Wednesday, December 26, 2018
I Believe in Santa Claus. And Santa Trains, too!
They're simple really: add Santa Claus to a train ride, you’ve got a Santa Train.
Unlike flying, train travel is still fun; there's no TSA, no tray tables in the upright and locked position, and no possibility of sitting next to someone toting an emotional support peacock.
And who doesn’t like Santa Claus?
A couple of years ago when my brother Jim invited me along with the rest of the family to take a ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad with Santa and maybe an elf or two, I had my Santa Train baptism.
Santa, with a comely elf in tow, walks through the train ho ho ho-ing, and gladhanding, having the time of his life as he takes a day off from supervising the toy-making elves at the North Pole.
It was fun and the scenery was beautiful, but doing it once seemed like enough. Trust me, I do believe in Santa and I like trains. It just wasn’t a one plus one equals three sort of experience.
Cornelius Vanderbilt danced in my head. We were moving from the minors to the bigs!
The platform was crowded with lots of Moms and Dads with little kids, some in strollers.
Once he stepped down from the firetruck, I saw that Santa’s helper wasn’t an elf, but a little boy dressed as a train conductor. He was cute, but when I see a little kid in a costume so well done nice that it makes him (or her) look like a miniature adult, I’m creeped out just a bit. I suppose this is a result of reading too many People magazine articles about Jon Benet Ramsey.
Unlike the standard-issue Santa, this one carried a staff, an accessory right out of The Ten Commandments starring Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner. Moses would have loved this particular model since it came with an attached GoPro camera. I can only imagine the viral sensation a YouTube video of parting the Red Sea would have been.
Finally our train arrived and we could get on with our day.
Boston and Maine Railroad for service between Concord, New Hampshire and New York City on the "State of Maine Express". The car subsequently was assigned to first class trains throughout the United States until it was sold to the Canadian National Railway in 1966. In 1982, the car was put out to pasture, but it’s now restored and for the right amount of money, you can charter it. Santa, of course, costs extra.
The ride went quickly as we enjoyed the traditional view from a train of the back of everything. Greater Richmond covered more area than I expected, and as we neared Williamsburg we went through lots of swampy forests.
When the train stopped in Williamsburg, special buses were waiting at the train station to take all the Santa Train passengers to the historic district. The everyday Amtrak passengers stayed on the train as it continued on to Newport News.
We’d already decided that as far as the historic district was concerned, it was every family for itself, so once the bus stopped near the Capitol building, we were all free to explore. We were to meet the train at 5:45 for the return trip.
Basset Hall, the home of Williamsburg’s founding benefactor, John D Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby. The docent ushered me into the tiny theatre to watch a short video about the Rockefellers—it wasn’t too long before I realized that I’d seen it on YouTube.
At the end of the video, we went over to the house; there were just two of us, I was the only one on the tour. I should have taken a photo of the docent’s nametag, since she really was topnotch. She was informative, engaging, and even humorous. She took the time to figure out what I was interested in and customized the tour on the spot to accommodate my interests.
One of the most remarkable things the docent told me was that the Rockefellers would arrive in Williamsburg with only their chauffeur. Their household help consisted of a Swedish couple who lived in Basset Hall year-round. That was it. No chief of staff, no security men, no hangers on, no nothing. Today Santa, Congressmen, and even the lesser Kardashians have larger entourages.
For people of their social stature and wealth, the Rockefellers were a good approximation of just plain folks. They went to a different church in Williamsburg each week and often invited folks from church over to dinner, followed by a movie in the theatre—air conditioned!—that Mr. R had built in downtown Williamsburg.
Capitol building to learn about Colonial government. The guide there, who I think would have made a kick-ass drag queen, was great, but perhaps not quite as good as the guide at Basset Hall. Then again, he didn’t have plastic cream of mushroom soup to work with.
R. Bryant, Ltd., the traditional clothing store. I walked in, browsed, and loitered, but no one waited on me.
Instead of a crowded restaurant, I ate in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum's café. The art museum was great, even though I lost my warm hat there. However, the lovely ladies of the museum shop let me charge my nearly dead phone behind the counter while I browsed the museum galleries. You don’t come by that customer service just anywhere.
George Wythe House. In my memory docents showed you through the place, today you wander through on your own. It felt little forlorn without a woman in a long dress sharing the story of how Mr. Wythe was probably poisoned with arsenic by his wastrel great nephew.
I would have done the Governor’s Palace had I not lost my ticket someplace between the Wythe House and the Palace. Apparently losing my hat at the art museum wasn’t enough! Oh well, I can go there on the next trip.
At the appointed hour I walked back to the train station, which had filled up with Santa train passengers tuckered out by their day in Williamsburg.
The train was late, but that wasn’t so bad, everyone was too tired to be cranky, and on his or her best behavior.
On the ride home, we got out the champagne to celebrate my niece-in-law Marcy’s recent doctoral degree. With chilled champagne to hand out, it was easy to make friends with the family across the aisle. Yes, we appalled them just a bit, but they did their share of laughing, too.
Christmas Carol and came by to sing some carols. We couldn’t have been a less enthusiastic audience, but after some joking about which of the musical instruments she handed out could be used as sex toys (Correct answer: All of them), we were singing along enthusiastically. It was a Christmas miracle.
soupçon of American history.
There was still time for me to lose something else. I left my favorite fleece on the train.
But the guy who owned the railroad car mailed it back--the second miracle of the Christmas season.
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
A Link Not Worth Missing
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
O. Winston Link Museum. We were ahead of schedule and the museum was conveniently located near the interstate highway for e-z on and off.
Norfolk and Western Railway. He's the guy on the left in the above photo.
Train 42 'The Pelican' headed by Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 Class J No.603 arrives at Rural Retreat, VA on Christmas Eve 1957 to Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Crazy.
Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer. He’s responsible for the Coca-Cola bottle, the Exxon logo, the Air Force One paint scheme, and lots of other objects and brand images we still see in daily life—he’s been dead since 1986.
Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. My guess is that no one even tries to fit all that onto a business card.
Some of the galleries were decorated in the style of Macy’s Santaland, but for the most part, the Elf on a Shelf-ness was kept on the downlow. As for Santa, he was totally top notch, worthy of a high-end department store gig in New York or Chicago when he’s not supervising the elves at the North Pole. My guess is that he’d never had a pants-dropping wardrobe malfunction the way I did when I subbed for Santa at St Paul’s Christian Pre-School.
After the obligatory trip through the gift shop—where the courtly gent told us that he actually knew Mr. Link, I did the jiffy tour of the Raymond Loewy exhibit before we got back on the road.
And with that, practically as fast as the Norfolk and Western's Powhatan Arrow, we were back on the road, in awe of a guy who captured a moment on black and white film.
O. Winston Link Museum and History Museum of Western Virginia
101 Shenandoah Ave, NE
Roanoke, VA 24016
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 to 5:00
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
Alabama Trifecta: Motorcycles, Wright, and the Coon Dog Cemetery
Although the Barber Museum is within the city limits of Birmingham it was quite a drive from our hotel. It’s at one of those Interstate exits that doesn’t have much going on, just a gas station or two. We turned onto the grounds and then drove for maybe a half a mile through a well-raked forest until we came to the museum.
As we parked, we figured that something was up since we heard the high-pitched scream of race cars. We walked over to the edge of the parking lot and where we had a great view of a dell and what looked like a grand prix race track in a park. It reminded me of photos of English Grand Prix racing from the 1950s. There was a racetrack alright, but no grandstands, hospitality tents, big billboards, and especially no Jumbrotrons. A bunch of Porsches were racing around the track like the proverbial bats out of hell. Clearly this was unlike any museum I’d been to.
Guggenheim Museum’s famous Art of the Motorcycle Show. (The Barber Museum lent a bunch of motorcycles to that show.)
I’m not sure if it was a slow day at the museum, or if this is normal, but there were only five others on the tour. There was a Mr. Peepers-ish retired professor, his wife, and thirty something daughter, who, if you were pitching her as a blind date, you’d lead with her good personality. There was also a young Asian couple who didn’t say much and wandered off regularly to take photos. I had the impression that they didn’t understand a whole lot of what the docent was saying.
The tour went like this: Coffee would come up to some bike, looked just like a motorcycle to me. He’d say:
Then there would be dramatic pause.
This one is the real deal.
And then there would be oohing and aahing from the Mr. Peepers family. Bruce would smile and stroke his beard.
This went on for quite some time and was all very entertaining even if the combination of his accent and the motorcycle chat meant that I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.
There are all sorts of races at the track, including some featuring vintage cars. Vintage being before the invention of anything having to do with safety, I think.
Since we were scheduled to pick up M at the end of her conference session, we had to tear ourselves away from the museum before all sorts of other two wheeled treasures passed before our eyes. However, it’s on my list to return to, right after I learn what an external gonkulator is.
We were trying to stay on sort of a schedule since we needed to drive 117 miles to Florence (hometown of designer Billy Reid) to see the Rosenbaum House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the state of Alabama.
revered sites celebrating the cultural and spiritual heritage” of northern Alabama on the Hallelujah Trail. In other words, 14 Methodist churches, 4 Presbyterian churches, not to mention a smattering of Episcopal, Baptist, non-denominational places, one Roman Catholic church, and even a synagogue. Sounds like a real barrel of laughs.
The Hallelujah Trail is a 1965 comedy/westernrevered by certain members of my family. It starred Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, and Brian Keith. The movie is the story of a wagon train of whiskey en route to the parched miners of Denver. Chaos, chuckles, and a tuneful soundtrack are the order of the day as the Temperance League, the US Cavalry, the miners, and the local Indians all try to take control of the hooch. It’s not all PC but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given its subject and the era when the film was made.
Rosenbaum House without too much trouble. We checked in at the visitor’s center, a mid-century modern former school building across the street from the house. A docent took us in a group of 8 over to the house.
The house was built by Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum with a generous wedding gift ($7,500 plus a city lot) from his father, Louis. Mr. Rosenbaum senior owned a chain of movie theatres but his son was a Harvard man, spoke five languages, and taught English at the local university. The Roenbaums were part of Florence’s small Jewish community.
The docent was knowledgeable if not warm (on a 0 to Coffee at the Barber scale, he was a .5) but didn’t make facts up out of whole cloth the way some house museum docents do. And there was, thankfully, no talk of gonkulators.
Key Underwood Coon Dog Cemetery. According to the brochure, it’s a Southern icon.
The Coon Dog Cemetery wasn’t even on my radar until I picked up the brochure at the Alabama Welcome Center. Whoever wrote that brochure should get the Pulitzer Prize for Tri-Fold Tourism Brochures.
In a small, grassy clearing deep in the rich, thick wilderness of Freedom Hills, Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. They had hunted together for more than fifteen years.
The burial spot was a popular hunting camp where coon hunters from miles around gathered to plot their hunting strategies, tell tall tales, chew tobacco, and compare coon hounds.
How can you not want to go to a place like that?!?
The cemetery was about 30 miles from the Rosenbaum house—30 miles into the woods. The brochure said that it was in the town of Cherokee, but as far as I could tell, Cherokee was more of an idea than an actual place. Midway through our journey there I concluded that that even Lewis and Clark had better cell service.
But lo and behold, there it was just as promised in the brochure, in a clearing in the forest. The casual visitor might mistake it for a picnic area. It’s perhaps a half an acre, with lots of different kinds of tombstones. They range from slick things from the Rock of Ages quarry in Barre, VT to things that were obviously homemade. It’s maintained better than plenty of cemeteries in small towns in Pennsylvania.
We were enjoying the place when another car drove up. I wondered how anyone in his or her right mind would have found the place.
It turns out that our new best friends were Cindy and her daughter Brianna. They were from West Tennessee and on their way to a hair show in Birmingham (no I am not making this up). They’d seen the coon dog cemetery in the movie Sweet Home Alabama and wanted to see it for themselves.
Sweet Home Alabama, I said, You mean that movie with Reese Witherspoon and that good looking guy whose name I don’t know? I saw that movie!
We followed the GPS out of the place and it took us over about 8 miles of unpaved road to get back to something approximating the “main road”. There were times when I thought we might get stuck in mud and then we would have been even more up the creek than when we were locked in the Confederate cemetery.
I was under no illusions that a guy as good looking as Reese Witherspoons’s co-star would come out of the hills—or back from another planet--to save us.
But perhaps it was in God’s plan since he laid the village of Tremont before us.
The next day we flew back home, but not before someone in the hotel elevator asked me if I were going to the hair show. I said no, I wasn’t, but I met a lovely young woman at the coon dog cemetery who said she’d be there.
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