Trains, planes and birthdays

There has been a bit of excited chatter in our neck of the woods in the last couple of days. People have seen the Amtrak Cascades train making its way through Bellingham heading in both directions. It used to be a familiar sight, but those trains haven’t been on the tracks since March of 2020. The train service was shut down because of the Covid pandemic. The Cascades train follows a beautiful course between the mountains and the sea stretching from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia. During the pandemic, however, the border between the United States and Canada was closed for nonessential travel. Added to that were fears about the transmission of the virus in the enclosed spaces of the train. As a result, service was suspended.

Prior to the suspension, the service was carrying about 800,000 people each year. About 54,000 people got on or off at Bellingham station. The train provided a convenient way to travel between Bellingham and Seattle and between Seattle and Portland. People missed being able to ride the train.

Seeing the trains traveling on their old route, however, does not mean that you can buy a ticket and board the train - at least not yet. Amtrak has informed the public that the trains are making trial runs. Train crews, who have been idled by the pandemic, need to re-qualify and demonstrate their skill and recent experience before the trains are allowed to carry passengers.

While I’m reporting transportation news, I have noted that Frontier and Spirit Airlines have announced a merger that will make the combined airline the nation’s 5th largest. I wouldn’t normally pay much attention to airline mergers. The industry has become dominated by very few very large carriers, giving little or no choice to most travelers. They simply book a ride on an airline by cost and time and don’t pay much attention to the name on the outside of the plane. Frontier, however, really had nice paint jobs on their planes. The reason I notice is that the name Frontier used to belong to a different airline company. The original Frontier Airlines was built to serve routes over the Rocky Mountains in the days when most airlines flew at lower altitudes than the highest peaks. Mountain flying in those conditions was a specialized discipline, requiring an acute awareness of weather and winds. Frontier was founded by mountain pilots who had learned how to fly in those conditions. In the early days, they flew DC3 airplanes that weren’t pressurized and operated mostly at altitudes in that are one third of the routes taken by today’s jets. It amassed an amazing accident-free record before the company was forced out of business when airlines began contracting with regional carriers and operating their hub and spoke terminal plans. Later the name was acquired by the contemporary company that started out as a budget carrier with a fleet of modern 737 aircraft. I had the opportunity to fly on the new Frontier Airlines a couple of times. It was nice, but nowhere near as much fun as the old DC3’s flying low enough for you to see the terrain below.

Nostalgia prevents me from remembering the noise of those big radial engines, the vibration and the cold air leaking in around the windows. Although I love the smell of aviation gasoline, it is an acquired taste and breathing those fumes probably wasn’t the best idea.

Whether it is a ride on the train or a flight on an airline, our memories tend to romanticize the past. Still I’m pretty sure that I’ll ride on the train once the Amtrak Cascades resumes service and I wouldn’t mind stepping onto a Frontier/Spirit airliner one day, either.

Such are the reminiscences of an old man. Today is my wife’s birthday and each birthday brings a celebration with a different flavor than was the case when we were younger. I’ve always loved birthdays. An opportunity for a special meal and a bit of cake and ice cream is not to be missed. And coming up with gifts to offer to someone you love is an opportunity not to be missed. The last three birthdays, however, have brought an even deeper sense of gratitude and celebration for me. In the fall of 2019, a reaction to a drug administered in the hospital caused Susan to go into cardiac arrest. I’ve chronicled the details of that event in my journal and don’t want to dwell on it today. The good news is that she survived with no permanent damage to her heart or brain and a surgical procedure has left her without the need for any heart medication at all. Witnessing the code blue called in the hospital, the rapid response team with the crash cart and the rush to the intensive care unit was a stark and harsh reminder of the fragility of human life. We are all mortal. We don’t go on forever. Ever since that day, each day has seemed like a special bonus gift to me. If it weren’t for the skill and care of the hospital team I could have lost her that day. As it turned out, we’ve had so many wonderful days and the days have added up to years and our health is such that we anticipate many more. Each birthday is a celebration of her presence in my life and a reminder of how truly precious that presence is.

We have a string of February birthdays in our family. Yesterday was the birthday of a nephew. Today is Susan’ birthday. Tomorrow is the birth day of our oldest grandchild. And one of these days will be the birthday of our newest grandchild. Maybe they will be born on Susan’s Birthday, or Elliots, or perhaps add one more day to our string of February celebrations. However it turns out, it certainly appears that there is yet more cake and ice cream in my future and Februaries will remain high on my list of favorite times of the year.

It won’t take a trip on the train or a ride on an airline to make me happy.

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