Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmastime in Manassas

I took a little walk last night around Old Town Manassas. Being just a few days before Christmas, the plethora of white lights glistened boldly, lighting up the buildings and sidewalks. The people who are responsible for such things do a great job here at Christmastime, making our town warm and inviting. My senses were stirred.

I sat down briefly on one of the benches near the skating rink, watching the youngsters circle counter-clockwise on the ice. Some skated smoothly, others flailed their arms trying to keep their balance as their skates glided along the ice.

Then I heard a train whistle and the clank of the gates coming down at the tracks. I left my spot on the bench and meandered toward the train station. A frieght train had stopped, its engines purring, while, I suspected, workers down the line were switching cars at the junction where the spur breaks off and heads toward the Shenandoah Valley.

I love trains.

I noticed a few folks under the station's canopy, their bags stacked nearby. I surmised that the AMTRAK Crescent had not yet arrived. The Crescent makes one trip daily from New York to New Orleans, stopping at Manassas to take on and release passengers as needed.

The town clock read 8:35. Sure enough, these folks were waiting for the train.

I took a seat on a bench at the station, observing the little kids milling around while their parents kept a watchful eye. One young fellow, sporting a huge backpack, paced back and forth methodically along the full length of the yellow strip at the edge of the platform as if in a trance, his eyes fixed downward on his careful steps. A father held his little girl tightly as if to protect her from an unseen train suddenly barreling into the station.

I spoke briefly with the man holding the child. He and his family hailed from Atlanta, and were on their way home after visiting his brother in Fairfax. He commented on what a nice town we had, and I told him about the Manassas Center for the Arts, where just minutes before, a bevy of young people had exited the building following some sort of community event.

The air was crisp, and puffs of steam vacated our mouths at every breath.

Then the train pulled in, one of the longest in my memory. Perhaps extra cars had been added for the Christmas holiday season.

As the train rolled to a stop, I looked in to each section. First came the Sleepers, with their tiny suites where passengers would try to get a few hours of "shuteye" before the morning broke again. Next came the Diner cars, where smiling faces across from one another spoke to me of family and friendship. Perhaps new friendships were even being cast this very night, as strangers traveling together engaged themselves in conversation. Finally, as the train pressed to a halt, the Coach cars came into view. I wondered what the folks inside the car might be thinking as they looked out, while I looked in.

I wished him a Merry Christmas, and the man from Atlanta, along with his family, spoke with the conductor, then boarded and headed for home.

Then I noticed a man standing next to me—a graying, late-fiftyish, early-sixtyish looking fellow. He did not board the train. Nor was he there to greet any family or friends disembarking. Apparently, he had the same idea as me. Yes, as we began to chat, I learned that he too was a lover of trains.

The whistle blew again, and the wheels began to turn. As quickly as it had come, the Crescent was now gone. Together, we watched the red tail lights disappear into the blackness of the southern sky.

Henry Kok had only been living in this area for nine months. He had moved here from Tampa, Florida to take on employment with the Raytheon Corporation, working in their Purchasing Department.

We talked. He commented on the sad state of the whole train situation here in America. He had traveled extensively in Europe, he said, where train travel was much more common. We discussed the propensity of Americans to prefer their cars to train travel. Cars bring us more freedom, we concluded.

Henry admired the station's architecture, the 100-year-old craftsmanship of the fine woodwork holding up the canopy. He commented on the "Federal Style" of the old Candy Factory, now Arts Center. And then he spoke of his love of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, claiming that he had personally seen 57 of Wright's structures. He loved architecture, he said.

He commented how disappointed he was that Manassas did not have a coffee shop. He blamed this on town the planners. I'm not sure that they are responsible, but he does have a point. There is no longer any place in Old Town Manassas where one can sit down and just drink a cup of coffee. We once had the Lazy Bean, and then Java Jack's. But both are now closed down.

His remarks made me think of the Frost Diner in Culpeper. Occupying the corner of Main and Davis, the Frost Diner is a throwback to the good old days—a place where you can get a cup of coffee, or a burger and a shake, or a salad, or a reuben sandwich, and a piece of pie. They serve their drinks, and their shakes, in those old fashioned Coca Cola glasses, the kind that sort of "bell out" at the top. Yeah.

Foster's Grill is nice, but its menu is limited. City Tavern is nice also, but it's more of a restaurant/bar kind of a deal. And the City Square Cafe is nice, too, but again, it's not a coffee shop.

Henry's observations made me pause, just momentarily ... what if ... nah ... what am I thinking ... great idea but I don't have the resources to open a restaurant. Although, with the commuter train coming through every morning, I have often wondered about the viability of a coffee/pastry shop/newstand, someplace for commuters to stop, get some quick refreshment for the train ride, and something to read.

Money. It all takes so much money.

Anyway, Henry is Dutch. Born in Holland in 1945 as the war in Europe was winding down, he and his family migrated to New York in 1954, landing first, actually, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Their boat docked in Hoboken on the Fourth of July, that summer.

We continued to talk about trains and architecture, and Henry's thoughts turned to history. He seemed to light up when I told him the story of how Manassas got its name.

Apparently, an old Jewish man named Manasseh once lived up in the mountains near Front Royal. When, in the early 1850's, railroad men decided to build a spur linking the old Orange and Alexandria line to the Shenandoah Valley, they laid their track through the gap between the mountains where the old Jewish fellow lived. Because of its nearest resident, the gap between the mountains came to be known as Manasseh's gap, and the railroad line was named The Manassas Gap Railroad. The junction point where the spur broke off, heading west toward the Valley, came to be known as Manassas Junction. That spot is located along Wellington Road, not far from where it intersects with Prince William Street.

And that is how Manassas got its name.

Henry and I also talked about the Civil War battles nearby. I told him the story of old Wilmer McLean, the one-time owner of the Yorkshire Plantation, just up the road behind what is now the Yorkshire Restaurant.

The Yorkshire Plantation is long gone, but it would seem that not long after Mr. McLean purchased his home, the war was about to break out—the War Between the States that is. McLean was entertaining a few Confederate officers in his home one evening, just before the battle of First Manassas. During their dinner, a Union cannonball landed and exploded in his fireplace, spraying a pot of stew all over the walls of his house.

Frightened, soon afterwards McLean picked up his family and moved—to a little town in south-central Virginia named Appomattox. It was in his home that General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant to end the bloody conflict between North and South.

So, it is said that the Civil War began and ended in the home of Wilmer McLean.

Henry loved that story. I also recommended that he find and read Landmarks of Old Prince William, a chronicle of local history beginning with Captain John Smith, trolling the waters of the Potomac, up into the "freshes" of the creeks of Occoquan, Aquia, Neabsco—in 1608—nearly 400 years ago. The freshes are the places where the saltwater meets the fresh water—sometimes called the "fall line."

Yes, our local history is rich.

Henry and I concluded our brief visit with his story of a family reunion that took place this past Fourth of July at his brother's home on Long Island, NY. Together with family and friends, Henry celebrated his 5oth year in America.

It was a very friendly visit, one we both seemed to enjoy.

We traded "Merry Christmases" and I headed back to my car. Amongst the many beautiful Christmas lights and decorations, I found the town clock. It was now 9:15.

With a joyful heart, I thanked God for giving me such a wonderful place to live.


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