When in the vicinity one feels obliged. After all, I am a Carlisle lad. During my previous life more interesting I found myself nearby and could adjust my schedule. If I was shot by an arrow, squashed after looking the wrong way while crossing the road or hit by a horse and lightweight sedan driven by someone living in a different century, authenticity would be added to the experience.
Obviously, I would go by rail but at some point after Lancaster, I’d have to bus. Engineering works on the West Coast mainline? No, of course not. Ten feet of snow at Shap summit? Don’t be silly. You’ve had enough hints, I’ll have to tell you – this is a postcard from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The starting point will be Philidelphia. We shall linger there in case Carlisle PA, unlike its great metropolitan North of England namesake, isn’t interesting.
When we think of American national parks, we automatically assume the vast open spaces of California’s Yosemite or Montana’s Glacier. Some Puffins might find themselves drawn to Big Bend in Texas. The other side of the Atlantic also boasts National Historical Parks, afforded by the colonials the same awed respect they show to their wildernesses.
One such, Independence National Park, graces downtown Philadelphia. In the American style of the seaside or bay or river (in this case the Delaware) being Front Street, numbered avenues run inland, with Independence sitting between Fifth and Sixth Streets, which in my day was a district of cheap eateries and department stores.
In the way everything’s big in America, the historic park manages to cover 45 acres within which are preserved a number of sites from the time of what the Rustics call the American Revolution and what the rest of us might term mad German King George’s wise giving away of the colonies. Celebrated as ‘America’s most historic square mile’, the walls will probably have less to tell than your traditional English inn or country church, but it’s well worth a visit all the same.
The centrepiece is Independence Hall, meeting place of the second congress and where the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were debated by the Founding Fathers.
Opposite, in its own building, sits the Liberty Bell. Long-suffering Puffins will be aware I claim to have met three popes, Bin Laden (in a cash and carry in Karachi) and Hedda Sterne’s niece. You may now add to the list a young Ron Burgundy. Piccie or not true? The man himself, to the left of the Liberty Bell.
Once hung in the tower of Independence Hall, it was used to summon lawmakers and to preface public meetings and proclamations. According to wiki, the 1752 commission was built by the London firm of Lester and Pack which subsequently became the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. A quote from the Book of Leviticus decorates the waist,
“Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof”
After independence, the bell (which kept on cracking and having to be re-cast) fell into obscurity until the 1830s when used symbolically by abolitionists and Christened “The Liberty Bell”.
Near the National Historic Park is 5th Street SEPTA (South East Pennsylvania Transport Authority) station which runs to 30th Street, Philly’s main intercity-style railroad station. A mixed blessing, three and a half decades ago 30th Street was far enough downtown to be in “it’s a jungle out there” territory with the police not letting me out of the station after dark and sometimes coming to sit beside me in the waiting room.
One time, I managed to creep out and have a scout about. I crept back in again sharpish. But what a waiting room. Luxurious padded bench seats lined a grand concourse in the art deco of style of high ceilings and spectacular low hanging chandeliers.
The middle of the night visits were to connect with the sleeper trains, north to Boston or south beyond Washington DC, but Lancaster and Carlisle lie to the west on the 1000 mile run to Chicago via the old Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) mainline over the Alleghenies and around Horse Shoe curve. En route, as you pass through Lancaster, you also pass through Amish country.
Amish gentlemen might climb aboard dressed all in black. Straight-cut suits were worn beneath colourless coats. Married men wore immaculately trimmed beards, single men were clean-shaven. The ladies would wear homemade single coloured dresses, patterns weren’t allowed. Unlike long skirts which were compulsory, as was the ‘kapp’ bonnet worn across the back of the head.
Horse-drawn two seat ‘courting buggies’ clip-clopped along the road beside the railroad line. In the distance, clapboard houses and giant pitched barns dotted the farms of the Pennsylvania Dutch county. In this case ‘Dutch’, as a corruption of ‘Deitsch’, refers to the Germanic origins of the descendants of settlers who prefer the trappings of the Old World in the second half of the 19th century to those of the modern-day.
What’s the state capital of Pennsylvania? Philadelphia. No. Pittsburg? No. Harrisburg, which is also the extent of the PRR electrification. As a static display at Harrisburg station, sat old PRR electric locomotive GG1, number 4859, which hauled the first electrically powered train from Philadelphia to Harrisburg on January 15, 1938.
These engines were monsters and weighed in at 215 tons, more than an empty Jumbo jet. Built by the PRR locomotive works in nearby Altoona, 4859 worked both passenger and freight services on various routes until being withdrawn after hauling the last ever GG1 powered freight on November 22nd 1979.
One of those odd things that happens and sticks in the mind for the rest of one’s life, happened to me at Harrisburg Station. I was accosted by what in today’s money would be labelled as a ‘racist’. Startled by an English accent, he enquired as to how Limey could afford a holiday in America while he couldn’t afford a holiday in London.
Informing him, “Actually, old bean, they pay me to be here,” didn’t go down well and my further suggestion he get out of bed earlier in the morning and work harder made things no better. Fortunately, he was a railway employee on the other side of bulletproof glass at a ticket counter. Having said that, if angry enough, there must be a way of getting out of such places.
Then he told me what kind of people, by race and ethnicity, he presumed he would meet if he ever did have that holiday in London. He wasn’t wrong, but all the same. As I summoned my inner snowflake and scurried out of the place, his parting shot was, “Not a journalist are you?” Stange chap.
Something I’ve noticed, in the Jing and Jang karma of such things, is, having thrown yourself into the hands of the gods of travel, after putting up with a **** the next person you meet will be really sweet. From Harrisburg, a CAT bus connects to Carlisle. An attractive lady of colour, finding the English accent charming rather than irritating, was happy to oblige me with directions to the bus stop.
I waited. And waited. And waited. There was no sign of a bus to anywhere, let alone to the Cumberland Valley township designated in 1751 by the Penn family and the Pennsylvania assembly. Eventually, there was sight of the lady who’d directed me. She headed my way gripping two polystyrene cups determinedly in front of her, as if approaching a gunfight with loaded revolvers.
Oh my. She’d ‘gotten’ to work, realised she’d sent me to the wrong ‘fare stage’, grabbed two ‘Coffee-to-Gos’ from the office ‘vending’ and set off to find me. Wasn’t that considerate?
On the way to the correct stop, we sipped our hot drinks and she, as Americans were want to in those days, condensed her entire life story into a fifteen-minute speech. Millennials, this is how we met each other before the invention of the all-consuming attention draining nuisance known as the mobile phone and its attendant bunny-boiler packed dating apps.
By now the weather was against me. Through the rain-sodden CAT bus windows, the route to Carlisle drew me towards peak America. An un-busy wide highway of slow-moving traffic passed motels, baseball squares and drive-in movie theatres as if the two conurbations were joined by a never-ending sparsely populated suburb in place of countryside.
Rather than terminating under a glorious cantilevered station roof, if anything understatedly called ‘Carlisle Citadel’, the bus came to a halt at Halls Mall, a mammoth car park surrounded by elephantine tin boxes, one of which was the eponymous Halls Mall and another a useful cheap motel where I checked in for the night.
The procedure in those days when on an over-night was to find a free newspaper dispenser on the sidewalk, take out half a dozen local papers, rip out the money off coupons and eat for near-nothing from the shelves of a local mall.
Later, I queued with the soccer moms in Halls, all of us weighted down with giant trays of snacks and colas and fist-fulls of discount coupons. From the corner of my eye, putting me off my imminent monster supper, I couldn’t help but notice a rack of shirts sized in the local measurement XXXXXXL.
A walk around the township proved it non-descript. There was a prison and a closed cinema. The natives were friendly enough but gawped when I told them I was from Carlisle in England. It didn’t quite sink in. What did catch the eye was Louther Street, the trans-Atlantic version of our Old World Lowther Street.
Back in my motel room, I put a quarter into the slot of my vibrating bed (I warned you we were approaching peak America) and called my new best friend from the bakelite dog’s bone phone on my bedside table. Yes, she’d given me her number. We chatted about nothing in particular while watching Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on our respective tellies. Johnny was falling flat and I said so. Even Ed McMahon wasn’t laughing.
“The mosquitos are so big they land at the airport. The roaches are so big you can ride them into town.” Oh dear.
“You do better,” she replied.
I paused, concerned I’d caused offence again, this time by insulting a National Historic Monument wearing a toupe and struggling to break a leg in a Burbank studio.
“Seriously,” she continued with effortless Reagonomic optimism, “if you’re funnier than Johnny’s writers, Johnny wants to hear from you. Fax NBC some lines.”
What a good idea. After a busy and sleepless night, and a motel office crash course on how to use a facsimile machine, Mr Carson gotten a Postcard From Carlisle too – but that’s another story.
© Always Worth Saying 2022