An incident on the Lakeshore Limited

It was surreal, almost like a scene from a World War II movie in which trains are stopped and troopers run down the aisles checking everyone’s papers.  I was awoken from a fitful sleep by the squawking of some radio message and the clumping of shoes in the wee hours of the morning on Train No. 49 – the Lakeshore Limited from New York’s Penn Station on a 20-hour trip to Chicago.  I squinted up to see a large man in a dark green uniform shirt stomp down the aisle, his police radio loud in my ears.  I muttered to myself “what’s that idiot doing awakening this whole car?”  I looked out the window, could see a sign showing Rochester, realizing the train had stopped at this aging New York State community to take on passengers.  My watch said 1:20; it was Monday, July 25.

Soon I heard more commotion, and a voice from the front of the railroad coach saying “Are you a U.S.citizen?”  There was a grunted reply, and then another request, apparently of some other passenger, “Are you a U.S.citizen?” And on and on down the car.

By the time a couple of the uniformed folks got near me, I could see emblazoned in yellow, “U S Border Patrol” on the back of the dark green shirts.

They didn’t awaken everyone; they skipped me!  I’m a very white old guy; they tend to leave us alone.  But trains these days are full of people who speak little or no English and apparently don’t look “American,” whatever that is supposed to mean these days

What were the “past-midnight” marauders up to, I wondered.  The tones of their voices were authoritative, but not particularly nasty.  Nonetheless it was a shock to see how they roamed the aisles randomly awakening passengers with the question, “Are you a U.S.citizen?”

How pervasive, I wondered, is this new U.S.mentality prompted by fear to assure no one is here illegally and perhaps ready to cause mayhem?  We were in Rochester, New York, nearly a hundred miles from the U.S.-Canadian border and I wondered what the U.S. Border Patrol hoped to find on Train No. 49.

It got me to thinking that we have become a nation that is accepting of more and more police-state actions.  It appears too that President Barack Obama has done little to alter the course of begun in the Bush years, and, in fact, may be intensifying them, much to the chagrin of those of us who felt Obama’s more enlightened ways would curb this readiness to step up surveillance of our people.

To me, at least, the appearance of the Border Patrol on Train No. 49 in the early hours of July 25 was most alarming indeed and a sad portent of where this nation has been going.  – Ken Germanson, July 27, 2011.

NOTE:  After I wrote the blog, I decided to query the U.S. Border Patrol, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.  The Patrol maintains a quality website and even invites complaints.  So I queried them raising the question of why such searches were necessary.  Less than two hours later, I got a long response, part of which I reproduce here:

“Border Patrol checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool for securing the Nation’s borders against all threats to our homeland. The National Strategy recognizes that control of the border cannot be achieved by merely enforcing at the line and therefore includes a substantial defense-in-depth component. We will not be able to achieve control of the border unless our apprehensions demonstrate the futility of attempting to enter the United States illegally in the first instance. For that reason, some of our enforcement actions will take place away from the physical border, at interior checkpoints, and lateral from those checkpoints. . .

“All persons, baggage, and other merchandise arriving in or leaving the United States are subject to inspection and search by CBP officers and agents. Various laws (including 8 United States Code (U.S.C.) § 1357, 19 U.S.C. §§ 482, 1581, 1582) enforced by CBP authorize such searches. . . All Border Patrol checkpoints operate in accordance with the Constitution of the United States and governing judicial rulings. . .

“Thank you for your consideration when traveling through a Border Patrol checkpoint. We appreciate your cooperation in allowing us to continue to safeguard our Nation’s borders.”

You are welcome to draw your own conclusions.


Old Forgers: The double standards on air conditioning

My friend Al appeared bedraggled as he entered Sophie’s Forge Café at 7:30 on the Tuesday morning in late July for our usual breakfast of the Old Forgers.  It was already hot on a day that promised to be stifling, and Al’s usual smile was nowhere to be seen.

“What’s wrong, Al?  Did Evelyn kick you outa the house?” Billy Simpson, one of the half a dozen of us who join this breakfast circle regularly, asked, referring to Al’s wife of more than 50 years.

“Too damn hot,” he said grumpily, his knobby knees protruding from his shorts as he sat down.

“Too cheap to turn on the AC, buddy?” chided Billy.

“You know we got no air in that joint,” Al said.  It was true; the house was over a century old and had old-fashioned hot water radiator heat and conversion to AC would have been an astronomical expense.

“It’s funny,” chimed in Felix, the lawyer in our bunch of Old Forgers, an informal group of retirees who gathered every Tuesday morning at Sophie’s, located across the street from the old forge plant where most of us spent our working lives.  There were a few non-forgers, like Felix, and we let them in; we’re pretty democratic, you see.

“What’s funny, Felix,” I asked.

“We all lived the first half of our lives without any air conditioning, and now we can’t live without it,” he explained.   ‘I remember when Sophie’s place had no air, just a bunch of fans.  We all survived.”

“And we never had AC in the forge,” I added.  “They still don’t in shop areas, where the real work goes on.  Just in the offices.  What a crock?”

“Never thought about it that way,” Billy said.  “We did the real work.  And even the supervisors, in their shacks inside the plant, were air conditioned.”

“I used to freeze in summer when I’d go from the shop into the old Jankowski’s office with a grievance.  He kept it so cold in there, I’d shiver.” Al said.   Al was for many years the steward in the Department 22, where the large forge was located, and he had an ongoing – but working – relationship with the Department’s supervisor, Martin Jankowski.

“But you warmed the place up quickly, I know, Al,” Billy said.  “You always had some hot words for old ‘Janko.’  God, he’d get so hot under the collar with you.”

“Awww, he wasn’t so bad,” Al said.  “We actually got along pretty good.  He could be tough, but he was always trying to be fair and, most of all, he was good to his word.”

“I think he was mainly interested in making sure the work got done and that we did it with quality,” I said, remembering how it was to meet with Jankowski when I took over for Al as steward after Al was elected president of our local.

“Oh Sophie, we didn’t see you standing there,” Al said suddenly, as we all looked up to see Sophie ready to take our order, as if she had any doubt what the orders would be.

“All you old forgers were too busy talking about the good old days to pay any attention to me,” Sophie said, her voice taking on a false note of impatience.  “Now if pretty Patti was standing here, you’d sure notice her.”

“Ah, Sophie,” Billy said, reaching over to pat the café owner’s ample hips.  She brushed his hand away sharply.

“But I’ll tell you guys one thing,” Sophie said.  “I remember those days of working here without AC.  I don’t want to do that again.  You boys didn’t know it then, but you all got more salt in your eggs from my sweat that dropped into them while serving you.”

“Always said your eggs were the tastiest in town, Sophie,” Billy said.  “And we all thought you laid them.  Now the truth comes out.”

We all laughed.  We Old Forgers could be crude sometimes, and maybe just a bit sexist.  My wife would have given me one of here chilling looks if she heard me laughing at this.

“OK, you’re all getting your usual orders,” Sophie said, turning on the heels of her shoes and returning to the kitchen.

Soon, we returned to our conversation about relations in the shop with old Janko.

“It all changed when those Brit investors took over the company,” I said.  “Janko got really difficult to work with.  He couldn’t settle anything.  Everything had to be moved to arbitration.  And he was unhappy about it, too.  He retired soon after.”

“I know,” Al added.  By then, he was president of the union, and every bargaining session became a series of near impasses.  “All the new owners wanted was to boost the bottom line and their next quarter earnings report.  Quality be damned.  Safety be damned.  Fairness be damned.  The they brought in those union-busting lawyers from Chicago.”

“But they saved the company,” Billy said.  He had ended up in management at the company.  I think he was brain-washed by their propaganda.

“They raped the company, and the people that worked there and this community,” Al said.  “They left but a shell here.”

“Yeah things seem better now that local guys have bought back the forge plant,” I said.

“I hear things are better in the shop now,” Al said.  “And the new owners are providing extra break time in all this heat.”

“Yeah, but they even build a modern office building, with a big lawn and gardens and everything,” Billy said.

“But they didn’t put air conditioning in the forge shop,” I said.

“That’ll never happen,” Al said.  He was right, of course.  It would be impractical for such a work area to be cooled down in summer, but you’d think they’d at least try.

“Just like you’ll never AC that old house of yours, Al,” Billy said.

“Don’t remind me,” he said.  “It’s impractical to AC my joint, just like the forge shop.  Guess I’ll have to fix the window air conditioner in our bedroom, or get a new one.”

Al laughed, and I realized these few minutes among the Old Forgers had brightened his day. – Ken Germanson


On Betty Ford and Today’s Republicans

To be truthful, I never thought too much about Betty Ford during her time as First Lady and the years after that.  I knew, of course, of her fight against breast cancer and her subsequent battles to rid herself of the twin problems of prescription drug addiction and alcoholism.

Now with her death on July 8, she’s very much in my thoughts.

Here was the woman who in the 1970s, more than 30 years ago, not only bared her soul about her personal issues (a rarity in those days to be so frank), but to speak out repeatedly on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and to march in parades with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, two of the most renowned feminists of the day.  And, horrors upon Republican horrors, she also endorsed abortion rights.

What is remarkable in retrospect is that she did this as the wife of Gerald Ford, a conservative Republican fromGrand Rapids,Michigan, who would later become Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of theUnited Statesfor two-and-one-half years.

Can you imagine a prominent Republican in the year 2011 even hinting that he or she might support abortion rights or such a “radical” idea as the Equal Rights Amendment.

Betty Ford, however, was not alone among Republicans who supported such progressive ideas in the decades before Ronald Reagan.  As examples, there were Republican Senators like Wayne Morse ofOregonwho was an early leader in opposing the war in Vietnam and like Clifford Case of New Jersey and Jacob Javits of New York who could be counted upon to support organized labor.  InWisconsin, perhaps as a holdover from the progressive politics of the La Follettes, there were always a handful of Republican legislators who voted to support labor.

Betty Ford displayed an "ERA" button during a golf tournament in 1975 while her husband was President.

Betty Ford’s death at age 93 prompted me to wonder: what has happened to the Grand Old Party (GOP)?

It seemed in those earlier generation Republicans there was a greater sense of community, a greater responsibility to the common good and more civility than among the current crop of leaders.  (Witness Boehner, Kantor and McConnell.)  There is a rigidity of thinking that has permeated the GOP mindset, making it almost impossible for one to stray from the mantra of no tax increases, government spending cuts, anti-abortion laws and gay rights restrictions.

Virtually every prominent Republican now rejects Betty Ford’s views on such matters as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.

I wonder what Betty Ford thought in her last days about the Republicans in the 21st Century.  It’s hard to imagine that she liked what she saw.  – Ken Germanson, July 9, 2011