A number of years ago, both of my ears spontaneously plugged up at the same time, and all I could hear was an internal roaring wind. This lasted for days. I wasn’t prone to seeing doctors then, but I had no problem complaining about my plight to everyone around me, and someone suggested that I follow the instructions of an old wives’ tale. To wit: I should heat an onion in a 400-degree oven, slice the onion in half, cover each piece in a towel so as not to inflict any burns on myself, and hold each piece to an ear, thereby allegedly drawing out whatever it was that was clogging up my hearing. Although I’m not normally one to experiment with alternative remedies, out of desperation I gave this a shot.
It didn’t work.
I was just about at the end of my rope when my old friend M.L. happened to call. M.L. (her name is Mary Lynne, but some of us just use her initials) is a now-retired career military officer and nurse practitioner, and she was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs at the time. I didn’t miss the opportunity to whine to her about my ear problem and recount my failures with all the suggested remedies, including the onion that I was still holding in my hand.
“Paula, first of all, put down the onion,” she ordered.
“Now, I want you to go to the drugstore and buy some Sudafed. The box will tell you to take one or two, but you should take four.”
That scared me. “But drugs always have super-adverse effects on me,” I argued. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Just be quiet and listen. Take four Sudafeds. You’ll feel like shit. But your ears will open right up.”
Nurse practitioners always know what they’re talking about, and she was positive and convincing. So I went to the drugstore, bought some Sudafed, took four, felt like shit, and my ears opened right up.
Such are the curative powers of Lieutenant Colonel Mary Lynne Bement.
I like to take a train trip every year, and a few weeks ago I embarked on my excursion for 2017. I had decided to ask M.L. to accompany me because she was visiting her legions of friends on the West Coast anyway, and we’d always talked about doing a train trip together. I thought we should start out small – i.e., not a full ’cross-country run – because neither of us was certain it would work. This would be new territory for M.L., and she didn’t know whether she could be cooped up for a long period of time, unable to participate in her usual hikes, climbs, triathlons, and heaven knows what other super-athletic events in which she’s typically involved on any given day. I was unsure, too; I’d always ridden alone, and M.L. is a loquacious extrovert, full of restless energy, who could be easily bored by my cautious reserve.
So I suggested the Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. The entire length of the route spans two days of travel, but we would board in Oakland in the morning, disembark 12 hours later in Los Angeles, stay in a hotel that night, and come back the following day.
Beginning in Seattle, the Coast Starlight winds south through Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, and Klamath Falls and then into California through Mt. Shasta, down to Sacramento, and into Oakland, where we would board. After that, it churns through the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys, kicking up dust in agricultural land before it hits the coast at San Luis Obispo. After a few hours hugging the gorgeous California coastline, it heads inward after Santa Barbara, continuing through Ventura and Van Nuys before terminating in L.A.
Although this route is touted for its views of the California coast, my love for the Starlight is all about the Parlour Car, a luxurious passenger railcar from the mid-19th century that was considered to be the gold standard at the time and that remains in existence today only on the Coast Starlight.
The Parlour Car is elegantly beautiful, rich with wood and brass and burgundy velour. It has its own little bar at the end of the car, padded swiveling chairs for observation, six dining tables with white tablecloths, decorative gold sconces and etched glass logos, a lounge area, and a tiny “library” with books and games. And it has a multitude of uses. At any time of day you can just lounge in its cushioned seats and watch the scenery roll by. At lunch and dinner, it offers a special menu for passengers who might not want the dining car offerings or who might not want to sit with strangers (in that car, there is no mandate to fill the tables with four people). Downstairs, amazingly, passengers will find a movie theater, where I once saw McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner as a real-life high school track coach in the central California valley. And then there is my favorite Parlour Car activity: the afternoon wine-tasting.
Generally, only the sleeper-car passengers are allowed access to the Parlour Car, which initially appeared to be an obstacle for me because our trip would run (if on schedule) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we would have no practical need for the extra cost of a sleeper. But here’s where my sterling train smarts came into play. Amtrak – whether wittingly or unwittingly – provides an incentive for passengers on non-overnight trips to purchase a sleeper. The cost is only an extra $50 for two people. But all meals are free for sleeper-car ticketholders, so M.L. and I together would get 6 free meals, plus access to the Parlour Car, for that amount. Sleeper-car passengers get free water, juice, and coffee, too. It makes financial sense, doesn’t it?
We plunked down the dough.
M.L. grew up in a large family in Avon, New York. She was a mischievous but extremely likeable kid who kept everybody laughing while she ran around smoking a pipe and regularly getting sent to the office for too much yakking and horsing around. When she was about 13 she ditched class so that she could spell out, in the snow, “Class of ’82” in the school courtyard. The school was built in an L shape around the courtyard, so the antic had its intended effect of luring every single student to the classroom windows. Another time in high school she decided to grab onto her friend’s car door handle and “ski” alongside the car while the friend spun doughnuts in the schoolyard snow. “Mary Lynne!” she heard over the school loudspeaker. “Report to the principal’s office right away!” She and the principal were well acquainted.
The local constables periodically showed up at the Bement family’s front door, but those were simpler times, and M.L.’s antics were those of a lively and playful kid, not a delinquent. When her family couldn’t afford a live Christmas tree, she illegally whacked one down on public property behind the schoolyard and had it all decorated by the time her mother got home from work. When she and her friends concocted some homemade bows and arrows – built with saplings, twine, and some stiff weeds – to shoot at cars, one of the drivers didn’t take a shine to the notion and got the police involved. Officer Pete Piampiano (or “Pipi-anno,” as the kids called him) was the one who nailed her for painting graffiti on a local bridge. And then there was the time, before she had a driver’s license, that M.L. noticed a student’s car parked in the school lot with the keys left in the ignition. The car – which belonged to a girl named, of all things, Pinkie Dodge – was calling M.L.’s name, of course, and she “borrowed” it, drove it around the lot, and left it in a different parking spot. But she got caught and Pinkie pressed charges. M.L. made a formal apology, though, and Pinkie’s family backed off.
M.L. says that despite all of her shenanigans, she never got into any real trouble. The reason, she claims, is that she was “so good at making formal apologies and then lying low for a while.”
As she grew older, M.L.’s mischievousness would evolve into an endearing playfulness and a fervor for life that would imbue every experience with meaning and a sense of adventure. There was a certain hardiness in her family. In his early days, her uncle Frank lost his job for protesting against the Vietnam War when he was a teacher in New York; he fought to get his job back, won, worked one day, and then resigned – all out of principle. After that, he worked for the Transportation Communication Union and, coincidentally, retired from the railroads. Her aunt Katie was a nurse and served as M.L.’s muse and inspiration. And her mother Mary raised five energetic children by herself from the time her husband left when M.L. was 12. It was not easy in those days. Among other things, Mary owned a fabric shop, worked as a bookkeeper, did wallpapering and child care, and served as a deputy town clerk – all the while keeping tabs on her young ones and making sure they grew up with the right values.
When M.L. graduated from Plattsburg State with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she enlisted in the U.S. Army on something called a “Direct Commission,” which enabled her to “walk in” as an officer. She wanted to serve the country, and she looked forward to the promised retirement that would be in store at a relatively young age, but mostly she did it for the adventure, she says – to explore the world. And to have a “double career” as a nurse and an officer. One of her friends begs to differ, however; she claims that M.L. announced at the time that she was going into the military simply to avoid the prospect of interviewing for a job!
We met when she was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco from 1987 to 1993 (a plum assignment!), but she also spent a great deal of time elsewhere in the country, along with stints in South Korea and Honduras and time spent getting her nurse practitioner degree in New York. Her most challenging year in the military, though, was 2009, when she was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. She was handed a taxing assignment as the Officer in Charge of the medical component of Warrior Forge, an ROTC leadership course for about 1,000 cadets from around the country. At the same time, she was also dealing with a horrendous personal tragedy, and in the middle of it all she was asked to prepare to deploy to Iraq. “But I didn’t hesitate,” she told me.
Shortly after completing her deployment in the Iraq War, M.L. retired as a Lt. Colonel with 23 years of service.
One last thing: Organization and planning are not M.L.’s strong suits, because they take a distant back seat to her practice of living intensely in the moment. When M.L. retired in 2010, she and her two dogs left Fort Lewis behind in September, pulling a little orange teardrop travel trailer behind them as they headed east for home in upstate New York. She was expected home within a couple of weeks. Along the way, as she was passing through South Dakota, she was so delighted and distracted by the wildlife, the rugged environment, and the salt-of-the-earth people in that state that she ended up staying awhile. And by awhile I mean weeks. This happened so frequently that eventually she found herself barreling along a dark highway in upstate New York as she tried to make it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
We caught the Amtrak bus at the Temporary Transbay Terminal early on Tuesday morning, and it took us to the Oakland train station. As always there was confusion about where to catch the bus, on what platform we should stand to wait for the train, when the train would actually arrive, etc. Communication is not Amtrak’s strongest asset. But as if she were still responsible for her troops, M.L. ran around sniffing out the accurate information and reporting it back to the assembled group. She would always address people by calling them “my dear,” which I realized was a respectful way to show humanity for someone. She uses that term of endearment for anyone, young or old, male or female. It makes everyone feel good. I’m sure it was cultivated from her years in the medical profession, but I know that M.L. was born with the qualities that she says are critical to successful nursing: empathy, patience, and compassion. Her mother passed on those qualities by example, but M.L. also just has natural warmth and sensitivity.
When we boarded the train, we stowed our bags in the roomette and waited for our room attendant to come by. One attendant is assigned to every sleeper car, to help passengers with turning the bed down at night (which we wouldn’t need) but also to answer questions, help with luggage if necessary, and keep the room stocked with things like bottled water. When our guy Michael came around and shot the breeze with us, M.L. pulled out one of her Ben’s Bells handmade ceramic “Kindness Coins” and handed it to him with a flourish. “Here you are, my dear,” she said. “For your kindness.”
We had breakfast almost as soon as we boarded, and we had no tablemates because the train was late getting in and there were no other passengers still eating. In the dining car, passengers are seated so that the entire four-person table is filled up, so most of the time – when I’m alone – I’m sitting with three strangers. While we were gobbling up our “free” meals, M.L. told me that around Watsonville we would probably have the privilege of seeing Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a natural sanctuary that most people don’t have the chance to see casually because no roads run past it. I did not know this. Elkhorn Slough is a tidal salt marsh 7 miles long that is home to more than 300 kinds of birds as well as sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions. Amtrak runs right through it. It’s a privilege to be able to see it from the window of a passing vehicle, so we headed to the Observation Car to spend the afternoon taking in the sights.
As I’ve mentioned, the best part of the afternoon on the Coast Starlight is the 3:00 wine-tasting in the Parlour Car, open to sleeper-car and Business Class passengers. For a mere $7.50, you can participate in an attendant-led tasting of three wines. You can also buy a cracker-and-cheese plate, which I never pass up. Typically, so few people participate that it’s like a personal event during which, in addition to learning about wines, you can ask all kinds of train-related questions if you want to. The wines themselves can be red or white, mediocre or delicious. It’s a gamble, like much of the Amtrak experience.
Michael was our server, and he served a chardonnay, a cabernet, and a Malbec, talking nonstop about wine-making as he poured. He seemed to know his stuff, and when M.L. mentioned the “ice wines” of the Finger Lakes region in New York (where she currently lives) he seemed to know all about them. Ice wine, I learned, is frozen on the vine itself. After the usual fall harvest, some of the grapes are left on the vine to continue maturing throughout the winter, which raises their sugar content. In turn, the soil content contributes the right amount of acidity. Each grape, by the way, produces only one drop of the sweet wine. The Finger Lakes region is perfectly suited to the very delicate creation of ice wine because of the combination of rich soil and sub-freezing climate. I munched on my crackers, sipped my wine, listened to these two give me a viticulture lesson, and eyed the farmland out my window a bit blurrily.
At some point during the day, it became clear that we had been stopped for a long time. Two hours, in fact. A shopping cart on the tracks had gotten lodged under the train. Thank goodness the owner of the cart was not in the vicinity. But the incident did mean that our arrival time in L.A. would be pushed back considerably.
It didn’t really matter. We had a nice dinner with a couple of young honeymooners from Alaska. The young woman had a lovely name (Sarai), sported myriad tattoos and piercings (but none of those earlobe-disc thingies, thank goodness), and told us she manages a social program for kids with disabilities. She and her new husband used to work together but now he’s a landscaper. Both of them were engaging, attentive, and fine-tuned to life’s details. How delightful that they had decided to spend their honeymoon on a train. They’re going to have a long life together.
On Wednesday, M.L. and I boarded the train heading back northbound at about 10:00 a.m. after having spent the night at the Miyako Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The air conditioning in my room was functioning at only about what must have been 10 percent of its capacity, because I absolutely boiled and hardly got a wink of sleep all night. I couldn’t help but muse on the fact that had I slept on a train, I would have had a peaceful night’s slumber. The train whistles, the squeaks and hisses and rumbles, the jostling of the car never seem to keep me awake. But that night in the hotel was a killer.
I was raging with hunger as soon as we boarded the train and M.L. agreeably assented to my fervid wish that we grab the earliest lunch reservations. Our tablemates were Jim and Bonnie Blue. That’s right – Bonnie Blue is her first name. I vaguely remembered a song with “Bonnie Blue” in the lyrics, and it turns out that “Bonnie Blue Flag” is an 1861 Confederate marching song. Our Bonnie Blue, however, was born and raised in Orange County, which put to rest my internal contention that I had detected a faint southern accent in her voice. The two of them have two children. One son has cerebral palsy, and Jim and Bonnie Blue have devoted their lives to caring for him while keeping him at arm’s length as much as possible to nurture his independence. Mathematically brilliant, but hamstrung by his physical limitations, he actually has become a successful professional gambler. The other son – in the sad process of divorcing his wife, who left him for another man – was just diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Jim and Bonnie Blue, however, have retained sunny dispositions and love train travel so much that they deliberately racked up thousands and thousands of miles on their Amtrak credit card when they had their business. Now they ride the rails for free everywhere, and they keep trying out different routes to help them keep their minds off the challenges their sons are facing.
We looked forward to our wine-tasting in the afternoon, but for some reason the rules had changed. When we arrived at the designated hour, we were told by the bartender that we had to have reservations – even though there had been no such restriction the day before. Amtrak’s rules and procedures are extremely fluid. And this bartender was dead-set on not serving us because, she said, she feared that there would not be “enough glasses.” Of course, my eyes kept resting on one of the tables that was set with glasses but never used. This kind of inconsistency and illogic is the kind of thing that sets my blood boiling. I was an instant, seething grouch. M.L., on the other hand, chatted up the woman (although I noticed she did not bestow a Kindness coin on her!). The woman didn’t budge, but the tenor of the conversation was calm and friendly. Perhaps that is why M.L. has been a leader and I have not. When I sense an injustice, I want to hit someone upside the head with a mallet. M.L. set a beautiful example of how to be patient and respectful and keep one’s cool.
And also how to turn lemons into lemonade.
“You know, instead of spending our money on the wine-tasting, let’s go get some ice from the café car,” she suggested. “I brought a teeny bit of bourbon in my suitcase, and we can have a cocktail back in the roomette.”
The café car is downstairs below the observation car. It serves snacks, sandwiches, microwaveable meals like hamburgers and hot dogs, and all kinds of beverages, ranging from Coke to juice to beer to hard liquor. We got ourselves some ice in plastic glasses and repaired to the roomette.
(By the way, only sleeper-car passengers are allowed to bring alcohol onto the train, although there’s no question that M.L. would have flouted that rule had we been in Coach.)
I poured myself a full glass of water over the ice, then gingerly dropped in a smidgen of bourbon.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s not enough bourbon! Your proportions are all wrong!”
“You mean, this won’t work?” I asked.
“Paula, that’s like putting an eye dropper of bourbon in a pond of water! It couldn’t give a buzz to an ant!”
We whiled away the afternoon talking about everything from sports to families to our medical conditions. (Gotta get that in!) The fertile valley earth, the laborers in the field, the pristine coastline, the languid sunbathers – all of them rolled by our windows.
We got pensive. M.L. told me that she was starting to realize that she is more nostalgic for the Army than she thought.
“I can well imagine,” I said. “It was all about youth, adventure, travel . . .”
“And all the camaraderie,” she added wistfully. “The camaraderie is what I miss the most.”
We delved a little bit into politics. One of my unending lamentations is the lack of rational discourse about political policy today. And when I say policy, I don’t mean frivolous, half-baked ideas. I mean well-thought-out solutions to our national – and global – issues. Instead, all we do is micro-scrutinize and insult each other.
I’m sure my brow was furrowed.
She clinked my glass. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said. “With a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.”
Our last meal on the train was our dinner with Michael and Kay on Wednesday evening.
Michael, a young tech industry worker from Irvine who had just gotten a job with Hyundai, was taking his mother on a trip to San Francisco. His mom – a very beautiful, primly dressed older Asian woman – wasn’t speaking at all. When the waiter came, in fact, Michael ordered for her while she just nodded. I assumed that she didn’t speak English, and, although I addressed the two of them when I spoke, I didn’t pursue anything with her because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. M.L., however, finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided that our internal conclusions might be wrong. So she looked directly at Kay.
“My dear,” she asked, “tell me this – have you been to San Francisco before?”
Kay smiled broadly and answered the question perfectly. From that point on, we had a full and lovely conversation about everything from movies to the economy. The sun set and we were all throwing our heads back, laughing.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Congress is still going back and forth about cutting funding for Amtrak and effectively dismantling the country’s passenger rail system. The current budget proposal seeks to maintain funding for intercity commuter service in the Northeast corridor and a few other high-passenger runs while eliminating the service for others. Estimates are that 144 million people in 220 communities would lose local access to trains. Incredibly, 23 states would lose all access to Amtrak passenger rail service, and another 12 would retain only partial access. Funding for long-distance trains would be eliminated altogether. The upshot: passenger rail service would be preserved for only the wealthiest communities.
I’ve learned so much on trains. They’ve provided me with rich instruction on the vast geography of our country as well as the wide-ranging humanity of our fellow Americans. I feel like cutting access to Amtrak would be akin to cutting funding for institutions of higher learning.
On this trip I learned how to properly mix bourbon and water. I learned about ice wine and Elkhorn Slough. I learned about people with disabilities. I learned from M.L. how to look people in the eye and treat them kindly and without judgment.
And I learned to just chill out.
Thank you for being my friend, M.L. Thank you for your service. And thank you for teaching me that, with a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1971 and 1987.
They told me I have to go fishing tomorrow. But I hate to go! Why? 1) Hay fever, 2) Getting up early, and 3) They never get any fish! Why don’t they let me stay home? Then we all could have a good time.
Since they decided to go to Lexington [Reservoir], I got to stay home. I played basketball with Ted and Bruce Tambling, and Frisbee, too. Then the whole family came home. Naturally they only got 1 fish. I played catch with Marc, and played basketball and hide-and-seek at Ted’s. It was fun having two lunches today. At 10:30 I had a ham sandwich, potato chips, and root beer, and at 2:00 I had a salami sandwich, potato chips, Coke, and licorice.
“Now, about Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher, who was on maternity leave] — what she tried to teach us was okay, but I did not like how she did it. She is almost completely humorless. Now we have a substitute. It’s always hard to get used to a substitute anyway, but this one is really wierd [sic]. She is about 23 years old and 5’2 or 5’0 inches tall. But remember when I said Mrs. Dossa was almost completely humorless? Well, this one is COMPLETELY HUMORLESS!”
“Mom is very great. Today she turned in my library books while I was at G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. I appreciate everything she does. Anyway, she is making me a skirt that I’ll be able to wear with my G.A.A. sweater. I was trying it on today when I suddenly remembered how LONG the last skirt she made me was. Now, I am not the kind who likes to wear mini-skirts to school or even come close. I really am very reasonable when it comes to that. But I hate wearing skirts down to my knees. All my dresses are a good length but for some reason Mom FLUBS UP on the skirts. They look like I’m a grandmother!”
“Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher] came back today and we gave her a WARM welcome (you’ll get the pun). Mary Pasek and I turned the heat up to 90 degrees and she didn’t even notice it when it got really hot later on, we heard. A kid turned it down. Mrs. Dossa was still rather sick and it probably felt good. We’ll have to do it again sometime. It was reminiscent of the time when Mary Blasi and I turned the heat up so high during an art show in the St. Victor’s library that the tape on the pictures melted and they all fell off the wall.”
August 15-20, 1971 [from my week spent at the Santa Clara County Fair with my friend Colleen, who was in 4-H]:
“There weren’t too many hippies there. Wednesday I got to try out a waterbed. Wow, are they cool. You move constantly, but I guess you could get seasick. I also watched a milking contest with DJ’s and a milking machine. I played free Bingo for two hours and Sharon won a $7.50 carving set but I only won a can of Stridex [acne pads] and a can of hairspray. The only clumsy thing I did was to spill Kool Aid all over an exhibit in Fiesta Hall.”