Wednesday October 9, 2002: I left from Playa Del Rey Beach in L.A. early this morning on my motorcycle for New York City. I planned on being in NYC on or before October 12th. This would require the employment of some Long Distance riding techniques. The story of that ride can be found at our website at http://johnandbecci.com/rides.htm
Friday October 11, 2002: I arrived in New York City after a ride of 49 hrs including all stops for gas, food, and rest. At around 4 p.m. I checked into the Days Inn at Newark International Airport and caught a few z’s and ate a hot meal. My first since 9 p.m. last night.
I decided to leave my motorcycle parked at the motel today and use public transit to get to Manhattan. I had a taste of driving in traffic in NYC yesterday when I first arrived on my motorcycle. That was plenty of excitement for me! I’ve driven cars and ridden motorcycles in many high traffic metropolitan areas. Hey, I’ve even ridden in Tijuana, Mexico! NYC is an animal of a different color. For one thing, the majority of the vehicles are cabs. These cabs are all yellow, which is appropriate because they must be conspicuous so as to allow all others (pedestrian and auto) to get out of their way. The cabs are driven by mostly young foreign-born maniacs. Indians, Pakistanis, Eastern Europeans, Arabs, and other third worlders comprise the majority, though I did see a few non-immigrants at the wheel. They were rare though. The technique used by most of these yellow missiles was to floor the gas as soon as the light turned green and slam the brakes on fully when the next red light was encountered. There are apparently no designated lanes, as all space from curb to curb is filled with vehicles, and as soon as a space of any size opens up, a vehicle will fill it. There is much honking of horns, but it doesn’t seem to be done with malice. It just seems to be part of the driving technique to periodically honk one’s horn, even when 15 cars back from the front of a line. Being from L.A., I am used to quiet (hornless) driving and was startled every time a horn honked. Where I come from honking a horn at the wrong person could get you shot! There was an instance yesterday when I accelerated away from a traffic light, a cabbie apparently thought I was racing him and blasted full throttle around all of the traffic to the left of him, threw his cab into a four wheel slide to get around a parked truck, then slammed on the brakes and induced a four wheel locked up slide to the front of the traffic stopped at the next light. I could have easily out accelerated and maneuvered him in the traffic, but decided that this character was totally out of control and wisely let him go. I was having enough stress getting used to driving with the “normal” traffic. I learned that several things were common to all driving there. When the light turns green and the car in front of you doesn’t move, honk your horn, try to drive around if possible, if not accelerate as soon as it does move, and stay one foot off his rear bumper. Do not stop or let a space of more than one foot develop or someone will drive around you and push part of their vehicle into that space. Also, under no circumstances allow another vehicle to merge into your lane no matter what. And definitely DO NOT show any courtesy to anyone. It is a sign of weakness and will get you run off the road. The streets of NYC are no place for a nice car or motorcycle. Beaters only!
I was supposed to be at the assembly area at 8th Ave and 23rd St at 7 a.m. so I skipped breakfast and hopped on the courtesy van from the hotel to the airport. At the airport I transferred to what is called the Skytrain. It looks like a Monorail to me. The Skytrain took me to a train terminal where I boarded a New Jersey Transit train for Penn Station in NYC. While waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, I got to talk with a small group of firefighters from Ohio. We compared stories of our two departments and swapped a few tall tales. I learned a lot about them and their department, but mostly I re-affirmed what I have learned from talking with firefighters from all over the world over the past 28 ½ years. We are all more alike than different. There is a very strong bond between all of us. One that is difficult to describe to an outsider, but I’ll just say that it allows firefighters who are complete strangers to feel like they have known each other all of their lives. It is as close a bond as between fraternal siblings. The train arrived, and we packed in tight on the already almost full train, and settled in for the ½ hour ride to Manhattan.
We unloaded ourselves at the Manhattan Penn Station, which is directly beneath Madison Square Garden. It is an amazing place with tracks going in all directions to all places in the country. None of the tracks are visible from another, or the station itself. Each track is accessed from a different stairway. There are multiple levels to the station, and the New York Subway is accessed from one of them. There is also a virtual city of stores and food services located in the waiting areas. On this day, there was a sea of blue flowing up from the tracks, through the station, and out onto the streets. Firefighters from all over the world were arriving in the Big Apple and making their way to the Staging Area about 5 blocks from The Garden. There seemed to be no particular route to get to our destination, as groups of from several to a dozen firefighters made their way to 8th Ave and 23rd St.. It was 6:45 a.m. and the streets around Midtown were filled with thousands of us. Later I would find out that there were over 100,000 members of fire departments from all over the world participating in this year’s solemn ceremony. 80,000 of us were outside in a 2-½ mile procession, and 20,000, which included the families of the fallen and all of the off duty FDNY members, were inside Madison Square Garden. There seemed to be little or no organization to our procession, but that was not necessarily true. There was no one ordering us around, but as actions needed to be taken there was someone there to guide the masses in the right direction or to direct the needed actions. The masses started building up at 28th and 8th as groups from individual departments clustered, talking amongst themselves, and tried to keep as dry as possible in the blustery drizzle. I was on my own as the LAFD didn’t apparently have any plans in place for the 62 of us to meet before (or after) the ceremony. This was fine with me as it allowed me to freelance and straggle as I wished. I joined many groups and swapped stories with “smoke eaters” from a wide range of locals. Many heard my 50CC tale… some were actually amazed. The temperature wasn’t too cold, in the low 50’s, and the wool uniforms that are traditional to all fire departments did an admirable job of insulating us from Autumn’s bite. In contrast to the stark simplicity of my LAFD Dress Blue Uniform, the “Blues” worn by 99.9% of the other departments were quite ornate. My “Blues” consist of a long sleeve dark blue wool shirt with my 5 white service stripes on the left sleeve (signifying my 28 ½ years of service) and white buttons, chrome badge, dark blue tie with silver tie clip, dark blue wool trousers, and matching wool hat. Corofram low cut dress shoes and black socks complete the understated “look”. The rest of those in attendance wore wool coats, mostly double breasted, that were for the most part dark blue but varied to an “Air force” blue. Coats were adorned with brass buttons, service ribbons and medals, and shoulder patches denoting their department. Many of the hats were of the traditional cylindrical design in dark blue, white, or a combination of the two. One of the advantages of wearing a “unique” uniform like mine was that it was very easy to I.D. members of the LAFD in the sea of coats. I intentionally lagged behind as the masses straggled south on 8th in order to watch the passing firefighters for LAFD members. I only spotted half-a-dozen wearing the “understated” LAFD uniform. After about 1-½ hours of watching the procession pass my location as it formed up for the march north on 7th Ave to the “Garden”, I joined the ranks near the rear. Even as I followed the masses, marchers were straggling in to add to the procession behind me. By the time I reached the end of the form-up area at Greenwich Ave, there was another ¼ mile of marchers behind me. On the way down 8th, before the turn onto Greenwich, a column of color guards numbering at least 1000 passed us carrying American Flags. It was an awe inspiring and emotional sight. The rain began coming down with increased intensity as the group moved south in lurches. During one of the times the procession was stopped I entered a nearby small market for a couple of bottles of water. I wasn’t the only one with that idea, as the tiny establishment was packed with blue wool uniforms. Some came out with snacks; some came out with more “potent” liquids with which to keep themselves warm against the blustery Fall weather. The procession was now a sea of umbrellas as the rain increased to a torrent. Under the canopy of umbrellas was a mass of humanity, a microcosm of the City itself. Some had paper bags discretely hiding their body warming tonics from public view; others lit up cigars, while those without umbrellas closed ranks with those who did. All around small groups shared life experiences, war stories, and warming drink with co-workers and strangers alike. At one point the masses (made up mostly of males) broke into a roar of cheers. Apparently one of the female tenants in an apartment adjoining the form-up route decided to impress the thousands of captive, slightly bored,” America’s Heroes” with a flash of part of her anatomy. Eventually, my part of the mass reached the corner of 8th and Greenwich. One of the event “dis”-organizers announced with a bullhorn to fold all of our umbrellas and remove any plastic raincoats. The rain began to really come down now! A little further along as we reached 7th Ave and 11th St, other “dis”-organizers formed us into rough ranks 12 wide and about 20 rows long. Each formation of about 250 uniformed marchers was led by a color guard of 6-8 flags. The flags were American, state, MIA, IAFF, and UFOA, and other organizational colors.
The demeanor of the marchers changed dramatically as we tried to keep any orderly lilt behind the color guard that marched in step to the quiet cadence from their leader. All of the paper bags of imbidement and cigars were disposed of or hidden. A solemnity covered the ranks as the gravity of the occasion was taken in, and we marched past thousands of New York civilians who lined the parade route in the bone-soaking downpour. Some of them waved little American Flags. Some quietly said “thank you firemen”, “God bless you”, or “we love you.” Some stood at attention and saluted as the color guard passed. Others just stood silently as we passed; many had tears in their eyes. Parents brought their little kids, who sat on their mom’s or dad’s shoulders. Old folks and young alike paid tribute in their own way to their fallen heroes in New York City, in the middle of a rainstorm. We marchers were showing our respect for our fallen brothers in our own way also. 343 American flag bearing color guards led the 25 block long procession. A platoon of bagpipers and drummers in full Irish kilt formed ranks in front of the marchers. As the plaintive moan of “Amazing Grace” echoed off the deep canyons of concrete and steel, we slowly marched to the half cadence drumbeat, characteristic of a funeral honor guard, toward the “Garden” where the families heard speeches by former NYC Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and others eulogizing their deceased loved ones. One particularly emotional moment occurred when deceased 9-11 firefighter Vernon Cherry of Ladder 118 FDNY sang the National Anthem, via videotape, to start the Memorial. Along the march route there were placed large “Jumbotron” TV screens so that those outside could see the ceremony taking place inside the arena. The service took 3 ½ hours. My part of the parade reached 31st ST just as the names of all of New York’s fallen heroes was starting to be read. At some point along the march, a New York Police Officer exchanged subdued greetings with me. He said that our marchers had been passing his location for over 3 ½ hours. He was visibly impressed. I was profoundly awed myself, as it was very extraordinary seeing so many uniformed firefighters in on place.
When the march broke up, I proceeded to the entrance of Madison Square Garden and watched as the families left the arena in small quiet groups. There was a stretch limousine waiting at the curb for each of the 343 families. Afterward I took a long walk down the streets on Midtown Manhattan. I took in the sights as I thoughtfully contemplated the events of today and 9-11-01. I stopped by several FDNY fire stations and paid my respects. One of those stations, Rescue Squad 1, was the station that then Mayor Giuliani’s Press Secretary’s husband Captain Terry Hatton was assigned. I remember a video shortly after 9-11showing her as she recalled the day he died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.
I continued to wander slowly around Manhattan the rest of the day, finally catching a late train out of Penn Station. I made my way, with some confusion during transfers, back to the Day’s Inn in Newark where I collapsed exhausted in my room for 12 hours of invigorating sleep.
Sunday October 13, 2002: The rain had subsided sometime during the night, so I rode my motorcycle into the City to take in some of the sights before I headed for home Monday. I figured that Sunday would be the least congested day for traffic, and I was correct. There were about ½ of the vehicles I had encountered on my last ride in on Friday for the finish of my 50 CC Quest. A 50 CC Quest, for those unfamiliar with Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, is a documented ride from one coast of America to the other in 50 hours or less. There are specific requirements that must be met to be certified by the Iron Butt Association. For more info take a look at http://ironbutt.com
The first place I visited this day was the World Trade Center site; also known as “Ground Zero.” This was an emotional experience for me. Very similar to the feelings that swept over me as I first walked down into the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Next I went to Battery Park and viewed the “Steel Ball” (a memorial to all who lost their lives at Ground Zero). I had plenty to reflect on as I rode the boat to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. I made it to the Naval Museum USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, tied up on the NY waterfront, just as it was closing. This is a must see on my next trip to the Big Apple.
As darkness began to shroud New York, I rode back to my hotel via the Holland tunnel. I was in a very different mood than I was two days earlier when I rode in. I was especially proud to be a firefighter and proud to be an American in these times.
Stay safe…. John