February 29, 2008

Greyhound Tales…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:30 pm


“On a Greyhound bus,
Lord, I’m traveling this morning.
I’m goin’ to Shreveport and on down to New Orleans.
Been traveling these highways,
Been doing things my way.
It’s been making me lonesome, on’ry and mean.”

—Waylon Jennings, lyrics: “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”

On a clear summer night, when breeze was right and the sound carried, we could hear them while outside in the yard, or through our open bedroom windows. The sounds drifted in from a mile south of our house, from The King’s Highway #3, in southern Ontario. The high whine of the Detroit Diesel. In trucks. The eighteen wheelers. And the Greyhound buses. Big wheels rolling down the highway to distant destinations.

The Greyhound bus. The red, white and blue logo with the whip-lithe, loping grey-hound. A powerful gleaming symbol, in my childhood, of freedom, adventure and the exotic climes of faraway places. With an extensive network of service to all the remote little Amish settlements scattered across the great landscape of America.

“Go Greyhound, and leave the driving to us.”

I heard all the fabled travel stories as a child. My brother Joseph and my cousin Alvin Graber once left for a two week trip, I forget to where. Texas, maybe. We still discuss their adventures occasionally at family gatherings. Adventures such as waking up beside a busy highway in some strange large city, after setting up a rough camp in the road ditch the night before, because they had no place to go and their bus didn’t leave until the next day. And they wouldn’t have dreamed of spending money on a motel room. It’s a wonder they weren’t arrested, or worse. Killed, even.

My brother Jesse, too, made several excursions to other communities, returning with fascinating tales about burly bus drivers with close-cropped hair and name tags on their shirts. With names like Butch and Joe and Ray and Buck. Men who brooked no disorderly behavior from unruly passengers. They were usually gruff but friendly and often told tales of the road, of the things they had seen and heard after years, some-times decades, of driving a Greyhound bus.

We drank in the stories and rehashed them again and again. We mimicked the call to load, “All aboard for Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo.” We dreamed of the day when we too could get on the bus. And go see places half a continent away, travel through the vast and far-flung land, and explore the teeming cities. To see for ourselves the great man-swarm of people who were so far removed from what we knew that they might as well have lived on another planet.

Then, out of the blue one summer, it was decided that my sister Rachel, who was seventeen, and my brothers Stephen, Titus and I would go on a trip to visit Uncle Homer Grabers in Marshfield, MO. On the Greyhound bus. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. We discussed it for weeks. We crowed to our envious friends. We were “going on a trip.” Our excitement increased as the day approached.

It finally arrived. We loaded the old top buggy with baggage and people. Mom saw us off and told us for the hundredth time to behave ourselves. Which of course we felt was unnecessary.

We rattled down the gravel road. It was summer. The birds sang. The sun shone. The whole world seemed fresh and bright. We waved at our friends as we passed their homes. The seven miles passed quickly; we entered the town of Aylmer and trundled over to the east end. Dad tied up the horse in the bus station parking lot.

Right on time, the bus pulled up from the east and stopped, rumbling and hissing and billowing smoke and diesel fumes. We gave the driver our tickets and boarded, walked up the little steps lugging our suitcases. Excitedly found our plush and luxurious seats, exhilarated in the “English” smells of cloth and vinyl and cigarette smoke. The folding bus door slid shut and sealed with a solid little thump. The bus growled and lurched as it took off. We were on the road at last.

We must have been a humorous sight to the other passengers. Dressed in our best blue denim barn-door pants and black elastic galluses and plain long-sleeved shirts, clutching our straw hats. Stephen was fifteen. Titus was thirteen. I was eleven. So it had to be the summer of 1973. We glued our faces to the bus windows and watched the rolling landscape pass. Like a real live TV. Through St. Thomas and London, then on toward Detroit. Crossed the border there and entered the U.S.

The hours passed and our excitement did not wan. Dusk approached, about the time we’d be choring at home, or eating supper. And there we were, zooming along on a great land schooner. We rumbled through small towns and big cities. We looked with wonder at the stores and cafes and bars and the neon signs. And the lighted houses we passed, through the open windows as people were sitting down for their evening meals. We saw, we absorbed, we chattered excitedly in our native tongue, we drank it all in. Each scene only a glimpse and then it was gone, instantly replaced with new and exciting things we had never seen before.

I forget our route; we probably traveled through Chicago. We changed buses at the huge station there. As we walked to our boarding gate, I was so enthralled by the towering dome of the station that I stopped in my tracks and gaped at the ceiling. My siblings walked on until Rachel realized I wasn’t with them. Agitated and nervous, she came rushing back to where I stood, entranced, and roused me from my reverie. She scolded me severely, and rightfully so. She took on a lot of responsibility at age seventeen, to shepherd her lollygagging younger brothers through the unknown cross-country maze of the Greyhound network. But she did it.

Through the long first night, the bus rolled on. And on and on. We finally slept, huddled in our seats. Awoke to the excitement of our continuing journey. We settled in, weary but still immersed in the experience.

Every three or four hours, the bus stopped at a store or restaurant and we were allowed to get out and walk around and stretch. I don’t remember that we bought food at these places; we must have packed sandwiches for the trip. But we did buy soda pop and candy bars.

Somewhere during that second day, we stopped for a break, probably at a small city. The bus would be cleaned and serviced. We unloaded with the other passengers and sat in the dirty, dinky station.

Among the passengers was a great, tall hulk of a man, wearing thick glasses and dressed in a long dark coat. He clutched a paper bag. Someone had placed him on the bus. He wasn’t quite all there. His jaw protruded a bit, and he had the receding fore-head and slack, blank eyes of the mildly retarded (or mentally challenged, as it’s called today).

We all slumped wearily in our seats. Suddenly he realized our bus was backing out of its parking bay.

He thought it was leaving without him. He burst into tears and jumped up, jabbering incoherently, and ran frantically toward the door, sobbing like a child. His whole body heaved with terror. He cried out for someone to stop the bus. At the door, a ticket agent intercepted him and eventually managed to calm him down and convince him the bus would return after it was cleaned and serviced. The man shuffled back to his seat in his large black clumpy shoes and sat there, huddled in his long coat, sniffling. Still sobbing softly, tears coursing down his cheeks. Many of the other passengers looked at him strangely. All of us stared. At least one little boy gaped, open mouthed. I had never seen a grown man cry like that, so uninhibitedly. I felt very sorry for him. And I never forgot him.

We had fun in Marshfield with our cousins. For about ten days. But what I remember best about that trip was getting there.

In April, 1979, a Greyhound bus transported me to a new life after I snuck out of my parents’ home at 2 AM and, lugging a small black duffle bag, walked two miles in the pitch-black darkness to a neighbor, who dropped me off at the bus station in Ottumwa on his way to work. I headed west to Nebraska and the unkown. I was seventeen years old.

Later that year, my buddy Mervin Gingerich and I, armed with two-week passes, lived on the Greyhound as we traveled to the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, then on through Phoenix, LA, down to New Orleans, and back up to Nashville. We eventually ended up back home in Bloomfield, flat broke. Not a dime between us. Maybe half a pack of smokes. Mervin never “ran away” from home again. I had only just begun.

In those days, before the anti–smoking Nazis and other socialist liberal wackos turned this great country into a whining guilt-wracked nanny state, smoking was allowed on the bus in the last three or four rows. Those seats were highly prized. Smokers always lined up early at the gate to be the first to board and claim the treasured back rows. I smoked countless packs of cigarettes on the back seats of Greyhound buses.

In the age before MP3 players and other electronic devices locked people into them-selves, seatmates actually talked to each other. I had many genial conversations with fellow travelers, men and women. About any imaginable subject. At all hours of the day or night. Business people. Students. Blue collar workers. Nervous little old ladies. Drifters like me. Bums.

Once, at about 3 AM, I witnessed a passenger selling a loaded handgun to his seat-mate. “You wanna buy my piece?” Sure. They negotiated a price. As we approached the station in the flickering ebb and flow of overhead street lamps, I saw the fleeting dark glint of cold black steel as the gun changed hands. And the money. I pretended not to notice. I never saw nothin’.

And once I sat beside a fifteen-year-old girl, who with her fifteen-year-old girl friend seated across the aisle, had run away from home the day before. From somewhere in Ohio. Both were beautiful girls. They were aimlessly traveling west, to LA. Unsure of what they were doing or how they would survive. They were scared. I gave them food and cigarettes and a couple of bucks I couldn’t spare, but did.

And every once in awhile I would walk up to Amish travelers, usually from very plain communities (I could tell by their dress) and speak to them in Pennsylvania Dutch, without any warning. Amused by their shocked expressions. The men, once they had regained their composure, usually looked grim and sternly asked who I was and if my parents knew where I was. It was all quite wild, this underworld of sometimes harsh but always vibrant life on the Greyhound trail.

I took my last Greyhound ride in the spring of 1988, from Alberta, Canada to my brother Nate’s place in Daviess County, IN. A two or three day trip. I haven’t boarded a bus since and have no desire to. In those heady days of my first bus trip, I could never have imagined a time when I would not be very thrilled to travel on the Grey-hound. But times change, as have I.

Greyhound travel probably reached the peak of its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. It began a slow decline in the 1980s. A decade later, only the lowest class of people traveled by bus. The poor, the druggies, the bums, the drifters, the homeless. People who looked like they’d just as soon stab you as not. Bus routes were streamlined or cut entirely. The Amish lost one of their most efficient methods of travel. I’ve talked to Amish people who claimed they didn’t feel safe riding the Greyhound because of the low class passengers and unsanitary conditions.

But I read in a recent article that bus travel is making a comeback. Because of the hassle and the long waits at airports and rising costs of flying. Respectable students and business people are increasingly riding the inter-city bus routes. So who knows? Perhaps the day is not far off when the whine of the great Greyhound returns again to its former glory. To the infinite delight of dreaming little Amish boys who hear the big wheels rolling at night on distant highways.

The pudgy, freckled kid approached my booth at the Horse World Expo. It was Friday afternoon and show traffic was slow because of all the snow and sleet outside. He was dressed in a John Deere T-shirt and bill cap and looked to be around ten years old.

“Yep,” he said conversationally as he leaned against my booth divider and pushed back his bill cap, “my mom’s working and my dad’s working, so I just said it’s a good day to come to the Expo.”

“Who’d you come with?” I asked, intrigued at his adult air and manners.

“My aunt,” he answered. “How do you like that laptop?” he pointed to the old obsolete laptop computer I use for slide-show presentations of my buildings. “I’m thinking about getting one.”

I told him my personal laptop was a MacBook. He knew all about the brand and allow-ed that it was probably a bit beyond the reach of his current budget.

I asked him if he liked horses. He guardedly admitted that he did not, but quickly added that he had a dog and a cat and a rabbit.

“I have found a brother among all these strange, wacky people,” I thought to myself, “and he is a child.”

I told him I don’t like horses either.

We stood there, talking man to man about the general state of affairs of many things until his aunt caught up with him and they wandered on. He waved and I thanked him for stopping.

Something told me that he had seen and experienced a few things in life that a ten-year-old probably shouldn’t have to.


February 22, 2008

A Road Warrior’s Pet Peeves

Category: News — Ira @ 6:48 pm


“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless
of age, gender, religion or ethnic background, is that we
all believe we are above-average drivers.”

—Dave Barry

The little mini van snuck out in front of me as I crossed Rt. 30 on my way home from work. I usually head out over the mountain to avoid the town of Gap and its clogged, suffocating late afternoon traffic. Down the mountain, through winding curves and hills I followed the mini van, impatient as its driver braked and slowed drastically for every little curve. And every little water puddle. Two miles or so, then it finally turned off. The road ahead was clear. Relieved, I punched Big Blue’s accelerator and we surged forward into freedom.

But no. A quarter mile ahead, another little mini van slowly lurched onto the road like a giant slug. I almost immediately caught up with it. The driver poked along, braking and slowing for every little curve, and sometimes for no discernible reason. Coasted slowly to the stop sign in White Horse, then waited until there wasn’t a car approaching within half a mile in either direction before creeping left onto Rt. 340. The same direction I was going. I expelled a long sigh and calmed myself. It just wasn’t my day. Not when even the mini vans were plotting against me in relays like this. After the mini van obstinately took the next right, onto my road, of course, I accepted the fact that I would be late for the gym.

Putzers, I call them. Idiot drivers. Cell phone yakkers. Constant brakers. Turn-signal ignorers. Lancaster County’s roads are clogged with the entire spectrum, every imag-inable type. And you take your life in your hands every time you venture out. It’s a war zone out there. Drive these roads and you are by definition a Road Warrior. Whether you know it or not.

Mel Gibson in “Mad Max 2 – Road Warrior”

I arrived in Lancaster County for the first time in the summer of 1989. I was almost immediately attracted to the place; its picturesque farms and little country businesses woven into the fabric of the land. Everyone rushed about, hither and yon, busy, busy, busy doing this and that. The people too, were friendly enough, although they kept saying, “We’ll have to get together sometime,” when they didn’t really mean it. I quickly realized this phrase was just a quaint, regional expression of general good will and good vibes, and meant absolutely nothing. Like answering, “Fine,” when someone asks how you are. When you’re not. It’s not a lie. It’s just an expression.

Throughout my college years, I returned each summer to work construction. After graduating from Bob Jones, I officially moved to Lancaster County as a resident in 1993. It has been my home since.

I’ve never had my sense of directions here. Literally, I mean. To me, south seems like west. I’m always mildly amazed that the sun rises from what seems to me the south-ern sky. In my mind, I know Lancaster city is straight west of my house. But to me it seems north.

I like Lancaster County. I consider it my home. And so, as a resident for fifteen years now, I figure I’ve earned the right to air a few pet peeves.

The County’s population increases every year. Substantially. It’s getting a bit crowded. A lot of people like me move in from who knows where. And a lot of people not like me, from nearby large cities. They all need places to live. And the Amish, of course, keep expanding their numbers through large families. Someone must have neglected to inform them the world is overpopulated. (Just kidding. I’m glad they have large families. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.) Currently, I think they have an astounding 150 church districts in the area. Those numbers will continue to grow.

Then there are the Lancaster County roads. Little ribbons cut into the picturesque countryside. No ditches. No shoulders. No square grids. And not that well maintained. They meander here and there, curve this way and that. No master planners involved here. From Peters Road, which began hundreds of years ago as an Indian trail (or was it a cow path?), to the thousand other little side roads. All clogged with vehicles, almost all the time.

It could be different. Back in the 1970s, there was a great visionary plan to build a four-lane highway from New Holland to Lancaster. They even built the overpass bridg-es and laid out the road bed. Then for some reason, they stopped. Abruptly. And there it all sits, idle. Even has its own name, The Goat Path. Guess farmers graze goats on it. The political battle continues sporadically, with endless opinion surveys and much heated rhetoric, pro and con, at public meetings.

All the while, purists pontificate about “preserving the land.” There ain’t no such thing. The best use for land is whatever the market decides. A crop of new homes in a field is as beautiful as any other crop. Or a new road. Right now, the Lancaster County market would dictate a nice four-lane highway to help unclog some of the side roads. But market forces are suppressed. I’ll be surprised if they ever get the road built. At least in my lifetime.

Then, of course, there are the drivers.

Of all driver types, the Lancaster County Putzer is by far the most irritating. Putzers come in all shapes and sizes, man, woman or youth. They do tend to favor the mini van as their vehicle of choice. And perhaps it is a statistical fact that more women than men drive mini vans. But a Putzer can be driving the latest model SUV, or even, and I shudder to admit this, a pickup truck. Putzers often are tourists, especially during the summer months. But the local Putzer club proudly exists, expanding its bulging mem-bership rolls annually, it seems.

The Putzer will do just that, putz along, usually five to ten miles per hour below the posted speed limit on the back roads. And on the main roads, too. Tourist Putzers slow down or stop completely to gawk at a passing buggy. Other undeniable attributes that will help you identify a Putzer instantly: Braking for every little bump or mud puddle. Slowing down a quarter mile before the stop sign. Creeping along behind a buggy when there’s a double yellow line but they could otherwise pass safely. Weaving while yakking on the cell phone. Sitting there for twenty seconds after the light turns green, then creeping slowly forward through the intersection just as it turns red again, leaving a long line of fuming motorists behind them. And generally doing everything otherwise imaginable to provoke a normal driver over the edge into madness and blind rage.

Another habit that particularly incenses me. This one’s not restricted to Putzers. And that’s not using your turn signal. Especially when I’m trying to make a turn onto a busy road and a vehicle turns into the road I’m on without signaling. Had he signaled, I might have sneaked out into the traffic. Always a major, major irritant. It’s about the only time I wish I were a cop. I’d happily issue tickets (for points) for failure to signal.

And not a week goes by that I don’t flash my lights at idiots who forget to turn on their headlights at dusk. They come at you from the mists like ghosts. Morons.

And then there are the buggies (Did you Amish readers think you’d get off scot-free?). Pop over a hill, and there’s a buggy, plugging along. I can’t fault the buggy drivers for not using the shoulders on the back roads; there are none. But I’ll tell you that if you keep driving along those busy highways with your buggies half on the roomy shoulder, half on the busy traffic lane, someone will take off your wheels. Sooner or later, it’s just gonna happen. On the positive side, it seems that in recent years, the lighting systems for night driving have improved vastly. LED lights, or whatever they’re called. Overall, I have few problems with buggies on the roads, other than occasional good-natured grumbling. Goodness knows I’ve spent enough years riding in one. I’d hate to see the day when the horse and buggy were no longer allowed on public roads.

Lest anyone think I’m this crazy nut of a driver, let me clarify. I consider myself a sane, decent driver. Superior, even. For decades, friends have told me that when they met me on the road, I ignored their waves. I didn’t ignore them; I just didn’t see them. I keep my eyes on the road. Period. I’ve never been ticketed for even one traffic violation (knock on wood). Not for speeding, not for anything. I’ve been stopped by a cop only once, about fifteen years ago, for speeding. Fortunately, when he saw my “Rush is Right” bumper sticker, he didn’t even bother to check my driver’s license. Just told me to slow it down a bit. I was grateful.

Putzers, like the poor, will be with us always, I suppose. At least until the Rapture. Then maybe they’ll get Left Behind to putz at their leisure. (That’s a joke. Hope you Pre-Millennialists have a sense of humor.) Until then, we’ll just have to deal with them the best we can. Drive defensively. Expect anything. Stay alive. And clear the air by venting occasionally.

The Post Frame Builders’ convention was held in Columbus, OH, this week. Usually a lot of people show up from all around the country. I’m sure this year was no exception, especially with this central location. I had long looked forward to attending with my boss, Patrick Miller, and seeing a lot of old friends and some new ones. Including John Schmid, who provided the musical entertainment at the convention.

But no, the Harrisburg Horse World Expo is this weekend, so guess who’s spending four days hobnobbing with whacked-out horse people again. Yep, me. In the middle of a winter snow and sleet storm, yet. Duty calls and all that. Some carry one burden and some carry another. No one can accuse me of not being a company man. Hopefully, Mr. Schmid will look me up as he promised when he comes to Lancaster this summer. I’ve never met the man.

In last week’s comment section, I stated my intention to write an essay about Elmo Stoll. It triggered a minor earthquake from my readers, publicly and privately. But just hold your horses. Such an essay will take some time and a lot of preparation. Includ-ing research, an outline, and mining the depths of my own memories. And taking the time to do it right. I would not look for it before late spring/early summer.

Elmo was my first cousin, the son of my father’s older sister Anna and her husband, Peter Stoll. Elmo’s presence invades many of my childhood memories. He was a brilliant, gifted man. A superb writer. An outstanding orator. A born leader of men and movements. And deeply, tragically flawed, as such men often are. Any honest essay, at least from me, will include a frank discussion of all those attributes, whether positive or negative.

Finally, NASCAR opened its season last Sunday with the great thunder of The Daytona 500. Someday I want to attend that event. It was a great race, high speeds, lots of drafting, several minor pileups. Ryan Neman (Helloooo, Newman) won it for the first time. My hero, Little E, looking strange and a bit uncomfortable in his #88 car and green outfit, came in ninth.