And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets
made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.
-from The City of New Orleans
by Steve Goodman and Michael McCurdy
If you’ve spent much time driving on the freeway, traveling for business or vacation, sooner or later, in those expanses between city and town, you’ve seen a train or two traveling along the tracks parallel to the road. This past weekend, my niece was married at Cannon Beach, Oregon, so to attend, I left Boise on Friday morning to join my family for the event.
I was driving alone (my wife and daughter went ahead a few days before), so I had a lot of time while driving to listen to music and to think. I have a vague memory of loving trains as a boy but I’m too far away from my childhood to clearly recall any event associated with that feeling. I do remember once, many years ago, when my sons were quite young, traveling across the midwest with the family during the summer. We had stopped at a campground somewhere in Nebraska for the evening. A railroad track ran near the campground and there was a railroad museum nearby. I remember standing by the track with my boys as a train very slowly, very stately, moved down the line. We waved at the engineer and I could see a sense of wonder in the eyes of my sons as they watched something so amazingly large travel past them. From the eyes of two four-year olds, the engineer must have seemed almost like God; controlling such vast power from so lofty a height.
Then it was gone.
Once, the railroad system was the backbone of American transportation and, since the days of the Old West, it was the artery that transferred life blood from one end of our nation to another. Then, in pursuit of faster ways to travel, faster connections, faster lifestyles, and faster Internet speeds, we pulled away from the past and have hardly looked back at what we left behind. I know the refrain of “the good ol’ days” also hides some of the uglier times in our country’s history, but with the bad, and with our need to become more “progressive”, we’ve also abandoned those things that were good.
Not too long ago, I wrote a blog article about how what we know about the Bible is advancing with new literary studies and archeological finds, adding to and correcting our understanding and our database about the Word of God and what it means in our lives. While all that is certainly valid, the past and the knowledge it holds, once we leave it, doesn’t have to fade away, nor should it. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I quote frequently from the ancient Jewish sages and I find their wisdom as alive and fresh today as it was when their thoughts and insights were first recorded and preserved.
Steve Goodman’s lyrics (sung famously by Arlo Guthrie, son of the renowned folk singer, Woody Guthrie) relate a tale of the fading glory of the railroad, like a species from another era, once mighty, once dominating, now slowly going extinct and being replaced by something much less grand. When the “sons of pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel”, they begin to realize that the time of the railroad is coming to an end. They will never experience what their fathers’ did; a sense of the endlessness of an epoch of romance, adventure, and tradition that seemed to stretch into infinity, as if looking at the tracks extending ahead to the edge of the horizon and beyond.
Too much of our lives get left behind for the sake of expediency and to make room for other priorities. Our faith, our religion, how and when (or if) we approach the Bible, all suffer in the same way. When we first “discover God” we are filled with a child-like wonder at the thrill of seeing the “engineer” in the cab of this massive, diesel machine, slowly crossing in front of us, allowing us just a taste of the power and rumbling majesty He controls.
Then we get older, more experienced, more used to seeing trains, more used to ignoring them, until we hardly notice when they start to fade away, maybe not as an overall presence, but in their sense of importance. Once the shine and luster begins to fade, it takes a lot of effort to get it back. Sometimes it never returns and all we have are half-memories that are more like vague feelings than the recall of what we actually said or did.
Who is God to us then?
I know. Odd thoughts for a person just having returned home from a wedding and three days of celebrating with family. But after visiting family in Portland and Cannon Beach and visiting relatives at their home outside of Washougal, Washington, I find myself thinking more of what has been lost than anything that’s been gained. I don’t know why I started hearing Arlo Guthrie singing “The City of New Orleans” in my head. He just started as I was driving home this morning, while I was leaving the Columbia Gorge behind, and I started writing this blog in my imagination as I listened to the lyrics.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.
Good night, America, how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.