Monthly Archives: January 2015

Senior Train Rides, Speonk, and Discrimination

My sister Margaret sent me a nice article by Newsday Guest Columnist, Tony Smolenski, who was reminiscing about commuting on the Long Island Railroad, and how his train was often delayed to allow the train from Speonk to “clear.”

Margaret sent me the article because it mentions the LIRR train station in Speonk, which figures prominently in an event that happened in June of 1970, which was when I graduated from Islip High School.

Even though everything was changing in the sixties, Islip tried to keep alive its long observed traditions. One that didn’t quite make it was Moving Up Day. Every spring we were marched onto the football field and corralled into separate class sections (freshmen, sophomores, etc.), where we were led in a goofy sort of Call and Response song, as each class Wove in and out the rows, physically Moving Up to the next class. I can imagine kids from the forties and fifties happily participating in such inspired silliness, but it was caput by nineteen sixty-seven or so.

By the time I was graduating, they were still sponsoring senior class trips. There was the winter daytrip to a Catskill resort (a separate caper), a trip to Washington D.C. (didn’t go), and as a final group activity, an entire train was let from the Long Island Railroad for an all–night excursion to and from Montauk Point.

We left at midnight, and it was widely known (and almost expected) that most passengers would already be fully intoxicated upon arrival. Furthermore, most were secreting enough contraband to last the night, which guaranteed there’d be a train full of drunken teenagers teetering between cars — which in those days were wide open.

The accommodations were impressive. There were club cars that were furnished with upholstered chairs, love seats and couches — but not what you would expect to see on a train; more like in a nicely appointed, though somewhat out of style house. There were cloth curtains on the windows, and tables were set up with a pretty decent buffet.

A freight car housed a live band, in which there was dancing.

My high school classmates were generally a nice group of kids who enjoyed having fun — but they weren’t particularly unruly or destructive. But soon after pulling out of Islip station, I had revealed to me a side of many that hitherto had gone unobserved.

Remember those curtains? Studious, college–bound kids from good families were ripping them off the walls. That nice furniture? Torn open, upended and I swear to God, literally getting its legs broken off!

This went on for a little while, maybe an hour, when the train slowed and finally stopped. A couple of Suffolk County Policemen came on board and after some hushed discussion with the chaperones, they walked through the train giving kids a suspicious onceover.

I figured they were just trying to scare everyone into behaving better, but if one of them had given me his badge and gun and put me in charge of keeping the peace, I would not have been more surprised than by what happened next.

The policemen came back to where me and a few other guys were sitting — and they didn’t look like they had good news. This was confirmed when we were told that we would have to leave!

Oh, God. How embarrassing! There must be a mistake. Did you say we have to leave? The train? Is there some reason for this? Did someone accuse us of something? Who? What did we do? Why are we being singled out?

The questions weren’t answered, but it was suggested that resisting wasn’t wise. I was sure we were being arrested—and for nothing! I hadn’t broken anything and I don’t think any of my comrades had either. Even so, seemed to me that further protestations would only prolong our humiliation. We stood and disembarked and alighted onto the tarmac of, yes, the Speonk train station. Here is what it looks like today:

1280px-Speonk_Trackside_Cafe

It was maybe one A.M., and the early summer night was getting pretty cool. As the train chugged merrily out of the station and I wondered how I was going to explain this to my father, I realized the policemen were starting for their car.

“Excuse me, Sir. Are you leaving?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not taking us in?”

“For what?”

“But you took us off the train?”

“We had to take somebody off.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Take the first train home in the morning.”

“When’s that?”

“Five-thirty.”

Okay. So what had happened was that we had been made an example of for the rest of the senior class. You’re welcome Class of Seventy!

The police cruiser rolled off, leaving us utterly alone under the few dim lights that illuminated the exterior of the small, then desolate station, which was locked tight.

There were six or seven of us castaways, but we were no close-knit group. We were from the same side of the tracks (wrong), but I was tight with just a couple. In a nod to good old fashion racism, the only black member of our class was also ejected.

It was too chilly to sit outside all night, and we noticed that a couple of hundred yards up-track there were some rail sidings where a westbound train sat idling. We decided to go and see if we could get on and maybe ride it back in the morning.

We climbed a ladder near the front of the engine and crept along a catwalk toward the cabin. As we neared it, a very fearful and ready-to-fight trainman leapt out from around the corner. In his shaking hands he held a large, cast iron wrench, cocked over his shoulder like a baseball bat.

Our hands sprang up and we stepped backward, assuring him that we meant no harm. After some tense moments we explained our predicament and nice guy that he was, he agreed to let us sleep in the next car. Not long after laying down, I heard someone grunt in pain. At first it was somewhat soft, but it slowly grew in intensity. Who could it be?

It was our Black friend, and it became clear that this was no case of indigestion. Something had to be done, so we went back to the engineer (very carefully), who after checking out the patient, called an ambulance which came and carted him away. He was having an appendicitis attack.

The next morning, we were jarred awake by the train beginning its run to New York. I’m not sure why, but the conductor didn’t ask us for tickets. Within an hour, we were back in Islip. All of us were tired, dirty and angry over our unfair treatment. Still, we ended up with a good story which made the injustice a little easier to bear — but just a little. I’m pretty sure ours was the final Senior Train Trip.

Everything Reminds Me of Something Else

I once had a parish priest, Fr. Jim McKenna, whose sermons I found particularly engaging. One of them dealt with discrimination and he recounted that he never realized how painful it was until he found himself on the receiving end. While making the rounds of a hospital and wearing his collar, members of another religious group literally turned their backs to him.

He asked if anyone had ever felt the sting of discrimination, and without any introspection on my part, the Speonk debacle leapt to mind. I was surprised because by then it was ancient history and not something I ever felt too bothered by. I’d told the story without bitterness dozens of times and usually received plenty of laughs. Still, I guess it left a little scar; funny how things like that work.

When Fr. McKenna retired, the parish had a going-away tea that I attended. We chatted and he told me that in seminary school he’d learned a little trick for speaking to congregations. They told him to identify a few people in the audience that seemed to be interested and to talk to them like it’s just the two of you. He said that I had been one of his guys over the years and thanked me for playing that role.

I said that it was me who should be thanking him. Thoughtful, relevant sermons are rare enough, but getting them with eye contact is especially uncommon. He was a good priest and I miss him.

‘Till next time patient reader.

Joe

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Polar Bear Plunge 2015 and Catch 22

I went to Coney Island last year and watched a large group of people go swimming on New Year’s Day — but I didn’t go in. I blogged that I might return and get wet in 2015, but the odds were against it. Subsequently, a few friends said they if I did go back they wanted to come with me. One of them — Nan, who is an unheralded photo-mixologist and former next-door neighbor — said she’d always wanted to swim with the polar bears. In a flash of poor judgment, I said that if she went in, I would too.

That was last spring, when warm weather makes such commitments easy. As summer passed, and fall gave way to the chill of winter, doubts started creeping in. I wasn’t the kind of person who went swimming in cold water. Hell, I’m not even much of a swimmer in warm water! Still, I’d committed and knew I would never hear the end of it if I backed out – even if everyone else did — which was pretty much what happened.

But Nan didn’t, and my wife Dixie said she’d go, but not swimming. Same for my daughter, Sarah, who’s plan was to sit up on the boardwalk with her mother, maybe enjoy a bloody Mary and watch as I made an fool of myself.

Here’s a little movie I made about the day’s outing:

Everything reminds me of something else

When I first waded into the water, it brought to mind Joseph Heller’s great book Catch 22. If you haven’t read it, go get a copy. It’s acclaimed by some as one of the twentieth century’s most significant literarily works.

The book follows bombardier John Yossarian and his fellow airmen, who are deployed on an island in the Mediterranean Sea during WWII. The book is filled with quirky characters and many events are told from varying points of view and unfold out of sequence. In other words, it’s not easy to follow.

It’s an antiwar novel, but deals with broader themes, like the abuse of power and the hypocrisy of bureaucracies rationalizing absurd policies and practices. During the sixties it was embraced by young people who saw it as a reflection of their feelings about Vietnam. I was one of those kids and tried reading it, but had a hard time. I took another swipe at it in college and did better, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I read it again and got a better grasp. I’ll probably have to read it again — which I look forward to.

The first two thirds are funny. Yossarian’s observations of the insanity of the situation he and his fellow airmen find themselves in are spot-on. But as the book moves into the later chapters it gets dark. Many of Yossarian’s friends are killed or disappear, and then there’s the total destruction of a hilltop village, among other terrible things.

As I waded into the cold water of Coney Island, I found myself thinking of the scene where the full details of Snowden’s death are revealed. The young man is horribly injured and Yossarian doesn’t realize it. Snowden keeps saying, “I’m cold. I’m cold,” and Yossarian keeps assuring him that he’s going to be fine. “There, there,” he keeps repeating. “I’m cold, I’m cold,” Snowden repeats, over and over. “There, there,” Yossarian replies again and again.

Mike Nichols made an excellent movie out of Heller’s book back in 1970. It’s worth watching. (Mr. Nichols is one of just a few who won a Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony award.)

Here’s the trailer for Catch 22.

‘Till next time gentle readers.

Joe