As Conflict Begins, Everyday Life Becomes an Unsettling Ride

Times Staff Writer

The train shuddered out of Washington on its three-hour northern arc, shielded from the driving rain by steel and glass, but penetrated by unsettling thoughts of war.

Aboard Amtrak Metroliner M-110, 200 passengers tried to glean the latest stirrings of the conflict unfolding Thursday in Iraq.

"So what's the latest? We go in yet?" Paul Childress barked into his phone. The southern New Jersey medical supply salesman was on the line with a colleague, but the man's answer faded out somewhere in the Maryland pines. Childress dialed again, cursing when he heard only a static blip.

"I didn't think I would care this much," he said. "But once I started watching last night, I got hooked. It's serious business. Time for us to pay attention."

It was not that Childress, 36, knew anyone serving in the Persian Gulf. "You just look at those guys and you realize they're our team, you know? You just don't stay on the sidelines."

Down the aisle, Vicky Weaver, 48, a nursing research specialist in Newton, Pa., stared out at the back porches rocketing by. She wondered whether any of those homes had produced a soldier.

"A friend of mine has a son somewhere in Kuwait," she said. "At least he was in Kuwait yesterday, I think. It's worrying to think of the loss of life that may come. I can't really say whether I'm for or against it at this point, but we have to have trust in our president."

When the train left Washington's Pennsylvania Station at 11 a.m., Terry Whearley boarded clutching a copy of a well-thumbed Wall Street Journal. A computer software marketing executive from northern Virginia, Whearley, 47, had read through every war story and still hungered for more.

Like Weaver, he had watched television into the morning hours, aching to know whether the first salvos of missiles had found their targets. Even when Saddam Hussein showed up, seemingly alive, Whearley was uncertain "whether it was live or taped, whether it was Saddam or one of his doppelgangers."

In Philadelphia, while Whearley hunched over his laptop in the cafe car, a conductor announced over the public address system that the train would be delayed -- and followed with "I'll try to find out the reason."

"Great," said a bearded man who had been playing Space Cadet 3-D pinball on his laptop. "Probably some wack job terrorist shut down the tunnels."

But the conductor returned with what was, given the circumstances, reassuring news: "It's just a derailment." Twenty minutes later, the Metroliner was on its way again.

At the rear of the car, train dispatcher Harold Hawkins, 47, rolled his eyes as he listened to passengers speculate about the position of U.S. troops.

"For the U.S. to go in alone like this is setting a bad precedent for other nations," Hawkins said. "Now North Korea can say, 'I'm gonna take South Korea, and who's gonna stop me?' Same thing with China and Taiwan. It's the Ugly American all over again."

As the train lurched to a stop in New York at 2:30 p.m., one passenger slung a knapsack around his shoulder. As he leaped out onto the platform, he noticed another man exiting, wearing a pair of stereo radio headphones.

"Hey, what's the latest?" asked the man with the backpack.

The other slipped the phones off one ear. "Same old, same old," he said. "We're at war, man. Ain't that enough?"

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