Eleven-year-old Benjamin Shanahan, to whom we are closely related, traveled from his home in New York City this summer for a visit here, and he did it on his own-more or less.
He came by Amtrak train, but not without extensive security precautions, which are comforting but at the same time troubling because they remind us of how much the world worries and frets about its security.
The preferred mode of travel would have been the bus but, because the trip necessitated a change of buses in New Haven, the bus company would not allow Benjamin, at his age, to ride the bus.
So, the fall-back option was the train, which provided direct service from New York City to Springfield.
Quite properly, Amtrak would allow Benjamin to ride the train only after it had received such salient information as the name and address of the person or persons who would meet him, as well as where he would be taken on his arrival. This entailed a flurry of phone calls and e-mails between parents and grandparents. We were required to check in with Amtrak authorities at the Springfield station prior to the arrival of the train, and an Amtrak official, paperwork in hand, was present when Benjamin alighted from the train, and in effect, handed him over to us, assured that we were his grandparents.
As the train was half an hour late, I had ample time to compare these arrangements with the bad-old irresponsible days some 30 years ago when we had put Benjamins dad, who was just the same age at the time, on a bus in Detroit for a trip to Columbus, Ohio, where he would be met by the family of a young friend who had moved there from our Detroit neighborhood. Happily the trip went without incident, even though it never occurred to us at the time that it might not. How naive, even stupid, we were at the time.
And what could my parents have been thinking when they put me on a train at Penn Station in New York City in 1947 to travel by myself to California, a trip that would consume four days and three nights.
I was 10 years old, and the most I can recall of that departure was the noisy confusion prior to boarding the train, the steam of the hulking locomotive, the good-byes, voices choked up and eyes brimming with tears, and my father handing over a sum of money-maybe a $5 bill-to the Negro porter in exchange for his promise to look out for me, which he did with great attentiveness and professionalism.
Apparently, it never occurred to my parents that such a trip for an unaccompanied young boy might be fraught with danger.
Yet, I think back with fondness to that experience or experiences-for a trip west also entailed a trip back east at the end of the summer, which I spent in the mountains near Yosemite at a campsite of very distant relatives.
I can say that the train trip was uneventful, if by that I mean nothing untoward happened to me. But it was eventful in all other respects - from the conversion of the seats into compartments for sleeping, to the grown-up experience of lining up for dinner in the club car and ordering from a menu, to spending hours in the observation car watching the endless landscape change before my eyes, to the personal relationships I had - the porter had placed me in the custody of a young naval airman on his way to a base in Oakland, who then hooked up with Greta, a fellow passenger. They then spent most of their time together, and with me, which probably cramped their style.
Like the bus Benjamin would have taken, we had to change trains in Chicago, something I had not been warned about, but the porter hustled me off our train, took me to an automated restaurant - where you got a ticket and, as you purchased a food item, the price was punched on the ticket. I had bowl of beef stew, as I recall.
The porter got me on the right train for the next leg of the trip, all without incident.
I was given guided tours of the trains, both going and coming home, and for years after, George Biereman of Palatine, Ill., the brakeman on the return trip, would send me a Christmas card.
On the outbound trip, the sailor and his new girlfriend took me for a taxi ride to a park in Salt Lake City not far from the Mormon Tabernacle during a several hour stopover in that city.
And watching over me on the trip west for all four days were an assembly of what seems like a dozen or so nuns in habits who shared the coach car I was riding in. Their final destination was post-war Japan where they were to be involved in religious and social work. They were vigilant in monitoring my activities and how much more secure could a young boy be than under the watchful eyes of a dozen nuns.
Whoops. One final surprise. The terminus of the train was Oakland, yet I was to be picked up in San Francisco, across the bay. What to do? Follow the rest of the passengers and board a ferry. Next thing I knew I was in San Francisco, and where, met by a relative who was virtually a total stranger, I was about to embark on the real adventure - a long summer in the high Sierra Mountains. But that is another story.