Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Plague(?) Diary Entry 0006:
Disappearing Railroad Blues

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.*

As I write I am sitting in an AMTRAK train from Chicago to Detroit, returning home after an asylum interview. I am sitting in the diner car, half full, with a beer, half empty, a laptop and a beautiful view of what used to be called "Small-Town America" as the train now rockets, now crawls, through one little forgotten Michigan hamlet after another.

I hope that this is not a twilight of a world soon to change.

I must admit I'm quite ambivalent about this series. I don't want to be a panic monger. I certainly don't want to seem like a paranoid nutcase right-wing ranter. But the reality of the situation is such that the world that we have known may be about to undergo, well, change. Not a lot of hope. But possibly a damned, radical change.

All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

"There's a fire, sir."

The news sucks.

A second nurse is struck with it.

And she has a fiance'.

And both of them few by airliner the last couple of days, after she spent several days treating our most illegal alien.

And it seems that the nurses, in the first few days of treatment, made up isolation protocol as they went along.

I have no idea what to think.

But I am not going to panic.

But what does this mean?

And should we even be asking this question?

"There's a fire, sir."

Dealin' cards with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
Won't you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.

"Life turns on a dime," as Ferris Bueller taught us.

As 9/11 taught us, turn it most certainly does.

Although in this case it's more like turning an aircraft carrier. Or perhaps the Titanic.

Well, clearly, turning it is.  But where?

And are we even allowed to speculate as to where we're going?

Or is that panic-mongering?

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 dream.

I've always loved trains. My grandfather A. Leo was an engineer before he went into the funeral business; his father Thomas was also a career railroad man, who by family legend was said to have driven the Lincoln funeral train in 1865.

Maybe he did.

The train is pulling from  Niles. I see a nice little town, nice little houses, orderly and quiet. To my right the rail yard is filled with stacked rails from a torn-up track. To my left, a hillside, marred by occasional litter. The sky is grey. One by one little towns pass us by. A little boy on a street corner waves at us.

You would never guess that we are about to be wrenched.  And admittedly maybe we aren't.
But what if we are?

I hesitate to speculate as to what the future holds. Again, I don't want to be a scare monger. But we need to carefully consider what the meaning of this mess could entail.


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.

"There's a fire, sir."

I remember that line from so many years ago--Andromeda Strain, a movie that I have only seen the one time, as I remember. The scene is burned in my memory. An immunologist is at a house party, and two FBI agents or something show up to tell him that his services are needed, using a code phrase.

And off he goes to a supersecret government facility under a farm house to fight.... something.

I also remember a much different supersecret government facility: the Stovington Disease Control Center in Stovington, Vermont.  That one I don't remember as fondly.

Fortunately both are completely fictional.

I would like to think that somewhere in Atlanta there is a similar set of offices, well ensconced in obscurity, where brilliant scientists--"top men"--are working on the problem right now.

Frankly, however, I'm not encouraged. Based on what we've seen so far.

Where is C. Everett Koop now that we need him most? or Jonas Salk?


"There's a fire, sir."

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.

The sun is going down, as is its wont this time of day. Street lights and headlights. People driving home. to be with their families. Schools are out and closed. Kids play in back yards. We pass a corn field, and a high school football team in scrubs run scrimmages.

I listen to the folks in the diner car as I sip my beer and watch the autumn leaves on the trees passing by.

A mother commiserates with her adult daughter about the daughter's pending divorce.

The chief conductor chatters in railroad jargon with the engineer by walky-talky.

A little girl plays with a pink toy car, then turns to her father. "Daddy, I forgot something. I forgot to give Mommy a hug."  He solemnly takes her hand and leads her to the coaches so that she can correct the omission.

Amid the gossip and banalities, technical terminology I've never heard before in regular conversation appear here and there: HAZMAT Gear. Viral loads. Medical waste. Protocols. Suddenly they sprinkle our speech... and our thoughts.

People quietly enjoying themselves--but there's an elegiac air.  We're enjoying our trip, but is it really clear that this has the strange sense of the end of .... something?

Suddenly I have a vision: a clear clean view of the North Sea on a July afternoon in Scotland, in a vacation land a century ago. Diana and Randy make sand castles as Clemmie stretches her eased and lovely limbs in the afternoon sun.

And nearby, in a small cottage, her husband Winston takes a phone call and hears that the Austrians have rejected peace overtures and forlornly turns to tell his wife he's needed back in London.

It must have felt like this back then. It must have.




"There's a fire, sir."

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.

I will continue to write this series. But in the interest in not panic-mongering, I reserve the right not to publish everything that I'm speculating. Not only would I not wish to be thought a false prophet, I would hate even worse to be right.... prematurely.

Because there's a fire.

Or at the very least a hell of a lot of smoke.

* from City of New Orleans, (C) 1971 Steve Goodman. The lyrics herein use Arlo Guthrie's mods from his cover version. For non profit fair use only.

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Keep it clean for gene.