FLOTSAM & JETSAM: On loving trains

Monday, August 15, 2011

On loving trains

Sam Smith

There is considerable irony in a newspaper that decries cutting subsidies of business class trains (a.k.a. high speed rail) as “harebrained” also running an article that argues that “The link between trains and autism is well documented. . . People with autism have difficulty processing and making sense of the world, so they are drawn to predictable patterns, which, of course, trains run by.”

In fact, only once in her article, did New York Times reporter Christine Haguney suggest that there might be some other reason for loving trains, conceding grudgingly that “Of course, not every child taken with Thomas the Tank Engine has autism..”

Otherwise, Haughney offers us passages like:

“Like many children with autism spectrum disorders, Ravi is fascinated by trains and buses, entranced by their motion and predictability.”

“The link between trains and autism is well documented. Autism refers to a spectrum of disorders that typically includes impairment in social interaction and sometimes includes stereotyped interests, like trains. People with autism have difficulty processing and making sense of the world, so they are drawn to predictable patterns, which, of course, trains run by.”

“That explains why children with autism tend to be attracted more to subways, which travel on back-and-forth tracks, with little variability, than to planes, which move in more variable fashion.”

No one apparently had told Haughney the views of the editorial board of the Times or that Barack Obama who, until the deficit crisis, was talking about spending $50 billion on his toy high speed trains.

The article is another example of how we are increasingly redefining human normalcy in ways that leave out things like imagination, creativity, fun, unique enthusiasm, and adventure.

Or, more seriously, how we sedate with prescribed drugs any inclination to rebel, protest or organize against what one’s government is doing. We may be the first country to collapse in part because of Prozac.

Autism has been described as including traits such as:

• Socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior

• Limited interests or preoccupation with a subject

• Repetitive behaviors or rituals

• Lack of empathy

• Inflexibility or rigid thinking

• Fear of changes; sameness in daily routines

• Perseveration, i.e. inapplicable or repetitive verbal responses.

In fact, one is much more apt to find such behavior in Washington - either in government, the media or with lawyers and economists - than one is with train enthusiasts. I have, for example, never met anyone who loved trains who behaved as strangely and socially dysfunctional as both sides in the recent debt ceiling dispute.

The closest to an exception would be my Harvard radio station friend, GWH, who once broadcast the complete daily New Bedford fish tonnage report in the manner of a funeral oration, complete with strident symphonic background. GWH also managed, prior to graduation, to redesign all rail passenger service in Florida, the existing schedule not being to his satisfaction.

He became a minister and I pretty much lost track of him after graduation until he phoned me in Washington and, with no other greeting, announced, "Sam, this is GWH. I have just bought the observation car of the Royal Blue. If you care to have a drink with me, and some others you may come to Track 17 at Union Station at 5 pm." I did. Long after, I asked GWH what had happened to the observation car of the Royal Blue, a famed Baltimore & Ohio express train. He told me that he had written without avail to several presidents of railroads seeking a siding. Finally he wrote a letter to the head of a short line that went like this:

Dear Sir: I am a poor Methodist minister and I need a place to park my observation car. Can you help?

The short line president responded with a deal. He explained that no one had ever prayed for his road and if GWH would promise to do so, he could have a siding. The arrangement worked for several years but then "the president of the short line began to covet my observation car and I finally sold it to him for three times the price I had paid for it." A long pause. "Of course, I immediately stopped praying for his railroad and it shortly went bankrupt."

Despite what a narrow minded therapist might think, this was definitely someone worth having on this earth.

And GWH was certainly was not typical of train enthusiasts in whose circle I have proudly been in since I was a small child. And I am not alone. A Wikipedia listing of famous train fans includes Joe Biden, Johnny Cash, Kevin Costner, Walt Disney, Antonin Dvorak, Frederick IX of Denmark, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart, and Harry Truman.

Growing up, I loved everything about trains. I talked to conductors. I collected train schedules, eventually filling a whole file box that I recently gave to a university archive.

Many of the earliest photographs I took with my Brownie Hawkeye were of box cars and trolleys; sometimes just blurry shots of empty track. There were trains I never saw but loved anyway, like the bullet-nosed Union Pacific streamliners. And to sit in the observation car of the Royal Blue was a totally convincing replica of heaven.

Yet, in some ways, ordinary trains were even better. They made strange noises and were pulled by huge steam engines. And, of course, between Washington and New Haven there was the GG1, the beautiful double-ended electric locomotive designed one year before my birth by Raymond Loewy and still in service more than three decades later. With five thick gold stripes arching like a scrunched rainbow from coupler to coupler, the GG1 was the mainstay of the Pennsy's main line, the love of those who ran them, steel heroes to young children, and faithful workhorse for the railroad.

The adjective beautiful before the noun locomotive is semantic deadheading. I've never seen a locomotive that wasn't beautiful. Even the first primitive efforts, devoid of proportion with their boilers plopped unceremoniously on a flatbed over wheels too close together, had charm -- whimsical, failed behemoths puffing through the landscape.

The locomotive soon lost its ungainly appearance. It was discovered that there was no functional inconsistency in making locomotive a work of art. From cowcatchers to flaring stacks to the arrangement of circular, cubical and cylindrical forms, the locomotive provided America with its first modern sculpture. And the GG1 was one of the best. As Loewy said, "It looks like it is moving when it is standing still."

I early subscribed to Edna St. Vincent Millay's view that "there isn't a train I wouldn't take no matter where it's going." Such an opinion required not only a sense of romance, but considerable endurance, for love of trains was often unrequited. Trains could be dirty, cold, hot, late, cancelled, overcrowded, or sit for hours in a wheat field for no fathomable reason. I would quickly learn, for example, that the silver temperature control knobs in Pullmans were either dummy switches or that the legends on them had been printed in random order. But such annoyances were more than balanced by the pleasures of standing in the vestibule with the top of the Dutch door open feeling the air and the country rush by. Or watching from the last car as the roadbed disappeared into a point. Or pasting your nose to the window and seeing the engine pull you around a curve. Or peering into the backyard of America. Or climbing into the top bunk. Or getting off the train in the middle of nowhere and wondering with another passenger what the problem was.

It ran in the family. Growing up we travelled mainly by train. And one of my uncles had, as a child, taken my grandmother’s attic and turned almost the whole thing into a switching yard for his model train outfit, building the large scale tracks himself. He once got caught playing hooky from elementary school so he could go watch workmen laying some real track.

When he died, his own house was sold with its complex model rail system intact for it would have been too hard to dissemble. He was an early creator of computer systems for banks, and while this all sounds suspiciously autistic, he was also an extremely nice and sociable gentleman, and attractively normal enough to be briefly married to one of Hollywood’s leading film stars.

Another train buff was the father of a good friend of mine. A native of Ireland, he was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. George Smith worked in leather in his spare time, earning the nickname, Pocketbook Smith.

Years later when my family and I stepped aboard one of Amtrak's new Metroliner - then with its engineer's cab in the front car - I asked the conductor whether he had known Pocketbook Smith. He had and it was a magic question because shortly after departure our two small boys were invited to sit on the engineer's lap as he drove the train at 100 miles per hours. They even blew the horn. It was a clearly illegal act but then everyone liked Pocketbook Smith.

As a historical matter, we couldn’t have had America without trains.

As an emotional matter, Bruce Catton put it well: “There is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going.”

As a philosophical matter, trains represent a unique blend of beauty, adventure, fascination, and impressively designed structure, whether in the rails, timetables, or the cars themselves. In a strange way, railroads are a metaphor for a sane and good life. You know when something’s going to happen, you know where’s it’s going and it’s a lot of fun and excitement anyway.

Finally, one must consider the alternatives. There is little joy in a freeway and no one has written a truly affectionate ode to roads since Route 66, long before the modern superhighways arrived.

As for aircraft, fondness for them may not represent autism, but just about every other dysfunction one can come up with.

Endless lines, lousy service, being strapped to a chair most of the flight, $50 just to check a bag, unpredictable and uncomfortable motion and the fondling of one’s private parts by government agents is hardly the sort of alternative for trains that a competent therapist should recommend.

I suspect one reason politicians and editorialists favor high speed rail over, say, bringing our general rail system to a level equal to what it was a hundred years ago is because of their lack of empathy towards the working classes that couldn’t afford the high speed tickets, their limited interests, their inflexibility and rigid thinking. A much better field to plow for therapists.

In any case, I know they are a lot less fun to be around than those who love trains.