Posts Tagged 'Amtrak'

Catching up: our trip to University of Illinois

Remember my post a few weeks ago about heading to Champaign to give a talk to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois? My friend Nancy Beskin generously agreed to come along with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me on the train, and her guest post today describes what our trip was like from her point of, ahem, view.

A living field trip into Beth’s history

by Nancy Beskin

I think Beth was surprised at how quickly I said yes when she asked if I wanted to come with her and Whitney to Champaign, but the trip was compelling to me for all sorts of reasons:

  • The train ride would be effortless and give me lots of time to catch up with Beth.
  • It was a chance to go back to my Alma Mater.
  • We‘d be staying overnight in the Illini Union.
  • I would see Beth give a presentation to a different sort of audience: college students.
  • It would be a mid-week adventure, and I love little adventures.

Beth and I became friends during our sophomore year at U of I when we lived on the same dorm floor in Scott Hall. We lost touch after graduation when I headed to Berkeley for grad school. During that time, I heard bits and pieces of Beth’s problems with her eyes, and then ultimately that she had lost her sight.

One of our stops was at Charlie Sweitzer's woodworking shop, where he and his son craft beautiful furniture.

One of our stops was at Charlie Sweitzer’s woodworking shop, where he and his son craft beautiful furniture.

We reconnected in 2003 at a book signing for Beth’s memoir Long Time, No See at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Truth be told, I was a bit nervous to see Beth again, feeling a little guilty that I had not contacted her during this difficult time in her life. My fears were unfounded, I’m happy to say. We fell right back into the easy friendship we’d left behind in 1980.

So, yes, the train ride was fun and Beth and I were able to catch up. Being back at U of I was fun, too, but I didn’t feel the nostalgia I thought I might. So many buildings have been torn down and replaced that it was a real comfort to see the quad still looking exactly the way it did back in the 70s.

Beth and I agreed that staying at the Union made us feel grown up, and when I saw that my beloved (and ex-employer) Illini Union Book Center is now a conference room, it really sunk in: It is not MY U of I anymore.

The unexpected surprise of our whirlwind trip was learning so much about Beth’s years in Urbana after college…when I had lost touch with her. It was a living field trip into her history.

I met her other Nancy B. friend — Beth met Nancy Bolero while she was a volunteer at the local hospice. Nancy and her boyfriend Steven are the couple caring for Hanni in her retirement years. I met her friends Judy Ciambotti and Jim Spencer, who live across the street from Beth and Mike’s Urbana home, and who Beth met through some musician friends. I saw Beth and Mike’s Urbana house, easily identifiable by the wooden ramp that was built for Gus and his wheelchair. We walked to downtown Urbana, with Beth knowing each step and every building along the way.

The train back was late, but we made the best of it.

The train back was late, but we made the best of it.

And I met Charlie Sweitzer, a talented woodworker who Beth had met when she attended church after Gus was born – Charlie used to be a preacher there. Charlie gave Beth, Judy and me opportunities to see, feel and smell the woodworking projects he and his son are working on.

Our train back to Chicago was delayed, so we spent the last moments of our trip enjoying a draft beer across the street at the Esquire Lounge. In the course of 30 minutes, numerous old friends came up to say hello to Beth and catch up.

So, did the trip live up to my expectations? Yes, and beyond. It gave me a glimpse into a part of Beth’s world that I was never a part of, and that makes my friendship with her all the more rich. Cheers!

The truth about Middle Child Syndrome

Flo and Cheryl smiling for the camera

Flo and Cheryl smile for the camera

We had such fun with my sister Cheryl on our train ride to visit her daughter Caren and her family in Minnesota last year that she agreed to ride on the Texas Eagle with us to Springfield, Ill. Today.

I’m pretty sure Harper will do alright on this trip (he guides well inside train stations and hotels, it’s walking along sidewalks and crossing intersections that freaks him out) but it is oh so reassuring to know that my big sister Cheryl will be along to guide me, too. Cheryl has always had a way of boosting my confidence, and we always, always have fun together.

I grew up the youngest of seven children. Cheryl is fourth in line, and this explanation of middle child syndrome describes her perfectly:

Many times they go in the opposite direction of their oldest sibling to carve out their own place of achievement and relish in the satisfaction of being capable of doing it on their own. They are sensitive to injustices and much less self-centered than their siblings (first born and last born), which allows them to maintain successful relationships. They are put in the position to learn social skills that are extremely useful, not only within their household, but within their social community.

We were invited to Springfield by the Illinois School Library Media Association (ISLMA) to attend the Author Breakfast at their annual convention. The way I understand it, Illinois authors do a sort of speed-dating thing during breakfast: we sit at one table for a short time to describe our books, then hustle over to the next table for a short time to describe our books, then to the next table and so on. The idea is to make such a good impression on the school librarians that they’ll ask for a “second date” and invite us to their school to do a presentation sometime.

I will not be at all surprised if we get to the hotel tonight and Cheryl recognizes someone she knows in the lobby. Any time I am in a crowd with Cheryl and she sees someone that maybe just kind of sort of looks familiar, she does what any other self-respecting middle child would do: she approaches them and introduces herself. And if they don’t happen to be the people she thought they were, Her warm smile and friendly greeting wins them over, and she’s made a new friend. Its amazing.

And really, Cheryl is amazing. She was a teenager when our dad died, waitressed at Mario’s through high school and helped Flo raise we three younger ones. After she got married, she stayed in Elmhurst, our home town, and her house became a second home to us. She and her husband Rich raised three terrific kids, and now they have ten beautiful grandchildren. Cheryl is Flo’s caretaker, keeping track of her schedule and escorting her to all of her doctor visits.

And with all that going on (or maybe because all of that is going on?!) she’s agreed to this quick getaway with Harper and me, too. The quintessential last born self-centered youngest sister doesn’t say it nearly enough, but I really do appreciate everything Cheryl has done — and continues to do — for me. Once we’re “all aboard” I’m going to have her join Harper and me (and all the people she will recognize or meet!) in the club car for a toast. Here’s to Cheryl, and to all the other middle children I love so much. Cheers!

Number one

That's my great-niece Lydia showing off Anthony's illustrations.

Our eight-hour train trip to Minnesota on Thursday gave me lots of time to think. Doing the math on my fingers, I counted one, two, three, four years since our last trip to Minneapolis.

Our 2006 trip was all about meeting Anthony LeTourneau, the artist Blue Marlin Publications had chosen to illustrate Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound. Tony lives with his wife and three kids on a Minnesota hobby farm 12 hours away from Chicago. Early that summer, Tony had asked my husband Mike to take photos of Hanni and me and mail them so he could get to work. “I’ll send some sample drawings back from time to time,” he told Mike. “That way you can check to see if I’m on the right track.”

A couple of the sketches Mike got in the mail were just a teeny bit off. Hanni’s harness is made of leather, but in the drawings it looked like plastic. In the illustration of Hanni confronting a hole in the sidewalk, Tony had Hanni’s body horizontally in front of me. Hanni is always at my left-hand side, a little bit ahead of me. When she stops, she stays facing forward. I stop, too, gliding one foot along the surface ahead of us to feel what’s there. If I don’t find a curb or the top step of a flight of stairs, or a hole at my feet, I wave one arm back and forth in space. Maybe Hanni saw yellow construction tape stretched along our path. Or a low hanging branch. Or a sawhorse.

I knew Tony would get a better “picture” of how the two of us work if he saw us in person, so on a beautiful autumn day in 2006 Hanni and I boarded a Megabus full of college students and took off on a ten-hour trip to Minneapolis. My niece Caren, who lives in Plymouth, MN, delivered us to a coffee shop where Tony and his family were waiting to meet us. His sketch pad and pencils were all set up already, and he didn’t waste time before asking us to pose. He photographed us, too. When Hanni needed a break outside, Tony followed us, taking notes on how Hanni and I work together. People in the coffee shop thought we were from Hollywood, and, I must admit, we did feel like stars.

Just about everyone who sees Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound now gushes about the artwork. “The illustrations are beautiful!” they say, admiring each and every oil painting. “The drawings look just like you!” So last Thursday, four years after posing in that Minnesota coffee shop, Hanni and I were back in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes to show off our beautifully illustrated book.

My sister Cheryl accompanied Hanni and me on our Amtrak ride to St. Paul, and just like in 2006, my niece (Cheryl’s daughter) was our chauffeur. Caren and her husband Mark have two delightful daughters, and it was a joy to visit Lydia and Audrey’s classrooms at Zachary Lane Elementary School on Friday.

And Audrey got her turn in her kindergarten class.

It was Audrey’s job to sit at my side and choose which kindergarten classmate would ask the next question. My favorite came after I’d explained that Hanni doesn’t scratch the door when she wants to go outside. “I need to be sure to take her out every four hours, though” I said, hesitating a second to decide what wording was appropriate here with kindergartners. “You know, to give her a chance to go #1 and #2. I sensed the kids nodding their heads. Some typical questions followed. “How old is Hanni?” “Does she like to play with other dogs?” That sort of thing.

Then came the question du jour, from a boy near the front of the class. “What is #1?” he wondered. I turned to Audrey for help. “What would you call it?” I asked. She looked at the boy in the second row, and using her quiet inside voice, gave a one-word answer. “Pee.”

All Aboard: Urbana

Hanni and I at the University of Illinois quad.Mike and I met in Urbana. Our son Gus was born in Urbana. My first Seeing Eye dog, Dora, retired in Urbana. When Hanni first came home to live with us, we lived in Urbana.
We love Urbana.

Our son Gus moved to the Bethesda Lutheran Home in Watertown, Wisconsin in 2003. That’s the year we moved to Chicago. We go back to Urbana often. We have lots of friends there, Mike’s sister Kris and her husband Ed live there, and so do Kris and Ed’s kids and grandkids – our great nieces and nephews.
So it only seems right to return to Urbana to celebrate the publication of this new childrens book. On Friday I’ll do an interview on WILL Radio, the NPR affiliate down there. Hanni and I will visit a Champaign middle school that afternoon. Saturday morning we’re slated to do a presentation at Urbana Free Library. To cap it all off, I’ll sign copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound at Jane Addams Bookstore in downtown Champaign from 2 to 4 pm Saturday afternoon.
Hanni and I will embark, excuse the dog pun, on this trip tomorrow night on the City of New Orleans train. I just got off the phone with Amtrak. Now I know why I kept procrastinating when it came to booking the ticket.
When I phone Amtrak to make a reservation, I always tell them I’ll be traveling with a Seeing Eye dog. This is not a requirement –they’d have to take me with Hanni whether I told them ahead of time or not. I just let them know as a common courtesy.
But geez, the commotion it creates in the reservation process.
“Is it a big dog?”
“Well, yeah. She’s a Seeing Eye dog.”
“How much does it weigh?”
“Sixty pounds.”
I was put on hold. When the Amtrak employee came back on the line, he had more questions.
“What kind of dog is it?”
“A Seeing Eye dog. A guide dog.
“Yeah, but what kind?”
“A cross between a Labrador and a Golden Retriever. Is that what you mean?
“Yes, we need it for our records. So it’s a Yellow Lab?”
“Yes.” Forgive me Hanni, for lying.
I was put on hold. He returned with another question.
“So you are visually impaired?”
“Will you need any assistance?”
I thought about it for a second. Mike is taking me to Union Station in Chicago, and the Champaign-Urbana station is small enough that Hanni and I can navigate it on our own.
“You don’t need any assistance?”
“No, thanks.”
I heard laughter in the background. I didn’t want to think the joke was on me, so I started chuckling, too.
“You guys are funny, “I said.
I was put on hold.
The Amtrak employee finally came back on line, repeated my reservation information, and told me to enjoy the ride. I thanked him and hung up.
People who never ride Amtrak fantasize that a train ride might be romantic. Those of us who regularly ride Amtrak fantasize that our train will arrive on time.
I’m not taking my laptop along with me to Urbana, so you’ll have to wait a few days to find out whether this fantasy comes true. And whether Hanni can impersonate a full-bred Yellow Lab.

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