Location: [Home] [Train Travels] Aboard the Candy Cane Express
This story has two pieces of background. The first: Our daughter Rebekah is well known in our town, as her struggle with cancer of the retina has had a good deal of newspaper and even television coverage, and a large group of people in town have gathered to assist her and two other local children with serious medical problems. It still surprises me, however, the special things that folks will do.
The second is that our son Brendan goes to karate class, where one of his friends and classmates has a father, Joe Kanell, who is Assistant Supervisor for Metro-North Commuter Railroad. I had no idea of this until he saw me with Rebekah at the class one day in late November, and told me about a special train MNRR was running for children with cancer and their families. He invited us to come along, and of course I said, Yes!
All we had to do was let him know the kids' ages, as Santa Claus would be coming on the train!
Trip Segments: [New Haven, CT to Norwalk, CT to New Haven, CT]
A few days before the event, Joe gave us the flier that other families had received which included the times and contact numbers and all that. The flier listed the time as 1:00 pm, but Joe handwrote a note that the train would leave about 2 pm and that we should be a little early. He also told Evelyn that there were fun things to do at the station beforehand.
So on the day, I brought Brendan and Rebekah to New Haven's Union Station. The parking garage was very full. We parked on the level just below the roof! I thought to myself that the Christmas shopping trips to New York City must be bringing in a lot of passengers for a Sunday. It turned out, of course, that so had the Santa Claus express!
As we walked from the garage to the station, I saw a train on track 3 (which is, oddly enough, the closest to the station) consisting of several CDOT refurbished SPVs led by a New Haven painted GP-40. I idly wondered if that was the special, as I suspected that the railroad would place a train for cancer patients as close as possible.
Inside the station, the first thing I noticed was a big crowd at the far end. As we approached, I realized that a dancing school -- the Rita Tottenham Dancers -- was performing for the gathering families. Before we got quite to them, however, we found a line for checking in. Some volunteers gave us an envelope with a certificate (reproduced on this page), special tickets, and name tags for the kids, which had their ages on as well (for Santa's information, of course). We also received an Agfa disposable camera (I'd also brought my own), a bag of gifts and promotional items for the family, and another bag of gifts for each child. These bags contained a T-shirt, troll, whiffle ball, and pens and paper, which Brendan promptly put to use for drawing.
Just past the line, I was surprised to find a member of the Seymour church standing there. His daughter was part of the dance troupe which was entertaining us -- quite well, I might add. Another family from the church had a youngster in the show as well. We had a seat on the floor and watched.
The show ended about 1:40, and we stood to stretch and wondered what was next. I chatted with the two families a little, and then Joe appeared to welcome us and encourage us to head out to the train. I thanked him for all the help and confessed to my love for train travel, and he told me that if the kids hadn't been there he'd have been able to let me ride in the cab (!).
We made the journey through the tunnel beneath the tracks, and emerged on the platform for tracks 1 and 3. Several volunteers and Metro-North conductors were available to guide us; I took Joe's suggestion that we walk toward the front of the train. When we arrived, I realized that the gap between the platform and the car floor was quite wide -- about six to eight inches, more than Rebekah could handle herself. So I held Brendan's hand as he leaped across, and carried Bekah myself. We turned right into the second car.
The cars for this train were CDOT's refurbished SPV 2000's, which had originally been self-propelled Rail Diesel Cars but were converted to coaches and renamed "Constitution Liners." For more information (and photos) see Robert LeMay's excellent Shoreline East in Pictures. As with other CDOT and Metro-North equipment, the seating in our car was 3-2, with seats facing the nearest end of the car so that half the car was facing forward in push-pull service. The three of us, of course, took a seat which was three across. The windows of each car had been decorated with festive stickers, and each had a theme -- ours, appropriately enough, was candy canes, to Brendan's delight. Our car was about half full.
The train pulled out at around 2:05 -- I couldn't see my watch -- and then the volunteers got really busy. They started bringing around large bags of snacks and goodies, ranging from snack packs of crackers and Oreo cookies to homemade cookies. They also brought sodas and juices, facing me with the problem of managing drink opening for two small children and no place to put anything down! I freely admit that I spent the time between delivery of the drinks and their being finished in great anxiety for spills.
The volunteers also brought a simple toy which was a great hit: just some small "jingle bells" tied onto elastic cord. Brendan and Bekah both shook those with great delight as our "car captain" Herb led the group in singing Christmas carols.
If you've ever wondered where Santa Claus catches the train, it's Milford, Connecticut. As the train pulled into the station, there was Santa and some helpers standing on the platform waving. Once we stopped, he walked along the platform again to the first car to board. If he had placed himself so that he could wave to the children in every car, that meant he had a long way to walk along a seven car train!
It wasn't too long before Santa had arrived at our car, followed by his helpers with their big bags of toys as well as still photographers and a video camera. I stepped out of my seat so that Santa could sit next to Bekah as he presented her and Rebekah with their presents. Both kids really smiled, and to me that made it all worth while. Then Santa was off again, leaving two big boxes for them to open.
Brendan was completely delighted with his MicroMachines marina/aquarium toy, but Rebekah was initially upset about her Fisher-Price tea set. Since she hadn't asked for a tea set she couldn't imagine Santa bringing one to her. Once she got to playing with a couple of the pieces, however, and imagining tea parties with her baby dolls (not to mention parents) she was much happier.
I don't know what time it was, but it wasn't long after the kids had finished examining their gifts and turned their attention to the train again when we pulled to a stop at the westbound platform of the South Norwalk station. Brendan, in fact, had excitedly pointed out the street he could see from our point of view on the elevated track just a few moments before. We stayed in the station for some time, until a regular Metro-North train had arrived and departed from the eastbound platform. A minute or two later our train headed back east, with the locomotive now pushing.
Joe came by again to ask how we were doing and particularly if we'd had enough to eat -- which had certainly not been a problem! He told me that there was an "observation car" farther forword if I wanted to take a look, but we agreed that would be difficult to manage with the two little ones. His description makes me think that the cab car was probably number 1001, which has a "business section" with special lounge seating, but I never did see it to know for certain.
Going back we sang lots more songs and played the game where everyone tries to guess the object a leader has identified by color. The hardest was "black" -- meaning the rubber gaskets around the window -- Wow! One of the volunteers and a few kids also led a game of "Simon says," catching me and Brendan repeatedly, I'm afraid. We stopped again in Milford, apparently to let some people off. Between Milford and New Haven an Amtrak passenger train rocketed by, led by an AEM-7, and its wake drew some of the diesel fumes from our locomotive into the coach. Herb told us to sing while covering our noses!
Throughout the volunteers continued to pass up and down the aisle offering food and souvenirs, including the wonderful present of some empty bags to carry the other gifts in. They were certainly needed!
We arrived in New Haven at about 4:00 pm (I still wasn't looking at my watch), and we gathered our belongings slowly to leave the train. Again I helped Brendan over the gap and then picked up Rebekah to get her across, after which I took up the packages again. I told one of the conductors at the door that I couldn't remember being this burdened on a Metro-North train before, and she laughed. Having successfully managed the gap we walked down to get a look at the engine in its red, white and black livery. Bekah said, "That's loud!"
Leaving the platform, we found Joe again, who presented the kids with two engineers' hats. At the gate more volunteers handed the kids coloring books and whistles, which other children were merrily blowing in the tunnel below. Bekah thought that was loud, too! On the way out I noticed a young woman at the end of the tunnel making a striking charcoal drawing of the tunnel arch. I wish in retrospect I'd asked if there would be a place to see the finished work.
That brought the train ride to a close, and it was quite a wonderful event for the kids and for me. They both enjoyed it more than they'd expected, and I was left nearly speechless by the work involved by all those volunteers. So here's the list of major contributors to the event:
There were many others, too!
All of them have the thanks of two children, a mom, and a dad.
Locomotive: GP-40-LH #6697