Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2003 / 28 Shevat, 5763

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

Choo-choo Blues | In case you were wondering what happened to me these past couple of weeks, I was on vacation. My wife and I took Amtrak's Southwest Chief to Chicago then transferred to the Lake Shore Limited to New York. We had made the trip a few years ago and enjoyed it so much that we wanted to do it again. The Chief was great, unfortunately, the trip from Chicago to New York was a nightmare.

When going across country you've got to change trains in Chicago. When we arrived we had a couple of hours to kill between trains, so we decided to get out of the station. After two nights on the train, we were anxious to walk in the fresh air for awhile. When we got to the windy city it was, well, really windy and extremely cold -- somewhere around 14 degrees -- needless to say, we couldn't walk around outside for very long. We were pretty frozen when we got back to the station, but we knew we'd soon be aboard our train, in our nice cozy warm sleeper chugging on to New York. Oh, yeah?

We boarded the Lake Shore Limited and discovered that we had no heat in our compartment. Don't worry, we were told, the heat will come on as soon as the train starts out. Well, it didn't start out right away because something was wrong with the cafe car and we had to wait until they could switch it with one that worked. We sat freezing while they changed cars. Finally we were off. Unfortunately so was the heat. Our sleeping car attendant (they don't refer to them as porters anymore) at last had to admit that the heater in our compartment was inoperable and all he could do for us was perhaps scrounge up a couple of extra blankets. Gosh, thanks. But, hey, that's okay because it's only about 20 hours or so to New York.

So there we sat in our icy cold deep freeze fully dressed in our overcoats and wrapped in three blankets trying desperately not to cry -- we knew that if we cried the tears would freeze up on our cheeks and we'd get even colder. You know, it's a funny thing about life -- when things go wrong and you've given up hope and you're feeling really miserable and you know that things just couldn't possibly get any worse -- WHAM! -- they actually do get worse!

So what could be worse than sitting on a train for twenty hours without heat in the dead of winter? How about sitting on a train for twenty hours without heat AND NO TOILET in the dead of winter! That's right. The toilet didn't work in our compartment either. Neither did the water in the sink, but to tell you the truth, washing our hands wasn't our biggest concern at that point. So there we sat in our icy cold deep freeze huddled together under the blankets and holding it in as the train bumped along eastward. Ahhh... the romance of train travel! But wait. It gets better.

The next day, after a cold night's sleep, the refrigerator train made it's way through Buffalo, Rochester, and Schenectady. Then, not long after we left the Albany station, the train totally lost all power. Everything went black and the conductor's voice came on the intercom and announced that the engine broke. THE ENGINE BROKE?? What? What are they talking about? What do they mean the engine BROKE? Is that the technical term or are they just talking down to us because they think we're morons? No, it was true. The actual train engine -- the thing pulling us across the frozen tundra -- was broken. For a split-second there I thought we were destined to be the 21st Century's answer to the Donner party.

Suddenly I was in the middle of a bad 1970's Irwin Allen disaster movie. The kind of picture that always had Steve McQueen or Charlton Heston saving the day. Any minute I expected to see George Kennedy as the conductor walking through the train cars reassuring everyone. The engineer played by Gene Hackman. The porter ( I mean, sleeping car attendant) played by Richard Roundtree. The greedy railroad baron played by Lorne Greene. The unhappy frustrated housewife played by Faye Dunaway. The freezing stupid married couple played by my me and my wife.

So there we sat huddled together, holding it in under the blankets, in a dark, quiet, powerless train stuck in the middle of nowhere, unable to wash our hands, waiting for help. Help finally arrived about an hour and a half later in the form of another engine sent from Albany to save us. While we waited, our sleeping car attendant found some cold sandwiches and passed them around to we wouldn't eat each other.

The bad news is we got in to New York's Penn Station five and a half hours late, frozen to the bone and desperately seeking a working toilet with running water.

The good news is ... we didn't eat each other.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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