Danny Boehr/Al Tuner - The Muse From Here Archive - 1997
Last Update: November 8, 2003
Tuesday, January 28, 1997I think it's important to take the train.
I mean not as a hobbyist in love with the sound of a locomotive's chime as you approach a grade crossing - though admittedly sufficiently engrossing for me, you understand. No, I mean it's important to take the train to get from place to place.
Consider the alternatives, for a start. Have you found the book where the author states clearly "the brilliant insights enclosed within, came to me as an inspiration, while flying in the middle seat of a flight to Pittsburgh?" Me neither. There is a greater likelihood that a primate will type out the Great American Novel, then there be an acknowledged insightful experience in Row 33, Seat F, I fear.
The reason is somewhat obvious. Notwithstanding being physically closer to heaven, there is no inspiration to be found there. And if one succumbs to the great American Possession (the car), it is more likely that the stark sameness of miles of concrete connecting identical rest stops will numb the mind, not enrich it. Though there are the two audio companions to consider as potential sources of inspiration - country or western.
The train, however, is an entirely different medium of transport. For only there, can you stare out the window hour after hour to take in the scenes of the country. See the failed enterprises along the right of way to underscore purpose on a business trip. Know and understand the importance of the small town in America, as we increasingly kowtow to the God of undifferentiated mass marketing. (Like we all want and need the same things).
Engage yourself in a discussion in the food service car to clearly feel the varying pulses of America. At a time when so much of both political discourse, the content of broadcast entertainment, and the editorial choices of the newspaper have more to do with what sells than with any intrinsic value, it is vital to find ways to explore reality on one's own. Regardless of other activist causes, the Beat writers of the sixties were correct in this.
News stories do not discuss the beauty of a snowfall, but a train exudes it. People live in Aycock, in Lucama and in Elm City, but you won't find them inside your automobile on I-95.
Yes I know, speed is important. The corporate early bird does catch the worm after all. But if I were proposing a lucrative business proposition to a pair of hopeful bidders, and one arrived late because of a delayed train, all things being equal that tardy individual would win the bid. Personal preference shared? No. The guy who took the train had more time to think about what he was about to propose.
I admit having flown, and driven to business meetings in the past. I will do so again I am certain. But l am the lesser for the experience. Take the train. Feel the world. Warts and all.
Thursday, March 20, 1997It appears to me, that I can't find the time nor do I have the inclination to mourn the passing of Conrail. It just doesn`t seem to matter. Oh, there is a story here. A group of proud railroaders that turned a soup of bankruptcies into a banquet of intermodal and double stack trains. A company born of disaster, aided with some Federal largesse before Chrysler ever was thought about, that provided decent height service to critical industries and ports is about to depart.
Why no tears? I am not sure. But I would rather think about baseball. It does imitate life so well after all.
The game can be understood, measured and enjoyed at many levels. Fundamentally, there is the game itself. It represents the optimal combination of athleticism and intellectuality better than any game yet devised (I claim modestly). So, while sitting in the stands, I can take a deep breath and inhale the baseballness, or lean forward and concentrate deeply upon the state of the score, the runners, the proper defensive positions, the habits of the batter, the specialties of the pitcher, and the most wished for outcome.
Or, one can, define the game by the ardor one has for a team. Or, a person could come root for his or her personal favorite hero-player. But to do so, one must be prepared to be heartbroken. Oh, not just by a losing effort on the day you spent a small fortune and went to the game. That is the small risk you take when going. No, the greater disappointment comes when you find your hero en route to another team that pays more (notwithstanding his consistent comments about wanting to stay). Further depression ensues within, when you find you have to remain flexible in your job, but a change from batting second to seventh causes your hero to call a press conference.
Of course I have my favorite team. This year, once again, there are all kinds of players that are new, having arrived from other teams, and all kinds of players that I enjoyed last year, that for some strange reason are excelling elsewhere. There is the pitcher that helped destroy our pennant chance last year by playing masterfully against us, now within our camp, vocalizing the usual platitudes about being) glad to be here. Clearly the only team he is bound to, is his own. It's difficult to maintain a team focused sense of the game, because the team keeps changing, and from where I sit (in the stands) they all look the same anyway. So, having been pained with disillusionment over the true nature of the game (as the players act it), and having been locked out by the owners, I still go to the games. Despite their incredibly poor stewardship, it still is baseball after all. Cal plays shortstop, Eddie is on first, Kirby is in the outfield, Sandy is pitching, Yogi is behind the plate, Brooks patrols third and so on. Right?
Look at it another way. The New York Central speeds freight down the Hudson, and the Pennsy pushes trains through Pennsylvania. Binghampton is the aorta of the Erie Lackawanna and a keystone-shaped heart pulses in Conway. The railroad bleeds green in Elkhart, and the sky is blue and yellow over Sandpatch while Reading RDCs ramble through Bound Brook. A cute cat sleeps through its trips through West Virginia, and Champions and Meteors role on their separate but equal ways through the Carolinas and an arch bridge linking three boroughs screams the glory that is the New Haven.
See? As long as you keep the game in mind, the pleasures of its sounds and sights, the colors of the uniforms and the dealers and their agents are not important. Scratching below the surface reveals dark disappointments and controversial manipulations that don't add to the appreciation of the game. So why wallow in it? Having been there before, I am tired of the mourning for symbols and structures that no longer exist. There is no fun in it.
Once disillusioned, once disappointed, once wizened by the pains of experience, it is difficult to kneel down at the altered altar again and again. But one can't deny the longtime joys because of the brevity of quixotic current scenes.
Conrail? A passing stage in a greater continuum. A transient resident in the world of railroading. It's passing means we have gone from black to blue, now back to black locomotives again on my favorite mountain. That's all.
Someone pass me the popcorn, I want to root for the home team, whoever they happen to be today. Let the games begin! It's spring and all is new after all.
And maybe the new guys will put the fourth track back on my mountain.
Sunday, August 10, 1997It was seven o'clock in the morning, on a day last May full of possibilities in North Platte Nebraska. A sharp rapping on my hotel door, interrupted my shaving. I opened the door and there was Max.
Standing in the doorway, in his jogging outfit, he handed me a steaming cup of coffee and said with a wide smile, "Please maintain quiet for the benefit of those who may have retired." I responded , clumsily, "Dining car in other direction!" Then I thanked him. We laughed a lot. We were speaking in Pullman.
The five of us had gathered in this town, to enjoy the overpowering rail show that the UP puts on in Nebraska. Of greater importance, though, was that after 25 years, finally, we were all together again. We had met, some of us, in various ways in various locations, but never all of us in the same place. Max was the most remote. While we all were tied up making livings, and making lives, somehow a few of us managed to get together. Max, though, was only a Christmas card and memories until a lunch with two of us in St. Cloud, while we were on the way to Winnipeg and Churchill some years ago. Otherwise, until he pulled up in his Cadillac at Grand Island he was mostly a collection of fond college memories.
That all changed on the plains of Nebraska. Max, as expected, brought his black books - black books filled with the consists of trains. And for four days, we regaled in Florida Specials, Broadway Limiteds, and East Coast Champions. I thought, foolishly, that my asking him what the symbol of the Penn Central freight was, that he and I rode from Conway to Altoona almost 30 years ago would stump him. "IE 10!" he responded, with a wide grin. I was discouraged, having thought that I could win this game. Silly me. The man, successful lawyer, connoisseur of good food, had a mind just loaded with railroad facts and figures.
We recalled the Pennsy trip, where, in the dead of winter for some reason, we spent the day watching freights in Conway, then, showing our New Haven Railroad passes from the previous summer we talked our way to getting on the second unit of a freight train, hoping to make Harrisburg. Max pointed out we had ridden in a GP3O, though I recalled it was a U25B until he showed me the numbers. It was I who was stumped.
We had left in the evening, slowly doubling the train at East Conway and then in the cold proceeding along the Ohio River towards, the Steel City. Except we never saw the city, never went through the station. Being left alone in the second unit, we had no clue where we were going. We went through the suburbs, then the frozen countryside. It began to snow. Where we going???
Laughter rang out from along the UP right of way as we recalled that night. Turns out we rode the Conemaugh Main Line to Conpit Junction. Our maps still show that rare mileage having been ridden on. The train ultimately froze in Cresson, and came down the mountain to Altoona in two pieces. The crew outlawed before returning to get its rear end, and we grabbed a passenger train shortly after a frigid day dawned in Altoona in order to get home.
Two of us, plus Max, worked on the New Haven Railroad during the summer breaks between college studies. A few times, I was invited to spend the night in New Haven. Typically we would get in real late after second trick duties, and Max would create the most incredible meals. After a short night's rest, we would return to work on train #171. Breakfast in the twin unit Pennsy diner, with Max providing a monologue about whether the New Haven or Pennsy bought the better groceries for diner preparation.
North Platte represented a rejoining of the gang of old. Within moments of our arrival, we were essentially discussing the wry same things we did 30 years ago, then in between trains in Penn Station. Assisted by Max's black book we revisited expanded summer consists of the Broadway, or high flying trains in South Florida, or long consists of heavyweight coaches leaving on the Palmland on Pennsy train 141. Max would have a wispy all knowing smile, lower his voice an octave, and with Minnesotan accent, describe those coaches as "bombers." We laughed a lot. I learned that if you ignore almost everything, and focus on one thing, in the right company, you can, in fact, go back again.
We agreed, at our parting, that we would try much harder to meet again, annually. That after all the things that have happened to us, after 30 years of building families and successful careers, we still had a bond that was worth revisiting, not just from a historical perspective, but with the prospect of further deepening of our life long relationship.
After years of near silence, Max began to write us all individually. He had realized that our little brotherhood had the magnetic attraction we felt in our youth. He wrote me while I was on the West Coast. He provided me a long dissertation on his beloved Northern Pacific lounges, in answer to a question that I had frankly forgotten. He then wrote of his plans to meet us in Altoona this Fall, fulfilling a pledge we had all made when we parted company after college 25 years ago.
In some ways we all represented fallen flags.
Our passions started on the Northern Pacific, the Southern Railway, Pennsylvania, New Haven and Delaware and Hudson. We all understood how old we had become, with much of our early rail interests being framed by fallen flags. We were not prepared for a fallen friend.
Max died on July 17, 1997.
So now when the four of us meet in Altoona without him, we fulfill that pledge as best as can now. Intoning the names of Elberton, Wissahickon Rapids, Cherry Valley, Chickies Creek and so on, will never be the same without him, though thinking of them will always make us think of him. College roomate to one of us, travelmate on a Pensy freight to another, companion on a tour of European trains to another, his memory will always be with us, though the pain of his early departure perhaps never reconciled. Now, fur sure, I cannot go back again.
Farewell my dear friend. That May in Nebraska looms even larger now. Rest in peace.
You are in Room C, in the W1 car.
Friday, December 12, 1997Somewhat sleep deprived, I made my way in the pre-dawn drizzle to the station at Rockville, on my way to Amtrak's leadership conference. The conference had been postponed once because of the potential BMWE strike, and though limited to direct reports of Management Committee members, my boss is busy enjoying the burst of his own home-built super nova before vanishing from the sky, so I got to go.
Anyway, somewhat comically, I sit next to Ira Silverman, former Marketing guru of Amtrak, now Chief Transportation Officer of MARC. Still embittered at his terminated Amtrak career, but admittedly better off emotionally, I sit beside him for the trip in. He turns to me and says "The witch is dead." Now the last time I used that line, us left-wing protestors were referring to LBJ's announcement not to run again for the Presidency. In those dense early day moments, without the complete benefits of the 7-11 coffee I hold in my hands, I had no idea what the hell Ira was talking about. He handed me the Business Section of the Washington Post.
"Holy smokes!" Tom Downs got fired. Funny, that it was Ira who told me. Funny, I felt the same when LBJ gave it up. This was going to be an interesting day!
We assemble at Galudet University's Kellog Conference Center. Nice place. An energized crowd of Amtrak leaders. Some, like me, suppressing a smile, tempered by the anger of having had to wait so long for this day, and having had to sift through so much carnage to reach it. Others, newer, closer to Downs, perhaps confidantes, visibly shaken. I have learned that some of these people are actually quite nice and I feel some sympathy. Anger rages with in still, but also the notion of having survived yet another era. Happiness tempered with the usual angst about the future.
We assemble, and I am amazed that when we get to the point where it says on the program, Remarks by Tom Downs, Tom Downs shows up and walks down the aisle. We stand and give him sustained applause. I stop clapping earlier than most. I never felt so confused about my own feelings in my life. Am I applauding because he tried, because of my politeness, because sitting on my hands would be rude, but so much more satisfying? I have never been to a funeral before where the cadaver speaks. You dumb son of a bitch, you deserve to be fired! But I applaud, weakly and end my portion of the ovation early.
Downs speaks. He talks about having planned to retire as President of Amtrak, but this is a tough business, and he is gonna be ok. He hands out railroad hats, and tells everyone we are "one railroad," not three SBUs and a service center. He speaks of the challenges of the future, and his demise as just another transition period. He seems calm, deliberate, almost dispassionate. He announces the Board did do a few things right yesterday, by appointing Lee Bullock as Mark Canes's replacement, and Ron Scolaro as VP-Operations. They are introduced and warmly applauded. Then George Warrington, President of the NEC, now Acting President of Amtrak is introduced, as "the boss" effective today.
George gets up, and chokes back real tears. He points out that Tom has been his life long mentor, and that he replaces him with the heavisest of hearts. Downs also loses his composure and begins to show real tears coming down his cheek. They hug in front of us all.
Why do I feel like this surrealistic scene is so remote, even though I am in the room. Has anger made me so unresponsive? I feel like I walked in on someone else's funeral, for surely I don't feel the pain these executives feel. The divide between them and me is real, and has never been more stark. We don't even cry about the same things.
Speaking with my new boss, he tells me that Downs' mandate for him, was to trim the "palace" that was the Corporate Support Center. It is clear that Ron is SBU-centric, and has been told what is to be expected. But the guy who told him that just got fired, and so my boss, will have to figure all this out by himself. I am sympathetic. Nothing like being hired, mandated, and set adrift all within 24 hours. I believe self preservation will rule eventually. I think of saying, "the guy who promoted you was fired" but think better of it. I scribble to the Senior Director of Communications a suggested opening line for an Employee Advisory: "Other than that Tom, how did the Board meeting go?" He laughs hard. The gallows humor will continue until the morale improves.
The rest of the day? Boring. Endless mumbling about the business plan, poor audio visual, you couldn't see a thing. The Human Resource Department presentation makes no sense at all, and it's clear that the consultant's report they tout about corporate attitudes makes no sense to the presenter either. A bad joke. I get to speak to the group, when chosen as Leader of Group A on Express Issues and my thing went well, and there were kudus all around. I express fealty and kiss the robe of my new boss's boss, and the new Acting President, both of whom know me on a first name basis, which makes me feel good because that's new, but worrisome, because that makes me part of the leadership ... which is scarey. It's a feeling I would cherish if I had a clue where we were going.
The Government Affairs and Labor Relations briefings were excellent. The quagmire of negotiations and their relationship to our legislation is mind boggling. So now we have a new Board coming in, and a Reform Council to watch them, and an Acting President, who likely won't become President by a lame duck board, and a company that needs to believe in something again.
Tom Downs. Self-avowed master of political acuity, absolutely bushwacked by his own Board, his own party. A plea for unity from a person who did more to splinter us, than any external foe could ever have done. A dysfunctional management structure left to the survivors to make work, lacking the backing to make real change.
Long swords? The one who decried the past with his nefarious "That was Then, This is Now' now represents the disgraced past. My new leader? A great deal to figure out. It's a helluva thing when they ask you to play the game, and change the rules.