Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Old Buddy, Goodnight

The wind blows cold in Wyoming,
The stars shine clear and bright,
But if you don’t wake up tomorrow at all,
I guess it’s, old buddy, goodnight.

Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips, a fellow UU, and as he put it, a “rumor in his own time” and one of the grey eminences of the “great folk music scare of the 1960’s”, went to sleep in his own bed last week at the age of 73 and didn't wake up. I had been a fan of his for more than 30 years and had seen him in concert several times.

The tributes to this modern bard are beginning to roll in, and others can tell of his masterful storytelling, his prodigious knowledge of railroading and hobo lore, or his fierce advocacy for labor rights and society’s outcasts. I’ll tell instead a little vignette of how his art touched my own family.

I grew up in Washington, DC, in the charged atmosphere of the 1960’s. My father was a management consultant with a practice that focused on organizational restructuring, and the federal government was a steady client. One of his most ambitious assignments came in 1971 when his team was commissioned to design a feasible national railroad passenger system out of the wreckage of the Penn Central Railroad bankruptcy. It was for him a particularly fascinating project because his father had been an electrician and shop foreman in the old McIntosh & Seymour plant of the American Locomotive Company in Auburn, NY, just off the New York Central “Water Level Route” that carried the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago. (And not far, or at least so I imagine, from the farm in the preceding post.)

By the time Penn Central collapsed, it was generally recognized that airlines had eclipsed rail as the dominant passenger travel mode, and that rail passenger service was unprofitable in all but the shortest, most densely populated routes. Enabling legislation prompted 20 out of the nation’s 26 leading railroads to contribute their money-losing passenger operations to the newly-formed National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which soon adopted the now more familiar trade name “Amtrak”. The task fell to my dad and his team to recommend which unprofitable routes should be shut down and which should be continued under state or federal subsidies. Whole states stood to lose their service. For a Type A personality like my dad, combining the romance of the nation’s railroad heritage with the chance to match wits and do battle with powerful senators and governors over the future of an important sector of the economy was heady stuff.

Among the legendary routes my dad shut down was the Wabash Cannonball, an old passenger line of the Wabash Railroad, named for an even older minstrel song that became a big hit for the Carter Family when they recorded it in 1929. Utah Phillips rode the last regular run of the Cannonball, and wrote a new song about it, with the wistful refrain:

There’s no round trip ticket, you’re on the final run,
This Cannonball is never coming back.
Tomorrow she’ll just be
Another memory
And an echo down a rusty railroad track.

A few months later one of the news networks ran a documentary about Amtrak closing the door on a nostalgic chapter of American life. Dad watched most of the segment dispassionately, with occasional rationalist jibes about fiscal discipline and sound transportation policy and hard choices and soft English majors to balance the TV producers’ mawkish sentimentality. (I don’t remember now who the anchor was, but if he wasn’t Charles Kuralt, he should have been.) When the piece closed with Phillips’ song about the last run of the Cannonball, however, Dad suddenly looked like he had been punched. All these years later, he still listens to it every once in a while.

So goodnight, Utah, but not goodbye. You’ll always be around, whenever there’s starlight on the rails.

His earthly race is over; as the curtains 'round him fall
We'll carry him home to victory on the Wabash Cannonball.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Action of Immediate Witness

(Another parable of Safed the Sage)

The Dog And The Limited

Now I rode on a Fast Express Train called the Limited. And we went through a Country where there were Many Farms. And the Train went like the Driving of Jehu.

And there was a farmhouse that stood near unto the track but back, as it were, about the space of a Furlong. And in the Farmhouse dwelt a Farmer. And the Farmer had a Dog. And when the train drew Nigh, the Dog started from the Farmhouse toward the Train. And he Barked Furiously, and he Ran Swiftly. And I marveled that he could run so Swiftly, and that at the same time he could Bark so Furiously. But with all his barking he could not make so much Noise as the Train, neither with all his Running could he overtake it.

And the path that he made in his Running was a Great Parabolic Curve. For he started before the Train entered the Farm, running toward the Train, and going East, for the Train was heading toward the West. But as the Train ran on and stopped not, the Dog ran South, and when the Train was going By and not even Hesitating, he Curved so that he ran Southwest and then West. And at the west side of the Farm he fell into a Ditch, and rolled over and over and got up, and shook himself, and stood for a moment and cursed the Train, and then Returned Home.

And the Train went on.

And a month thereafter I rode on the same Train and behold! the Same Dog did all the Things that he had done before.

And three months thereafter I rode again on the Same Train, and the Same Fool Dog was still Getting Experience in the Same Manner, but Learning Nothing Therefrom.

And I saw that he was even like unto some Men, who might be Pounded in a Mortar and a Pestle, yet would not their Folly depart from them.

For even as the Dog watcheth daily for that Train, rising every morning and listening for it, and chasing it through the Farm, and Tumbling in the Ditch on the West Line of the Farm, so there are Men who Chase their Follies Continually, and learn Nothing from the Tumbles.

And what would the Dog have Done with the Train if he had Caught it?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The New Recipe

(Another parable of Safed the Sage)

There was a morning when I rose from my bed, and looked at the sunrise, and thanked God that I was alive, even as I do each day. And I descended and came down, and ate my breakfast. And behold, upon the table there were Doughnuts. Now if there be Doughnuts, I eat of them, but they minish not in any wise the other things that I eat, for I eat of them last.

And I said unto Keturah, Hast thou bought Sinkers from the Market? For I had not smelled the cooking of them.

And she said, I have not; for I value my peace of mind and the good will of my husband. I made these. Yea, and I made them by a New Recipe.

And I said, Wherefore wilt thou try New Recipes when already thy Doughnuts are perfect?

And she said, It is not thus that thou dost preach, for thou dost ever exhort men to do better and better.

And I said, Thine aspiration to have things better and better is thine only fault. Thou dost even try to have it so with thy Husband.

And she said, Yea, and this far I have done very well in the matter of his improvement.

So I ate of the Doughnuts, and I said, Behold, these are just like all of thy Doughnuts.

And she said, I am glad thou dost think so. For they are so made that they absorb less Fat; therefore are they more Wholesome.

And I said, Go not too far with me in that Wholesome stunt; I do not want things too Wholesome; I can digest anything save it be Health Foods.

And she said, My lord, when I try a New Recipe, thus do I try it. I consider all the things that I have been wont to use that I know are good, and if I find in the New Recipe some other good thing, that also do I put in.

And I said, Keturah, thou hast the finest idea of Progress to be found in any cook on earth. For thou goest ahead, but thou playest not far from thy Base.

And I said, If all the reformers would learn of thee, then would the Millennium come sooner.

And she said, I am glad that thou dost like the new Doughnuts.

And I verily did like them. For they had one ingredient that changeth not, and that is Keturah.

For, believe me, her Doughnuts are Some Doughnuts.

The Man From Jonesville

Now, there was among my Neighbors a man whose name was Smith, and he was from Jonesville. And he told me often of Jonesville, what a Lovely Place it was, and how every one who lived there was Happy and Virtuous, and how sorry he was that he ever had left there, and how he wanted to go back to Jonesville. And when the men in the city where I lived failed to clean the Snow off their Sidewalks, or the City Council indulged in Graft, or the children were Rude, or there was an Early Frost, he told me that Such Things did not happen in Jonesville. And this continued for nigh unto Twenty Years; and the older he grew the more he talked about Jonesville. And I told him I hoped that when he died he would go to Jonesville.

Now it came to pass that he prospered, so that he retired from Business. And he sold his House and Lot in the City wherein I dwell, and went back to Jonesville that he might Spend his Last Years in Peace, and Die in Jonesville. And we all Bade him Farewell, with something of sorrow, and something of Relief.

And it came to pass that at the end of Six Months, he and his wife moved back again, and bought back their Old House for a Thousand Dollars more that they sold it for. And they were Tenfold more Happy to get back than they had been to go away.

And it came to pass on an Evening that Keturah and I called on them. I said, Old Fellow, tell me on the Level, what was the matter with Jonesville?

And he said to me, Speak not to me of Jonesville, lest I do thee Harm. It is the toughest Joint this side of State Prison. The dear people we knew have all died or moved away, and they who are in their places are Unneighborly and Snobbish. And they Tango and do other Outrageous Stunts, and their Kids are the Limit. We have come back to Dwell in the place where we have spend Twenty Happy Years, and we have but one favor to ask of our old Neighbors, and that is, that they never speak to us of Jonesville.

And as Keturah and I walked home, I spake to her, and said, Keturah.

And Keturah answered, I know what thou art about to say; and I suspected all the time that it would be just so.

And I said, There are many men and women who sigh for some Jonesville or other, who might be Decently Happy where they are if they would make it their business.

And Keturah said, Our Jonesville is right here.

And I said, Amen.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Now is the Time": The Problem, in a Nutshell

Overheard, chez Fausto, at the breakfast table this morning:

Fausto: You know, there's been some grumbling lately on [Peacebang's] blog about the UUA's "Now is the Time" campaign.

Mrs. Fausto: What's that?