It is fitting that my son who has just begun a daily commute to Grand Central gave me a copy of Sam Roberts  book Grand Central, How A Train Station Transformed America.


During the better part of four decades , I commuted through Grand Central during periods of its greatest decay and glorious rebirth.  For me, and millions of others, the book is personal and the FOREWORD by Pete Hamill gives the work a New York City imprimatur that only Hamill could provide. Hamill: ” It was a week before Christmas in 1945.  Wait my mother said. I want to show you something. And she led me into the largest space I had ever seen. There were people moving across shiny marble floors in many directions, a gigantic clock, and a large board with numbers and the names of cities. A deep voice kept speaking from somewhere, the voice echoing off gleaming walls. We were in a place called Grand Central Station.”

The name is technically not Grand Central Station but rather Grand Central Terminal although few have ever called it anything but the former. The short-lived original named Grand Central Station, located nearby on 42nd Street,  was demolished  when the brilliant New York Central Railroad Chief Engineer William Wilgus convinced Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son, William, that the future  of railroading was electric locomotives that would allow the Park Avenue rail lines to be placed underground leading to a new two tiered Grand Central Terminal.

Roberts brings the detail of the construction of the terminal into a readable and understandable epic, with a coupling of wonderful photography.  The magic and glamour of long distance train travel abounded in Grand Central long before it became a commuter hub. Track 34, today a common departure point for the Harlem Line, was where nightly they rolled out the celebrity red carpet for the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. The train with speeds up to 123 miles per hour made the trip in 20 hours, therefore the name.  The 20th Century made its inaugural trip on June 17, 1902 and its last on December 2, 1967. By that time the once glorious Grand Central along with long-distance train travel had fallen into disrepair and neglect and the terminal was  only a  shadow of the wonder in Pete Hamill’s youthful eyes back in 1945.

Robert’s history of  Grand Central is complete,  but the excitement surrounding  the terminal’s renewal,  in  many ways, lays the foundation of the renewal of New York City itself,  and the indomitable spirit of  New Yorker’s following the city-wide declines during the 1970s. This spirit, prevalent  today, harkens back to the introduction of a popular radio program in the 1940s on NBC titled Grand Central Station. See if you don’t agree that even though the 20th Century Limited and Empire Express are distant memories,  the preamble to each radio show remains real  as you walk through Grand Central today.

As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nations greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-haf-mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then…Grand Central Station! Crossroads of a million private lives! Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily. 

Sam Roberts has given anyone who has ever paced the marble floors of Grand Central a great gift.  Beyond rails, renovation, railroad barons , conductors, porters and engineers, this is the story of how for over 100 years a building   has played such a huge role in defining New York City.  For those of us for whom Grand Central has been part of our lives we owe Sam Roberts a special debt of gratitude. Grand Central celebrates a victory for a city we love.

Sam Roberts has covered New York City for the Daily News and the New York Times for over 40 years. He has written seven books of non-fiction including The Changing Face of America in the 21st Century.

Senate “NO” on Gun Control May Be The Tipping Point Toward Victory!

Readers of this blog know of my personal love of history. That perspective led me to look for the precedent of a major national event that changed history in favor of an issue popular with the citizenry but blocked by special interests.  Few would argue that special interests, mainly the National Rifle Association, derailed widely publicly supported legislation to introduce background checks into the process of gun purchasing.  The  Senate defeat, coming on the heels of the tragedy in Newtown,  has resulted in a public outcry with President Obama leading the charge. While the examples I will reference ( Newtown and The Big Burn) differ in many ways, both issues rose to the level of acute public passion.


Just over a  century ago in 1910, America witnessed a devastating  national disaster that many historians have compared with the force of an atomic bomb. In August of that year a wind-driven forest fire raged through the states  of Washington, Idaho and Montana destroying  3 million acres of drought stricken timber lands, wildlife, dozens of frontier communities, and  killing 78 firefighters, many of them young college students volunteering on behalf of their belief in the newly created National Forest Service. No one alive in 1910 had seen anything like what author Timothy Egan describes in his book The Big Burn.

It is the back story here that begs for comparison with the fight for stricter gun legislation. There existed prior to the fire a bitter fight between President Theodore Roosevelt  and his Chief Forrester Gifford Pinchot and  the special interests  of the timber and mining industries. As  Egan describes it, ” The Robber Barons fought Roosevelt and Pinchot to the bitter end,  time and again derailing progressive legislation to protect the forests from the timber barons and the open lands from the copper mining interests.” Senator Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho, the leader of the anti-conservationists  was a strident foe of any legislation to protect the land and it was his own law-firm ( no conflict of interest here)  that was the chief paid lobbyist for the timber and mining interests.  Quoting again from The Big Burn, Heyburn called federal forest reserves, ” an expensive, useless burden to the public.”

Following the fire, Roosevelt , now out of office,  seized the disaster as an opportunity  to try again to pass legislation creating national forests in  the West. In his effort to block the creation of any additional public land Heyburn  used  arcane Senate rules  to keep the executive branch from designating new federal forest land without congressional approval. Two years later, in 1912 , Heyburn was dead after suffering a stroke while ironically delivering a filibuster on the Senate floor. ( No 60-vote rule in 1910 a, just hours of talking to prevent a vote)

The Idaho, Montana, Washington inferno of 1910 became the tipping point on the public lands issue, what Egan calls, “The Fire That Saved America.”   Out of this  disaster came forth the enormous support for “public lands,” a National Parks System and  the conservation programs that are in place in America today.  Heyburn, his senate co-conspirator  Montana’s Senator William Clark and the timber and mining lobby were in their day comparable to the Senate opposition in today’s fight over gun legislation.   As a political lobby, Heyburn’s  law firm was the equivalent of the NRA.

If history repeats itself the hell-fire and public out cry created by  this weeks defeat of gun legislation in the U.S.Senate may be the Big Burn  of public indignation that results in the final passage of  even stronger  gun legislation.  Following the fire of 1910 , even though out of office, Roosevelt used his power to rally public support for public lands . Doris Kerns Goodwin’s forthcoming book on Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and  Robert Taft will further detail the enormous impact of the Bully Pulpit  on public policy.

After hearing  President Obama  and the father of one of the children killed at Newtown speak on Wednesday evening at the White House, there is little doubt that dedication, passion and leadership weigh heavily upon the likelihood that the public tipping point of public indignation has been reached on gun legislation and like the Big Burn,  will likely to be grasped from the jaws of defeat.


Several weeks ago on this blog I referenced the updated version of former President George H.W. Bush’s book,  ALL THE BEST, My Life In Letters and Other Writings.  In 1995  the NRA’s  Wayne La Pierre  issued a fund-raising letter the basis of which was to raise fear over government troops, in this case the ATF’s use of force at at Waco, Texas, bearing arms against U.S. citizens!  Here from ALL THE BEST is President Bush’s letter of May 3, 1995 to then NRA President Thomas Washington with reference to La Pierre’s tactics!


Dear Mr. Washington,

I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne La Pierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.” To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as “wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” wanting to “attack law abiding citizens” is a vicious slander on good people.

Al Whicher, who served on my [ United States Secret Service ] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country — and serve it well he did.

In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.

John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.’s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.

Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government’s “go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.” (Your words)

I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.’s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.

However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.

You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre’s unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list. Sincerely,

[ signed ] George Bush

La Pierre was later forced to apologize. However, reading today’s discourse from the NRA, not much has changed?

In an ironic twist, the very next letter in ALL THE BEST, following his NRA resignation letter,  is one that George Bush wrote in September of that same year to grieving parents who had lost a child.  The letter is so much the measure of the man and especially relevant today following the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, I felt compelled to reprint it here.

Our caring son, Marvin, called today, broken-hearted. He told me of your sadness, of the loss of your young son, of the terrible blow to you and your many friends.

I know that at this, the moment of your anguish, there is little that words can do to console. I’ll bet it does help a little, however, to know that you have so many loving friends who really care.

Long ago Barbara and I lost a tiny four-year old to Leukemia. Of course we felt  she was the most beautiful, wonderful little girl that God had ever put on this earth. We kept saying “Why our Robin? Why our gentle child of smiles and innocence”

Lots of people tried to help us find the answer. One woman wrote us and said, misquoting scripture, ” Let the little children suffer so they can come unto me.”  Maybe she had it right, though.

I can expect you are now saying ” Why.”

Well, I can’t, even now, pretend to know the real answer; but let me tell you something that might help a little bit.

Only a few months after Robin died, the grief and awful aching hurt began to disappear, to give way to only happy memories of our blessed child. Oh we’d shed a tear when we’d think of something she’d said or done; but the hurt that literally racked our bodies literally went away–gone, vanished, replaced by happy thoughts.

Now , 40 years later, Robin brings us only happiness and joy–no sadness. She’s never left us. The ugly bruises, trade marks of dread Leukemia, are gone now. We can’t see them at all.

I’ll bet your son, Chase, was the best kid ever. I hope your hurt goes away soon. I hope you will live the rest of your lives with only happy memories of that wonderful son who is now safely tucked in, God’s loving arms around him.

Barbara and I send our most sincere condolences. And all of us in the Bush family send out love.



George Bush  ( Also known as Marvin’s Dad)



The title of this posting  incorporates  two books, a work of non fiction and a novel. Both detail the secrets of the U.S. government’s  World War II  Oak Ridge Tennessee Laboratory from its creation in 1943 to the end of the Second World War in 1945.


Denise Kiernan’s book The Girls of Atomic City, The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II , tells the incredible story of the overnight construction of  a  secret huge industrial complex ( Site X)  in Oak Ridge Tennessee, the sole purpose of which was to convert uranium into enriched nuclear fuel for the construction of the first atomic bomb under the stealth Manhattan Project. Within a year, Oak Ridge Tennessee grew to a community of 75,000 inhabitants and into one of the largest industrial complexes in the world!

Kiernan details  how thousands of young women were recruited to Oak Ridge from throughout the country  with the promise of good paying  jobs that would ,” Help Win The War.”   These young recruits , mostly in their early 20s ,  boarded buses and trains without knowing exactly where they were going and  not having any idea of the position they were about to assume.  Adding to this remarkable story is that for the duration  of their stay, none of the workers at Oak Ridge  ever knew the true nature of the work.  Only after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was the nature of their work revealed to them.

The Girls of Atomic City  tells the Oak Ridge story from the standpoint of the sociological  interaction of the thousands of young men and women living together in camp-like accommodations, finding a way to establish a social life while at the same time working on a top-secret project that even talking about to friends was forbidden.  Additionally, the book translates into layman’s language  the scientific process of creating the fuel ( enriched uranium)  for  ( The  Gadget )  which was to become the atomic bomb.


What Kiernan does not develop  is the story of the enormous health hazards that these young women  and everyone at Oak Ridge were exposed to every day.  Marianne Wiggins’  novel  Evidence of Things Unseen,  accomplishes that in a beautiful love story that winds its way from Tennessee to the  eastern shore of North Carolina and the  back to the Oak Ridge Laboratory  to uncover the horror of the impact of radiation sickness upon unknowing workers.  In an odd twist, Wiggins’ novel completes Kiernan’s  work of non-fiction.

Denise Kiernan is also the author of Signing Their Lives Away and Signing Their Rights Away, the fame and mis-fortune of the men who signed The Declaration  of Independence.   Her work has appeared in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. 


Katherine Boo’s best seller Behind The Beautiful Forevers, Life, Death and Hope In a Mumbai Undercity is a shocking examination of how income inequality can condemn hundreds of thousands of humans, men, women and children,  as slum dwellers with no possible exit from their condition.  After completing Behind The Beautiful Forevers I wondered why the author placed the word HOPE in the title, as I came away with none.


Boo illuminates the contrast in India’s caste system by establishing her story line in a Mumbai slum, Annawadi, beneath the shadow of India’s “other world”, the gleaming high-rise hotels that surround the international airport.  In Annawadi,  young and old, mothers, fathers and children live at the edge of a sewage lake in cardboard and tin shacks with no walls, doors or plumbing. Boo takes the reader through their daily lives of survival, picking through the garbage and waste of the upper classes and ironically paying bribes to the political bureaucracy for the privilege!

Hope?  Farmers borrow money to remain on their farms to avoid  conditions in the cities like Mumbai. Then, crop failure, a huge loan for seed with no way to pay. ” He was slow-minded, short on his lights and worked the fields, then took additional loans for his daughter’s wedding and felt trapped. Then he went and drank the poison ( insecticide).”


Hope?  ” When a new school opened in the pink temple by the sewage lake, many of them gravitated to it, but it closed as soon as the leader of the nonprofit had taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds.”

Hope ? Boo details a society in which the poorest of the poor must pay bribes for the  most basic essentials in life, including food, water, the privilege to work, and inadequate medical care.

The very same week I completed Boo’s book, the March 30th addition of The Economist arrived at my desk with the headline CAN INDIA BECOME A GREAT POWER?  Behind The Beautiful Forevers makes a commanding case for a resounding NO!


Katherine Boo is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter for the Washington Post. She has received a Pulitzer prize for her journalism.  This work of non-fiction is also worthy of high honors.  It has already been granted a National Book Award. Author Adrian Nicole Leblanc said it best in her praise for  Boo, ” There are books that change the way you feel and see; this is one of them.”