Sunday, November 18, 2007

"Once A Kid ..."

"Choo-Choo" - When I was little, my parents bought a train set for our basement playroom. It was, I don't know, about eight feet long? Five feet wide? Or, maybe it was ten feet long. I haven't seen it for years so my guess is, if I looked at it today, it might very well be only about one by two feet. I'll tell you one thing, to a four year old it pretty much looked like a NYC block. It was big, brown, with long green stretches that looked like open prairie. The first time I saw that set, it was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen.

We had Lionel trains. There were two engines - one was the old fashioned type of, I guess you'd call it a choo-choo train; the kind that tugged a long series of freight cars, with it's bright red caboose pulling up the rear. That engine was black, (it looked a lot like the one above), with that silver metal bar-like post attached to the wheels, the one that moved up, down and around as the wheels spun. I always liked that motion for some reason. That engine made a whistling noise and I have to tell you - it sounded just like a real train. It was wild. I remember one day, my dad showed up holding a little box filled with tiny white tablets, which you placed in the similarly tiny smokestack at the train's front. As the engine heated up from the electricity flowing through the tracks, a thin white wisp of smoke streamed from the engine. The whistling, the smoke, that silver bar moving up and down - I was in heaven.

The other engine was a more modern, "Amtrak," type of machine and this train pulled passenger cars like the one down below. I loved the sleek, silver, rectangular look of these trains and the way the passenger car windows would light up, showing off the tiny profiles of people as they chatted with one another and enjoyed their meals in the dining car, (you can see this on the train to the right). Well, I'm figuring that's what those folks were doing and I could have sworn I always saw my Nana Ann in there whenever we took the trains out for a spin. Back in the late 60's, we used to go and pick up Nana at the Springfield, Massachusetts train station, so it didn't take much for my imagination to simply transfer that experience over to our toy basement set.

I used to love heading down to the basement to play engineer. And there was nothing better than running both trains at once and turning off the lights for the complete night-time experience. The sounds, the smoke, the lights of the little plastic towns complete with gas stations, cars and people ... there was even a little helicopter somewhere on the open prairie. I'm not sure that really fit in well with the set, but that didn't matter. It was still exciting to have it there. Sure, I my siblings and I were mere observers in the early years; my Dad was chief engineer and we were instructed to stay clear of the set when my parents weren't around. The electricity was too dangerous, I suppose. But, years later, it was time for my sister and me to take over the controls and then it was my brother's turn after that. So many times I would head downstairs and get lost in that little Lionel world. It was relaxing - I can remember that feeling. And yes, sometimes, the "boy" in me would take over. I remember sometimes speeding up the trains so much, that they'd take off and fly from the tracks. But as you might imagine, after 15 crashes or so, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of mystery in the accident scene. You should know, however, that I never purposely crashed the passenger train. All tragedies were reserved solely for the coal, flatbed and general freight cars. No lives were ever lost in that basement. After all, how could I ever hurt my Nana Ann?

Take A Look At This - Well ... if my eyes popped out of my head when I was 4 looking at my Lionel basement set, I can't imagine what it must be like for 4-year old encountering what you see here. To me this was, perhaps, the biggest - I guess you'd call it a "train set" - I had ever seen. It's actually a collection, an association ... a train set conglomerate. I wrote a bit about seeing this a few posts ago when I had wandered down to Union Station and met a few model train hobbyists as they were setting up this beauty. (See above - you have to look carefully to see the people in the photo and this will give you a better sense of the scale of the project).

Well, it's finished now - completely set up. I snapped off a few photos so you can see what I'm talking about but, to tell you the truth, there was no way to get a good shot of what I'm talking about here. My little Canon digital isn't set up to give you the full flavor. It was one thing to see the people setting up the train early one weekday morning with just a few people milling around the station. It was something else to see the system fully up and running, with kids running around the outside boundary, putting their little hands up to the glass, mouths open, eyes as wide as ... well ... I'm guessing that's what my eyes looked like the first time I saw that basement train set.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Ultimate Veteran's Day


I don’t like to admit it, but war fascinates me. I love learning about it, seeing paintings and photographs of it, reading first-hand accounts of it. The Civil War ... now that's always sucked me in. I don’t know. For me, there's something kind of ... well … eerie about that period. Maybe that's because it's the first time mankind was able to see actual images of war's horrors. Photos of mangled, contorted bodies lying dead in the open fields. Of makeshift hospitals with all the surgery paraphernalia - saws, ether, white metal beds ... It all gives me the creeps. On the edge of the industrial revolution, The Civil War seemed to change everything about the way wars were fought and followed. Until, that is, the next war came along. And then, the next. It seems all wars change everything. And yet, they change nothing.

"The War To End All Wars" - Last week, I happened to see something in the paper about the The National World War I Museum, At The Liberty Memorial being located right here in Kansas City. I hadn't heard much about it and, in fact, haven't thought much about WWI for a long time now. It's funny how that particular conflict is overshadowed by it's world war cousin. Anyway, when my friend Mary mentioned something about Willam Jewell College presenting a special alumni lecture, followed by a tour of the museum on Saturday, I thought it would be fun to join her. I was meaning to head back down to Union Station anyway, so I thought this would be a great way to kick off the weekend. And you know what? It was.

The lecture was held in a large loft area upstairs at Union Station and the guest speaker was Dr. Thomas Howell, a renowned World War I scholar. Dr. Howell presented the information in an almost poetic way and his - I'll call it a pre-museum briefing - was the perfect appetizer to the main meal. By the time we entered the museum, I felt like we had traveled back in time, our heads filled with fresh knowledge about the early 1900 European social, cultural and political climate. What did Dr. Howell call it? A tinderbox?

Okay. So I've seen three museums since I've been here: The Nelson Atkins Museum Of Art, including the new Henry Bloch wing; The Arabia Steamboat Museum; and The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I can't remember the last time I spent so much time in museums. I know part of the reason is my newness to the area. But I'm sure another factor has something to do with my lack of a television; I chose to not get one when I moved into my new place.

Anyway, the World War I Museum is an incredible place. And I don't like tossing around the word "incredible" too much. As Dr. Howell suggested to us during his lecture, this is a world-class museum in the truest sense. The displays, interactive materials, educational copy and media ... it's a tremendous collection. I know I have to go back at some point since it's too much to take in on a first visit. There is one section, which is kind of like a wide balcony area, where you can either sit or stand while you watch a short movie presentation about the U.S. entry into the conflict and how that shift affected the war's outcome. The balcony overlooks a huge replica of a trench and it looks remarkably realistic, complete with the mud and water. I don't usually take photographs of copy but the description to the right caught my eye, (you can click on it so see the words more clearly).

Of course, it was good to tag along with Dr. Howell every now and then, so we could get our questions answered immediately by the expert. And, to be at the museum over Veteran's Day weekend was something special as well. Crowded, to be sure. But still special. I don’t actually remember the last time I even thought about the first world war. I took two courses about the second war when I was in college and they only touched a little bit on WWI. But after listening to Dr. Howell and then to the movies; after reading and viewing the various displays - a lot of the history came back to me. The Serb issue, The Black Hand, Hitler's capitalizing on Germany's disgraceful defeat, sowing the seeds for the coming turmoil... It's
interesting to think that people back in 1918 actually did believe that the phrase, "the war to end all wars" was appropriate.

If you live in Kansas City and you haven't been to this museum, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It's a must-see - a truly extraordinary experience. Not that you’re all traveling to KC, but if you do get here at some point, I recommend some trips to the museums I mentioned earlier (and I haven't even seen the Truman Presidential Library yet - I heart that's great, too). And when you're through exercising the mind, stuffing it with all kinds of information, you've earned the right to check out the barbecue spots.

Have I mentioned how much I love barbecue?

I'm kidding.

Friday, November 2, 2007


Resident vs. Traveler.
Routine vs. Unusual.
Waking up in the morning, knowing pretty much how the day's going to be structured vs. Waking up, walking out the door and not knowing what to do next.

Finding the balance between these concepts has become an interesting experiment for me. From the look of it, many folks seem to enjoy the more set, familiar approach. They love routine; the same series of events, operating like clockwork, just about every day of their lives. Well, I'm pretty sure that's not my bag. Sure, I can do it and, in fact, do do it for about half the week these days. But, when it comes to the remaining days of the week - it’s the lack of routine .... the “what’s going to happen today?” unknown component to the whole thing - this is what gets my juices flowing.

It's The Vibe, Man - 35,732 miles marks the spot. Someone mentioned it would be a good idea to get my car into the shop for a quick checkup before the bumper-to-bumper coverage runs its course. I found a dealership up on Main Street and met a mechanic there named Tony. Great guy, by the way, which is good since I can now check that off the list of settling-in “to do’s” -

Dentist ... done.
Cleaners ... done.
Barber ... done.
Mechanic ... done.

After dropping off the car, I had about three hours to kill and didn't have the faintest notion of what to do next. Years ago that would have been a challenge, perhaps even a worry. No car, in the middle of nowhere, strange area. Nowadays, it's just the way I like it. I looked to my left as I zipped up my backpack and stared at the tall buildings marking the Kansas City's skyline. The air was crisp and the lighting was that pretty, light golden, with an early morning mist floating above the grass. I decided to head toward the buildings.

I've driven through Crown Center, (a city shopping and dining area surrounding the Hallmark Company's main headquarters), about 50 times since I've been in KC, but haven't spent any time there, certainly never gotten out of the car. I figured it would be a good time to grab a quick breakfast, relax and read a bit. And just as I reached for the door leading to the Center, I felt a vibration in my jacket pocket.

“You wouldn’t happen to have your keys, would you, Harry?”

I reached down with my left hand, feeling the clump on my left thigh. I closed my eyes and dropped my head. It was Tony and, yes, yes, friggin' yes - I forgot to leave my keys with him. I'm pretty sure he couldn't hear my near silent-swear as I waited about ten seconds … the lull continuing … while waiting … for the pickup offer that never came.

The walk to Crown Center was delightful. Of course it was. It was completely downhill. By deduction, the walk back to the dealership was a fairly slow, persistent - sort of grueling early morning test for my legs and lungs. I had clearly earned the right to a good breakfast.

Union Station – I couldn't help but smile as I stared out the bus window, retracing my initial morning trip down the Main Street hill. This was my debut KC bus ride and, at $1.25, it is truly a bargain. Public transport was my default transportation mode in NYC; the occassional car there was a treat for me. Here, the whole thing is flipped. Whenever I need to travel, it's all about the car. The bus? It's just not something I think about ever using. Having said that, a bus ride downtown every once in awhile might be nice; there’s something relaxing about someone else doing the driving and I enjoy looking out the window – observing. And, of course, you never know who you’re going to meet.

"The Link" is an above-ground walkway, connecting Crown Center and Union Station, the city's main train terminal. As luck would have it, The Link led me directly to the place I needed most – a diner type restaurant called the Harvey House. Originally opened at Union Station in 1896, the refurbished version was the perfect place for a relaxing breakfast. I sat, read and wrote. The place was empty so my waitress spent some time at my table, filling me in on the goings-on around Union Station. I enjoyed watching the mixture of tourists, travelers, and vendors as I ate my eggs and sipped some really good coffee.

I'll just say this for the time being because I'm planning on heading down to Union Station again soon to check out the World War I Museum (just up the block) with a few friends. I loved milling around the train station. Come to think of it, I always enjoy wandering around old train stations. Well, I guess by definition they're all old, right? There's just something about train stations - you can smell the history, the age. And Kansas City's depot is real treat; I'm going to snap off a few photos in a few days. Get this: they're setting up this huge, and I mean huge model train -I don't know what you'd call it - a community? I hesitate to call it a "set" - it's more of a train "wing." About half of the station's main lobby is eventually going to be filled with this train set-up, which includes all kinds of different model trains, winding tracks and little buildings. About a dozen volunteers are currently working on the construction and design as well as manning the operations center. I hung out for awhile and chatted with some folks, just to find out what the scoop was. It turns out this train exhibit is an annual thing and they were putting it together for the coming holiday season.

The Adventure Continues - I know, I know. It's not exactly like scaling Everest or trekking through the Amazon. Still, an adventure, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant, is still special to me these days. Call me crazy. A few people have - trust me. My return Link route took me back up and into Crown Center where I walked around shops and into one particular gift shop, where I was greeting by a nice smiling woman named Betty. A former school teacher, Betty now works part-time in the “Best of Kansas City” gift shop down the hall from the Westin Hotel. She’s over 70 so, after chatting awhile, I asked if she’d like to be an Eldercation participant. She smiled and took a card I offered her. We'll see. I don’t push too hard on that front. If a person wants to speak with me, they’ll reach out in one way or another. Those are the people I enjoy interviewing the most. No force-feeding here.

I started my walk back up the hill and this time, there being no rush, I took the steep grade more in stride and it was quite a bit easier. Of course, just as I was approaching the dealership, Tony called to tell me the Vibe was ready and ... in very good health.

And so, that was my Monday morning. My non-routine morning. My traveler morning. It’s interesting just how different I felt as I wandered around, seeing new places and faces. The question always looms there for me: how can I allow this feeling to more a part of my life?

I’m working on that one. For now, the balance seems just about right.

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