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.
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.