The Late Train to…

Toronto, July 3, 2018

Niagara Falls north to Toronto. I admit it, I was stunned at the size and beauty of this magnificent city! I had no idea.

The Toronto Blue Jays were playing that night and I passed scores of fans making their way from the train station to the stadium. I won’t bore you with the details of another fine burger, another great beer, my missing England score against Croatia, and my museum mis-haps. I did see that the Royal Ontario Museum has a fine First Nations exhibit. Oh, and Dinosaur bones, too.

 

 

I was leaving Museum #2 when I stopped and asked the information desk guy if he could point me to a bookstore. First a bit of chit-chat. Canadians are very polite and always have something to say. Something nice.

 

Then, “Yes – It’s just behind us here. When you walk out, turn to the right, go to the next street, and turn right again. It’s just behind us.”

The “just behind us part” — was three little alleys hiding within four city blocks. In the humid heat, with a heavy backpack and tired feet, once I walked into the air conditioned shop, I bought two books instead of my planned solo read – only because my backpack wasn’t quite heavy enough. Three days later, a co-passenger gave me a book that he’d just finished reading: Visit from the Goon Squad, J. Egan.

 

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After replenishment of an ice cold Pepsi from Rexall Drug, I returned to the “under-renovation” colossal Union Station. I soon enough discovered a little side room with the plug-ins to charge my phone and laptop. Their were six chair in the room that faced a large sloping walkway to the boarding area. It was about 6 pm, and I had a lot of time to kill before my scheduled 11:30 pm train would leave. And it was delayed further.

Amtrak (U.S.) and Via Rail (Canada) really need to hire some Swiss guy to come in and show them how to run a railroad. I reminded myself, more than once, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Don’t ever expect to be on time and you’ll be fine. Arriving the same day as scheduled is a good thing.

A couple of guys in suits were charging up. They took off soon enough. A bit later, a young man in jeans, black t-shirt and green ballcap walked in, reached down and plugged in his phone. Ten, twenty minutes went by.

“Do you mind if I ask you a somewhat random question?”

“No,” I turned in my chair to give him my full attention and smiled. “Go ahead, ask away.”

He went on to tell me about his girl-friend, their little boy, and their break up the night before. “She keeps saying she loves me, but she wants things to be different. What does she mean by that? It’s so confusing.”

He had a lot to get off his chest, and I was happy to lend an ear. Thirty years old, Allan’s a really nice guy, maybe a bit lost. He was headed out to the sand pits (or something like that) to work for the next six months.

 

 

A bit later, another young man comes in looking to charge up his phone. From Quebec, Pierre is 16-years old, very inquisitive, passionate and compassionate, a fine specimen of a teenager. Tall, too. He was traveling across Canada to visit a few sights in Winnipeg and beyond, before returning to Quebec City to start college. He was really excited to be going to the Museum of Human Rights, where he said his host would be picking him meet up in Winnipeg.

I leaned forward, eyeing him, wondering. “Are you a Couch-surfer?” I slyly asked.

“Yes! You are a Couch-surfer, too?!” We were so excited and totally bonded now.

Pretty soon, Lucie, a young German girl, somewhere in her 20’s I think, showed up to charge her phone. She’s been traveling since April, “woofing it,” she told me. She travels to a farm somewhere and stays there days or weeks, gets room and board and works a few hours daily at each farm. She’s been all over! She told me she’s always been interested in where food comes from and now she’s finding that out. I was impressed and pleased to be in such good company in our little side.

We were all chatting when another young guy – from Saskatoon – tall and thin, excitable and over-hyped bounced in like Tigger, from his delayed late train. We almost immediately started laughing with him. Allan thinks the guy’d had about eighteen cups of sugar.

“Oh my gosh, I missed my train! I’m a camp cook and have to be at a Camp and now my phone is broke.”

“I don’t know what to do! I wish somebody here had Skype so I could call my boss!”

“The train people say they’re getting me a private ride to where I need to be, but I can’t get ahold of anyone to let them know I’m on my way.”

“I need to call my boss!”

Hyper speed, his words tumbled out in a rushed stream, with nobody else geting in a word edgewise. And he was really funny about it all.

I considered his dilemma. Being a Summer Camp volunteer myself, I could relate. “I’ve got Skype on my laptop,” I said. “Can you login on mine?”

Oh, was he excited now! The rest of us listened in, chuckling at his conversation with his boss, and in a flash, he was out the door on the way to his private SUV connection Via Rail had arranged for him to get to Camp.

As we continued to wait to board, every so often, Lucie, Allan, Pierre or myself would go check on the boarding time to see if there was any update. Each time, we were told to be patient and stay where we were, to not come and line up ahead of time. After midnight, Pierre returned to us in a rush, reporting a whole bunch of people had already lined up! WTH?!

Here we were, waiting as we’d been asked to do – and now we were at the end of the line! How to get a window seat now? They are not assigned. It’s first come, first serve.

By this time, we HAD to get seats together to continue our mad journey across Canada. Allan, Lucie, Pierre, and me. A disheveled youngish train worker walked along the line checking tickets, looking for folks who qualified for pre-boarding. I had a senior ticket. He told me that was reason to board early.

“But we all need to stay together.” I told the ticket checker, nodding toward my pals. He looked skeptically at me, and at Allan, Lucie, and Pierre.

Pierre broke in. “We’re her kids!”

We all broke out laughing.

“Yeah, these are my kids! We need to stay together!” I echoed.

But the train guy wasn’t buying it.

After talking to “the kids,” I went to the pre-board area and waited, keeping an eye them, intending to throw a bunch of crap over four seats until the others could join me. But I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave enough to ward off the dirty looks I expected in the train car.

I went back to my kids. “I can’t go on without you.”

Finally, we boarded. Pierre, Lucie and I had seats together and Allan was seated in a two-seat combo in the car ahead of us. He hadn’t slept in days; he was stressed to the max, and we were glad he was going to be able to sleep. We barely saw him the next few days.

 

Pierre, Lucie and I shared window and aisle seats with a funny 84-year old guy, a nice guy. His last name is Nice. Really. Mr. Nice and I had a lot of laughs at some of the things we saw outside the windows on our world. Trucks along the side of the rails to refuel the train, and abandoned electrical grid poles. Pay attention, PG&E.

 

 

 

And I won the bet with “my kids” on what time we’d roll out. One thirty was my guess; it was actually 1:20 when we started moving. It’s ever a good sign when the first leg of a cross country train starts off two hours late.

 

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By the time Allan departed the train, he and his girl had talked and he was hoping it would work out. Yes, don’t we all.

Lucie and Pierre and I are in touch and all’s right with the world. The long strange trip continues.

 

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Winnipeg’s Provencher Bridge and Museum for Human Rights.

 

 

 

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Postcards from spring and summer

Sometime this spring, my two youngest grand-daughters had a school project to collect a few postcards from other people in the world. I put out the word to my friends and within days we were blessed by dozens of you, my friends, and friends of friends, taking the time to find a card, write a note to Brooklyn and Peyton, and mail them here to Napa CA USA.

The cards were highlighted on the elementary school library wall. One of their classmates exclaimed to me when I was visiting one day,”They have twenty five hundred postcards!” Not quite.image

Amazing. Love and hugs to all the good people out there.

Special thanks to those of you who then passed the word to your own friends. I’ve read each and every one. My heart is touched.

Apologies for taking so long with this thank you. I was traveling the past month, as soon as school was out, and was not home to picture this.

Once again, my faith in the goodness of strangers has landed smack in my lap. I hope to take time to use your addresses and send you some cards of my own.

This next photo is not near complete. Here are a few of my own postcards I wrote up on the road, had stamped in Canada and then, in an exhausted state of being, forgot to post them before crossing the border to the States.

I’m not near on top of things as the rest of you. I guess I’ll restamp them USA and get them off next week!

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It’s the Water!

I never knew I wanted to see Niagara Falls. What was the big deal? Now I know. My recommendation – go there.

After a long and quite eventful day of travel from one country to the other, to “the hat of North America”, Bob and Donna, my couchsurfing hosts and new friends, showed me around their place, giving me the scoop on my sleeping arrangements. I could leave the door open to have the benefit of the air conditioner, and the company of their sweet kitties. “The little black one likes to bite your toes when you sleep, though, just a warning.” It was warm in my room, just the way I like it.

The next morning, Bob was off to his engineering firm, Hamil Machine, designers and manufactures of all kinds of things, including wine barrel racks and conveyer belt automatic wheat grass trimmers. Donna and I went to —IHOP —not IHOB, IHOP. Over easy eggs each of us. I was intrigued by the waitress’s suggestion to order toast for egg dipping, but didn’t ask about it. A couple of days later, on yet another train, I read in my new book, Magpie Murders, that “she was watching her husband dipping a finger of toast in his eggs.” Okay then. Later on, after being home again, my friend pointed out that he dips his toast in his eggs. I’m oblivious.

Traffic was terrible on the second day of Canada Day (this time, Monday, the OFFICIAL day off for Canadians). We decided we’d rather walk and left the car in the IHOP lot. Donna’s sister and daughter met us at the Falls and we all walked and gawked, me the most, at the Falls.

Tickets in hand for three special activities, I went off to do my tourist thing, and they went off on their own, eventually taking a float down some part of the tamer part of a nearby river. Really ice cold water.

The American side of the Falls looked far away and boring. I stayed in Canada. I hopped a bus to walk along the River Walkway, a stretch of river away from the Falls that runs at a class 6 river speed. The power and majesty, the changing colors in the water, the roaring of the river, was as good as it gets. And you know how good that is. I took my time and took it all in, up and down the river and back to the bus through an underground tunnel. I realize it just looks like water, but trust me, the feeling you get as you stand there listening and watching is more than a cold drink of H2O.

Next stop was the Behind the Falls walk, another FAR underground trip, down an elevator and then following along tunnels with lots of other people to stand below and to the side of the Falls. So amazing. Pictures and words can’t tell it all. My crazy writer’s mind wondered if there had ever been a movie made of a disaster in which all the people underground are suddenly thrown into the Falls. The yellow poncho almost made it home with me, but seriously, I had enough to carry around with me. Laptop, books, two kinds of money, snacks and baby wipes.

 

 

Third stop, the Horn Blower. Bob told me later that his company was hired to do some of the reconstruction of the Horn Blower boats when they changed over from the American’s Maid of the Mist.

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The red poncho did indeed keep my camera and my phone and my passport in my wallet nice and dry. Sailing from the dry hot deck to just the outside edge of all that falling water was for lack of a better word, amazing and again, breath-taking. The water splashing over me on that hot day was invigorating. I tell you, it was all I could do to stop saying wow, amazing, oh my gosh, all day long.

My trip was filled here and there with friends and family, and I was also to spend a lot of time – surrounded by people – and alone with my thoughts. That’s where I was those hours on the water, processing the wonders of the world, my own feelings, and listening to the little voice in my heart. The water does that for me.

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I met up again near the Falls with Donna and Bob, my awesome couchsurfing hosts and new friends and we walked into the Niagara Falls streets filled with things you’d see in Coney Island or the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk. And more. Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Wax Museums, a giant water park in the top of a hotel, miniature race car tracks, dancing in the streets (that was Donna!) and one of the finest burgers I’ve ever had, I think it was at The Works if I remember correctly. I was barely able to finish my meal, but I did. I think Bob had ice cream later. Another shower, another re-packing and I was ready for a good sleep.

Bob was at work the next morning when I awoke. Donna and I thought we’d just eat at home. I had my little packets of oatmeal; I could just throw it in a bowl with some milk and water and microwave it. And then it exploded all over the microwave, so I got to clean up my mess and start over as we downed a few cups of very tasty McCafe coffee she’d French roasted for us, while Donna intermitently sprayed that little black cat with a water bottle each time he braved jumping up onto the table.

Donna dropped me off at the Greyhound station that soon enough delivered me to Toronto where another incredible journey and more amazing and funny people were waiting to meet me.

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“Bye Grandma! We’ll miss you!”

Leaving New York, after a short sweet visit with Erin, Chris, Jack, Molly and Ryan, Melissa and little Mac was a bit sad, tinged with so much happiness. I couldn’t get Erin’s first words out of my mind when I arrived a few days earlier in Port Jeff to visit. “I’m so excited to have my hippie Aunt Kathy here!”

Amtrak New York City to Niagara Falls – another beautiful segment on another hot summer day. Take time to overlook the trash, junkyards, industrial zones of American commerce and other eyesores. Doesn’t’ matter which city or country. The #281 (train talk) follows the Hudson River and other water ways much of the journey. No, I don’t know all their names. I can tell you that its incredibly easy for me to sit and watch the scenery go by all day long. Every other look up is a reason to focus my camera, noting the spot on the window that’s the cleanest, with little or no glare to mess up my shot. I try to catch the little things, the curve of the hillside, angles of a barn and a fleeting waterfowl when lucky.

As the heat index went up outside, our train car started heating up on the inside. I don’t know if I mentioned before, but the air conditioning on the trains is usually too much for this Cali girl. It’s COLD in the coach and usually colder in the snack and observation and bar cars. Layered fashionista. In a summer of sandals and flipflops, most of my time is in sneakers and socks.

The car I was seated in started heating up as a result of some malfunction or other. Some fancy piece of equipment I don’t remember the name of. As the car ahead of mine slowly emptied passengers to their destinations along the way, the conductor announced that anyone in our car who wanted to, could move ahead to the next car that was cooler. Most everyone got up – it was rush hour – grabbing their cameras, blankets, electronics and pillows. I got up and moved from a cramped aisle seat with practically no view, to a window seat AND an aisle. Warm, plenty of room to stretch out and no more “it’s too hot” whiners in the wind. 

The real fun began when I arrived in Niagara Falls. The plan was to meet up with Bob and Donna, my new, and amazing Couchsurfing friends. They live in Niagara Falls, Canada. As an aside, all my Couchsurfing friends have proven to be amazing. 

Anyway, I called Bob and told him I was at the Amtrak train station. I could hear the Falls in the distance – sounded like the roar of the ocean. “We’re right here – we don’t see you!” I was looking around and didn’t see them either. One of us eventually asked what side of the border I was on. Laughing ensued. I didn’t know there was an Amtrak feeder station in Niagara Falls CANADA (where they thought I was). I was at the main station in Niagara Falls USA.

No problem, says Bob, just catch a cab over and we’ll meet you on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Okay, I say. The last cab-van was just pulling away from the station as the sun was setting. 

I sprinted over to the cabby and asked if there was room to join in the ride. He asked where I wanted to go. Inside was family of our – two kids, 8 and 10-ish, Mom and Dad. The mom told me in her fine Australian voice to jump in. As we’re driving to the bridge, the driver asks where we’re staying. Whoops. I didn’t know the address of where I was staying and the border people always ask that. I just knew I was meeting up with Bob and Donna. 

The Mom next to me pipes up – “Grandma! You’re staying with us.” My new family and I are laughing and Dad chimes in with the Hotel name to the driver, saying to his wife, “Jumping right to Grandma is a little rough, isn’t it?” I told him that was exactly the right thing! We were all cracking up. I told them how excited I was to be spending my vacation with them and hoped they’d gotten me a suite of my own. More laughter. After crossing the border and retrieving my passport from the driver, I hopped out and waited for the driver to get my suitcase from the luggage area. The kids in the back seat yelled out, “Bye Grandma, we’ll miss you!”

The driver made out on that 5-minute ride. $25 US dollars from me and another $45 Canadian from my family on their way to the hotel. Never to be seen again.

Bob and Donna and I, through a series of brief phone calls, finally met up and were immediately best of friends. It was Sunday – Canada Day! The three of us chatted it up making our way to the Falls that were lit up in the dark night with red and blue hues  to wait for even more excitement. The roads and sidewalks and lawns of the park were packed with revelers. Noisy and wonderful. Fireworks started out on the American side of the Falls and soon enough were echoed by the Canadians.

What a fine welcome to Canada! So much more to come!

 

Sunday Morning

I’m sleeping. Sort of. I was tossing and turning all night. Stresses of the day added to a damn head cold.

DING. Cell phone message alert. I think about rolling over to check it. It takes me a minute.

Mom, could you come stay with Micah? He’s still sleeping and the rest of us are leaving to go get Rachel.

I think about saying something smart-ass about the fact that I was still sleeping. But it doesn’t really matter.

Yes. Be right there. I mess around a bit, making the bed, getting dressed until I hear their car rumbling awake.

I walk the 20 steps over to their place, say goodbye to the wide-awake-gang, grab some coffee and sit down for SNL – smiles and laughter, good. I read through the local paper: American Canyon (Inc. city in Napa County) researches becoming a sanctuary city. Great. I was actually wondering about Napa City/sanctuary sometime during my sleepless laying awake bothered and bewildered hours.

Micah’s up now. He’s 4, walking around looking for the family. He lays on the couch, plays with my phone a brief few minutes. He looks a little funky to me, more laid back than the real Micah. “When will they be home?” he asks. “When will Nana be here?”

“In a while, I’m not sure.”

“Wha what..’s…Daddy’s er, Daddy’s daddy’s name?” he asks, the words stumbling from his lips.

“You mean Lowell? Pop Pop? The guy in the picture there? With the beard?”

“Yeah… he …not coming today?”

“No honey. I’m sorry. He’s not, he died. He’s gone now.”

“No, he not!”

“I know it’s sad. He’s in our hearts now, where he’ll always be.”

“NO! HE! NOT!” He rolls away from me, looking up at the picture of his Pop Pop.

This is our first Thanksgiving without Lowell. We are so happy to have Rachel here with us this week. We all need all the love we can get. We miss him so very much.

Micah watches some TV, and asks for a bowl of cereal. “I want it mixed. Honey Nut Cheerios mixed with Honey Oat Crunch.”

Okay.

I go take a shower and go sit down with Micah again, checking my email and Facebook.

“When they be here?” he asks, his little fingers twirling my hair.

“In just a few minutes, they’re right around the corner.”

Mollie just texted me to say so.

Everyone arrives, excitement in the air. The two grandmas hug and check in with each other. She’s had a long day already, having left Arizona to arrive in Oakland at 8 a.m.

I love Sundays. Mollie brought me a donut.

 

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Veterans Day + 1

I didn’t think about him yesterday.

My Veterans Day was spent in a swirl of activity and a few chats with Facebook friends and veterans.

He and I were best friends in high school. The last time we saw each other was more than 50 years ago. We were the friends who cleaned up the vomit on the floor that our other friends left behind. We were the friends who drove our other friends home after they had partied too much. We spent years walking together in the bright Tahoe sun, sitting beneath the twinkling stars in the dark, or huddled in the cold snow as we focused on the business of growing up and learning about life. We were never in love. We were friends. We shared our secrets, our fears, and our dreams.

He went to Viet Nam right after we graduated.

I got married and moved away from our hometown just after he went to fight halfway around the world. He was on one side of the Pacific and I was on the other. I had a baby boy the following year. My husband was fine with my insisting on naming the little guy Rob — mostly for my best friend — and a little bit for that cute Robbie in My Three Sons. My husband’s nuclear family had a tradition of using two middle names. He chose Allen Nathaniel. We were happy and knew we’d made the right decision.rob-dawson-aycrigg-68-22122016

Rob sent me scribbled letters on pale blue military paper marked APO. One day I received a stiff-backed black and white picture of him in country, signed Rob and ’68.

I sent care packages of photographs, mixed nuts, soap, toothpaste, home-made cookies and fudge. For years, I wrote long letters with news about home and life as I knew it.

 

I received a letter one day telling me he’d be leaving Saigon two days later – coming home. He said he didn’t know what he’d be doing next. For some reason, I remember worrying about that.

I never heard from him again.

That last letter of his is pressed between two sheets of paper, along with his black and white photo. Saved for I don’t know what.

Over the years I searched veterans databases looking for him. I missed him. I suppose I wanted to ease my heart. At one point, I telephoned and chased through several veterans affairs officers until one of them finally took me seriously and did his own search. When he called back a few days later, he told me that my friend didn’t die in service. That was that.

I let it go. Again and again, I let it go.

Several years ago, I had to look again. That time, with the advent of internet databases and Google, I found him. He lived within driving distance of where we went to school and where I was living. I sent an email to him at his workplace listed online. I waited. I sent another email. I waited again. When I could stand it no longer, I stared at that 100 pound telephone, took a deep breath and dialed the phone number staring at me from the computer monitor on my desk.

I don’t remember the exact words he used. He basically told me not to contact him again. He said he didn’t know who I was. He told me his wife thought I was a stalker. I know that was my friend on the phone. There’s not a doubt in my mind I talked to my old friend that sunny winter day.

I don’t know what happened between the time Rob sat down to write that he was coming home and what happened the next day and all the years since. I do know from my online research – stalker type activity – that he has a loving family and he’s been successful in his life.

A former lover of mine once told me my problem — one of many — is that I can’t let go of old love. Guilty. I’m guilty. I’m not sorry for it, either. I’m not sorry that my heart keeps love alive and feeds my spirit, no matter where the flesh and blood has gone.

I write about him today as much for myself as for him.

Veterans Day +1.

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Happy Birthday, Grandpa Fred

My mother was 66 years old when she died. Her mother, the only grandmother I really knew, died when she was 70. I’m 68 now, and thankfully, a whole lot healthier than either one of them were. Not that I wanted them to be unhealthy. You know what I mean.

I grew up with Grandma Gertie and Grandpa Willie at my side. I knew at some point in time that Grandpa Willie was my step-grandfather. The step part never mattered to me. I loved him so much and he showered all of us with love and good humor. It was years after Mom died in ’86 that I even began to wonder who my real grandfather really was. Willie was gone by then, too.

Eventually I learned that Fred Shea was the man who cared for my grandmother when she was just 18 and won a train trip to San Francisco from Missouri as the grand prize in her hometown beauty pageant. Grandma’s father had arranged for his brother Fred, who was living in SF and working for the railroad, to look after young Gertie. Love bloomed, and in the way of the world, uncle and niece fell in love. My mom was born in the spring of 1920.

Sometime, somehow, in the next 15 or so years, Fred was out of the picture.

I tracked down his death certificate. He died in a hospital in San Francisco, from cirrhosis of the liver when he was 63 years old. It was December 23, 1945, 6 days before my parents celebrated their marriage in Grandma Gertie and Grandpa Willie’s home across the bay.

I’ll never know if Mom knew where her dad was. It makes me so sad. Maybe no one he loved knew where he was.

While looking through old pictures just a few years ago, I stumbled upon a picture of my very young and beautiful grandmother sitting next to a strikingly handsome man on a blanket on San Francisco’s foggy Ocean Beach. I knew in that instant I was looking at my grandfather. I also knew why my parents named my brother Fred.

Fred and Gertie

I jumped in my car, sped to the office supply store to get the best magnifying glass they had on hand and rushed back home. When I glared through my powerful new lens, I was gazing on the mirror image of my brothers and my sons.

Finally, I got to meet my own Grandpa Fred.

Tomorrow is his birthday. October 1, 1883. Happy Birthday, Grandpa Fred.