Just about all of my friends who have travelled extensively by rail in the UK have found themselves, at one time or another, stuck at the Castle Cary station in Somerset waiting for a transfer. Castle Cary almost always creeps into the conversation when exchanging vacation stories.
The weird thing is that the station isn’t really a transfer point. It’s this little Podunk country station with no services, and usually just one or two staff people. There’s nothing to do but lie on a bench, exposed to the elements, and listen to the plaintive sounds of unseen sheep somewhere in the rolling countryside beyond the surrounding hedgerows. A fairly busy road passes in front of the station and, for the most part, you’re alone with your thoughts, and wondering why you were such a bad trip planner. Wait long enough and, eventually, other tourists show up, sit apart from you, bags clutched to them, wide-eyed and lost. We’re all sharing the same thought: What if I really am an idiot and I have to spend the night here?
What I should do is open up a pub adjacent to the station. “First drink free for people who can’t read timetables.”
I’d visited the UK several times, and I’m a big train guy, but I managed to avoid the Castle Cary vortex until a 2002 trip where I decided to go to Totnes solely to ride the South Devon Steam Railway. I guess you can say that I’m a steam rail aficionado. I like to think I’m pretty passive in my interest, but, then, I spend a day travelling to the English Riviera simply to ride one, then immediately turn around and go back to London to watch TV and drink at my friend’s local pub. So something’s wrong with me.
My trip to Totnes was broken up by a transfer at Castle Cary. Not qualifying for that free drink at my future pub, I was completely aware that I would have a two hour layover and perfectly fine with it. Just camp out at the station and read a book and stare into the sun, if applicable. That’s often my go-to plan. I find it greatly comforting.
I hit the station in the early afternoon and settled in to commune with the countryside and the empty tracks stretching away, watching the comings and goings along the road. The station manager was emptying all the trash cans, moving like an old Japanese gardener. It took him about an hour to empty six of them and, for four of the six, he just looked down into them, shrugged, and shuffled on.
Once he finished, he vanished inside and I resumed staring into the sun. Then the PA system clicked on and squealed, as if that was the first time in years it had been used. The station manager cleared his throat, and then announced that there would be one minute of silence observed around the country at the moment when, one year ago, the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
He cleared his throat again and signed off. The minute of silence followed immediately. I watched the station manager step out onto the platform, his hat in his hands, and stare at the ground. On the road by the station, all of the traffic pulled over. A silence I hadn’t realized was missing washed over Castle Cary.
The shadow of the anniversary of 9/11 colored the rest of the trip. When I reached Totnes, I hit a pub and drank myself a little silly, then checked into a B&B and watched a retrospective on the little TV by my bed. I found myself sobbing, overcome with grief.
When 9/11 happened, I was in DC. Evacuated from our building in a panic, we flowed out onto the streets and clustered around cars stuck in traffic to listen to the increasingly frantic reports on the radio. Jet fighters flying low overhead sent office workers diving onto the concrete, crying out desperately. There was a moment there where we all assumed an attack was happening. Something out of a bad TV movie from the height of the 80’s. The police had lost the center, falling back as we mobbed the Metro station.
I found a TV in a deli and joined my fellow office drones in a silent, shocked, weeping group. We watched the first tower collapse. We decided to flee the city. I jumped on the last car of the last train leaving town and we hurtled north, everyone in the car silent, a few of us plastered against the rear window looking back at a cityscape with black smoke rising from the Pentagon on the horizon.
It didn’t really hit me. I celebrated the day off. The worst thing about 9/11, I’ve often said, was going back to work on 9/12. I had become so bored and dissatisfied with life that I celebrated any interruption in the routine. The cost didn’t matter. I wanted to be free of what I felt was slavery.
I continue to embrace this attitude. I understand that 9/11 changed all of our lives, and I certainly don’t mock the dead, but I secretly hope for a repeat of those events simply so I don’t have to go to work in the morning.
For a time, after 9/11, I was proud of that attitude. I embraced it on the front page of Greatsociety, creating the comical character of “Oscar bin Laden,” the Texas billionaire suffering from a case of mistaken identity.
I lampooned 9/11 as early as December 2001, and was sick of the endless jabber about it.
But there, in September of 2002, I broke down. Alone in Totnes, the reality of it hit me. The horror of that day invaded every fiber of my being.
I’ve never shared this. When I got back home, I resumed my lampooning, I continued the role of Nacho Sasha. I never told anyone about what felt like, for one night at least, a revelation.
For Greatsociety, I felt, the show must go on. Besides, it all seemed very private. Something I shouldn’t share. From that eerie moment of silence by the train tracks to my breakdown in front of the TV, it was all my private little journey. The things that happen when you wait two hours for a transfer. If I’d gone straight through, or somehow managed to avoid the moment of silence announcement, I would never have given the first anniversary a second thought.
So…that’s my Castle Cary story.