CHARLOTTE, NC, February 19, 2015 – Sometimes great stories slip under the radar never to be discovered. This is one the media missed completely, but, in this case, it was not their fault.
In fact, this is one of those stories that gets better as it goes along.
Back in the day, when the Army/Navy football game was at its peak, the Pennsylvania Railroad operated special trains from New York City and Washington, D.C. to and from Philadelphia. From 1936 until 1941 and again between 1945 and 1975, Penn Central carried fans to Municipal Stadium in Pennsylvania for the game.
The obvious break from 1941 until 1945 was due to World War II.
After the railroad declared bankruptcy, the tradition died for for 30 years until philanthropists Bennett and Vivian Levin were overcome with sadness during the Christmas season when they heard media accounts about injured American soldiers.
Having the wherewithall to do something unique, the Levins began making arrangements to transport troops aboard their personal vintage railroad cars from Walter Reed Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital to the Army/Navy game in December of 2005.
Bennett Levin was a native son of Philadelphia, as well as a self-made millionaire. He owned three luxury refurbished railway cars which featured mahogany paneling, cushy seating and gourmet dining facilities.
In addition, the Bennetts owned two locomotives.
During the evolution of the idea, Bennett recruited other owners of vintage rail coaches to lend their cars to the project. Given the select circle of people with the funds and passion for restoring classic railway carriages, it was a closely knit community of friends and acquaintances the Levins were able to call upon.
Bennett began his quest by working with the commanding general at Walter Reed. Coordinating through the Army War College Foundation, of which Bennett was a trustee, the revival of the tradition of the Army/Navy Train came to fruition.
The project was not without conditions however. There were only three rules but each was significant to the success of the idea.
1 – No press would be allowed. The Levins were adamant that the train would not become a traveling circus for media.
2 – Politicians were also banned. As Bennett clearly stated, “I didn’t want some idiot making this trip into a campaign photo op.”
3 – Finally, no Pentagon officials were invited either. Bennett and Vivian wanted their passengers to feel completely at ease with no pressure to observe military protocols to superiors.
Now the biggest problem for the Levins was to make it happen.
After 15 months of planning and coordinating, the Army/Navy Game Train was ready to ride the rails again. Only this time it featured steam locomotives and 18 historic railway cars, and it was called “The Liberty Limited.”
Among Bennett’s personal collection was the coach that carried President John F. Kennedy to the game in 1961 and 1962. That same car was used to transport Bobby Kennedy’s body to Washington for burial.
Aboard the train, troops were treated to gourmet meals en route, private transportation between the train and stadium and, of course, the best seats in the house on the 50-yard line, as well as a fabulous lunch in a hospitality suite.
Amtrak contributed to the occasion by volunteering to transport all of the rail cars to Washington where they were joined together for the historic railway parade to Philadelphia.
Corporate donors provided gifts without publicity and volunteers filled goodie bags with stadium blankets, digital cameras, field glasses and down jackets.
But the story gets even better.
Each disabled vet was allowed to bring a guest; a friend or a family member. However, the wounded Marines who participated declined the offer, choosing to request that another Marine be included as their guest instead.
When the day arrived for the grand journey from Union Station in Washington to Philadelphia, Bennett Levin was concerned about how he would react when he met his 88 “celebrity” soldiers and their guests.
He should have known what the response would be. “They made it easy to be with them,” Bennett said. “They were all smiles on the ride to Philly. Not an ounce of self-pity from any of them. They were so full of life and determination.”
For Bennett and Vivian Levin, the crowning moment came at the end of the day’s events when the 11 Marines who participated gave them hugs on the Union Station platform followed by singing the Marine Corps Hymn.
And so on a cold, dreary, bleak December day in 2005, a Jewish man and his wife celebrated the true meaning of Christmas with a tribute to America that went largely unnoticed because of their own stipulations.
They wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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