“This is not happening. This is not happening.”

 

In 1967 I believed our family of 4 would bunk in these palatial billets while being wisked to Florida in unsurpassed comfort. I was thunderstruck when I discovered the actual accommodations. In 1967 I believed our family of 4 would bunk in these palatial billets while being whisked to Florida in unsurpassed comfort. I felt railroaded when I discovered the actual accommodations were less welcoming.

I’m told that in order to activate the App known as “Life” you have to accept the terms and conditions of its 900+ page User Agreement, otherwise you’re not granted the privilege of playing it. And while I have no recollection of agreeing to anything, apparently I did. Life is such a “killer app.” Literally. At the end of the App the game is over – for all time. Seems self-defeating, but apparently this App is so much fun to play you don’t mind the abrupt ending. And while I don’t recall agreeing to its terms and conditions, I do recall selecting my User Defined Pref Sets at about age 4 when I checked those boxes that make me appear as the man I am today – a guy who has been in Airplane Mode since 1965.

 

And to this day my hopes and fears, likes and dislikes haven’t changed that much. Like a tiger, I can’t change my stripes unless I go back into Settings, select the User Defined Pref Sets tab and change my preferences. And that would be great except it’ll never happen – I forgot my password. Damn it! So typical of modern man. Now I’m locked out of my own hard drive like a guy who wants to change the channel but lost the remote. So I’m stuck with my so-called preferences until God activates his “killer app” and zaps me home using his universal remote. And I agreed to all this?

Now I’m not married to any of my preferences. I’m just habituated to them and they go a long way in dictating my mental state. As explained earlier my preferences train left the station in 1965 with me on board feeling pretty smug about the destination. In fact this story is about a memorable train trip I took with my family in 1967. And as we’ll see, this journey took me from heaven to hell in the span of 3 states. In fact this story highlights the perils of being so invested in your preferences you are able to scale the heights of sublime fulfillment one moment, only to descend into a chasm of unmet expectation in the time it takes to say “This is not happening!” So as we question our mercurial nature remember, there’s no way our 3 lb. brain can process the 9,000 lb. answer. All aboard and enjoy the ride. 

 

Glad You Made it Through the Overly Elaborate, Needlessly Explanatory Preamble.

So Here’s the Deal.

In 1967 my hometown of Syracuse, New York was 928 miles from Jacksonville, Florida and it’s still 928 miles today, give or take a few measly inches of creeping Plate Tectonics (I do like to go off on tangents). And while I recognize that Syracuse and Jacksonville aren’t moving away from each other very quickly, I believe my parents’ sanity was. Why else would they send the 4 of us (mom, sis, bro and 6 yr. old me – dad was on Active Duty and would join us later) on a 2-day transcontinental train trip to Florida in Coach Class? I’m sure the conversation went something like this:

 

Dad:            Y’know Dorothy you and the children could travel to Florida in a supremely comfortable private sleeper car, but if the 4 of you sat on chairs in coach class for 27 hours we’d save $3.75.

 

Mom:          You’re right Bill. And with the money we save, we can retain better divorce lawyers when our marriage dissolves.

 

And that was that. It was settled. Because they were inured to the privations of the Great Depression, their children would have no problem traveling like cargo. Of course this child didn’t think for a moment we’d be relegated to Coach Class. As we’ll soon see, I was thinking sleeper car all the way. Coach Class was populated by Gypsies with tambourines gnawing on hardtack and parsnips. Couldn’t we afford a little more luxury? This wasn’t WWII. This wasn’t a troop train rushing infantry to protect defenseless Jacksonville from the Nazi menace.

 

The Third Reich was crushed years ago. This was the New Frontier and we were the leisure class choosing to “summer” in the Sunshine State. The trip should’ve been an idyllic adventure way down upon the Suwanee River and not a scene from Deliverance. In my 6 year old fantasy world I was embarking on a secret agent man assignment whereby I’d be transported to an exotic locale in the hushed elegance of an opulently outfitted Pullman car where I’d dine on Chicken Kiev in the dining car, sleep on fresh linens in my plush bed and perhaps a quaff a ginger ale on the rocks with Bondian sangfroid in the Vista Lounge. Instead this cattle call became a trail of tears whereby the Hardiman’s were shipped like huddled masses of livestock in steerage class to Floridaland – The Humidest Place on Earth.

 

Let’s Examine this Trip in More Detail – if that’s Even Possible

As I prepare this rabbit hole for you to disappear into, let’s take a breath and back up for a moment. As I throw it into reverse, we hear the piercing cautionary beeps indicating something is moving backwards. And now I’ll more vividly describe the series of unfortunate events leading to this massive collision between a 6 year old’s sweet expectations and bitter reality. It will take the form of 2 unforgettable experiences. One I’ll call Heaven – the miracle bestowal of pizza from on high. The other we’ll name Hell – the brutal reality of chair camping on a train. The first a gift from on high and the second a hellish predicament from which there was no escape. Here’s the genesis of this adolescent triumph followed closely by abomination.

 

As mentioned earlier, it was decided by authorities well above my pay grade (which at age 6 was any pay grade) that the Hardimans would visit our cousins in Florida during the Summer of Love in 1967. But during the planning stages it was still the winter of our discontent then known as the Blizzard of ’66. During this seasonal synapse between the Blizzard of ’66 and the Summer of Love ‘67, the Beatles’ concept album Sgt. Peppers was still in the idea stage. Haight & Ashbury was just another intersection in San Francisco and the Monterey Pop Festival was merely a primitive draft Papa John Phillips scratched on a napkin and shared with record producer Lou Adler.

 

And while these iconic things were poised to happen in the near future, it was comforting to know our family was also poised to jet to the sunny climes of fabulously muggy Florida for a cheery visit with our strangely-accented southern cousins. The first miscommunication was that we weren’t exactly jetting to Florida. We’d actually be taking a choo-choo. Not so bad. It wasn’t like I was being railroaded. Trains were still a popular and viable mode of transportation back then. Jet setting air travel was reserved for the President, James Bond or Chuck Yeager. Even as late as 1971, when TV’s The Brady Bunch flew to Hawaii to kick off their new season, we thought getting on an airplane was still a big deal. Wow! Marcia and Greg got to fly.

 

At the tender age of 6 I had a clear GPS fix on where Jacksonville was from repetitively putting together my Big Piece United States jigsaw puzzle. What I didn’t have was a sense of how long it would take to get to that flaccid peninsula dangling from the bottom of our country. For example when we left the Syracuse train station at 7 a.m. and traveled a grueling 8 hours to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, I thought we were about halfway there. I was brought to tears when mom told me we were still in New York State. New York State! I thought we’d be in Virginia or some other Confederate state by now. WTF mama – which in 1967 meant “Way Too Far, mama!”

 

Still in New York State? Bullsh!t (which in 1967 still meant bullsh!t). We switched trains at Grand Central Station and had a little time to explore the palatial and cavernous terminal building. To my present-day eye it’s still grandiose, but back then it was unfathomably regal – a pagan temple where pharaohs were entombed or sun gods were worshiped. With its massive proportions, polished marble and ubiquitous signage it was a transportation hub for the ages. It seemed that if you had any hope of getting to heaven you’d probably have to go through Grand Central Station first.

 

In the days before puberty took root, it was food, and not girls, that rocked my world. Back then girls were just boys who dressed differently – kind of like it is today in parts of San Francisco. And like the prowling predator I was, it was food that appealed to my beastly instincts. Pursuing and devouring grub easily eclipsed beautifully constructed buildings or beautifully constructed girls. When I was hungry, or had developed that “special tingly feeling” deep in my belly, the 3 most important things I thought about were food, food, food.

 

The Taking of Pizza 1 2 3

During our stopover, I explored the buffed expanses of Grand Central Station’s concourse under the eagle eye of my vigilant mother. I was positively at sea roaming the perimeter and mesmerized by its magisterial splendor. This wasn’t just some “Central” Station celebrated for its location. No. This was a “Grand” Central Station celebrated for its location and luxury. I drank in the rich atmosphere, being careful not to swallow any of it. And that’s when I first saw it. A beacon unto my unrequited hunger. A savory little pizzeria that called to me with its crusty-cheesy pheromones perfuming the afternoon air with a garden of aromatic delights. This was an atmosphere I could swallow. And I did – hook, line and sinker.

 

With pizza displayed like this, I was ready to launch a counter attack. With pizza displayed like this, I was ready to launch a counter attack.

Holy Cow I was over the moon (actually I was over Track 7). I longed to possess the gooey goodness of that pizza. Food, food, food. Somehow I’d managed to develop a 1 track mind in a building with 46 of them. And there I stood, my nose pressed to the glass, agonizingly ogling the luscious stacks of pizza pies so appetizingly arrayed in their warmly lit display case like prostitutes in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The pizzas were all gazing back at me in various states of undress; their siren call causing my gall bladder to prematurely secrete bile in anticipation of their cheesy charms. You had your plain Jane’s, your Mediterranean types and your spicy numbers. Some were topped with lmorsels and others were practically topless. Oh boy! All of them however, were properly turned-out and expertly presented under the keen eye of a swarthy pizza maker dressed in an old school chef’s toque straight out of Central Casting. I watched him in a state of adolescent wonder as he tossed and twirled an ever-thinning and expanding ball of dough in the air with the flourish and aplomb of a Flying Branzino Brother.

 

With just a few simple ingredients this culinary artisan would fashion an irresistible pizza pie I would give my descending colon to possess. His pizza was not some bloated Little Caesar’s welcome mat pizza smothered with surplus government cheese suitable for feeding inmates. No, this was a noble and worthy pizza I wanted to get serious with and make food babies. I watched in aching desire as oversized slices of voluptuous, enticing pizza lay inches from my yearning eyes. My Pavlovian chops salivated as I anticipated their mastication in my greedy little pie hole – pizza pie hole. This was Big Apple New York City pizza, produced on a scale equal to the building in which it was served. Pizza so big it seemed to be sold by the yard rather than by the slice. In the words of Donald Trump, “This pizza is gonna be huge.”

 

God how I wanted the Big Apple’s forbidden fruit. Forbidden because, as I remember, it was an astronomical 75¢ a slice – a small fortune to a family on a budget, whose mother was lugging around three unemployed children under the age of 14. Screw the cost. I craved its gooey goodness gratifyingly squeezed between my tongue and soft palate. Visions of its ambrosial triangularity satisfying my deepest hunger, thrust my hypothalamus into overdrive. Yeah, I was a psycho-active kid prone to vivid flights of fancy. In fact I believe I was the only 6 year old to have LSD flashbacks having never taken the drug.

 

A Little Slice of Heaven

Chef Boyardee? Try Saint Boyardee. Chef Boyardee? Try Saint Boyardee.

I gathered all the cosmic energy I was aware of and focused it on telepathically willing myself a carpet swatch of that tantalizing pizza. The resident pizza maker, who resembled Chef Boyardee, somehow tuned into my unalloyed pizza gluttony because he signaled for me to come in to his sanctuary/restaurant. I believe his gesture was identical to what God would use in summoning his Chosen One. Was I being anointed or was I being given pizza? Was there even a difference? I felt humbled standing before this Saint Boyardee who would deliver me from hunger. 

 

I don’t know what he said to me, but whatever it was, I agreed with a guttural stammer indicating acceptance of his vocalization. Anxiously I witnessed Chef Boyardee use a large trowel to scoop a magic carpet slice of that hallowed pizza onto not 1, but 2 offset paper plates. He then ceremoniously bestowed the sacred slice on me – one of his obedient flock. The clouds had parted in the Sun Temple that day and I stood there misty-eyed holding the blessed sacramental wedge of goodness draped across my outstretched arms like the body of Christ after he was taken down from the cross.

 

“Thank you Mr. Chef Boyardee,” I salivated in reverently consecrated tones. “How much do I owe you?” All the while I’m thinking, please say it’s free. Please say it’s free. Please say it’s free.

 

The kind man smiled and said in an unmistakably Italian accent, “Someday I run for President. You vote for me OK?”

 

“Hail to the Chef,” is what I wished I said. But instead blurted, “Thank you Mr. Man. This is so great you don’t even know how great this is.”

 

Wow. The great pizza man was paying it forward and as a result I too would someday bestow a doggie bag of pizza scraps unto some homeless guy who would thank me with a hearty, “Gees, thanks fella. Pre-chewed and everything.” Thanks to the unusual kindness shown me by that thoughtful pizza chef, I vowed to be equally as generous with all manner of people in my life; providing I would receive full credit for my generosity.   

 

Pizza in hand (arms actually), I now believed God had a plan for me and granting me a slice of that forbidden Big Apple pizza was part of the plan. I felt an instinctive urge to drag my pizza away from the kill as far as possible so I could devour it all by myself, without having to share one bubbly bite with other members of my pack. Mine! All mine. After all, I had earned it by conjuring my nascent telepathic powers and magically manipulating the ethers so I could possess that coveted slice. Of course I should mention that being a cute little kid was the extent of my telepathic powers at that time and this power disappeared completely when I grew into a less than adorable teenager.

 

Sitting on a secluded bench away from the madding crowd I gobbled the cheesy sacramental host like it was my last supper and in doing so consumed enough calories to last me until puberty. It was now time to board the train for the pilgrimage to Jacksonville. Due to my earlier religious pizza conversion I’d elevated the journey from a “trip” to a “pilgrimage.” The whistle sounded. We were ready to roll and I was on cloud 9 (actually Platform 32).

 

All Aboard – The Descent into Hell

We boarded the “Secessionist Express” to continue our pilgrimage southbound. OK the train wasn’t actually named the “Secessionist Express.” My memory is hazy on this. It may have been called something equally disturbing like “The Dixie Cannonball.” Good ole mom thought her troops might be hungry and purchased some dry cheese sandwiches during our Grand Central Station sojourn. I’m not sure if these saliva sponges were intended for nourishment or for punishment, but I do know they were fresh because the plastic film was still on the Kraft Singles. Fortunately I didn’t need no stinkin’ cheese sandwiches. I was still full from eating my 3 squares – as in 3 square feet of pizza.

 

And while the food situation may have been lacking aboard the train, the beverage situation was even worse. We were watered from a communal spigot located at the end of our car. The flimsy cone-shaped paper cups had poorly glued edges that leaked immediately if you didn’t chug the so-called “potable” water in one swift swig – like you were throwing back a shot. These were the bad old days before the cup holder craze had swept over the nation like an algae bloom; so you either had to gulp it all down immediately and toss the cup, or sit there like a neglected foster child holding a leaky paper ice cream cone. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Montezuma’s Revenge – well as we Yankees headed south this hydration fiasco became Jefferson Davis’ Revenge.

 

To call the bathroom facilities primitive would be an insult to a caveman’s hollowed-out stump. In much the same way some movies are released straight-to-DVD, all bowel movements in coach class were released straight-to-track. It was like sitting in a 4-hole outhouse careening down the track at 50 mph. Upon flushing the toilet a blast of unfresh air invaded my nostrils and other regions while the railroad ties flew by my downward gaze.

 

As we continued rolling on, packed cheek by jowl like milch cows chewing their cud, I thought this was the train version of the college fad: How many coeds can fit into a phone booth? When it came time to disembark I imagined people on the platform watching in amazement as 300 passengers got out of a train car built for 1/5th that amount – like 20 circus clowns exiting a Volkswagen built for four. The close quarters, the sea of strangers and the sinking feeling that all was not right on the “Johnny Reb Express” created a feeling of unease usually associated with turndown service at The Bates Hotel. Everything was breaking down as my perceptions became murky. My rose-tinted glasses were becoming maroon-tinted. Maroon-ed – what a fitting color.  

 

Then things went south. Which I know sounds kind of redundant considering we were already heading south. That just made it doubly true. For whatever reason I fully assumed we had a sleeper car for the night. This was more than an expectation. So even though our little Von Trapp family clan was still marooned in coach class like edelweiss squeezed in a flower press, I didn’t worry. I eagerly anticipated cozying up in our family sleeping car a little later that night while singing “My Favorite Things.” I had it all planned out. My sister and mom would share the bottom bunk while my worldly 14 year old brother (I swear, he must’ve known everything) would be billeted with me in the top bunk. Julie Andrews also somehow figured into the mix, even though I didn’t know how to solve a problem like her.

 

We’d be in our own fort on a moving train gliding through the inky darkness way down Dixie way. How cool would that be? Very cool. And you could do anything you wanted in the tiny little bathroom just as long as you didn’t try to unzip anything while you were in there. There was no room. You had to unzip everything before you went into the miniature water closet if you hoped to empty anything. That only made it more fun. The prospect of that night’s Sleeping Car-lapalooza excited me to no end.

 

One-Way Ticket to Palookaville

I grew a little concerned however, as the sun began to set outside of Maryland and we were still crowded into our skimpily-padded coach class bench seats. I warily asked mom when we were going to our sleeper car. She crinkled her lip and cocked her head, but not in a good way, and confusedly responded, “What sleeper car is that honey?”

 

“The one we’re all going to sleep in tonight,” I said as I braced for a tsunami of unmet expectations. “The one grampa gave you the $600 for,” I tremulously replied hoping that what was happening was not happening.

 

“David,” my mother responded in the soothing tones mothers use when they know you won’t be able to accept what they’re about to tell you, “there is no sleeping car tonight sweetheart. We’re all sleeping in our seats. Didn’t you know?”

 

I began to whimper tearfully to my mother and to the refugees across the aisle “This is not happening. This is not happening.” Maybe the accommodations were an upgrade for them, but they were a nightmare for me. This was not one of My Favorite Things. Once again I cried through chattering teeth, “This is not happening. This is not happening.” My face tightened as tears of doom trickled out of my baby blues and rolled down my then-chubby cheeks, pooling atop my Garanimals sweater. “Mom,” I lamented, “there’s farts in these seats and my feet don’t even reach the floor. Plus I sleep horizontally and not erect.” Not until I hit puberty would I sleep both horizontally and erect. But trying to sleep in a chair all night was lunacy. Since when do primates sleep in chairs? I mean mankind might walk upright, but he is not supposed to sleep upright. What are we – cows? If that were the case there’d be mischievous kids roaming neighborhoods at night people-tipping.

 

I began a little sniveling sob and, at that moment, I probably was a little sniveling s-o-b to my longsuffering mother. There was no way out of this ever-tightening noose unless I jumped the train and ran through the swamps of Maryland till I found a nice barn to lie down in where I’d probably get caught and shot just like John Wilkes Booth did. I meant Lincoln no harm. It was all Booth’s idea. Or maybe if I slept in that drafty barn I’d wake up a little hoarse – ahem. My mind was racing and currently in second place to reality. I vowed to somehow amass enough power to prevent something like this from ever happening again. I dubbed it the Silver Rule: Do unto myself before it is done unto me.

 

My sniveling sob slowly reduced to a whimper. I had run the gamut of the grieving process and was now at the final stage: Hope and Acceptance. Hope came in the form of the night porter who passed through the car about 9 pm and presented us with our luxuriant bedding for the evening. In this case it was a pillow the size of a sponge and a wash clothed-sized see-through blanket. This blanket in name only was smaller than my NYC pizza slice and it smelled like Hungarians at a Paprika Festival. Acceptance came in the form of….of accepting the pillow and blanket. Maybe God didn’t have a plan for me after all. I took Bette Davis’s advice and buckled-up – it was going to be a bumpy night.

 

And indeed it was a bumpy night. A poor Macedonian girl across the aisle was suffering from diarrhea half the night. After it finally subsided she began vomiting. And I thought to myself, “Well you know what they say, one door closes another one opens.” I’m 6. I shouldn’t be so witty.

 

I tossed and turned all night – something almost impossible to do while perched on a chair. It was more like writhing and contorting on a bike seat. There would be no REM sleep, no restorative sleep, no nothing that night. The train really had left the station and as we penetrated more deeply into the heart of Dixie, I grew delirious with thoughts of Gen. Sherman invading the South and marching all the way to the sea while scorching the Earth everywhere except Mayberry.

 

I finally managed a few hours of interrupted sleep and as we chuffed into Atlanta I lifted the shade to reveal a scene from Gone with the Wind. Nattily attired black porters (they were Negroes back then) were everywhere on the platform courteously assisting southern belles with parasols and gentlemen of distinction (they were Crackers back then) with their portmanteau. My mother said, “Oh look David. We’re in Atlanta. Isn’t that exciting?” I shot her the world weary glance of a sleep-deprived Yankee and replied, “Frankly my mom, I don’t give a damn.”

 

Early -11 featuring Granny's Possum Stew. Early  7-11 featuring Granny’s Possum Stew.

We eventually made it to Jacksonville later that morning and I had a terrific time with my cousins at their plantation manor. The humidity had somehow reached 138% which meant water had sweat on it. I didn’t realize I had that many sweat glands. My poor pores poured perspiration. So it was a special treat in 1967 to visit some kind of newfangled “convenience store” called a “7-11” where my cousin Alex and I sucked down something called a Slurpee. Rumor had it these handi-marts were opened from the ungodly hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. I knew it was an unworkable business model. Piggly Wiggly and Krystal Burger I got. But 7-11? No way.

 

If I were to review my train wreck experience on TripAdvisor, I’d say the accommodations were like traveling on the Mayflower, but without the Mayflower’s creature comforts. Had I known we’d be travelling coach class I would’ve gone AWOL or mustered what little power this 6 year old could generate in 1967 to prevent myself from boarding this cattle car on rails by any means necessary. Of course I really shouldn’t complain. As I got older I came to appreciate that when the train stopped and the doors opened, we were in Jacksonville and not Auschwitz.  

 

From Heaven to Hell

If I learned anything from being the persevering child of fallible parents, it’s that I much prefer being older, wiser and possessing the wherewithal to make my own decisions. Maybe the South will rise again, but so will I. And when I do it will be from the horizontal position of a heavenly pillow top featherbed and not from some hellish communal bench seat filled with the rich ethnic aromas of refugees seeking asylum in Florida.

 

If only I remembered my password, I could’ve changed my pref sets to “pizza neutral” and “chair-sleeping compliant” thereby avoiding all this drama. But then what would I have to write about. We kvetching humans have to push against something otherwise we’d be ultra-serene like the Dalai Lama or his wife Mrs. Lama. And as much as I fantasize about living a simple monastic life of spiritual obedience, I’m much better suited for writing extravagant tales of secular rebellion. After all, rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. 

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