AND NOW, in time for the holidays, I bring you the best Christmas story
you never heard.
It started last Christmas, when Bennett and Vivian Levin were
overwhelmed by sadness while listening to radio reports of injured
American troops. "We have to let them know we care," Vivian
told Bennett. So they organized a trip to bring soldiers from Walter
Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital to the annual
Army-Navy football game in Philly, on Dec. 3.
The cool part is, they created their own train line to
do it. Yes, there are people in this country who actually own real
trains. Bennett Levin - native Philly guy, self-made millionaire and
irascible former L&I commish - is one of them.
He has three luxury rail cars. Think mahogany
paneling, plush seating and white-linen dining areas. He also has two
locomotives, which he stores at his Juniata Park train yard. One car,
the elegant Pennsylvania, carried John F. Kennedy to the Army-Navy game
in 1961 and '62. Later, it carried his brother Bobby's body to D.C. for
burial. "That's a lot of history for one car," says Bennett.
He and Vivian wanted to revive a tradition that
endured from 1936 to 1975, during which trains carried Army-Navy
spectators from around the country directly to the stadium where the
annual game is played. The Levins could think of no better passengers to
reinstate the ceremonial ride than the wounded men and women recovering
at Walter Reed in D.C. and Bethesda, in Maryland. "We wanted to
give them a first-class experience," says Bennett. "Gourmet
meals on board, private transportation from the train to the stadium,
perfect seats - real hero treatment."
Through the Army War College Foundation, of which he
is a trustee, Bennett met with Walter Reed's commanding general, who
loved the idea. But Bennett had some ground rules first, all designed to
keep the focus on the troops alone:
No press on the trip, lest the soldiers' day of
pampering devolve into a media circus.
No politicians either, because, says Bennett, "I
didn't want some idiot making this trip into a campaign photo op."
And no Pentagon suits on board, otherwise the soldiers
would be too busy saluting superiors to relax.
The general agreed to the conditions, and Bennett
realized he had a problem on his hands. "I had to actually make
this thing happen," he laughs.
Over the next months, he recruited owners of 15 other
sumptuous rail cars from around the country - these people tend to know
each other - into lending their vehicles for the day. The name of their
temporary train? The Liberty Limited.
Amtrak volunteered to transport the cars to D.C. -
where they'd be coupled together for the round-trip ride to Philly -
then back to their owners later.
Conrail offered to service the Liberty while it was in
Philly. And SEPTA drivers would bus the disabled soldiers 200 yards from
the train to Lincoln Financial Field, for the game.
A benefactor from the War College ponied up 100 seats
to the game - on the 50-yard line - and lunch in a hospitality suite.
And corporate donors filled, for free and without
asking for publicity, goodie bags for attendees:
From Woolrich, stadium blankets. >From Wal-Mart,
digital cameras. From Nikon, field glasses. >From GEAR, down jackets.
There was booty not just for the soldiers, but for
their guests, too, since each was allowed to bring a friend or family
The Marines, though, declined the offer. "They
voted not to take guests with them, so they could take more
Marines," says Levin, choking up at the memory.
Bennett's an emotional guy, so he was worried about
how he'd react to meeting the 88 troops and guests at D.C.'s Union
Station, where the trip originated. Some GIs were missing limbs. Others
were wheelchair-bound or accompanied by medical personnel for the day.
"They made it easy to be with them," he says. "They were
all smiles on the ride to Philly. Not an ounce of self-pity from any of
them. They're so full of life and determination."
At the stadium, the troops reveled in the game,
recalls Bennett. Not even Army's lopsided loss to Navy could deflate the
group's rollicking mood.
Afterward, it was back to the train and yet another
gourmet meal - heroes get hungry, says Levin - before returning to
Walter Reed and Bethesda. "The day was spectacular," says
Levin. "It was all about these kids. It was awesome to be part of
The most poignant moment for the Levins was when 11
Marines hugged them goodbye, then sang them the Marine Hymn on the
platform at Union Station.
"One of the guys was blind, but he said, 'I can't
see you, but man, you must be f---ing beautiful!' " says Bennett.
"I got a lump so big in my throat, I couldn't even answer
It's been three weeks, but the Levins and their guests
are still feeling the day's love. "My Christmas came early,"
says Levin, who is Jewish and who loves the Christmas season. "I
can't describe the feeling in the air." Maybe it was hope.
As one guest wrote in a thank-you note to Bennett and
Vivian, "The fond memories generated last Saturday will sustain us
all - whatever the future may bring."
God bless the Levins.
And bless the troops, every one.