Not flowers, not stars, says Gabriel Syme in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, but our digestions going sacredly and silently right—this is poetry. "The most poetical thing in the world," he insists, "is not being sick." Order, he declares, that is the magic of man. It is not hard to resist throwing in with Syme; his insufferable smugness and clerkish mind seem to mock sensibility. Then, suddenly, he tugs you to his side by entreating that you behold the train: "Take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a timetable, with tears of pride.... I tell you that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers and that man has won a battle against chaos."
Poor Syme, were he with us today, how defenseless, how impotent, how unstrung he would be—or would he? He was not one to welcome the dour, to comfort the neurotic. He might well cast his lot with those who harrumph: the amount of oxygen in the air is the same as it was in 1910; fish caught half a century ago had double the mercury of those today; DDT knocks off some birds and fish, but what about the lives it saves. What to say, though, about the decay of Syme's train. Clever as the rationale might be, Syme surely would hear none of it, for if anything symbolized civilization and order it was his glorious and beloved passenger train.
Old Syme would not permit its passing. He might seek out a Senator, say one tied into automobiles and the spreading virus of the highway system. Then, discovering quickly that Senators do not hear very well, he would calmly remove his top hat and activate the business end of his cane. Having vented his anger, he would then curse the jet as the ultimate humiliation of machine over man. We would never see Syme again; hermitage would be better than being a part of an age notable for planned obsolescence, one in which nothing works and nobody cares.
If Syme's behavior seems too dramatic, it is at least understandable; the decline of the train is much more than one of the great failures in the history of capitalism. It is a personal thing, the train, and its condition reflects another loss of a human alternate and tells us surely that something has gone out of us as a people. The feel of things, of who you were, of where you were, a sense of place in a vast land, that is what the train has always meant. Even now, with all that it once was gone or nearly gone, the mind will not accept the judgment of that clucking curmudgeon James J. Hill who once damned the train by comparing it to a male teat—it being neither useful nor ornamental.
November 29, 1971
Nothing moved Emperor James more than the sight of a long line of freight, heavy with goods, the blood of the nation. Fine, but could there not have been just a dim, humanist flicker in the old geezer, an appreciation of what the train meant to so many, and still does to some? Those who believe that there is much more to travel than the ordeal of being herded into a machine that, for all its speed, delivers us disconnected, Muzaked into stupor and somehow converted into a plastic kind of freight. Those who know that the train is a state of mind and wish that it could bestride our culture as it once did; who believe that, if it could, the beast in the heart of the land would be made still.
A daydream, of course, but autumn afternoons seem to promote such thoughts, those hours strangely lit, a great ache of emptiness in the air, a sense of things lost, never to be had again. It is not hard to hear voices that have not called in years, to hear the whistle of a faraway train that is nowhere near. Shafts of amber slant through the thinning trees and come to rest as intricate shadows on the wall. It is a soundless time, and the mind drifts to a long ago summer evening up in the hills of western Maryland, then a region awash with banjo pickers, fiddlers, guitar players and harp blowers. Often some of them crowded on a big, wide porch, illuminated only by lightning bugs, and if you closed your eyes you could hear the rhythms, the music of a highballing train. For the sound of a train was close to them, like the sound of a foghorn to seamen. It spoke to them: of good news and bad news, of places they had never been, nor would ever go, of women they had never seen, of the restlessness inside them and the mystery that lay beyond the hills.
I'm going to lay my head on that lonesome railroad line
Let the 219 ease my troubled mind.
The music up in those hills, like fragments of one's lifetime, remains indelible, striking up at odd periods—on those fall afternoons, in the deep dark of a winter night, or in the quiet of a railroad museum where, then, that music seems to swell. It is a ghostly place. The big engine stands frozen, like a prehistoric reptile that never decomposed. And it is hard to look upon it without having the angry urge to breathe life into it, to send it roaring across the rivers and plains and mountains of a country that it chopped out of a wilderness. Looking up at the engine, a sepia photograph comes into focus. One of forms and faces: engineers in crisp, pinstripe overalls, imperious in posture, scruffily lordlike in their manner at the throttle; conductors who, you can see, change their white shirts twice a day, whose gold watches are a celebration of time and never err; the windowed, streaking faces of people who must be heading for strange rendezvous and fates and dramas of which no one will ever hear. Or, maybe, they are just returning home, and was there ever a better way to go home?
Light wanes through the museum's windows. Attendants cough nervously, look anxiously at the clock in utter fear that they will be carried one second overtime. Outside, the behavioral sink brims over, with traffic and noise combusting into a caged desperation, with pinched faces behind wheels waiting for a piece of the expressway so they can inch home. Whoever, one wonders, wrote a song about an expressway, and what could an expressway add to a movie; no sophisticated bandit would use one after a bank job. But the train was always important in the movies, whether it was bearing down on some pale waif tied to a track or waiting next to a steam-shrouded platform for the cat-pawed arrival of a Homburged spy.
Thoughts tumble over one another, until they reel back and stop in a Baltimore train station, where three kids wearing baseball gloves stand entranced next to an idling train; it is the Yankee train heading north. Just any old face will do, they say, and then there it is next to the dining-car window, long and lean and somber—DiMaggio's face. He looks down, and turns back. Several cars farther on, a man steps to the platform: "Hey! Yeah, you three." He pulls a ball out of his pocket and rolls it toward the kids. "He must have been a utility man," says one of them later. "A guy that'll be down in Newark next week. The regulars don't give nothin' away." The three would never again get a ball at the station, nor so much as receive a broad smile, but no matter. You did not see a face from the bleachers even then. But that was a big closeup compared to the perspective kids have to settle for now as traveling players pass over them 35,000 feet in the air.
Those trips to the station, those faces, how easily pleased a kid was then, back when sports were still touched with mystery, before games and those who played them moved above cloud cover and came down into an electronic box. The trains were a dominant part of sports, a lifeline to small towns, where a Babe Ruth would be received like the Kublai Khan and everybody waited for that one exhibition game a year. "I'll never forget those platforms," says Jackie Jensen, "all those people gathered there just to get a glimpse of us. Train travel meant much to baseball and to many of the players. They can't see the country anymore. We used to be able to tell the season and what kind of crop year it was by looking out the window and seeing the height of the corn or the blossoms on the trees. We even got to know when the hayfields in certain areas of the Midwest were about to get their second cutting. It was enriching."
Life aboard a train is etched deeply into the memories of those who experienced it for close to half of each season. Listen to them talk, and you can almost see the patrician Connie Mack sitting in his compartment, his straw boater and high, stiff collar all in place, extending his bony fingers to explain a point to his pitchers; can see Babe Ruth, after being fined $5,000 for dissipation, holding his tiny manager, Miller Huggins, by the arms off the platform of a vibrating rear car; can see those rookie pitchers just in from the high grass, awake at night in their berths, resting their arms in clothes hammocks (special slings, they were told, to protect their pitching arms). It was a tranquil way of travel to some, tedious to a few, but one that created great spirit and a feeling of oneness that does not seem to survive on modern clubs. Old ballplayers like to reminisce about those trips.
"We carried wardrobe trunks instead of bags as the players do today, because we'd be gone so long. Pepper Martin took along only one white suit and one black shirt. By the time we returned to St. Louis, the suit was the same color as the shirt. Pepper filled the rest of his trunk with wrenches, screwdrivers and hammers, things like that. He owned a farm in Oklahoma, and on the road he always visited hardware stores looking for bargains. He would never get over that noseclip we used. We often slept with wet towels over our noses to keep out the soot. That was until Doc Weaver, our trainer, invented a filter apparatus for the nose. It resembled a cuff link. It was made of soft metal, and the top end had a clip. You put cotton in the clip and then closed it and stuck it in your nostrils. Worked good. There were two sizes, one for big noses and one for small ones. Me, I went for the king-sized model. That clip saved me from choking to death.
"Those were good times. I have to laugh just thinking of Estel Crabtree. What a funny man. I remember what he did to Max Surkont when he joined us in '42. It was customary then for a passenger to leave his shoes inside the curtain of his Pullman, and the porter would come collect them and shine them. Crabtree told Surkont that a thief had been stealing the players' shoes. Surkont was to guard them during the night, since it was his turn. So all the Cardinals piled the shoes into Max's lower berth. Directly, Max dropped off to sleep, and when he woke, the porter had the shoes stacked like wood in the middle of the aisle. The commotion, when Surkont saw this, awakened the entire team. They found him wrestling that poor porter like a bear and screaming: 'I got him, I got him!' Well, we laughed until it was time for breakfast, and then we laughed some more over the best breakfast served anywhere. I can still taste those breakfasts—scrambled country eggs, big slices of ham and steaming pots of coffee."
Many players speak of the food on those trains, drooling rhapsodies of vegetable casseroles, thick lamb chops, meals as good—so Casey Stengel says—as those at the Waldorf. The quantity of each meal was enough for most players except Babe Ruth, who spent his life being constantly hungry. Once, on a siding in Asheville, N.C., while playing bridge late at night, he looked out the window and saw a restaurant. He got off in his pajamas and robe and went across to ask the owner if he had any ham. A huge ham was produced, and Ruth, requesting a knife, cut himself a portion that would have fed a family of four. He then ordered six eggs, 10 pieces of toast and eventually drank six cups of coffee. His snack over, he returned to the train and bed and—as his wife assured the alarmed few who had watched Babe eating—"snored like a horse all night."
"I'll never forget going to see Billy Southworth in his compartment. It was a special moment. He'd be in his compartment, and all anybody in there talked was baseball. I was a rookie and it was very helpful. You'd be sitting around in the Pullman playing fan-tan or maybe you'd be up in the club car having a beer and word would come that Billy wanted to see you. He'd talk about the hitters and what to expect from a pitcher. If you'd made a mistake on a cutoff play Billy would lecture you on what you'd done wrong. He might call in veterans like Terry Moore, and I'd sit there listening to those wheels clacking, taking everything in. I remember on one trip Billy told me to think about two things: 'Hit the outside pitch to right, and the inside one to left.' I had to laugh, and when Billy asked me why I was standing there chuckling, I told him if I could do that I'd hit .500, and so would everybody else."
Informal instruction, or counseling, was just an effort to deal with the tedious hours. Card games, mainly bridge, consumed most of the time, but not enough. For instance, there was one guy who ran the length of a three-car segment for about two-thirds of a 28-hour trip. Wagering also helped dull the edge of the long runs like Boston to St. Louis. It was on such a trip that Clint Courtney bet a writer, who was always claiming to be in better shape than the players, that he could lose him in a 60-yard race. The car was on a siding, and they stepped off the yardage. The race began, but after about 40 yards Courtney stumbled and went sliding on the gravel bed alongside the tracks, scraping the skin from nearly every part of his body. His manager, Rogers Hornsby, was not in the least sympathetic; despite the discomfort of his face, Courtney could not escape the harness of his catcher's equipment several hours later.
Joe Aguirre, a pro football player in the early '40s, had an equally painful experience riding the rails. He was an end with the Washington Redskins and was traveling home from Chicago with the team after a championship game. He had been cut up badly during the afternoon's play and after boarding the train his nose was taped into a temporary set. Deservedly so, Aguirre partook of generous refreshment in the club car that night. He then glided back to his lower berth and ducked into it, only to find a young lady. "I don't mind," said Aguirre, "but you'd better move over." The woman reached coolly into the hammock, which was used for personals, pulled out her purse and hit him squarely on the nose. Aguirre returned to the club car, holding his bloody and tear-filled face and moaning; the doctor reset his nose. Aguirre returned to his berth—this time in the right car. Hours later, while the train was on a siding waiting for a connection, Aguirre decided that he was thirsty and, the club car being closed, decided to sprint to a local tavern for some beer. During his absence, the cars were moved five tracks over and, as Aguirre was returning, the new train began pulling out. With a bag of bottles in each arm, Joe set out after the train; he never, it was later observed, ran better. He made ground on the train and soon caught its rear porch, which by now was crowded with cheering Redskins. Timing his ascent perfectly, Aguirre leaped and belly-landed onto the porch. The beer was not damaged, but...well, the doctor had to be summoned once more to administer to Aguirre's wounds.
"That train after the '48 Series—what a trip! It got wild. We had our wives with us and two dining cars. Bill Veeck kept bottles of bourbon and Scotch on each table. And when one was gone he had it replaced. We had 45 cases of champagne aboard. The dining-car steward got pretty upset about what we were doing to his cars and at one point threatened to send Veeck a bill. Everybody stayed up all night and by the time the train pulled into Cleveland the next morning we looked like a bunch of bums. People had thrown champagne and other things and our shirts were filthy and sopping wet. But we were scheduled to ride through the city in a victory parade that started right from the station. Fortunately, it was a cold morning, so most of us took off our shirts and wore our overcoats buttoned to our necks."
"How could I forget that trip. It rained champagne, and it was three inches deep in the diner. We got off cheaply. For the repairs, it only cost $6,000.
"The end of train travel did not help the game. Or the players. Something was lost. I can remember pitchers holding informal seminars on hitters. You would even see guys illustrating how to throw on the trains.
"When I was a kid with the Cubs, I used to watch players like Gabby Hartnett utilize the mirrors on the old Pullmans. The veterans would set up a rookie in a card game and by the use of the mirror fleece him. They would let him win once in a while, just so the games would take longer.
"I recall also an incident with Jackie Price, the baseball contortionist. We were heading back from training camp. Price loved snakes and he frequently had one coiled around him. This day Price brought one into the diner where a group of women bowlers were eating. Somebody talked Price into releasing it and the snake started slithering among the bowlers. The whole diner panicked; the women climbed on the table. The conductor grabbed Jackie and demanded to know his name. 'Lou Boudreau,' said Jackie. Lou was our manager. At the next station Boudreau's peaceful card game was interrupted by a couple of detectives, who informed him they were removing him from the train."
The reminiscences seem to have no end and, listening to them, figures become lifelike: Babe Herman, mockingly grim, keeping tab on his starched cuff of what players owed him from poker games; a pitcher kicking out the windows of his berth while having a nightmare; Wally Schang and Ruth wrestling, until Schang lost his patience and tossed the immense Ruth into an upper bunk; his teammates watching Ernie Lombardi in repose, all of them mesmerized by the sound of his frightful snoring; Dizzy Dean, with the help of a Cardinal quartet, destroying the lyrics of The Wabash Cannonball. Life on the rails...how childlike, how delightfully filled with the stuff of all those bad sports movies. Imagine the conversation between Jim Bagby of the Pirates and a stranger in the observation car.
"Can I borrow your paper?" asked Bagby, after introducing himself. The man gave him the paper, and then identified himself. He was from St. Louis.
"That's where we're playin' today," said Bagby. "What business are you in?"
"The bee business," replied the man.
"Is there money in bees?" asked Bagby. Yes, there was, he was told.
"How many do you have?"
"Oh...about a quarter of a million."
"Damn. Where do you keep them?"
"Boxes in the backyard."
"Don't they smother?"
"No," said the man. "I live across from the zoo, and I uncover them at 8 a.m. and they seem to enjoy going over to the zoo."
Bagby remained silent for a while and finally blurted: "Now, I believed you when you said you made money in the bee business and when you said that you had thousands of bees, but when you said the bees go over there when you let them out at 8 a.m., that's a lie. I know the zoo don't open till 9."
That conversation will seem out of place on the train of the future which, despite all of the present wrongheadedness, will surely be one with hissing doors, pressurized cars and the euphoric sensation of speeding over a cushion of air. It will be a train and for that we should be grateful, but who would ever favor it with the praise and extravagant sentiment that once belonged to the Twentieth Century Limited. "It was a train apart," wrote the late Lucius Bee-be, "aloof, serene, incomparable—the sum of all excellence. It was at once a force of nature and a national showpiece. When it sailed each afternoon from its terminals in New York and Chicago and the red carpet of its going was rolled up for the night, each of its several sections became a self-contained microcosm of security, composure and the best of everything."
But all that was so long ago, when majesty and a different nation rode the rails, before the philosophy of the herd slowly strangled the small leisures, the civilized things that make life bearable, when time was something that people knew how to handle. Who knows what to do with time anymore? Technology has given us a prefabricated life of sprawling dimension, and from it we have been given more time for ourselves than people have ever known before. But it seems to confuse us, and we stand holding this precious gift as if it were a vial of poison; the national cry is: "I'm bored." The train, of course, means time. We are not comfortable in its presence. We and our attitude—more than the sorry contributions of unions, the government and rail executives—slew the train, a piece of Americana that so enriched us and helped us not to feel like strangers in our own land. Why is it, one wonders, that we always seem to prefer the sterile and run from those things that reveal our humanity? Call the train one of the metaphors of our times.
Whatever the train lacks these days, it still remains the best means of leisurely exploring the topography of the country. All that is required is some stoicism and patience, an appreciation for the gift of rare, cleansing aloneness and an appreciation of small, elusive things: tiny towns and deserted depots streaking by in the night; the last magnificent waving contours left in the land; the tintinnabulation of silverware in the dining car at breakfast; the visual choreography approaching a city; the flash of a pretty face in a car going the other way. It is, one supposes, not for everyone, and maybe it requires that one be in love with love, or would be kind to a certain kind of woman—a woman who was once coquettish. Then, the sudden flutter of a page in her life; the unseen turning of her season. Her blush is now rouge, her eyes mascara. Her gown is sadly much too gay.