Saturday, November 1, 2008

Take It Easy But Take It

Studs Terkel passed yesterday. Ninety Six years of age. Timeless still.

Others can tribute the man nicknamed after Lonigan better than I. Were just a few of our own time as thoughtful, articulate. We've lost someone who taught us so much, who brought out our best. But less than loss is this. For because of one Chicagoan great, we've gained. Imagination. Hope. Conversation. A listening ear.

Here's what I learned from Studs. How to elevate my fellow man, the world around me. How to humbly observe. Creatively articulate. Represent that which life offers us all.

As I write this reflection, I listen on WFMT to the accomplishment so excellent, "This Train." His travelogue and interviews from the traveling trip, the journey, nay pilgrimage of the 1963 Civil Rights march in Washington, D.C. Radio which brings it all to life. Or is it that it brings life to all?

Last year I rode the rails, also. We all should sometime. My trip was not as important as his. But instructive it was. I wrote following then and share my experience with you here. Thus shall witness as my own story told. This, then, in my thanks to Studs.

There's something thrilling about a train. It has that certain charm.

So I decided to take a trip. And I thought about...chocolate. Well, we WERE headed off to Hershey for the annual CFA (circus fans) convention.

Train travel isn't all too hip anymore. Drive, have "personal space"; or "get there fast" (in our immediate environment) on the airlines.

But what about slowing down a bit, relaxing, enjoying the flowers - and trees? No, Amtrak doesn't always run "on time" (and our experience was no exception). But perhaps that is the point. Now, given, were rail to ever become a popular mode of mass transit again in the United States, priority would have to be given to this service. And it's tough waiting, stopped in the middle of who knows where. Yet leisure is the ultimate end of life well lived.

A train provides that sense of "journey"; movement through time and place. "Getting there is half the fun," goes the saying, as that's where the excitement is.

Now, that's not always to say excitement is enjoyable, as was the frustrating case in leaving Chicago late. Still, you discover opportunities in the setbacks. I found an old private rail car awaiting, also, it's own departure on another track. I witnessed the City of New Orleans board passengers homeward bound. The carman and I spoke about his travels and work. Back aboard the car I was assigned, someone spotted a sight not expected. "Is that a BOAT?" she wondered, "...or have I been awake on trains too long?" "The river runs next to this track", I assured her, and all with the world was well.

Into the night, we wandered. Through the industrial center along the lake. Bridges abound on railroads, rivers everywhere. Heavy steel; rail; girders, smog. Smells which permeate through. Then darkness fell.

Waaaaaaaah, waaaaaaah, wa, waaaaaaaaah! You hear the horn: blowing, coaxing you into a tranquil state. That last car rocks, sways you to sleep. Or so it should. But this fan was overtired and couldn't much nod off.

The nice thing about a trip on rails is the ability to spread out some. Walking through the cars one will encounter travelers from everywhere along the route. Pennsylvania, east and west; Ohio; Indiana here. Not to mention those returning from locations out west. Each person a story of his own.

I made it to the lounge car where we sat spread out. Another man from Chicago was visiting with his British friend. Headed to a wedding were they. Why not fly, we pondered? Well, everyone has their reasons, but often a preference for rail prevails. You see the country one mile at a time, you get to know your fellow man. The earth draws a little closer. Experienced travelers some, others riding once, perhaps their last time, though. You love it or you leave it. The travel catches your imagination or gets cultivated. The best of many options, perhaps.

Ohio is relatively flat in places, but pretty. Lots of countryside. Our late arriving train to Pittsburgh allowed my tired eyes to witness this. The river vast lead us to the city's significant sites. Sports arenas abound on this route, I found. Sox Park in Chicago, the Cleveland Browns Stadium, now PNC in Pittsburgh parallels the tracks.

Time for a change of trains.

"I'm Pennsylvania bound!" Headlong into the mountains we go. For a city kid from Chicago it's quite the sight. A hill to me merely means something at the park for children sledding. But now I saw heights everywhere. Appalachia embraces with her mountainous arms, enveloping you inside the earth. We're part of something larger, I see - a small part, but secure within it's love.

The rustic river of Johnstown is gorgeous to behold. Now I wouldn't want to drink from it, but looking is divine. Never have my eyes seen such a sight. There's faith in this town, I witness. Everywhere slender towers topped with little domes' gilded glimmer, guiding ever East. Old buildings, factories, take me back in time to an era I thought no more existed. But there it was, still standing.

Through the tunnels, up the incline, then to that magical place. Horseshoe Curve lets you take a turn; a poignant accomplishment, indeed. For now, I feel, we have made it to the other side.

Altoona's stop is next. It is nice to see the tribute to rail's involvement and history throughout the state. Here there lines the track rail cars from days of yore. A fitting thing, and lovely to look at. To Altoona I must return.

Anxious to get to my alightment, I count the minutes, the miles. At last! The Susquehana - now it won't be long. Freight trains are passing. Aha, there is the yard! Soon Ringling Red will reside in it.

Quaint town, traditional station: "Harrisburg!" We're here. I find it lovely and would like to linger longer.

But the journey must continue. A foot stepped onto the platform here, only a whistle stop may I pause. Hershey lies ahead. Destinations' call.