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COMMENTARY

For Central Terminal's 90th birthday, seeking life-changing tales

The Central Terminal in Buffalo turns 90 later this month. To mark the anniversary, we are planning a little project at The Buffalo News that will involve capturing a few portraits of readers with memorable stories inside the great railroad monument of the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, accompanied by an archive of civic memories.

The thesis goes like this: The most important reason to save this vast and spectacular building is not simply because it is so moving, even spiritual, to walk into this grand, echoing space.

It is because so many Western New Yorkers, often through their parents or grandparents, have some life-changing dimension of family heart and soul embedded in those walls, some transformational moment built upon homecomings or departures.

To share those stories, please email me this week at skirst@buffnews.com or write to me in care of The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, Buffalo 14240.

If you have such a tale — if someone in your family came through the terminal as part of the Great Migration from the South, or as immigrants seeking refuge or solace from abroad, or in uniform for a hard goodbye or unforgettable return, or for any instant of life-changing resonance — we would be grateful to hear it, with faith that each memory will  provide momentum toward efforts to restore a building with few equivalents in terms of greater civic meaning.

The staggering thing, as you stand in that space, is imagining the sacred power of the moments that happened all around you. For just one example, consider the account of Casimir "Casey" Bukowski, now of Lancaster, born four years before the old New York Central held a 1929 grand opening for its new terminal.

A year ago, our Lou Michel told Bukowski's story beautifully in The Buffalo News: How Bukowski decided to leave high school to go to work in a factory, how he gave up that job after enlisting in the Army Air Force, how he was severely wounded in Europe before he was captured by the Nazis, how he returned to build a career with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo.

Casimer L. “Casey” Bukowski, a B-17 gunner in WWII, lost his right eye when the Flying Fortress he served on was shot down. He knew he was safely home when he set foot in the Central Terminal. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

That entire narrative, Bukowski told me last week, pivoted off two moments in the same epic building. He was one of five children whose father worked at Bethlehem Steel. As a teenager in the years before World War II, Bukowski had never gone any farther from his Buffalo home than some quick trips to Angola.

On a quiet day after he enlisted in 1943, his mother hugged him at the front door of their Coit Street home, unable to bear being there to watch as his train pulled away, "and told me to be careful, as a mother would."

His dad went with him to the Central Terminal. Bukowski remembers being in awe of it as he stepped inside, how he took in the newsstands and restaurants and crowds of people hurrying in every direction, all beneath a great stuffed bison that watched over the place.

"What I remember is the size and grandeur of it, the elegance of it," Bukowski said.

[Sean Kirst: A lost sister, a Central Terminal reunion, the long road home]

He shook his father's hand, climbed onto a train and felt a wave of uncertainty he can still call up today, a kid not much more than a year out of high school going alone into the utterly unknown. As Michel recounted in his piece, Bukowski became a gunner on a B-17 "Flying Fortress," a job of extraordinarily high wartime risk.

In February 1944, he and nine fellow crew members were on a mission over Germany when their plane was attacked by Nazi fighters. Bukowski, sprayed with shrapnel that cost him an eye, was knocked unconscious. He awoke on a plane careening toward the earth. He managed to drag himself to an escape hatch, hurling himself out to parachute to the ground moments before the crash.

A door on the fifth floor of the old Central Terminal. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Seven of his fellow crew members, he learned later, had been killed. Badly wounded, Bukowski was captured by rifle-carrying German farmers who handed him over to the Nazi military.

He survived, even as his frightened relatives were initially informed by telegram that Bukowski was missing in action, leaving his parents to grapple with the probability of what that meant. A German surgeon removed his eye and he spent months as a prisoner, trying to recover from his wounds.

Liberated in April 1945, Bukowski was assigned to a military hospital in Pennsylvania, but his officers granted him two weeks leave to stop at home before he began treatment.

Bukowski crossed the ocean on a ship. He let his family know he was coming into Buffalo by train. He arrived at the Central Terminal 74 years ago this spring, and he recalls exactly what he saw when he stepped onto the platform.

"Everyone was there," he said, speaking of the parents and siblings who had believed, not so long ago, that he might be dead.

In his 90s, Bukowski can describe small details of that reunion. His mother hugged the son she feared that she had lost. The rest of the family pressed in to pound him on the back "and there were tears everywhere, like this big welcome party." The kid who left two years earlier without any real understanding of the world returned with the knowledge that he carries with him still.

The greatest gift he ever received was coming home alive.

He went next to surprise his longtime sweetheart, Rita Szymanski. They eventually married, raised a family and stayed together until Rita died in 2017, after 72 years of marriage.

The moment of homecoming at the Central Terminal became a building block for the rest of Bukowski's life. Such instants of quiet pivot happened in the building for thousands of families until 1979, 40 years ago, when the last passenger climbed off the final train.

Even today, it all seems fresh in Bukowski's mind. He made a Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight trip this spring to Washington, D.C., a chance to visit a national World War II memorial built in honor of selflessness and sacrifice. It only renewed his appreciation for what he found at the terminal, for the feeling that swept across him when his train pulled in.

"I was sure glad to see the place again," Bukowski said.

If you know what he means, we would love to hear your tale.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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