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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