By Wes Mader Community Columnist Dec 23, 2020
Many seniors will be alone this holiday season, some separated from family and friends because of COVID-19, some afraid for the future. An experience I had as a middle-aged adult helps me understand what being alone and afraid feels like.
It was winter almost 40 years ago when I made my first visit to mainland China. As a seasoned business traveler, I had made numerous trips to Asia and Europe, including the countries of Russia, Romania, Poland and East Germany that were under communist control at that time. I believed I could handle anything and was excited about visiting communist China. The country was beginning to open its doors to relations with America after more than 30 years of communist rule.
My first stop was Hong Kong to obtain a visa for entry into China. There I would meet the agent who would accompany me while in China. He was an elderly man who had adopted the name John when with Americans, to spare them the embarrassment of trying to pronounce his Chinese name. Since he would be my language translator and my only means of communication within China, I would be totally in his hands. (Readers might be reminded that without internet and email, much of the planning for a visit to China was by letter.)
After obtaining my visa from the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, John and I took a late-day flight to Beijing, with plans to board an overnight train to the City of Shenyang which is near North Korea’s border with China. The problem began after arrival in Beijing, where the entry process took hours. By the time we arrived at the city’s central railroad station, we were at risk of missing our train to Shenyang.
The railroad station that was dark, dirty and smelly with what may have been a mixture of coal smoke and diesel fumes, was jammed with passengers, hundreds wearing face masks. John had our tickets and was guiding us through the throng of people. He had made it clear that I needed to pick up my pace and follow him, or we would miss our train. While he was jogging ahead with his small duffel bag, I was falling behind, loaded down with my large heavy suitcase (with no wheels) plus briefcase.
I lost sight of John as he pressed into the solid mass of people on the boarding platform. All I could see were hundreds (or thousands) of people, almost all men in similar clothes who were boarding or deboarding the trains. I didn’t know whether John was still on the platform or had boarded one of the trains, and I had no way to contact him. I was suddenly alone in a mass of people and didn’t know what to do, a 40-plus-year-old adult, alone and afraid in the Beijing Railroad Station without a ticket. I wondered where I would be spending the night.
This is the memory of being alone and afraid that comes back to me, as I think of the seniors I know who will be alone during this holiday season. This is the season, if ever, to remind them and ourselves of the real meaning of Christmas. We should all be reaching out to those we know, sharing the message of hope from that first Christmas 2000 years ago.
Did I get to Shenyang? After what seemed like hours, John found me which I suspect was easier than me finding him, but he was not wearing a happy face. He was angry that I was going to cause us to miss our train, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to waste his time on me anymore. He grabbed my briefcase and told me in no uncertain terms, to follow closely behind him. These were the last words spoken that evening. We caught our train just in time, after which he gently pushed me down the passenger car aisle and into an unheated sleeping compartment where I would spend the night under 12 inches of quilts.
The outside temperature on arrival in Shenyang was well below zero, but the blankets had kept me warm as I laid awake much of the night, wondering what I was doing on a train in northern China, and wishing I was home. The next day got better. John began to talk to me again, and the trip was a business success that resulted in future pleasant trips to Shenyang.
Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.
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Wes Mader is a former Prior Lake mayor. Following retirement after serving as president of Bowmar Aerospace and Defense in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Wes and his wife Char retired in Prior Lake.