Aboard Amtrak Train 86 now, between Wilmington and Philadelphia. He's in the luggage rack, under my coat.
A story he liked to tell: when I was very small, maybe a year or two old, he took me to a Memorial Day parade, back when they still had those. It was very cold but I wanted to stay, and eventually he put me inside his coat. I have a trace memory of this.
Another story: I was a colicky baby and kept my parents up all night for six weeks running. One morning my father staggered into his office building, after spending the night walking me up and down. The woman who ran the newsstand in the lobby asked him what was wrong, and he explained.
She looked at him in that steely East European way and said, "Now you carry him around. Later he carry you around." He always liked telling that.
At the risk of repeating: It's all unremarkable. It happens. Someday I'll get carried around again.
I brought him through the Metro this morning and through Union Station and onto the train with no problems. There was a very enthusiastic Yellow Labrador attached to an Amtrak police officer sniffing the passengers, but it was interested in explosives, not cadavers, and anyway, ashes aren't a cadaver. So it sniffed and went on, and I stood in line for a few more minutes wondering idly how many laws I'd already broken.
Leaving Philadelphia now. Lots of stories there. Actually, lots of stories up and down the Northeast Corridor, or the Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way, as it used to be called. Trains were a big thing in my father's life. Again, this is nothing unusual. If you were of his generation you lived with trains, the way we live with cars.
Still, a few impressions: there were, first of all, his wartime years. I wonder how many times he passed through Union Station. He went into the Coast Guard in the spring of 1943, and he was assigned to headquarters in Washington a year later. From then 'til the end of the war he commuted to New York every weekend to visit his parents. The way he described it, the travel was always an adventure. The trains were jammed with servicemen. Freight had priority over passengers - war materiel had to get through, so every time a freight was in a position to overtake, the passenger train was pulled onto a siding and sat there. The New York to Washington trip could easily take all night.
Stories: there was the night (I think I've mentioned it before) when he rode all the way to Washington in the baggage car, sitting on a coffin. There were no seats but it was the last train of the night and a couple of Pennsylvania railroadmen took pity on him. He was a little self-conscious, but they all decided together that he had to sit somewhere, and the guy in the coffin probably wouldn't mind. They talked trains all night. Once again, I could do something with the irony of this but won't. The dead have to move somehow, and trains were efficient then and they still are, and I wasn't going to do the cemetery day trip by car, so here he is and here we are.
Then there was the night the train was boarding at Pennsylvania Station in New York, and there wasn't a seat to be had anywhere. From the back of the car comes a loud, official-sounding voice: "The next stop on this train will be BALTIMORE, BALTIMORE!" Half the passengers in the car scramble out of their seats and pile onto the platform. The train starts moving. The guy who shouted strolls down the aisle. Turns out he's not a conductor, and he has nothing to do with the railroad. He's a serviceman who wanted a seat. He finds an empty one, settles down, opens his newspaper and has a nice, comfortable, relaxing trip all the way to Washington.
There was a Friday afternoon at Penn Station when my father introduced his friend Nevin Fiddler to his parents. Fiddler was a talented Midwestern newspaper and communications guy who'd joined the Coast Guard PR unit. He was a little more experienced than my father, and so he was one of the people who taught my father the trade. They wound up rooming together at a boarding house on 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue. One night, during one of those wee-hours discussions (bull sessions, they called them) that people had during the war, Fiddler asked my father in all sincerity, "Bud, tell me - why are all Jews communists?" My father, instead of taking offense, realized that he was probably the first Jew Fiddler had ever met. He spent the rest of the night explaining why all Jews weren't, in fact, communists. A little later, he invited Fiddler to New York to meet his parents - including his father, who had famously declared, "No Jew can ever be your enemy and no Christian can be your friend." My grandfather and Fiddler hit it off right away and spent the bulk of the weekend drinking and playing cards. It was one of those small wartime breakthroughs you may have heard about. The train helped make it happen and my father did, too...
Now through Trenton...
Philadelphia was big in the family history. My father's mother's family was from Philadelphia, so his parents would make regular train trips down to 30th Street Station. More often than not these got out of hand. There was heavy drinking and mental imbalance on both sides of the family - the way you expressed this was to say that these were colorful people - but my grandmother's people had a slight lead in this regard. There are many stories, but the one that comes to mind - one of my father's favorites - is Jimmy's funeral. Jimmy was my grandmother's much older brother. He was a big personality and he touched many people and to hear my father tell it, they all trooped into Philadelphia to pay last respects.
As he was sitting in the packed funeral home, waiting for the service to begin, a female relative he'd never seen before elbowed my father in the ribs.
"Eh!" she whispered. "It's not Jimmy in the box!"
My father looked at her. "Well," he said, "the guy in the box - is he dead?"
She blinked at him. "Is he dead? Yes, of course," she said.
"Then do you think either of them is really going to complain?" he asked.
While this conversation takes place, they're all sitting in the funeral home and the funeral isn't starting. The reason for this is that, at roughly the same time that the female relative was getting agitated about whether this was or wasn't Jimmy, the funeral director had pulled my grandfather aside.
"I'm not sure how to tell you this," the funeral director said, "but we're going to need someone to guarantee the payment."
"What do you mean, guarantee the payment?" my grandfather asked in that rolling basso of his.
"No one has done that," said the funeral director. "And without a guarantee, we're not going to be able to go forward."
A couple of hours later, there was my grandfather, pacing up and down the length of the platform at 30th Street, muttering to himself, "Guarantee the payment! Guarantee the payment!"
My father paced next to him, saying, "Calm down, Dad. Calm down, Dad," over and over.
"I didn't marry a woman," my grandfather said. "I married a goddamn institution!"
Of course I wasn't there, but I can still hear my father acting it all out - our previous train-based funeral. We brushed by it this morning on the way to our own.
More trains. Flash forward a generation. My wife's family is also from Philadelphia, and in the spring of 2002, my parents took the train down on a Sunday morning to attend my in-law's 50th anniversary brunch. It was the last trip they took together before my mother had her final illness and everything came apart. They had an extremely nice time that lasted all the way to the return trip, when my wife and I joined them and I managed to smack my father in the head with the door to the overhead baggage compartment...
Flash forward again, and there's my two years commuting by train from Washington to New York every week - 2007 'til 2009, all Alzheimer's management and blinding fatigue.
And now here we are in Metropark.
There's a processional quality to this morning's trip - something funerary, for me privately, at least. There's a good slow reflective rhythm to it. For everybody else, it's just another Amtrak ride. Or maybe not. You never know what baggage people are carrying.
I guess the stories add up to sort of a wake. Wakes are a good thing. It occurred to me that maybe, when we get to New York, I ought to take him out for a beer. But maybe we'll just travel straight through.
It's nice to have all this pass in review but the important thing is that he's nearly back where he belongs.