November 21st, 2011 20:21 EST
America Singing: A Train Trip Through the Heartland of America
America Singing --I am fascinated by trains. In the mornings I listen to the 8 o`clock Amtrak train whistle carry over the woodlands and meadows as it approaches the village, then fades in the distance as it travels westward toward Chicago. At various times throughout the day and night, the whistle announces the trains. When the wind is right, despite the distance between my house and the railroad tracks, I can faintly hear the thunder of the cars on the rails. Those sounds carry me to distant places.
As a boy living in Secaucus, New Jersey, my father would take my brother and me to the rail yard on Saturday mornings. In those days, there were both steam and diesel locomotives. My favorite was the steam engines. The engineers would sometimes let me ride in the cabin as they moved around the yard. I remember the sense of marvel and excitement. That sense of childlike wonder and excitement took hold of me the other morning when I boarded the Amtrak train in Ann Arbor.
I have traveled a great deal over the years. Those who know me are aware that I have itchy feet; that the highway sings to me the way the Sirens lulled Odysseus. Yet nothing gives me a sense of connectedness to America as when I am walking along railroad tracks or I am a train passenger.
Sitting by the window, I felt that deep connection again as the train raced past fields green with winter wheat, pale, withered corn stalks, brown, weed-grown, barren fields. There were barns, some weather-beaten, collapsing beneath time`s weight; others were red with towering silos on hillsides. The farmland was quickly followed by leafless woodlands, and wetlands with beaver dams; abandoned, rusty heaps of cars and piles of tires by creeks of black water. The train, with its whistle shrieking, slowed as it passed through villages and hamlets of neatly kept brick and painted houses on tree-lined streets. There were stooped-back houses with satellite dishes, and swing sets; and college towns with their steeples rising above the trees. There were the factories and businesses, freight trains with boxcars and piggy backs, and coal trains on weed-over-grown side rail tracks running by shuttered factories.
Then there are the people. The farmer on his tractor, the kids with their heads tossed back in laughter chasing one another through a yard, the auto mechanic wiping his hands on a rag as he stood over a car with an open hood; the college students walking across a campus, the cop sitting in her car at the railroad crossing, the factory workers with their lunch pails crossing parking lots.
With the song of the rails in my ears, I thought of my grandfather standing on a New York City dock as he saw my grandmother coming off the ship that brought her from Rotterdam. "I am an American now", he would tell her. I thought of the migrant workers I harvested crops with while attending college, and the steel workers I had met in Pittsburgh, and the fishermen whose boats I saw coming into dock in New England. I found myself thinking about Diego Rivera`s powerful and beautiful industrial fresco in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
And I thought about Walt Whitman. I found myself reciting the 1867 version of his poem
"I Hear America Singing"
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics- each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat- the deck-
hand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench- the hatter singing as he stands;
The woodcutter`s song- the ploughboy`s, on his way in the morning,
or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother- or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day "At night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.*
I don`t know about you, but I think the politicians in Washington and corporate leaders have forgotten how to listen to America singing. There needs to be a separate train. The president, his entire cabinet, all of the senators and members of the House of Representatives, every last one of them without their staffs would be on one train. The staffers should be made to go home to either find employment in the private sector or collect unemployment. I think even members of the Supreme Court should be on board, though we`ll put them in a separate passenger car for the appearance of being above politics, a pretense really when you consider some of their recent decisions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can stay behind to keep an eye on things. The train would travel across the country, every available route that Amtrak takes or used to take. No lobbyists or big donors allowed. They would have stops in the off the beaten track places to dine with people like you or me, you know what song the average Janes and Joes are singing. Politicians tend not to hear that song even while campaigning.
On the other train would be the corporate leaders, particularly the bankers. They would travel the same rails, but always going in a different direction. Their meals would be served at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Maybe the Red Cross could provide for them like they do for people who have been through a disaster at the shuttered factories, warehouses, and in foreclosed houses.
I think it`s time for a new robust song.
I think it is time for the "power-elite" to hear what Americans are really singing.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader`s Edition.
Harold W.Blodgett & Sculley Bradley, eds. New York New York University Press, 1965.
Note: The author of this article is no longer affiliated with theSOP