Friday, August 10, 2018

Taking the kids on the train to NYC

(717 words)

We’re four hours into an eight-hour train ride to New York City and I’m once again reminded of the late John Clouse, for years The Guinness World Record holder for World’s Most Traveled Man.

He’d been to something like 364 of the world’s 365 countries, islands and territories.

For me, he was the World’s Most Entertaining Story Source. 

Anytime an editor would summon me with an assignment about something exotic, I knew to call John, a six-times married-and-divorced WWII Battle of Bulge veteran and the most beguiling storyteller I’ve ever known.

I think of John — he died about 12 years ago — anytime I board a train, something I used to do twice a year, and something he told me he reveled in.

“I’ve ridden everything with legs or wheels,” he said, “and nothing beats the train.”

That declaration may surprise you Type A sorts who are aware of Amtrak’s sometimes casual notion of punctual scheduling.

It’s not as bad as it used to be, but the passenger trains were once notoriously late, often for hours at a time.

I remember doing my typical train gush to a friend and he said he once took the train from Latrobe to Chicago when an inexplicable breakdown occurred.

“I spent three hours,” he said, “staring at the same cow’s ass.”

I still defend rail riding even though I was once the incredulous victim of a still-hard-to-believe eight-hour foul-up.

It was in the late ’90s, pre-cell phone days. I waited eight hours on the Latrobe platform for a train to take me to Manhattan. 

Do you know how much time you spend staring west down miles of track hoping you’ll spy the beaming headlight of an east-bound train?

About 7 hours and 57 minutes.

Every couple hours I’d dash away to a payphone to check on progress. And every time, the Amtrak rep said, “It could be a while or it could be 15 minutes. Better hold tight.”

When the 8:20 a.m. locomotive finally dawdled in at 3:30 p.m., I was furious and got on the train expecting a riot. But there was none. All were serene.

I asked a fellow passenger about the absence of uproar.

“Oh, everyone is angry when they board,” he said, “but then they find out the good news: They’re givin’ away free chicken up front!”

Woo! Hoo!

I learned two things that day: there will never be such a thing as “train rage” and that the only thing better than buying a bucket of the Colonel’s secret recipe is getting to eat it for free as you watch the Pennsylvania countryside roll on by.

“I’ve ridden everything with wheels or legs and nothing beats the train.”
Oh, how I miss being able to call that man. We never met and one of my life’s regrets is I never ventured out to Evansville to join him for one of his legendary Happy Hours.

I can’t mention him without telling my favorite John Clouse story.

Playboy magazine in 2001 was doing a series of “What’s it like to …” stories and wanted to know if I knew anyone who’d ever dined on testicles. Why they thought I’d be the perfect writer to sink my teeth into this topic is a matter about which I’d rather not speculate.

I called John right away and asked if he’d ever eaten testicles. He confirmed my wisdom in calling him by answering, “What kind?”

Anything unusual?

“Well, I once dined on some elephant balls. It was in a restaurant in Berlin that was serving ‘Elephant Soup Burundi.’ And, no, they didn’t come in a really big bowl.”

It’s a great train story and that’s what I love most about riding the train. Every train ride is a conversation incubator.

We talk to strangers, to staffers, seatmates and we lavish talk on our loved ones.

I’m so pleased my daughters are enjoying the sublime novelty of a great American train ride and just hope the sometimes quirky mechanics of the train don’t bestow on them the unwelcome opportunity to study for a couple of hours the same cow’s ass.

Because right now we’re having a ball.

And, no, not the kind that comes in a really big bowl.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Am I a celebrity? Uh, nope ...

(646 words)

The question is being asked with enough frequency I figure it’s time I address the issue.

Am I a celebrity?

I am not.

A celebrity is someone of enduring appeal, someone of ample means and name recognition, a unifying element capable of dominating pop culture. A celebrity is, oh, say, for example, hmmm, Arnold Palmer? He died worth about $800 million and has a popular drink named after him.

I have very little money, perhaps because I usually have a popular drink right in my hand.

Clearly, Arnold Palmer’s a celebrity and I’m not.

So what am I?

I’m a tourist attraction!

People stop by to see me, grab some refreshments, take some pictures and then depart feeling vaguely hungover and wondering what the hell just happened.

Me, I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

It all started with the four retired lesbians — and I should clarify: I know they are retired and I simply anecdotally inferred they were lesbians.

I don’t know if you can even retire from a thing like that. 

But they were just lovely. One of them knocked on my door in the afternoon and said, “Oh, we’re so sorry to disturb you. My friends and I are big Arnie Palmer fans and all bought your book when we heard you speak in Oakmont and wanted to come out and see all the places you wrote about. And we were hoping you weren’t too busy for us to buy you a beer.”

I’ve never been able to find a way to skillfully convey how I’m never busy and that anyone on the planet at any time of the day or night is welcome to barge into my office and cheerfully tell me they want to buy me a beer.

In my entire life I’ve only been truly busy twice and both times involved my obligatory presence during the births of our daughters — and I’m pretty sure Val and the crackerjack OBGYN team could have soldiered on without me if a sudsy stranger popped in and said he wanted to buy books and beers.

I’m thinking of tacking a “DO NOT DISTURB!” sign for my office door and using duck tape to block out the first two words so visitors will see the sign and feel obliged to DISTURB! me. 

Strangers wanting to meet me at the Tin Lizzy and buy me a drink is a phenomenon that’s becoming surprisingly common.

On Friday it was my new friend Ben (not his real name). We met at Flappers on the second floor. He texted me he’d be the one wearing jeans and a red golf shirt.

I texted back I’d be the one who looks like an inebriated writer and spelled it “ineebriated.”

Ben’s an interesting man. He’s retired U.S. Air Force who spent most of his career servicing Air Force One and other high security planes in top secret hangars at Joint Base Andrews near the nation’s capital. He went from there straight to a position with Raytheon.

I asked how he and his colleagues spent their hush-hush days with this top defense contractor.

“We all sit around reading your blog,” he said. “It’s hilarious.”

If you think it’s hilarious now, Ben, just wait till you see the post I write after I persuade you to use your top secret security clearance to sneak me onto Air Force One so I can surreptitiously put Saran Wrap over all the toilet bowls.

I dream of the day when some covert operative conceives an undercover sneak to get all the people who love the blog to pay for the blog.

Ben bought 10 signed Palmer books so he’s off the hook. 

But, please, if you’re in the neighborhood feel free to stop up and buy some books or just shoot the breeze.

It’s nice being busy, but it’s more fun spending your days being just a wee bit disturbed. 

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