THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
At noon I joined the mass of uniformed cadets in a dash to the New London train station. I turned from the platform into the first car…to join what seemed like a million college students from every school north of New London. The railroad always claimed they put on extra cars for Thanksgiving. I never believed it.
All I knew was that I made the entire trip standing, suitcase on the deck, squeezed between my ankles, fighting the swaying train with one hand on overhead rack. The air was close and reeked of sweat and stale cigarette breath. The crowd, already worn and hot, had randomly flung their coats, hats, and scarves all over the car.
The coeds, while still chatty, didn’t smile, their beauty lessened by their weary trip. My flesh never touched fewer than three other people at the same time during the two-hour ordeal to New York.
At Penn Station, the car doors opened and before the wheels stopped screeching in a shower of sparks, and a herd of twenty-somethings, like fire ants scattering from their mound, stampeded into the oblivion of New York City. I boarded a shuttle bus to Rockefeller Center and the Erie Railroad office where I would begin my lonely overnight trip to Salamanca, NY.
The fresh air of Rockefeller Plaza felt good after the cattle-car ordeal from New London. I found the banner-like sign screaming “Erie Railroad” above picture windows that let you peer in at the rows of nearly empty bus terminal chairs. Against the back wall was a high ticket counter with a bored agent flipping magazine pages. Movie-size posters scotch taped to bare walls extolled the virtues of Binghamton, Elmira, and, perhaps the only poster-worthy destination, Chicago.
The agent gave me my pass for the Pacific Express #7 which would head west out of Jersey City, N. J., at 11:00p.m. Friendly enough, he asked about my uniform. “What does that gold shield on your sleeve mean?”
“That means I am in the Coast Guard. I am a fourth class cadet at the Academy in New London, Connecticut.”
Unimpressed, he didn’t ask about rank. He knew that without any kind of stripe, I didn’t have any.
“Going home for Thanksgiving?” he asked.
“You have a good time, and Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t miss the bus which leaves from right in front of this office at 9:30p.m.”
“I won’t, and Happy Thanksgiving to you, Sir.”
I was not scheduled to arrive at Salamanca until 5:30a.m. the following morning. My classmates would be in Chicago before that. I scouted out a small grill where I could get something to eat later, and headed across to the plaza to kill time watching the ice skaters.
The rink in the sunken plaza was smaller than I expected. About one third the size of a football field. The eighteen-foot-high gilded bronze statue of the Greek god Prometheus, presided over the rink, posed to bring fire to mankind that “hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”
The small skating crowd shuffled in mini-glides while holding on to the hand rail, inching their way around the rink. There was a lot of falling down. I guessed tourists, mostly, checking off their holiday to-do lists: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade–check; skate at Rockefeller Plaza–check. The center of the rink was willingly abdicated to the few near pros. A woman in a short white skating outfit with a seasonal happy-hat executed smooth jumps and spins. A man in hockey skates impressed us with dramatic chip-spraying stops.
I leaned on the street-level wall, watching the skaters. My mind drifted back home to Bradford in the late 1940s. Every winter, the park superintendent, Mr. Applebee, dragged out a long water hose that he let run until the gravel parking lot behind the high school football field was a sheet of ice. When it met his standards, he pronounced it, “Ready for skaters.”
A large changing and warming hut, made of rough raw pine boards, was tractored out of some remote storage and placed at one end of the rink. Narrow benches hung from the two long walls and a pot belly stove glowed between them at one end of the hut. A black chimney-pipe poked through the roof. Smoke curls rose into the chilly air in a Norman Rockwell setting.
The cozy warmth and strong pine smell of the bare wood was inviting. The hut was brimming with pretty girls stuffing winter boots under the bench, lacing their skates, and doffing their parkas for wool skating sweaters. The room echoed with their high pitched giggles.
Young tongue-tied men flirted awkwardly while arm punching their buddies, egging them on to some goofy skating challenge. Of course, everyone followed protocol–white figure skates were for girls, brown and black hockey skates for the boys. The only exception was Jim Shaw, the high school junior and major heartthrob, who wore black figure skates. He could use them so well nobody dared challenged him.
I was tired from the already long day and getting hungry. I crossed back to the bar and grill that I had scouted out earlier. As I entered, I noticed a hand written cardboard sign in the window that I hadn’t seen before: Now—Color TV.
I picked a booth where I could look up at the TV, which sat on a small shelf above the bar on the opposite wall. It was a DuMont, one of the big 16″ ones. The bulbous cathode ray tube poked its rounded nose through a square frame that warped it into the impression of a flat screen. As for “color”–a sheet of theatrical lighting gel, like cellophane, was scotch-taped to the frame.
Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, cast an eerie orange glow on the faces of the bar stool gang. Their crooked necks bent their jaundiced faces upward as they stared blankly at the screen and sipped beer from pilsner glasses. Nobody talked. Godfrey sang in his nasal twang while strumming his ukulele.
I enjoyed a beer and a burger at the same place every train trip home for four years. I never knew the name of the bar. It was just “My Place in New York.” Somebody, one of those years, convinced the owner to take the cellophane off the TV.
I was back to black and white.