Friday, October 26, 2007

Not Forgotten: An Addendum

I find it kind of ironic that I know enough about my great grandfather Victor that I can write four blog posts of his life and yet I knew my great grandmother Grace well and yet know very little about her past. Mostly it is because I don't have a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from which to glean those little details that fill in the decade between the census reports. Even the census reports have been difficult as her maiden name is a very common one and tracing her ancestors has proved extremely difficult. So as an addendum to the writings on my great grandfather Victor, here is what I know about his wife, my great grandmother Grace.

Grace Viola was born in Iowa on September 15, 1897 and from 1900 until she was married, lived in Clinton, Iowa. I suspect that was where she was born but have no documentation to prove it. I do know that her father was Frank Isaac who was also born in Iowa but whose parents were both from Virginia. Grace's mother Annetta Jane is also listed as being born in Iowa but where she comes from is somewhat of a mystery to me. On the three census reports in 1900, 1910 and 1920 that I have on her lists her father as coming from Ohio, Virginia and Indiana and her mother from Virginia in all three cases. I suspect that I know who they are and that Virginia is where her father was born but have nothing more than a hunch for proof.

Grace went to the same college as Victor before the war so I suspect that is where they met and since they were married within a couple months of his return, where they dated. They had two children, my grandfather and my great uncle, whom I should blog about sometime and lived most of their lives in Rockford and Cedar Falls. This is where there is a great huge gaping blank in my knowledge of her life.

My personal memories of my grandmother Grace as I called her, begin when they moved up north from Florida after Victor had his several massive strokes. We always enjoyed seeing her because she would play cards with us for money (nickels) for hours on end when everyone else was busy doing other things. Although she was in her mid to late 80's at the time, she got around well and never really seemed that old to me.

After Victor died, she stayed for a while in her apartment near my grandparents before moving herself up to Albert Lea, Minnesota where she had an apartment in an assisted living community. She had a kitchenette to do some cooking but could go downstairs and enjoy a dinner prepared for her too. The building was probably ten stories tall and housed hundreds in similar conditions so she always had a group of friends to play games with and socialize. She lived there for a couple years before her heart stopped on January 13, 1989.

I went to the second funeral of my life and once again had to endure being herded past the coffin by my grandmother to see how "beautiful" Grace's corpse was. Afterwards, we moved her belongings out of the apartment into a rental truck and drove back across the snowy ground to Iowa and my grandparent’s house. All told, I probably have seven years worth of memories of her and they were mostly around playing Thirty-One for nickels. Not much to go on but all that I have

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Exploring My Family Tree: Not Forgotten - Part Three

On the fifth attempt on August 9, 1917, Victor was finally accepted for service in the 106th Aero Repair Squadron at Des Moines. He procured a waiver from Washington, D.C., and was sworn in on August 15th in Denver, Colorado and sent to Kelly Field, Texas. He remained there, I presume for basic training until October 28th when he was transferred to Garden City, New York and shortly there after a multi-stop trip overseas that finally landed him at Liverpool, England on Christmas morning and France four days later. He spent much of the next year between Camp De Coetquidan which was 45 miles inland from St. Nazaire and Camp Neucon where the 1rst and 4th aero observation schools were maintained.

I suppose whatever prevented him from joining the military the first four attempts prevented Victor from seeing the front lines much to his dismay. In a letter home he wrote, "It makes a fellow rather restless when he reads of what the boys are doing at the front and what they are putting up with and then to think that I have been over here almost a year and every time I move they send me farther from the front and every day the front is getting farther from me. I guess the only way I will ever be able to see the front will be to put in a request for a pass to Berlin. It would be as easy as trying to get there as a combatant."

As winter approached, Victor mused in letters that he should be on the first boats home since he was near a port but time and time again he was left behind. He requested that his parents "write encouraging letters if you have to stretch your imagination and the truth to do it, as circumstances alter cases and anything is fair in war." Victor spent another Christmas overseas and voiced his displeasure in a poem written to the local newspaper back home.

As the Boys "Over There" View It
An Answer to Mr. Taft

There is gloom, despair and sadness in the A.E.F. today,
For Taft, "The Obese Tribune," has had his little say;
"Empty all the training camps, let the last called go home,
But keep the real crusaders far across the briny foam.
Let them shoulder pick and shovel for a couple short years more,
They are easy marks, these heroes, and they surely won't get sore.
Let their mothers, wives and sweethearts wait, of men we have a plenty,
And, besides, it might go hard with us along in nineteen twenty."
And so rambled along like that, it certainly is amusing,
To hear a former president his hero friends abusing;
For well he knows the yearnings of a heart so far from home,
Or else he's positively dense and ratty in the dome.
We signed for the "duration" and not two years aft;
And if you think it is proper, why come over, Mr. Taft.
There is lots of room for statesmen now: the soldier's done his part,
This is our solemn answer: this is the men's retort.
So prove you're truly human, Bill, and start right now to pack,
So you can help out over here, and let the boys go back.

Exploring My Family Tree: Not Forgotten - Part Four

Sometime in the spring of 1919, he finally made it home and soon after, married my great grandmother Grace Viola in Grand Mound, Iowa at noon on June 18, 1919. Later the same evening the newlyweds left on a honeymoon to Chicago and wouldn't return home until August 1rst to the cottage they would call home on Wildwood farm near Rockford, Iowa owned by my great great grandfather. There they would farm for only a few years before moving to Cedar Falls, Iowa.

They lived in Cedar Falls for almost the next forty years. My great grandfather worked as a traveling salesman for Carey Salt Company of Hutchinson, Kansas. He and Grace would raise two sons and see them into the world before retiring in 1960 and moving to Fort Myers, Florida. Up until recently, I had thought my great grandfather had had Alzheimer’s disease because I remember him not knowing who I was during our visits to him in a nursing home. But I learned from my grandmother that he actually had several massive strokes sometime in the late 70's or early 80's that caused his memory loss. When my great grandmother Grace could no longer take care of him, my grandparents went down to Florida, packed up their stuff and moved them to Iowa. My grandfather was put in the Good Samaritan Center where my memories of him begin. What I wouldn't give to relive just one of those visits today now that I'm older. On a Sunday morning three years after the move north on January 27, 1985, he died.

His funeral was the first funeral I had ever been too and I remember my great grandmother Grace taking my brother and I up to see Victor and show us how natural he looked. He wasn't even close to natural looking and I think there began the root of what later grew into my distaste for funerals and my desire to remember the dead in my memories instead of the open casket. I prefer to remember him as a strapping young man full of life and energy holding up perhaps one of the largest fish I had ever seen at the time next to a beautiful young lady in a boat. I like the memory of green gumdrops too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Exploring My Family Tree: Not Forgotten - Part Two

Victor very well could have led a short life, leaving me little to write about. One example is when his mother went out to pick some wild plums and left 2-year old Victor in the buggy. When she returned the buggy was gone and only after a frantic search did she find it over a mile away with Victor sitting up and laughing with glee at his mother. Later as a youth, Victor was badly bruised and narrowly escaped more serious injury after falling off the tongue of a strawstacker while hitching a ride through town. Even in college he suffered a close call and badly burned his right hand in a chemical explosion in a laboratory where he was heating some potassium chlorate. But he survived and lived to continue a lineage that now goes through me. I wonder had I known what I do now, if his hand still bore the scars of the lab explosion.

I know from newspaper clippings that Victor was active in the Boy scouts and was part of the "Panther Patrol". At the time of one clipping, his rank was above Tenderfoot since he is listed as giving the test to other scouts hoping to achieve that rank.

I don't know much of Victor's teenage years. I do know that at age 14 in 1910, he was still living at home, could speak, read and write English according to the U.S. Census. But in a few short years, life as everyone know it changed when the Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I broke out. Once out of school and at the age of 19, Victor registered for the military. (The only signature I have for him is at the bottom of this application.) For unknown reasons, perhaps because of the burns on his hand, he unsuccessfully attempted to join the military. I do know that while trying to get into the military he continued on with his education by attending Cornell College at Mt. Vernon and worked as a clerk in his father's boot, shoe and harness making business.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Exploring My Family Tree: Not Forgotten - Part One

"Here is the human biography in a nutshell. Born, welcomed, caressed, cried, fed, grew, amused, reared, studied, examined, graduated, in love, engaged, married, quarreled, reclined, suffered, deserted, sick, dead, mourned, buried and forgotten." -author unknown

I knew my great grandfather Victor but I never knew him. With the exception of his son who is still living at 80+ years of age, I perhaps now know more about him than anybody else and upon my death, would make the last three words of the above saying come true, buried and forgotten. Perhaps this is the reason why I have religiously written a journal at home and why I have taken up blogging in more recent years. I don't want to be forgotten and I don't want those who made me whom I am today to be forgotten, so I write it down for someone someday to find and remember.

Up until a couple years ago when I got into genealogy, I knew nothing of my great grandfather Victor other than from my memories of his time in a nursing home and his love of green gumdrops which I wrote about earlier this year. However, recently while talking with my grandmother I learned some new things about him and discovered at least one thing that I had "remembered" that wasn't true. So I set out to rediscover my great grandfather Victor and to learn about a man I never really knew. The story I have written is comprised from what my grandmother told me, what census data and other online sources have told me and what faded newspaper clippings saved by my great great grandmother have told me.

Victor was born on Saturday, December 7, 1895 in Rockford, Iowa, son of a leather goods maker who was the son of a German immigrant saddle maker. An unknown author listed his birth in the paper with the following words, "That the boy may grow up and meet the expectations of his proud and happy parents, is our wish."

Victor was brought up in a comfortable life paid for by his father's business of making boots, shoes and harnesses. Big social events, parties occurred on a fairly frequent schedule and were always well documented in the local papers. Though cars were still mystery to most people, Victor and his family made many trips out west to such exotic places like Arizona and California, also well documented for the local papers.

-Letter from Arizona by Hattie Moore Strait

…My last vision of Master (Victor) was a plump, squirming bundle of white embroidery in arms; he is now a bright little man, with a sweet, round face - the picture of his charming mother. It was with regret that I learned they were en route to California and were booked for the early morning train next day. The memory of that brief visit remains, and the pleasure derived thereby, convinces me that I am not yet weaned from the home of my childhood as I vaguely supposed was the case.

They even had some run-ins with Indians though by that time they were on reservations and the run-in was deliberate during a visit to the Indian school. Times and attitudes were much different as my great great grandmother demonstrates in a letter she wrote from California that said, "…It surely seems that Uncle Sam is doing grand work in educating those ignorant people."

Friday, October 19, 2007

Stories of Iowaville: Crooked Hardware

Bill Crooked has a hardware store up the street from Thomas Grocery and Jake's Barber Shop. It was one of those shops that had a little of everything tucked away on some shelf and if he didn't have it, he could get it in a few days. Those stores for the most part have long been replaced by big box stores that have a lot of a few common items. One holdout in the town where I currently live exists and I think of Crooked Hardware every time I go into that place which is as often as I can.

I don't have many memories of Crooked Hardware but I do have a couple of Bill the owner. I remember one windy day while my grandfather loafed down the street at the scales, I wandered over to the hardware store and Bill showed me how to fly a kite with a fishing pole. It was your average plastic kite with a wooden dowel spanning the center and the line connected it up to a fishing pole. Although you still had to launch it the old fashion way of paying out some line and running, once it was in the air, letting out or reeling in more line was as easy as pulling in a big fish. It was the coolest thing in kite flying I had ever seen at the time.

The remaining memory is like so many memories of other stores of that era in that when you shopped at Crooked's place, you had to stop and loaf for a while. (I'm not sure if loafing is a well-defined term outside of this area but it means to stop and gossip usually while enjoying a soda pop with a small group of people.) There weren't any chairs to loaf on so we mostly stood bellied up to the counter while Bill sat inside the horseshoe shaped counter in the one and only chair. I mostly remember being bored of the typical weather and farm talk and always begged my grandfather for a penny to put in the model outhouse that held a mousetrap hidden inside and would explode apart upon dropping the penny in the slot on top. There was a stencil near the slot on top that said, "Do not put coins in here." Perfect bait for a young boy.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stories of Iowaville: Jake the Barber

Jake the barber's lonely daughter
Went down to her daddy's shop
She plugged herself to a barber pole
And took a little off the top

-Living In the Future by John Prine

I was shaking like a leaf when I sat down in the chair and the cord was cinched tight around my neck. The green folds of plastic draped across my legs like a cape worn on the wrong side. Jake spun the chair around so that I was facing the mirror, eyed me up and proceeded to cut my hair with a very sharp pair of shears. I kept an eye on my ears wondering if that would be the last time I saw them whole.

Jake the barber of Iowaville, had a small shack built onto a vacant lot just north of Thomas Grocery where an old building had been removed, well before my time on earth had begun. A beauty shop would move into a building up the street several years later but at the time of this memory, Jake was the only game in town and would be so for many more years until he hung up his shears and retired.

Rumor had it that Jake had clipped off part of someone's ear once upon a time and so I was scared that a similar fate would befall me. When Jake started trimming the hair around my ears, I'm sure a large corner fence post swayed more in a light breeze than I did. Finished, he pulled out a little round whiskbroom and swept the hair from my neck in a motion that tickled just a little. I thought he was finished but he pulled a glass bottle containing some green thick liquid from a shelf and poured a little in his hands before massaging it into my scalp. The liquid had a medicine smell and made my eyes burn and water just a bit. He untied my cape and wiping my eyes, I staggered out to the sidewalk to wait for my mom to pay.

On the ride home, my mom complained of the stink from the green gel and rolled all the windows down. Once home, I was ordered into the bath to get rid of the foul smelling stuff and then again later before bedtime when she determined that it still smelled. To a young boy, two showers and being forced to sit still while someone cut your hair was akin to torture. I begged my mom to cut my hair instead of Jake but she always forced me to go anyway. However, she would always insist that Jake leave off the green gel when the haircut was finished. I finally convinced my mom to let me go to the beauty shop up the street when I was about a freshman in high school and got a buzz cut. When my mom saw that, she decided that she could save the money by doing it herself and that was the way it was until I left home and set out on my own.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chicago Journals: End of the Line

While waiting for the opening of the Museum of Art, we took pictures of an old man on a Segway and one abstract art picture on the outside of the museum. I'll leave it up to you to determine what the picture is about but it was taken by Mrs. Abbey. The museum finally opened, we paid our dues and wandered the halls. Several exhibits including the American Gothic were closed for renovations so we couldn't see that one but there was a lot to see. For me, art is art and can be seen by walking by at a slow pace without reading who did it or learn more about the specific piece. I appreciate it but not as much as most of the people there. So it took me perhaps a little over an hour to see the entire museum until I got to the miniature exhibit.

The miniature exhibit was a room consisting of dozens of scale model houses built in exquisite detail right down to the crown molding and chandeliers. Each model house was behind an opaque wall with a glass window allowing you to see into just one room. I passed several of these windows thinking they were scale model rooms until I happened to look out of a doorway in one of these rooms and see another room with a grand staircase going up to a second floor out of view. In the second room which I could only see through a scale model doorway I could see yet another door and yet another room beyond. There was an entire house and yet I could see only a small portion through the tiny viewing window.

As I went through the display, every house was like this with only one room immediately visible and a hole other world that could be seen through doors and windows. The detail was breath taking and I was awed. My wife and I probably spent half of our time at the museum touring this one room of miniature houses. For the life of me, I don't know why I never took a picture of one of these models but when I got home and downloaded all of the pictures from the trip, that portion was without record. But thanks to Google and the internet, the three pictures posted below can be found along with many more if you go to the Thorne Collection online.

When we left the Art Museum, we had a couple hours left before our scheduled departure time so we decided to walk back to Union Station and stop for some lunch at a café that we could surely find along the way. However since it was officially lunchtime in Chicago, this proved more difficult than imagined but we eventually succeeded. I got my standard Patty Melt sandwich that I use as my personal taste gauge on all new restaurants. It ranked about a 4 or 5 on the ten-point scale. However, my wife got some ravioli cooked in a red sauce that was absolutely horrible. Fortunately they had plenty of bread to fill up on.

Deciding our luck in Chicago had run out, we hoofed it back to Union Station, got our bags from the locker and headed down to the train level. Unlike the stop near where we live that was at an old time depot, Union Station looked more like an airport. Like an airport, we were treated as cattle and herded around and stopped frequently to allow those in first class to board first. But we finally boarded and pulled out of the station on schedule. The ride home went smoothly thanks to the entertainment provided by the Train Talkers and Train Walkers and we pulled into our station only a few minutes late. As we waited for the train to pull away so we could cross the tracks to our waiting car, I couldn't help but wish the trip would have lasted a little longer

Monday, October 15, 2007

Life Changing Events

I had just gotten home Friday afternoon when my wife answered the phones. I could hear my mom in a wavering voice saying things like broken ribs, crushed ankle and suddenly fear washed over me. I raced for the other phone and soon learned that my little brother had fallen off a grain bin while on vacation at the family farm and was pretty banged up and about to be transferred from the regional hospital to the University Hospital. I knew it was bad and my blood ran cold. We called the Mrs. Z (daycare lady) and asked if she could look after Little Abbey for the night. She said yes and so I quickly took Little Abbey back over there. Seconds later Mrs. Abbey and I were heading north to the university.

We beat my brother to the emergency room but were soon reunited. It was the first time I had seen him since Christmas last year and he was lying on the rolling cart in obvious pain. Lots of pain. I tried to take his mind off things by making jokes about not being able to find good help these days and flying but he couldn't really listen through the fog of his pain. They kept injecting him with morphine but evidently it didn't have an effect on him and it was only a couple hours into it when they tried another drug that worked better, only slightly.

After numerous x-rays we finally learned the extent of his injuries. He didn't have any broken ribs but his right wrist had a hairline fracture. The lower end of his left leg had been shattered into 10 or 15 little pieces and shoved down through his ankle. It looked horrific and had he been a horse, they would have taken him out back and shot him. But fortunately he was in America and the best doctor in the world was on call and was going to do a surgery that he pioneered to fix him. We waited. Finally early Saturday morning, they said the surgery would be put off until later that morning at seven and wheeled my brother off to a room upstairs. My parents went with him but I couldn't.

His girlfriend was scheduled to arrive at the airport in the afternoon and someone had to go pick her up. I volunteered. So I went home and slept until time to leave and went to pick her up. All during my three-hour drive to the airport, I kept hearing via my wife's cellphone that the surgery kept getting bumped and would possibly not occur until Monday, which just infuriated me. My brother was in tremendous pain and I felt like we were young again and I would do anything I had to protect him. I was his big brother after all. But just a few minutes from the airport, I got the call that after three and a half hours of surgery, he was out and in recovery.

Later that evening in tow with his girlfriend, I arrived at the hospital and saw my brother again. They had put two bolts into his heel bone and two bolts into his leg bone well above the break. In-between the bolts, they had attached a rod with a turnbuckle and had stretched his leg in surgery. Because all his muscles and tendons had still been attached, the many shattered pieces had resumed their normal positions and looking at the new x-ray, I couldn't believe that I was looking at the same leg I had seen earlier. It truly was a pioneering procedure and will probably save him from a life of being crippled. In fact, other than some early arthritis in that joint, the prognosis is a full recovery.

Broken bones take about two weeks before they begin to heal. So the doctors still may lengthen the rod to get the bones positioned just right and decide sometime today if he needs another surgery to maybe screw on one of the larger pieces. If not, he will probably be discharged later this week with no cast on the leg other than the rod, turnbuckle and screws and the cast on his arm. He won't be able to walk on it for up to six months and it may take two years for complete recovery. So Saturday evening as I was heading home well after dark, my mind was on a happy high knowing things might end up just all right after all.

I pulled on the divided four-lane freeway and headed south. About ten minutes into my journey as I was slowly passing someone with my cruise set and evidently their cruise set just a fraction below mine, I saw some lights ahead appear over a hill. In the next four seconds, I spent probably three of those seconds looking at those lights and thinking they were headed right for me not comprehending the situation. Finally at the last second, I locked up my brakes, swerved in behind the vehicle I had been passing that miraculously didn't hit the brakes too and sealed my fate, before the car went flying north on the wrong side of the divided highway. I had been a second from death, no more. I was scared. Behind me on the busy evening traffic, cars were swerving all over to avoid the two red ember taillights that disappeared over the next hill still going the speed limit of 65 mph.

After I regained my senses, it still took me a half hour to understand what had happened. By that time, calling 911 on the cellphone right beside me was probably out of the question. So I drove home, hugged my wife, told her I loved her, tucked in Little Abbey and gave thanks to God that both Abbey brothers were still alive and kicking for another day. Life can change so fast.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Chicago Journals: Bad Trees and Jesus

On the final day, we decided to sleep in but being accustomed to waking up early, still ended up at the Cumberland Gap train station at the same time as the previous day. We caught the Blueline train downtown this time riding all the way to Clinton Ave. station and walking the few blocks to Union Station where we would catch the California Zephyr back home later in the day. We stashed our bags in a rental locker and caught a bus towards Michigan Avenue.

I followed along on my map and when we were one block away from the Chicago Museum of Art, we hopped off and walked the rest of the way. Getting around in this town using mass transportation is just so easy. The museum was closed and wouldn't open for another couple hours so decided to head for Millennium Park. However, I misread the map that I had brought along and we set out south. I thought the pink square was the art museum and instead it was a symbol of a painting. But I quickly realized my mistake and we walked back north enjoying the large park.

At Millennium park, we stopped at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the BP Bridge, Cloud Gate which we referred to as the silver bean, and Crown Fountain. I also saw Jesus and took his picture walking on water along with some trees that evidently had been bad and were now behind bars. We finally arrived back at the steps of the Museum of Art and sat as a crowd gathered for the opening of the doors fifteen minutes later.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chicago Journals: La Filipiniana

My wife got home a half hour after I did and after freshening up, we headed back to the Cumberland Gap train station, this time heading to the lower level where the buses stopped. According to my map, around a half dozen buses terminated their route there and one of them was headed out to a mall in Niles where La Filipiniana was located. The buses showed up within minutes of our arrival and soon we were headed north through suburban Chicago.

If you ever want to find a certifiable crazy person, all you have to do is hop on to buses in some large city. It never takes too many bus rides to find one and this time, we found one on our very first trip. A lady sitting up in the front seat was chatting away with the bus driver while he nodded his head and drove. She started off telling him that she was fluent in about twenty different languages including Tagalog (my wife's native language) and other ones spanning the globe. However, the only one I ever heard her speak in was English.

She then went on to talk about the problems with every race probably offending everyone except the white Caucasians on the bus and those she merely embarrassed with her rantings. She had death threats against her by the Russian Mafia and the Chicago Crips. She explained to the black bus driver why blacks didn't fit in with society. Although there were several Indian looking people on the bus, she went off on Pakistani's and two immediately swiveled to look at her. I guess that is one way of telling the nationalities apart. She asked to get off between two stops and the bus driver immediately complied while the rest of us occupants gave a silent sigh of relief.

The only thing we knew about La Filipiniana was what we had read in a review that Geri linked to on her blog a long time ago. So when we walked into the large nicely decorated restaurant and only one other family was there, I began to worry a little. The Filipina waitress immediately came over with glasses of tobig (Tagalog for water) and menus. My wife, looking for something she doesn't make at home and can't get at nearby restaurants settled on Crispy Pata, the leg of a pig from hoof midway up to the "elbow" joint that has been boiled, battered and fried. I settled on Pork & Shrimp Pancit Miki, sautéed vegetables and shrimp served with thicker Chinese style noodles instead of more traditional rice noodles. As an appetizer, we got Siopau, a pork, and sausage mixture with a slice of duck egg steamed in a bun and served with a sweet sauce. It was all quickly delivered to our table and very delicious. By the time we finished, a third group of Filipinos had been seated in the restaurant so business was picking up. I'm guessing on weekends, this place would be full but on a Wednesday evening, light crowds are to be expected.

Though people weren't eating, strings of Filipinos were going inside the business right next door the entire time we were in La Filipiniana. That business turned out to be a Filipino grocery store that we checked out after we were done. I would have guessed that a store of that nature in urban Chicago would be large and well stocked but we found that our local store in rural Iowa had twice as much to choose from. We bought some coconut buns (the Tagalog names eludes me) and went off on our way.

We had gotten off the bus when we had spotted the restaurant but had to catch a different later running bus in order to make it back home since our first bus stopped running after 6:00 in the evening. That bus stopped in front of JC Penney’s at the mall. Since La Filipiniana was at a mall, I had assumed they were one and the same but now standing with full stomachs on the sidewalk, I wasn't so sure. Upon inspecting my map a little closer, I saw that there was another mall down the street a ways, how far, I wasn't sure. So we walked across the parking lot and started down the sidewalk when suddenly the same bus on the route we had initially ridden was coming towards us. I thought maybe it was returning to where ever they park at night since it was now 6:15 but it slowed down and stopped when we waved our hands. We were off towards the hotel and there was no crazy person to entertain us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chicago Journals: Marshall Field's Museum

When I walked into the Fields Museum, I was the first one there and I know this because they were unlocking the doors as I arrived. I paid over twelve dollars for the privilege of setting foot inside the doors and although I probably got my money's worth, I have been to a lot better museums for a lot less money. Not to mention the fact that only later did I discover that I had to pay even more money to see the exhibit on Darwin and other special exhibits, which I ended up skipping.

After paying my admission, I took the obligatory photo of Sue, the only thing I remembered from my first trip her 25 years ago, and then headed off to see the Ancient Americas exhibit which happened to be the first one I came too. Instantly I was disappointed, as there seemed to be more emphasis on large dumbed down signs than informative exhibits. In fact, the most informative part of the exhibit was little alcoves where film clips were played on infinite loops on various parts of ancient American culture. Over the course of the day, I stopped and watched these clips in various exhibits and never once had anyone else stop and join me, all preferring to trudge on past without even a passing glance. Who can blame them really? Why pay all that money for something to watch something that they could easily show on PBS?

All told, I spent over a couple hours in the Americas exhibit and knew that I was going to have to step up the pace if I wanted to see the rest of the museum exhibits. So I started picking the ones that most interested me starting next with the one on Ancient Egypt and working my way down the pecking order. About halfway through the Egypt exhibit just after seeing 23 mummies on display, my feet were crying out for a rest so I thought I would look for some secluded corner to sit down and perhaps catch up on my journal writing. I walked around two corners and much to my shock, found myself standing at the entrance to McDonald's in the middle of a museum. Perhaps the mummies dined a lot on Big Macs and thus explained why they are so well preserved. Although not my ideal choice, I selected a seat in the back and wrote.

Rested up, I tackled the rest of the museum but it was loosing my interest fast. Plagues of children had descended into the museum and were running everywhere through the exhibits and making lots of noise. It hit me that Fields along with other museums have changed over to cater to children, the very segment of our population who gain the least from going there. I think one girl summed it up best when she rushed by me at the end of one exhibit exclaiming to her friend, "they told me it would take an hour and a half to see this exhibit and it only took me five minutes!" There was a very small museum compared to the Field's Museum that I used to go to a few times a year where I used to live in eastern Iowa. It only cost me a couple bucks to get in and was geared towards adults with in depth displays and none of the trinket penny molding machines or gift shops on the premises. The kids still ran through it just like at Fields but I as an adult got a lot more from it. I remember seeing the exhibit on Antarctic exploration and leaving just in awe. Nothing awed me at Fields.

Finally after being trampled by yet another herd of wild children, I decided I had my fill and started looking for the exit. I came across a plastic dinosaur-molding machine that spit out a plastic version of Sue if I fed it $1.50 in quarters. Deciding that I could at least salvage my trip by getting something for Little Abbey, I plugged my quarters and watched it make me a dinosaur. When I pulled it out, I was dismayed to see that my version of Sue the dinosaur had no head. I thought about just throwing it away and consider it a lesson learned but by then I wanted to get something back from a museum that had cheated me. I asked young man at a tiny gift shop where I could get a refund and he directed me to the main gift shop. I went into the cavernous gift shop that took up more room than a full sized basketball court to hock overpriced crap to swarms of children and finally found someone who traded in my headless Sue for one with a head. Evidently that machine never works, so they make a bunch to swap out. No word on why they didn't unplug it or put an out of order sign on it.

With my anatomically correct dinosaur, I staggered out the door and into the 'fresh' Chicago air. I had planned to walk back downtown using the Sears Tower as my landmark and take a look at "The Rookery's" Frank Lloyd Wright designed atrium but decided against it. I didn't know exactly where it was and I just didn't have the energy anymore. So I walked back to the intersection but crossed only one side of it this time betting that their would be a entrance on this side of the street to the mass transit system station on Roosevelt. I was right. I reversed my steps and finally ended up back at the hotel room around four to wait for my wife to get home from her test. We had dinner plans that night and I couldn't wait.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Chicago Journals: The Journey Downtown

We were up in the darkness getting ready for the long day ahead and eating our hard earned pizza from the night before. My wife was about to take her final test for her medical license and I was planning how I was going to kill the next eight or so hours. Despite the fun day ahead for me, my heart just couldn't get into it while knowing my wife had to spend it in some cramped high rise taking a test. At least not yet.

The CTA Blueline stops at a station just a block north from the hotel and the testing building was a block further north of the train station. So in theory, it should only be a couple blocks to walk. However when we walked it the night before, it was a slightly different story. The exit from the train station is behind a parking ramp on the opposite side of the road from the hotel. After walking around the parking ramp up to the road with the hotel literally just a hundred feet away, we found that we would have to cross six lanes of a heavily traffic filled road to get to the hotel. Looking north, the bridge and cloverleaf interchange of the Kennedy expressway loomed and didn't appear to offer any crossing opportunities. Looking south, about three blocks away was a stoplight that intersected with another six-lane road. Now in my limited experiences in Chicago, crossing major thoroughfares even with stoplights is an exercise in faith. Who is going to give first, me or the 2500-pound taxi barreling around the corner? So we stood along the edge of the road and when a gap in traffic appeared, we made a mad dash to the median and scrambled over the bare dirt to the edge to wait for another gap in the remaining three lanes. Fortunately it hadn't rained in awhile so the dirt was solid but had it rained, we would have been in a big messy situation. After awhile, another gap appeared and we completed out dash.

So this morning with my wife all dressed up, we decided to be lazy instead and use the complementary hotel shuttle to take my wife to her test building. I hitched a ride along with her and walked her up to the sixth floor testing center and wished her luck. Back out in the parking lot, I merely had to walk across the parking lot to a pedestrian walkway that crossed high above the Kennedy Expressway and to the train station. Within seconds, I was whizzing my way downtown.

Two major observations seemed to reach out and slap me while riding the transit. The first is seeing the people on either side of the train (running down the median of the expressway) sitting in ten lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic stopped. Some were applying makeup, shaving, talking on a cellphone or reading a newspaper but the large majority sat there slumped in their seats staring dejectedly out their windshield at the car parking a couple feet in front of them. All this while the train whisked us downtown at a brisk pace. Why the transit system should be hurting for passengers or money is beyond me. The second observation had to do with the occupants of my transit car. Everyone in my car were either looking out the nearest window in a thousand mile stare, staring out their lap or staring at a book. Nobody smiled or made eye contact with other passengers.

When I was in college and rode the transit system there, everyone always seemed to make eye contact and it wasn't unusual to strike up a conversation with someone. This seemed in stark contrast with my fellow riders now. Even the two gang bangers in the car weren't menacing other people with their stares, instead preferring to pull their wool caps and hoods over their heads and slump down in their seats despite the 90 degree temperatures. Do gang bangers have no sweat glands? So for the entire journey downtown, I was free to people watch as nobody was looking back at me. I had brought my boomer bag that I used in my college days along with me, which helped me to fit in since almost everyone else had one of those or a briefcase. But most everyone else were dressed in suits, khakis or colored pants and I was the sole person in faded blue jeans. However, since everyone kept their eyes focused on their laps, I don't think anyone noticed.

I had decided to visit the Marshall Field's Museum first but had to first transfer to the Orangeline when I got downtown on the loop. Since the transfer point was at the start of the loop and the train was now packed with people heading for their jobs, it took a little doing to reach the door and off the train but I managed. As I typically do when in a strange mass transit system, I followed the locals since I assumed they know more than me. This time it didn't work out and I was found myself back up on street level with no signs in sight pointing me to where I needed to go to catch the Orangeline train. I walked awhile on the crowded sidewalks but got spooked since I didn't have a map for this area and went back down into the subway and paid another toll with my unlimited 3-day vacation pass. Back on the train platform, all signs were painted in blue pointing towards the street where I had just been or the Thompson Center, no idea what it was. I walked down the platform contemplating my options when I saw a CTA official in a shack in the middle of the platform. I told the lady that I was looking for the Orangeline and she simply pointed towards the direction of the signs for the Thompson Center. So I walked clear to the other end of the platform.

Once there, I entered into a huge atrium with escalators running here and there and doors heading out to destinations unknown. But one lone orange sign with an airplane and an arrow pointing up one escalator caught my eye and since it was shoulder to shoulder with people walking, I followed it blindly. After heading up at least two more escalators, down lots of hallways and through several doors, I finally found myself on a platform full of orange signs. With some breathing room, I found an empty corner and pulled out my map seeing that the airplane probably designated Midway airport and that was the very direction I was headed on the Orangeline train. So when the train appeared a few minutes later heading to Midway, I hopped on and headed out.

Sitting in the car orienting myself on the map, I realized my mistake. The Blueline train is mostly under or on the ground while most of the other trains are elevated above the streets. Realizing that, I should have known that any transfer from the Blueline to any other train was going to involve some elevation gain, a piece of knowledge that came in useful the rest of my trip. By the time I worked this all out and felt confident again, my stop arrived and I found myself on Roosevelt Avenue a few blocks west of the Field's Museum. Although the sun was out, amidst skyscrapers blocking all but the sky directly overhead, I had no idea which way was east was unless I could orient myself with the streets or the Sears Tower, which wasn't visible at the moment. However, if I looked to my left all I could see were more tall buildings and to the right, a few more buildings and then lots of sky. Assuming that plethora of sky to be over Lake Michigan, I headed that direction and saw from the intersecting streets that I had chose correctly.

The only remaining obstacle was to cross over another major intersection with six lanes of traffic in all directions, but because they had one of the corners (the one right across from the Field's Museum) blocked off and labeled as do not cross here, I saw that I was going to have to cross three sides of the intersection. Even though there were traffic officials blowing their whistles and waving orange sticks at the traffic, they seemed to ignore me all together so when I got the little green walking guy across the street showing, I kept my eyes peeled and started across. Traffic seemed to stop inches short of me and I made me way across. I then did it a second time. Once across, now diagonal of where I started, I saw signs directing me down through an underpass to reach the Field's Museum instead of across at street level. Despite it being the long way around, I gladly took it and soon found myself on the steps of the Museum.

Chicago Journals: Dealing With the CTA

Before our trip, I used Google Earth and Google extensively to plan our trip. Using Google, I found out the train schedule and the address where it arrives in Chicago. In Google Earth, I visited layers to find out where the mass transit lines ran and where the stops were located. I even used layers to search for various sites that I might want to visit or places that we might want to eat. Because we wanted to make this a vehicle free vacation of sorts, I visited the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) website in order to glean hints on how traveling via their system, something I have never done before, might be.

From what I read, many of the train stations were unmanned or only manned during regular hours and not likely to have someone around after 8:00 in the evening when we had been planning on catching the train to our hotel. Although the literature said that most stations had machines to dispense transit cards, there system sounded confusing. I had to buy the card first for $5 and then add money to it as needed with either a credit card or cash. If I chose the cash, I had to always put more money on it with cash. If I chose credit card, I could only add more money online. Since I wanted to avoid computers and relying on moneychangers or having proper change with me when necessary might cause problems, neither option was particularly attractive to me.

So I searched and found an online site where CTA sold precharged cards. Most of the cards required a minimum amount of $20, which meant ten rides at $2 per use plus a $5 card fee for a total of $25 per card. Though still cheaper than parking a vehicle for three days, I had hoped for a better option. Finally after searching for awhile, I settled on buying a ten pack of single use cards for $17.50 figuring that if by some chance we both used up 10 rides on the transit, we would be familiar enough with the system to add some more to a card.

About three weeks before our trip the cards arrived in the mail and while we were inspecting them, my wife noticed that there was an expiration date on the back of each card that read July 1, 2005. So I called up CTA and learned that the cards were not valid and that I needed to get replacement cards. I was transferred to the extension of a man who of course wasn't in his office. I tried calling several times hoping to reach someone who was actually in the office answering the phones but all roads seemed to lead to this man and he wasn't picking up. During one of my spells on hold, the background music gave way to a cheerful electronic voice stating that fares would be rising in a couple days and that they were sorry for the inconvenience. So when I got a human voice, I asked that should I somehow get to speak to a real live human and get some replacement cards sent to me, would they be valid after the rate hike? She said that I would have to add $0.25 to every card in order to use them. For reasons mentioned above, this sounded like something I wanted to avoid. I finally ended up at the man not answering his phone and left a message.

Not knowing how long it would take to get this resolved, I went back to the drawing board and started searching the internet. This time by chance, I took a different route and found a CTA website that sold vacation passes in various durations good for unlimited rides on trains or buses during the entire duration. I bought two 3-day vacation passes for $12 each that started keeping track of the time only after I had used it the first time. We used these passes during our 3-day stay in Chicago and never had a bit of trouble with them and I would highly recommend them to others. However if you are going to Chicago often enough, I recommend buying the heavier duty card for $5 and charging it online with your credit card. Our cards were flimsy and wouldn't last long in a pocket or wallet.

My story doesn't end there. Several days after leaving my phone message and buying the vacation passes, I heard back from the man who doesn't answer his phone. I explained my situation for the 40th time and he said that he would have replacement passes mailed priority overnight. When I told him that I had already purchased replacements due to my impending vacation departure time, he said that I could just get a refund. I told him that would be nice and we parted ways. Yet my story doesn't end there either. After getting back from our vacation, I received yet another call from the man who never answered the phone asking me to send back the expired cards in order to get my refund. Cards that I had simply tossed into the trash after receiving my 3-day vacation passes.

I called him back yet again, surprising he answered the phone, and explained the situation and inquired why they wanted expired cards back, especially when I had already read the ten serial numbers off the back previously when they wanted to verify that they were indeed expired? After beating around the bush for a while, he finally agreed that he would go ahead and process my refund if I would just fax him some form. I said that this was the 21rst century and I didn't have a fax. Finally he agreed that if I send an email stating my case to his email address and that would be sufficient. Then he said he didn't have departmental email and that I would have to send the email to his yahoo account. I haven't got my credit card statement back yet to determine if I have successfully got a refund or not but I have to wonder what kind of outfit this CTA is and why they only seem to have about four employees?

Despite the hassles, buying the cards online in advance I feel was a very smart move. They were easy to move and being unlimited uses within a three-day period, I got my money's worth. I once even had to pay the same fare again because I mistakenly walked out on the street looking for my transfer and had to pay to get back in. But that is another story for another day.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Chicago Journals: "Sir, Sir, Sir, Sir, Sir, Sir, Can I Have a Slice of Your Pizza?"

The California Zephyr slowed to a stop at Union Station in the middle of downtown Chicago or should I say underneath the middle of downtown Chicago. We walked down to the lower level of the train car and exited out the doors onto a long concrete platform that stretched out of sight and only about ten feet wide and bellied up to another train. As seems to be the case in most mass transit systems, we really didn't know which way to go so we just followed everyone else like lemmings.

Once inside the station doors, it for all practical purposes looked like your average airport terminal. There were plenty of signage pointing the way to taxis, ground level, baggage claim (who checks luggage on a train?) and various other options but we only saw one sign for lockers, which is what we were after. It was only 5:30 and we knew we had a 45-minute train ride yet to the motel so we figured we could knock off a few hours downtown before heading out that way. Despite carrying only a small shoulder bag each with a couple changes of clothes, books, maps, etc., I certainly didn't want to tote it all over. We saw the one sign for lockers but after walking in that direction for a way, we never saw anymore signs nor signs of lockers. Finally after ten minutes of fruitless searching, I asked someone and learned that the lockers were located in the baggage claim area. Ten minutes later we had our bags safely stowed in the lockers sans a map of the downtown and were on our way up to street level.

Typical of big cities, there is concrete everywhere and people walking to where ever they are going and for the most part, oblivious to us. So we headed east across the canal and towards the Sears Tower, the third tallest building in the world in terms of highest occupied floor and the tallest in the world if you count the spires. We entered the building to a beautiful lobby by with absolutely no signs pointing the way. I had figured there would be tons of signs but there wasn't a single one. That is when a man dressed as a bell cap asked us if he could help us and directed us to another entrance on the south side of the building.

Once in that entrance and directed to an elevator that took us one floor DOWN, it was readily apparent how big a tourist scam this was. There were signs and roped lanes leading to ticket booths where you had to pay somewhere around $12 a pop to go any further. I coughed up the money and we continued through the rope maze that led us through metal detectors, picture taking (for pictures that would be ready when we got back down), through some models and signs denoting the history of the building, a short movie and finally to an elevator that shot us straight up 103 floors while forcing us to listen to some garishly loud animated cartoon on the television overhead. Finally we were released onto the floor and without ropes restricting our movements. Of course there computers, big displays and a souvenir stand where you could buy a roll of film for $20 scattered liberally around.

I had been here over 20 years ago and remember nothing about any of this. In fact, I'm fairly certain that none of this even existed back them even though it was then the second tallest building in the world. Despite my disenchantment with the whole affair, the views were of course spectacular and we did a circle around the window pointing out places where we were planning on going and guessing what others were. Night fell and we decided that we should find a place to eat. The ride back down still had the garish cartoon playing and there were still ropes guiding us past where we could buy the pictures taken earlier and of course right through the center of a huge gift shop.

Before the trip, I had used Google Earth to find an authentic Chicago deep-dish pizza place called Giordano's just a couple blocks from where we now were so we headed off in that direction. Google doesn't lie (very often) and we found the place with no problem and an hour later walked out with some leftover pizza in a cardboard box in a plastic bag destined for our breakfast tomorrow since we both needed an early start. It was no around 8:30 in the evening as we headed towards our final destination, back across the canal to the Clinton Street CTA Blueline subway entrance.

I've been to Chicago perhaps a half dozen times so far and was used to the fact that bums come out at night to hassle you for money. They are never aggressive and when you ignore them, the stop asking almost immediately. So I was surprised when the first bum pushing a bicycle we met let than a couple blocks from Giordano's asked me for my pizza instead of money. He didn't say a word until after we had passed him and then started saying, "sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir, sir" over and over as he followed us for over half a block. When I still ignored him he then asked for my pizza a few times and then started repeating sir another dozen times. After a block and a half of this, he went silent and I thought he had stopped following us but suddenly he appeared right up beside me startling me and causing me to jump just a little. Then he blew up.

He went on this litany asking why black men don't have the freedom to walk down the street with out white people jumping nervously. All he wanted was a slice of my pizza. I told him that he certainly wasn't going to get any of my pizza after accosting my like that and he stopped dead in his tracks. By this time we were back at Union Station and after we got half a block from where the bum was still standing, I heard him shout towards me, "sir, sir, sir, sir, sir can I have a slice of your pizza"?

We recovered our bags from the locker and started heading south the few blocks to the subway entrance when we encountered two more bums, one who again asked for the pizza and one who asked for spare change and then the pizza but neither were as aggressive as the first bum. After getting back home later in the week, I asked a few friends who had been to Chicago recently if they had carried leftovers at night and if they had gotten hassled for them. Whenever I asked that last part of the question, there eyes would light up and answer in the affirmative usually with a similar story. So the moral all of this is to pack your leftovers in a backpack or other bag where the label can't be seen and you will get hassled far less.

After a little hassle and a blog story for another day, I had purchased some 3-day vacation passes for the mass transit system that included all trains, ells and buses for only $12 each. Having paid $25 a day just to park my car in the past not including steep taxi fees, it was a steal but I couldn't rest easy until we had successfully used them for the first time. It took us a few attempts to find the correct orientation of the card to pay for our fare in the stalls but it was late and there weren't crowds of people pressing behind us. We caught the train seconds after reaching the platform and were whisked away to our hotel out near O'Hare, 15 miles away. The rest of the story shall wait for another day.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Chicago Journals: Train Walkers

Another classification of people can be found on planes and trains though in this case, they are magnified when on trains. I'm talking about the walkers, the people who just can't seem to stay in their seats and must bump and jostle those in the aisle seats repeatedly in their journeys. On planes, I'm fairly certain that their journey is limited to trips towards the bathroom beginning 1 second before the fasten seatbelt light is turned off. On trains, I still have no idea. When we boarded the train going towards Chicago, it was late in the journey and I suspected that the walkers were long haul passengers restless to get off. However on our return trip when we started with everyone else, this theory was proved most definitely wrong.

After we got settled into our seats heading towards Chicago, a dumpling like girl with a chain dangling down to her knees went stumbling towards the front of the car. Within minutes, she would be coming back. After ten minutes, she once again stumbled forward and within minutes came back. On her third trip I started counting and got up to eighteen roundtrips to who-knows-where in the five-hour journey to Chicago or one trip nearly every 17 minutes. Since she never appeared to leave with anything other than her dangling chain and never came back with anything other than her dangling chain, I began to suspect that she was similar to a mall walker and just needed the exercise.

However she wasn't alone. There was another guy coming and going on less frequent intervals but at least he went with nothing and returned with a fresh beer every time. In all, there were perhaps a half dozen people that I recognized that made three or more trips forward in the five hours I was on, none of whom were heading to the restrooms which were down the stairs behind where I was sitting. Are these the ones who had Attention Deficit Disorder when they were children? Fortunately, their frequent trips weren't as disturbing to myself as they are on planes because the aisles were wider meaning the only occasionally bumped my shoulders when the train lurched and not every time as on a plane. Also there were no drink or snack carts plugging up the aisles meaning a herd of people following it up the aisle or someone trying to straddle my legs to allow the carts to pass so they can make their way to the bathroom for the twenty-second time.

Like I mentioned, I theorized that these were long haul train riders that were getting restless after more than twenty hours of being on a train. So when we were seated for our return trip still stationary in the train station, I was surprised to see people repeatedly walking forward and smack against the door to the adjoining cars like bugs on a windshield. As it turned out, the train conductors can control these doors and only unlock them once the train is underway and they have collected the tickets to prevent people from moving all over and making the job more difficult. The car conductor announced this perhaps a dozen times in the twenty minutes it took for us to board before the train actually began moving.

Once she unlocked the door, a half dozen people immediately made a trip forward. One man, whose shirt said San Francisco Aids Coalition on the back broke the short dumpling like girls record with 19 trips in the only four hours it took for our return trip but both records were completely shattered by Mr. Trenchcoat Mafia. Thanks to a kid by the name of Dillon Klebold, whenever I see a kid in a long black trenchcoat, dark sunglasses and combat boots, I automatically keep my eyes peeled for any signs of a gun rising from the inner confines of the coat. Mr. Trenchcoat Mafia gave me plenty of opportunity to exercise these "Spidey senses" by completing over 24 roundtrips forward in four hours and that is only before I gave up counting. On my trip up to check out the snack and dining cars, I did spot him once in the lounge sitting in a table looking out the window but within minutes of my return, he was already walking back to where he had come from. About halfway through the trip he ditched his trenchcoat which kept getting caught in the doors and on the seats as he walked past but always kept on the sunglasses despite my having to have on the reading light to catch up on the newspaper because of the gloomy day outside.

Finally, one last train walker gets honorable mention in my blog because she had one of those canes with four legs that she relied on heavily to walk on the train. She would hobble very slowly up the aisle to the front of our car where she always stopped to talk with a few people she evidently knew there and thus block up the aisle causing other train walkers to squeeze around her and bumping into the people on the opposite side of the aisle. She would talk for a few minutes and then continue her journey forward. A little bit latter she would come back shuffling her two legs and cane, of course stopping to talk for a few minutes before continuing on behind where I sat. Even though she was hobbled by an affliction, she still managed 6 round trips in four hours even though her round trips took thirty minutes to complete.

So if there is anything good to come from my observations of the train walkers, it will make me more appreciate of the peanut cart on airplanes stopping up the flow of plane walkers and giving me a brief respite from counting people on the way to the bathrooms every fifteen minutes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Chicago Journals: Train Talkers

These people aren't just found on trains nor are their close cousin the plane talker just found on planes. They exist everywhere but in close quarters of mass transportation, they seem to stick out more. They are the people who love to hear themselves talk. I've grown used to being around these people because I have learned how to tune them out when need be and plus I enjoy listening to them talk. Here are some examples why.

On the outbound trip, we sat next to three young men from San Francisco, one of which was a train talker. Soon after the train left our station, we crossed the Mississippi River and the man mused about whether or not the river we were crossing was famous since it was so big. He pondered the names of several rivers, none of them the Mississippi but wasn't able to come up with any. I was still expecting that eventually he would guess the name of the river even though it was behind us by dozens of miles up until he finally turned to his buddies and asked what big rivers flow through Kansas.

The conversation then turned through states that they had passed through so far on this trip and they only got a couple right, those being California (where they boarded the train) and Denver. Other names mentioned incorrectly were Arizona, South Dakota and Indiana.

They somehow couldn't name Nebraska as one of the states that the train had passed through even though some of the biggest news of the trip and the reason the train was so far behind schedule happened in Omaha. According to the car attendant, he had smelled strong scent of fabric softener every time he entered the car which is a tell tale sign of drug smugglers trying to throw off drug sniffing dogs. Why I don't know since our baggage was not searched or scanned in anyway before boarding. So the car attendant had called ahead to the Omaha authorities and at 6:30 in the morning, the DEA raided the train confiscating a large duffle bag full of cocaine in the possession of a mother and her daughter after a thorough search of everyone's luggage. Those two were escorted from the train in handcuffs. The San Francisco boys thought that was funny.

I thought it was ironic based on another conversation they had a little later that started out on the subject of tattoos. They were discussing about how costly they were but how they lasted forever. The man that loved to talk stated that if he had $300 to shell out for a tattoo, he would rather buy a $300 bag. This comment stumped me until he said next that at least a $300 bag out to last you a week and a half, perhaps a month if you ration it. Although I couldn't catch his logic comparing something that only lasts a month if you ration it versus something that lasts forever and costs the same, I did figure out that he was probably referring to a $300 bag of drugs and not the fancy backpack that I had imagined. Later they compared tales of jail time after being busted for drug possession and which states were best to be caught in if you had the choice. The state of 'Omaha' won out that debate.

On the return trip we had a husband and wife train talking team. They were both senior citizens and judging from the level of conversation were either almost deaf or had their hearing aids turned way down low. For a third of my trip aboard the train, they discussed which direction the lounge/snack car was. The sign on the car had been altered incorrectly with a piece of duct tape saying that the car was in the other direction that it actually way but it had been repeated over the intercom at least three times while the car attendant answered that very question perhaps 20 times which going through the thirty rows collecting tickets. I heard it the first three times announced on the intercom and the first time when someone ten rows ahead of me asked and then the next six or seven times before she got back to our row. If that wasn't enough, in the hour and twenty minutes they were discussing this, perhaps 100 people walked forward through the cars empty handed only to return with hands full of snacks and beverages. Finally an attendant told them again which direction the car was and after talking it over for another five minutes about the wrong signs, they let it drop.

But they didn't stop talking. About that time we started entering about a 100-mile stretch of corn that had been blown flat in what must have been a terrible straight-line windstorm. I have never seen anything of that magnitude in my life and the combines were all having a slow go at getting it harvested. When the first pockets of flattened corn appeared, the elderly many who sounded like a gravelly voiced Elmer Fudd told his Edith Bunker sounding wife that it was caused by deer bedding down for the night. As we traveled further west and the fields got progressively worse, he told his wife that deer must have bedded down there over several different nights. Soon we were in an area where all the corn in every field was laying down flat and they were commenting on how thick the deer must have been in the area. Even though they didn't pick up on the fact that the corn was all leaning towards the northeast away from prevailing winds, even though they didn't figure out that the nearest water source was perhaps ten miles away and deer don't like to bed down away from a water source, even though the deer never seemed to flatten out the corn on the lee side of natural obstacles and even though it would have took a herd of perhaps a million narcoleptic deer to cause that much damage, they never did figure it out and kept discussing if for the next hour and twenty minutes. I was trying my best to keep my laughter from escaping.

The last third or hour and twenty minutes of our trip was a hodgepodge of discussion. They talked about the cables being planted in the cornfield (a farmer was tiling the field for drainage after the corn was picked), the barges in the river (actually just tugboats with no barges attached), what part of Texas the Mississippi flowed through (at least they got the name of the river right), theorizing why the coal train in front of us that we were following was going so slow (it had been backing up while we were at a stop to clear a track and they missed that it was actually heading east as do all coal trains in this area and that it had been veered off on a rail spur shortly after we pulled out) and pointing out numerous houses, windmills and factories seen along the way. For the rest of the evening after we left the train, one of us would point out a spot that deer had bedded down for the night and we would both fall hysterically into laughter.

Though it seems as if the most ignorant among us talk the loudest, like I said at the beginning, I don't mind. It was a great way to make the four-hour trip back fly by and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. My only regret is that I didn't have some sort of recording devise that I could play back for you to give you a true sense of how funny their conversations were.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Little Abbey at 16 Months

With everything at work starting to slow down to almost human levels of activity and having just completed a short trip that was a completely new experience for me, I completely slipped on the date and just realized a day late, that my Little Abbey is now 16 months old. Since normally that means an update, without further delay in no particular order:

It wasn't all that long ago that she was toothless and well behind her peers. Had she not had an x-ray showing her teeth at an early age for other reasons, I might have gotten a little worried but we knew they were there, just not when they were coming out. Finally they started coming out, and kept coming out and are still coming out. She is up to six teeth on top including one molar and three teeth on bottom also including one molar. I thought we had some time before the molars came in AFTER the rest of her incisors and was thankful because I always heard molars were pretty painful for children. So far, my fears have been unfounded and except for a runny nose and running around feeling her tender gums with a finger, Little Abbey has been teething in stride.

She has also been taking strides backwards which took us by surprised. Walking backwards is a developmental milestone for the 18 month old and since she didn't start walking until late, we figured that one would be late as well. But about two weeks after she first started walking, she looked at us with her mischievous grin and walked backwards until she was against the wall.

Her knowledge of words continue to grow rapidly though up to this point she has chosen not to speak them. We've been working on the parts of the body and she knows where her ears, nose, eyes, mouth, hair, knees and belly button are. On the latter feature when you ask where it is, she will lift up her dress anywhere she happens to be and point to it. Certainly the cutest thing you've ever seen now but something that will surely drive me to an early grave if she continues it when she is older.

Although we have only bought a few toys for her, she always seems to accumulate a pile of them. Everyone seems obligated to bring something for her when visiting and gradually our mound starts getting too high. So just this weekend, we sat down and thinned out the toy pile once again, removing batteries from toys that she no longer plays with and piling everything up in sacks carried down to the basement for some later garage sale. She really doesn't seem to have a favorite toy anymore though her barn and animals that I mentioned before is still up there on the list. Books are perhaps her favorite and she is always retrieving one or four to be read to her. One of her favorite books is a baby's first songs collection that has the lyrics on the pages and the songs on cassette tapes that no longer work in my stereo tape deck. So as she flips the pages we will sing the songs to her for as long as she stays on that page. I've never finished a song yet. It is like her own version of a radio dial and she loves it tremendously.

Little Abbey enjoyed her first time away from us at the grandparents while we were in Chicago. She cried a little when we left but soon was back to her normal mischievous self. My parents did have to hide the photo album from her because she would point to our pictures and say mama and dada and according to my parents always seemed sad when she said it. Stories like that brings a smile to my face. I must be doing something right.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Chicago Journals: Riding the California Zephyr

Never having been on a train before, I was new to the layout and ways of train travel. When we entered the California Zephyr car, there was a dead end hallway heading one way with a row of bathrooms, another door like what we came in directly across from us and another hallway heading the opposite way of the bathrooms. I turned down that latter aisle which had shelves for luggage on one side. Since I didn't have anything but a small carryon, I walked past and was met with another decision. The hallway led to a small compartment with seats lining both sides and stairs heading to the upper deck of the train. Since the lower compartment appeared to be full and I really wanted to sit up higher where I could see, we chose the stairs as did everyone else that got on with us.

Once on the upper floor, we scattered looking for seats since there evidently wasn't such a thing as assigned seating like in airplanes. We found a pair of chairs on one side of the aisle and sat down. However we were surprised when the conductor told the four people who got on in front of us and sat in front of us that they had to move because those seats were reserved for people already on board the train. He pointed to yellow tickets with a destination written on them hanging over the seat. I quickly looked above ours and saw we had no yellow tickets and soon I learned we were safe. I later learned that the yellow ticket simply allows you to go to the dining or lounge cars and expect to still have a seat when you get back as others board at stops along the way. However, because we got on the train mid-route on the way to Chicago, we missed out on this information.

The seats, although lacking in lumbar support, were spacious. When I sit in an airline seat with my back firmly pressed against the backrest, my knees press hard enough into the seat in front of me that the occupant of that seat can't recline the seat much to their displeasure and my pain. On the California Zephyr, I had a full two feet of space between my knees and the fully reclined seat in front of me, not to mention, a foldout leg support and another leg rest mounted on the seat in front of me. The seats were also much wider meaning I didn't have to elbow joust with the occupant next to me for the armrest. The aisles were also much wider allowing for two people to pass without one having to straddle another passenger sitting next to the aisle to allow the other to pass. If you wanted food or refreshments, you simply got up and bought them rather than having to wait on a cart where you were given four salty mini-pretzels and an ounce of liquid in a tiny class clear full of ice. There was also a better bathroom to passenger ratio by a factor of ten compared to airplanes so I never once had to wait to use one. Although we weren't on the train long enough to try it, the food service sounded much better. The menu for one evening was a choice between steak, half a baked chicken, seared salmon, catfish with stir fried vegetables, large Angus beef burger and a few others. You got to eat off real utensils made from metal and you didn't have to unwrap each portion of your food from plastic before eating it. In fact, the train was almost the complete opposite of everything I dislike about flying. I loved it.

Though it differs greatly from airplanes, riding a train has several similarities. When a plane reaches cruising altitude and the seatbelt light goes off, hordes of people rush the restrooms like they've been bottled up for hours instead of only a half hour. A train is no different except that there are no seatbelts or lights and they rush the lounge/snack car instead of the restrooms. Attendants had to repeatedly tell people to sit down until their tickets were collected and the doors between cars were unlocked before the train was even moving. There were also lots of train talkers and train walkers (more on both those subjects in later blog posts) just like plane talkers and walkers.

The train left our station an hour and a half late and lost even more time at the next train station while waiting for an ambulance crew to offload a patient on a stretcher from the lower parts of the very car we were seated in. Since we had just passed by a brick building with an old painted side on the side that said, "Embalming and Burial Case Co.", I thought the man was in good hands in either likely outcome scenario. Despite loosing even more time and getting out of sync with the Burlington Northern trains that own the tracks and thus get dibs for their trains, we did make up an hour of time after being two hours behind schedule at one point.

The scenery was a lot better from a train than a plane even if our route took us through the central planes of Illinois, which in the words of a passenger behind us "is one giant cornfield on one side of the tracks and one giant bean field on the other". It certainly made going through towns more interesting even if the parts of towns that train tracks run through aren't generally the nicer parts of town. You got to see lots of run down houses and industrial complexes with acres of pavement and buildings. As Redstar could probably appreciate, there were lots of places to film a scene from Highlander.

The trip out ended up taking the schedule five hours to complete but I arrived feeling refreshed and ready to explore Chicago rather than tired and wanting nothing more than a hot and a cot like previous driving trips there. I have fallen in love with this mode of transportation and know that I will be doing it again someday.