Saturday, February 23, 2013

No. 467 – Going to California

Performer: Led Zeppelin
Songwriters: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Original Release: Led Zeppelin IV
Year: 1971
Definitive Version: Destroyer, 1977

I used to think about Debbie when I heard this song. She loved California—wanted to live there again—but after we split, this song became a free agent. Now I think about a different girl who had love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.

For Jin’s wedding in September 2004, Mom decided to do something that was completely out of character for her—she splurged. She absolutely wasn’t going to fly, and she absolutely wasn’t going to miss the wedding, so there was absolutely only one solution—Amtrak. Mom would take the train from Chicago to Los Angeles, and she decided, if we were wanted to go along, to pick up the tab for Scott, Shani, Leah and me, too. A free trip to California? Of course, we’ll take it.

I had taken only commuter rail before; I’d never been on an overnight train trip, so I was looking forward to doing something different. The wedding was scheduled on the fall equinox—almost three months to the day after the hand-fasting. I made sure to have headache medication on me at all times.

The only problem was the Clippers. They rolled to the playoffs, and if they made it to the championship round, I would have to miss those games due to going to L.A. I wasn’t happy about that or about making the Clippers find someone else to cover for me, but, of course, I wasn’t going to miss my sister’s wedding. Good fortune was with me: The Clippers lost in the deciding game of the first round of the playoffs. I wouldn’t miss anything—except that the minor-league-baseball season was over.

Mom and I drove to Cincinnati, and the next day, we all piled into a rented van and headed north. And I mean piled. Between the five of us, our luggage and Kirby the Dog, who was being dropped off at Shani’s family’s place in Marion, Ind., we were human sardines. That fact was lost the least on Leah, who was wedged into a car seat that was too small for her, and she cried pretty much the entire six-hour drive to Chicago.

It got a little better when we got to Union Station, but Leah’s complaint started anew after we boarded the train. She couldn’t move around while Scott set up his room, didn’t like the movement of the train, hadn’t napped, wasn’t going to nap and generally wasn’t happy about the proceedings.

We had two rooms in the sleeper car. Scott, Shani and Leah had a suite at the end of the hallway, and Mom and I took one of the side rooms. If you haven’t taken Amtrak, by room, I mean a walk-in closet turned into a narrow sitting area and a collapsible table. At night, the seats folded down into one bed, and the bunk on the ceiling was lowered into place. Of course, I had the bunk. The bathrooms were communal and down the hall.

Scott and Shani’s room was big enough for a double-wide fold-out bed, and Scott wedged in his Pack-n-Play to serve as Leah’s crib. He also set up his computer to play amusing videos of Noggin shows. Leah wasn’t having any of it.

I took a hike to explore the dining car and the club car that had picture windows on the second level for viewing the countryside—not that there was much to see in Illinois. When I got back, Leah still was voicing her complaint, and Scott was beside himself. Nothing seemed to work, and finally he said that at the next stop, in Springfield, he and Leah would get off and he’d either drive to L.A. or—more likely—drive home and come get us after we got back. Shani and I told Scott flat out: Don’t be ridiculous. It’ll be all right. I said, go to the club car and check it out. They all left.

A quiet hour later, I realized that they had been gone longer than expected, so I went up to the club car to see what was what. Well, the club car seemed to do the trick. Leah could wander around a bit and look at things. She definitely was in a better mood. So was Scott. There were blue skies inside and out. Even better, there was no more talk about getting off the train early.

That night after Mom turned in and Shani said she’d put Leah down, Scott came by the empty room across the hall from Mom’s room. I had taken it over as a work room until the person whose room it was boarded and said, I need a drink. Meet me in the club car. Since 1999, I hadn’t had an alcoholic beverage in Mom’s presence, and I continued that at dinner that evening. I was ready for one.

It was about midnight as we pulled into Kansas City. Scott and I took up seats in the mostly empty upper deck of the club car, drinking Heinekens and talking about life as we looked out over the largest city that we would see until we arrived in L.A.

After the tumult of the first day, the rest of the train ride to California was fairly nondescript. Everyone settled in. We had a lengthy stop in Albuquerque, N.M., and I walked around a bit trying to find some ice creamy treat, but my search proved fruitless—or even creamless. Mostly, I got a lot of work done on the train, entering data into my computer in my little work annex with my earphones on.

We pulled into L.A. early in the morning three days after we left Chicago. Procuring our rental van took a bit longer than anticipated, but finally we were heading up the 405 to The Valley. Our hotel—also paid for by Mom—was down the street a couple of miles from where Paul and Jin lived. Part I of our family vacation was over; Part II was about to begin.

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