Stories from the Muddy

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010


By Naomi Lewis

            A few days after I arrived in Warsaw, my friends began their vacation.  Monika’s brother, Jacek, came to drive us to her country home in the Mazury Lakes district of northern Poland.  I can never in good conscience complain about U.S. highways again.
          The main thoroughfare between Warsaw and Gdansk, a Baltic Coast recreational area, is a two lane highway.  There is no such thing as a freeway.  I was told they know how to make them, but they don't, and they skimp on the roads they do build, as it was described to me, so they can pave someone’s driveway and make extra money.

          Now, the two lanes between Warsaw and Gdansk are deeply rutted from all the truck traffic.  If you get caught in a rut and need to get out, heaven help you.  The Poles want to get where they’re going as fast as people with four or six or eight lanes, so they have devised a passing lane down the middle.  It's invisible, but the Poles agree it's there.  Drivers coming toward you at 120 km an hour with their brights on, assume you'll move over onto the shoulder so they can pass the car in front of them.  This is not crazy, as I was told, it's normal!  It's Polish!

          Polish semi trucks travel as fast as U.S. trucks or faster with half the room to navigate.  It's terrifying. I felt I was caught in a loop of Mr. Toads Ride, praying and holding on to the handle bar on the ceiling of Monika’s compact car.

           To make it even trickier,  when people are passing you down the middle and there's a car coming from the other direction passing the car in front of them, there are two passing lanes down the middle and the cars with the right of way move over onto both shoulders.  Now, if you add the guy riding his bicycle on the shoulder, or the huge, ancient trees bordering the shoulder, or a horse-drawn cart full of somebody's family riding on the shoulder, or maybe just a guy out for a stroll, you get the idea of what it’s like to drive in Poland.  But I’m not finished.  Now...add curvy and hilly.

Wheat field near Naria
            Okay, country roads.  These are also two lanes, but full of potholes on the edges, next to the 200 year old trees that aren't moving.  People drive down the middle of the road from both directions, and when a car approaches from the other direction, the alternative to a head-on collision is to swerve the last moment to miss them.  I mean last moment, then dart back to the center.  The cars rock so badly, you might think you're riding in a cartoon car, if you can picture it. 

           When I thought I couldn't take any more, the light would splash golden and breathtaking through the clouds that kept us cool across the wheat fields ready to harvest. And the air, was so cool and fresh, free of pollution.  I didn't see any smoke stacks from industry.  I don't know where they are, but there aren't any between Warsaw and the north.

           The night we drove north, we ended up in a pitch black Hansel and Gretel forest.  There were no street lights in Morag, the nearby town to cheer us on. We arrived at Naria at and Monika showed me my room.  It had been closed and smelled musty.  I was well-travelled and used to landing in unfamiliar places, but that night, I sat on the edge of my little bed a long time with my miniature flashlight clutched in my hands.  I knew I would come to love that room as my refuge after I put myself in the context of the house and neighborhood, but that first night, I was scared to the bone.  I prayed I would fall asleep quickly and I did.  It may be the first time in my life I truly knew what it meant to "Lie down unto the Lord."  When I awakened, light flooded through my window and I found out which direction was east.  Upon reflection, I thought I knew something of what Jonah must have felt in the "belly of the whale."

There are more storks in Poland than any other country

          I was reading the Old Testament that summer.  I don't know how the Lord does this, it happened several times on my journey, but when I opened my scriptures, I just happened to have arrived at Joshua 1:9, "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest."

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Train Not Taken

By Naomi Lewis

I spent the summer of 2005 in England, Scotland, Wales, Poland and Lithuania, doing family history research and visiting long-time friends.  On Monday, July 4th, I missed the fireworks and usual American festivities, but was well paid.  I boarded a train at Strawberry Hill for Vauxhall, thinking that’s where I would change trains for King’s Cross, but when I arrived, I found the only way into central London was by tube/underground.  I hated to travel by tube.  I liked to watch the buildings and trees blur past me.  Minutes passed as I stood at the top of the stairs.  I couldn’t talk myself into descending.  I wonder now if it was a premonition, but my destination was through that tunnel and there were no above ground connections and there was nothing I could do about it.  I finally took a deep breath and followed the crowd into the underground.

King’s Cross Station was in the neighborhood of my great grandfather Arthur’s childhood and the current location of the Family History Centre, and I thought, possibly the depository of records of my relatives.  Arthur had immigrated to the United States in 1882 at age fourteen, but he stayed in touch with his father and two brothers who remained in England.

The story came down through our family that Arthur received a letter from his oldest brother, John, telling him he was being trained to ride camels in the Sahara.  In other words, he was being trained to fight in the Boer War in South Africa.  Since that was the last letter my great grandfather ever received from his brother, the American side of the family concluded that John had gone to the Boer War and died.  That was the story I heard growing up.  That was the story in our family for more than a hundred years.  It was my self-imposed mission, while I was in London, to find out the truth.

I was relieved when I arrived at King’s Cross Station safely.  Following a map, I wound through the streets until I found the Centre.  After a lucky search, I found Arthur’s brother John, who had been a London Constable, his wife and six children, in the newly released 1901 census.  The Boer War ended in 1899, which reasonably led me to believe, John had not died in the Boer War.  There had to be another explanation for the lack of letters.  A feeling I had since I was a teenager that I had living relatives still in England was suddenly stronger than ever.

Kew, the National Archives

I planned to leave London three days later, on Thursday for Scotland.  The next day, I spent at Kew, the National Archives, looking for pension records which I didn’t find.  I was disappointed because they contained physical descriptions and I wanted to know something about John’s appearance as well as find an address.  I went back home to Twickenham where I was staying with friends.  Suddenly, I felt a distinct impression my work was finished and I should not linger.  I hurried to pack my bags, preparing to leave for Paisley, the next day.

I dragged my bag to Strawberry Hill Station about 7:30 Wednesday morning, caught a loaded train to Vauxhall and stood long moments in the underground at King’s Cross Station, waiting for a train that had enough room to board.  The trains were so crowded with morning commuters, there was no room to board.  I felt sorry for people who spent their mornings and evenings in tunnels.  I was very uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to get out of the underground, but made myself think the best of it –  after all, those folks went through that routine twice a day.  I made myself breathe and relax. 

Finally, I was able to push my luggage onto a train speeding for Euston Station, my jumping off point for Scotland.  I boarded the above-ground train for Carlisle at 9:45.  I enjoyed a lovely, peaceful ride through an incomparable, hilly countryside.  The gentleman who sat across the table was an 85 year old WWII veteran, dressed in a smart red military uniform with four ribbons and medals on his chest.  He was traveling from an old soldier’s hospital in Chelsea for a two week holiday in Blackpool.  I gave him a piece of Walker’s Scottish shortbread.  He said, “It had a wonderful taste.”  He had never eaten it before.  I thanked him for his part in WWII.  He looked back at me shyly.  He had been at Dunquerque and still had shrapnel in his head.

New Lanark worker housing

What a different world we would live in without the superhuman efforts of men like him.  I arrived in Glasgow and changed trains for Paisley.  The next day, July 7, I decided to use my Britrail pass and have an adventure at New Lanark, a very progressive 18th century mill town where its builder, Robert Owen, set up a water wheel, started a school and built good housing out of cut stone for his workers, very unusual for the time.


At nine a.m., I was enroute when I received a frantic call from my friend, Cassie, with whom I was staying in Paisley, wanting to know where I was.  Then she told me, “King’s Cross Station has been bombed, please be careful.”  Later, I received a text message telling me there were six bombings in London that morning.                       

Two days that very week, I had been in the underground at King’s Cross at 9 a.m.  If I had left London on Thursday, as I planned, that’s where I would have been during the attacks.  I would at the very least have been greatly inconvenienced and had to drag my heavy luggage back to Twickenham, but there could have been a much more devastating outcome.  In this case, the train not taken, made all the difference. 

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