apples trees, feeds the cows that provide the succulent cheese…were all fertilized by the blood of an occupying army and the blood of an army of liberation.

I look out the coach window and try to put myself in the head of a GI who was lucky enough to make it past the deadly sands of the landing beaches.  I tried to visualize myself crawling, walking and slogging my way south to Paris.  I tried to tap into the collective memory of any one of the thousands of soldiers who saw the same sun that I was seeing…the same clouds that I was watching…the same stone buildings that were still standing.  I tried to go back in time to be that lonely, frightened, homesick young man.  Then the thought came to me that, perhaps, if by some twist in time, I became that soldier…would I make it across the next patch of green pasture? Or, would I feel a sudden pinch in my temple or chest…fall to the ground, and watch the blue sky bleed away into the whiteness, leaving a child, widow, mother and father to grieve for me back in America…and honor me when the flags come out?  Yes, when the flags are put on the vet’s graves, by tradition on May 30,  the day before my birthday.

The coach lurched and I found myself balancing my iPad mini on my knee.  I turned away from the fields of death, now so very beautiful, said a heartfelt prayer for those who made it to Paris and eventually home, and for those who did not.  They are still here, under one of the countless white crosses in the American Cemeteries around Caen.

I went back to my solitaire game.  I was in the present moment again.

But, was I? Really?

 

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NormandyFields1

NormandyCrossroads