Spring 2010: From the Editor
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Raton, New Mexico—Much of this issue is being written during four days aboard the Amtrak Southwest Chief between Chicago and Albuquerque and back, chiefly in the lounge car, mostly on the College computer but also on a 1949 Smith Corona Skyriter typewriter, the predecessor of the laptop.
In addition to the alumni, students, and professors I’m writing about—Tom Whowell ’52, Andy Dreitcer ’79, Dwight Watson, Jake Ezell ’11, and Faisal Ahmed ’95—my fellow passengers include what appears to be the entire Amish cast from Witness; a timid boxer being trained as a service dog; a baby with a head bigger than the boxer’s and steel blue eyes like the kids in Children of the Damned; and a middle-aged woman with a smoke-induced cackle who keeps yelling instructions through her cell phone to her husband in Chicago who wants to see on Google Earth where the train is going.
“Of course you can’t see us—Google Earth isn’t live, Dimwit,” she keeps repeating.
There’s snow on the Sangre de Cristos, we saw hail blanketing the red ground outside of Lamy, New Mexico, and a lone tom turkey watched us go by in Kansas.
There’s been a junkyard at practically every stop. You see the majestic and the mundane from the window of a train, but never the sterile, life-sucking ambience of an airport. And riding a train doesn’t scatter you the way flying does.
You don’t get as quickly to where you thought you wanted to go, either. But slowing down puts events and tasks in a single-file line again, and you come back with more stories, more relaxed, and seeing more clearly than when you left. You feel the rhythm and rises of the journey long after you step off the train.
I stare silently out at the world passing by—my personal version of a medically induced coma—but listening to the people is what makes each trip memorable. Folks who ride the train tend toward the gregarious and quirky: An Amishman is returning with his family from Lake Powell where they have been “test-driving” one of the high-powered houseboats they finish in the shop where he works in Indiana. (“Oh, yes, there are exceptions to our rules,” he tells me.)
A retired farmer from Wisconsin who “wouldn’t farm again if they put a gun to my head” informs me that the soil in the Midwest is sterile.
Another man, quieter, a veteran and recovering alcoholic whose wardrobe appears purchased at the army surplus store is going back to Minnesota to gather his belongings from the one-room shack where he lives. He’ll be back on the train in a week, he says, bound for San Diego to move in with his son (a Marine about to be deployed to Iraq), his daughter-in-law, and new grandson. He smells of sweat and Chex mix—two days sleeping on the floor of the Amtrak coach section—but no booze.
He tells me about the family he left behind years ago, his struggles to find employment, a home, sobriety.
He marvels at his son’s forgiveness.
At 62, he’s getting another chance to be a father to his son, to help raise his grandson.
Indirect amends, he calls it.
“I’ve got work to do. I’m going to pick up my stuff, take what I need, give away the rest. Then I’m going home. Not going to find one, but to help make one.
“You don’t get many chances like this.”
He looks me in the eye as intently as that boxer-headed baby. “You get a chance like this, you take it. You know what I mean?”
BETWEEN LA PLATA, MISSOURI and Fort Madison, Iowa I’m finishing up a story about Rick Fobes ’72 and his father, about how Don’s love of music is lived out through Rick and his children and grandchildren today. I’m on my way back from the place my own father grew up, where we scattered his ashes a few years back, where my daughter and granddaughter live now. I lost my seat in the coach last night: I hadn’t left my ticket on the overhead rack and a woman with an infant and toddler took my seat and the one next to it—three people now curled up and sleeping in the space I’d hogged the night before. I grabbed my stuff from the overhead rack as quietly as I could, but the mother stirred and looked up at me. I smiled, hoping to appear grandfatherly, but most likely registering “pervert.” She closed her eyes, exhausted, and I thought of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans:”
“Mothers with their babes asleep/rocking to the gentle beat/and the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”
The uneven tracks in Missouri bounce and jostle, but I’m so used to it now I hardly miss a letter as I type. The green rolls toward the Mississippi and the computer is playing a Harry Chapin song I downloaded from iTunes for the trip, and one of my favorite lines—“It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.”
WE’RE CALLING THIS ISSUE “Our Mutual Life,” and it’s hard to find a better metaphor for that than a journey on a train. The scenery passes by, towns flash past in the dark, the howl of the train horn is a mournful refrain. What gives the trip its melody are the people who step on, the stories they bring, and the realization that the whole trip will be a lot richer if we take the time to get to know one another.
So this is an issue about Wabash men and women who have, in varying degrees, found a different way to travel. Who, rather than burying themselves in their work or their own problems or hobbies or grade point averages or the solitary pursuit of what others define as success, take the time to get to know the other passengers on the train. People who know how their lives are enriched by reaching out to their community, those in different cultures, even generations past. It’s an issue about those who see clearly, as President White describes it, “the interlocking web of connections” between us all—our mutual life.
Thank you for reading.
Steve Charles | Editor