This is going to be a rather boring story. But try to stay with me, because it's going to lead somewhere. It's about something that didn't happen -- a friendship and a relationship that never was. But it's also about something that did happen -- a realization of why I'm here.
I was a geeky, pimply fellow in high school, basically an outcast. I pretty much lived in my own world, because the world around me didn't seem terribly inviting. Part of the problem was that I liked trains. Well, no, liking trains might have been OK. But I loved trains. Why? Guys usually like mechanical things, and I'm a guy, and trains are very mechanical. But trains are also very human-oriented, or at least they were back then. Trains were run by people, trains carried people or carried things for people, and trains ran past a lot of people as they made their way through cities and farmlands.
When I was 5 or 6, my parents used to take my younger brother and me down by the Erie Railroad to watch the evening passenger trains go by. Most of them were commuter runs, but around 6 each night a Chicago train came in, and just before 8 another overnight train went out. I always felt good when we were at the Carlton Hill depot. It was easy to be together down there. All the yelling and fighting and friction of suburban family life just vanished for an hour or two. The air was sometimes a bit sour from the chemical factory across the way, but otherwise there were bells and lights and whistles and horns from the trains and the tugboats down on the river to keep us entertained. There were the people getting off the trains and quickly dispersing toward their humble suburban abodes. Then there was the warm summer sun sinking down into the trees behind the wooden station. The memories are still lodged deeply within my subconscious: a long-lost moment of contentment, somewhere along the tracks in northern New Jersey, sometime in the early 60s.
The houses lie obscure and still
In Rutherford and Carlton Hill.
Our lamps intensify the dark
Of slumbering Passaic Park.
Joyce Kilmer, The Twelve-Fourty-Five
Unfortunately, my classmates didn't share my sentiment about trains, especially the guys. If you wanted to be in with them, you had to like other things. But I was strongly connected to those memories of family contentment down by the Erie. I couldn't give them up. It just wasn't an option. So, I had to accept some alienation and humiliation. I walked the tracks to school alone every day.
By sophomore year in high school, I resigned myself to the fact that I was a branded outcast. The girls would mostly ignore me; I wish I could have said the same thing for the guys. Unfortunately, many of them felt that I would benefit from their reproach. Usually it was just verbal mockery, but at times it became unpleasantly physical. This was, after all, a blue-collar ethnic town where notions of tolerance and civil demeanor weren't always taught at a young age. The school faculty generally looked the other way and occasionally even sympathized with my critics.
But so what, I thought. I had a cause. I had something to live for. I was going to become a railroad man. Perhaps I would go to college, but only to make myself a better railroad man. I would dedicate myself to preserving the kind of place that once gave me such comfort (even though the actual site by then was in disrepair and was being taken over by weeds; the passenger trains didn't run to Carlton Hill anymore, and only an occasional freight engine would pick up a car or two from the local factories).
As to that favorite subject of teenage boys, i.e. teenage girls, I decided to take a pass. Sure, I had the same hormonal urges that most 15 year old boys have, but the general lack of sympathy for me and for my railroad interests by the local female population convinced me that they were not worth pursuing. I decided to spend my after-school time down by the tracks, talking with the local railroaders. I had a bike to get to around town, and sometimes I'd take a bus or commuter train to see other rail spots. The railroaders I encountered were occasionally hostile, but many of them were decent people and some even became friends. All in all, it was a friendlier place for me than my high school was.
Night darkling over Mojave desert,
Yellow planet-light disappearing, mounds westward,
Stars as when I was a child,
Mojave's firmament same Passaic's -
Waiting at Barstow the engine humming
The engine humming - All others silent, lost in thought.
Allen Ginsberg, Iron Horse
So, I was quite surprised on that fine May morning in 1969 when Katharine S smiled at me in sophomore typing class. I didn't know much about Ms. S. She wasn't from my part of town and hadn't gone to my grammar school. (I was from Carlton Hill, a non-hilly suburb along the Passaic River, named by Scottish industrialist James McKenzie after a hillock near Edinburgh; the locals returned the favor by naming the grammar school after Mr. McKenzie. Ms. S, by contrast, haled from Carlstadt ... named after town founder Dr. Carl Klein, and not for the 16th Century Protestant reformer affiliated with Luther). I did know that Ms. S was quite pretty, with her finely featured Anglican face, her long blond hair, and her tall thin build. I suppose the whole context for the little smile incident was my appreciation of her comeliness. She didn't especially intrigue me; I figured she was just another hostile high school girl. But that never stopped me from looking. I looked at plenty of girls every day, but didn't expect anything but the usual cold shoulder. Thus, when someone acted out of character, I felt ... actually, I felt a bit threatened. Who was she? What did she want? Well, it didn't matter anyway, because I had my plan and was sticking to it. I had a bike and a couple of dollars allowance and plenty of things to do and places to go, and I wasn't going to let some girl from school start commanding my precious time away from the compound.
Ms. S was in my Physics class in junior year, but I never talked with her. Still, I wondered who she was. There was something different about her. She was quite intelligent, although there were other smart girls out there. She was very involved in after-school activities, although she really wasn't your typical Miss Popularity. She seemed somewhat shy, or perhaps aloof toward us ethnic Catholic types, the majority at ERHS. She stuck pretty close with the other smart girls. I couldn't figure her out, nor did I intend to make the effort.
In senior year, Ms. S was in 4 of my classes. By then I was locked-in on my plan. I was networked pretty well with the local railroaders, including some of the management people. After school I'd ride the local switching train or visit the station agent. On Saturdays, I'd bike down to the interlocking control tower out in the meadows and get the latest railroad gossip from the operator and maintainer. I was set to go to engineering school and hoped to eventually join up with railroad management, after working as a switch operator during the summer breaks (I was already practically qualified to run several of the interlocking towers in the vicinity). There were a few occasions when I needed to speak with Ms. S about something, but I went out of my way to be cold and formal. Sure, there was a part of me that really wanted to speak to her, be around her, get to know her; but there was another part of me that was just plain scared of her, scared of the power of attraction that she had over me.
I had a further discouragement to any female involvements: my parents, especially my mother. They grew up as children of Polish immigrants, and maintained a rather strict view regarding their children's mating habits. In a nutshell, they felt a right and an obligation to regulate any romantic involvements that would surely happen, and would get involved early to make sure that no mistakes were made (read teen pregnancies). Actually, my father was fairly content to give some advice about using condoms, but my mother hounded my younger brother about his after-school social affairs (my brother was quite the ladies man, right from puberty). I didn't want my mother controlling my life any more than she already was. I was earning my freedoms slowly and at great cost, and didn't intend to lose whatever progress had been made. I now realize that Mom's intentions were good, but her heavy-handed tactics were ... well, perhaps a bit outdated. My biggest problem was her reliance on tradition, with little recourse to explanation or reasoning. I guess we were just different kinds of people.
Perhaps Ms. S and I were on the same side of that difference. Unfortunately, she remained an enigma to me. She was a Presbyterian WASP in a school full of Poles and Italians. At the time, I didn't even know what an Anglo-Saxon was; the best I could figure was that she was German. After high school, she went to a private college outside of Philadelphia, something unimagined to the majority of us who were headed for state schools or two-year county colleges. She lived up on a hill in a dignified neighborhood, away from the factories and railroad tracks that most of us were proximate to. My world was sited down along the river, revolving around the city of Passaic with its Main Avenue and its old textile mills and its immigrant ghetto tenements where my mother was raised. Of course, railroads were a key part of this world, along with kielbasa and Sunday mass and neighborhood candy stores and the sports section of the Daily News. There was both a geographic and social distance between Ms. S's world and mine. I didn't know what her world was about, and I wasn't going to take the chance of finding out.
(Ironically, I realized -- many years later -- that Ms. S's mother, who was listed as a yearbook supporter [not surprising given that Ms. S was the yearbook editor], had a Polish maiden name. So, Ms. S may have known a bit about "kielbasa and Sunday mass and neighborhood candy stores" after all.)wheels repeating the same gesture
remain relatively stationary:
rails forever parallel
return on themselves infinitely.
William Carlos Williams, Overture to a Dance of Locomotives
Something unplanned happened to me in senior year. I was a fairly good student, but I wasn't particularly interested in learning for the sake of learning. I mostly got through my classes with Bs and an occasional A-, nothing to get any awards for. But in senior year, something motivated me. The B's turned to B plusses and then A minuses, with the occasional A becoming more frequent. Before long, I was keeping up with Ms. S and her peers. Some part of me found a way to be close to her. And in doing that, my mind started to come alive to the world of thought and words. I started to enjoy the process of learning and thinking and analyzing. Well, I always was a thinker of sorts, but now I started to see classrooms and teachers and books in a different light, something more than the moral equivalent of a correctional facility. I started to see that perhaps there was something noble behind the notion of an educational institution; perhaps it was more than a place where I was brought to be humiliated.
Was it Ms. S's smile that inspired me? To be honest, there were other factors, chiefly an above-average set of teachers in senior year. But Ms. S's charms were like the gravitational pull of the sun on a passing comet, gloriously illuminating it and then hurling it off in an entirely new direction. After high school, I gradually came to learn the value of education and the power of the written word. I graduated summa cum laude from engineering school and went on to earn both a law degree and a masters in economics. I learned to love books and gained interest in a wide variety of subjects, so long as they were seen through the lens of critical reasoning. I believe this was triggered by a woman whose motto in her yearbook bio was "I think, therefore I am".
As to railroads, I learned first hand from them what the Latin phrase "sic transit gloria mundi" meant. How fleeting is the glory of the world. The railroad world that I knew and loved was lost. Things changed. The old stations and switch towers were closed and torn down. Many lines were abandoned. Those that weren't were largely automated. The caboose, that staple of fanciful childrens books about trains, became a thing of the past. Rail lines are no longer good places to talk with people. The few railroaders that are left are too busy and too worried about their jobs to talk these days. There are a lot more fences and police security. Trucks now deliver things to local factories and warehouses, not trains. Automated ticket machines have replaced station agents along the passenger lines. In general, trains are no longer a part of daily life in America, as they were when my parents grew up. They run like conveyor belts, moving coal and chemicals and containers to a few fenced-in terminal areas out in the remote parts of town.
No, railroads are no longer the locus of meaning in my life. I cherish the memory of my experiences along the rails, and still collect books and photos and other reminders of the way it once was. But now, the thing that truly inspires my life is the power of thought and word, the power of reasoning and education. No, I'm not an academian nor an author. I've had a variety of management staff positions in a variety of organizations (mostly government and non-profit, none of them railroad-related). I'm thought of as a smart paper-pusher, someone to be kept busy with menial administrative tasks most of the time but who comes in handy when there's a project needing sharp thinking and decent writing. It's not very inspiring, but then again, I've heard that academia and publishing can be pretty disappointing too. I do the best I can to use my mind and help people with it. It hasn't been a very exciting or inspiring life, but it was still better than chasing a burned-out dream from my youth.
Travelling in trains of time, succession and causality
From sleep to sleep, from dream to dream we pass
A long and ruinous track with many tunnels -
Such was the symbol given, the aspect worn.
The trains still ran, but not to my destination:
In distance and in time I had reached a stand-still
It seemed that time itself was being dismantled,
For as I watched, the iron tracks were gone.
Kathleen Raine, The Halt
As to Ms. S ... I have no idea whatever happened to her. After graduation from high school, I quickly lost touch with my class. I never heard what became of her. I'd have to imagine that she graduated from her private college and went on to grad school, then got married and pursued both family and career. I could see her and her husband and her kids having a good life, a life of thought and travel and culture and education. Perhaps she's a doctor, perhaps she edits books, perhaps she's a professor somewhere ... I never did find out.
As to me, I can't say that my love life went any better than my career did. It wasn't a total disaster, but it never really caught fire. I was married for a few years to an intelligent and literate woman, but it didn't work out. For a while, I wondered if my quiet nature and my thirst for meaning in life were drawing me toward the life of the monk. After a series of visits to various monasteries (some of them very memorable experiences), I realized that my own spirituality was not truly a monastic one. Although solitude and contemplation are very important to me, I can now see something else at the core of my being. Something that Katharine S perhaps glimpsed back in 1969.
Over the past 30 years, I have asked myself ... what did Ms. S see in me, other than another pimple-faced outcast? If she generally avoided the blue-collar ethnic kids from down in the river valley, why did she shine a light on me? I'd like to think that she saw something that I couldn't see at the time. I'd like to think that she knew I was a thinking man with a heart, a man interested in writing and knowledge, a man who would write and think about a better world. According to Enneagram analysis, I'm a "type 5", a person whose karma focuses on observation and thinking. However, according to Myers-Briggs analysis, I'm an INFJ -- a rare and idealistic type of person who wants to somehow help others. I'd like to think that Ms. S was and still is a fellow type 5 and INFJ, albeit one who had better advice on to how to be successful in this world (thus her many resume-building involvements in high school such as yearbook author; not to be overly cynical, as she volunteered much time and effort and did a very good job with it).
Would she remember me at all today? If she does, it may not be in a positive vein. I've known several INFJ women, and they tend to be very fragile if beautiful creatures. They damage rather easily, and don't forgive too quickly (I'm also guilty of this). Actually, I tried to leave Ms. S with a positive memory of me as high school ended. I wanted to somehow acknowledge and thank her for the "vibes" that she sent my way. They were like bright stars on a cold and lonely night. But I was still locked into my own plan at the time, even if Ms. S had altered my trajectory unbeknownst to me. Unfortunately, there were no open lines of communication. There was no way to say what I wanted to say.
But still I tried. On one of my Saturday railroad jaunts just before graduation, I sat in a grassy patch along a river, this time the Hudson River near Stony Point, waiting for a Penn Central freight run. On that misty morning, I had with me the inspiration for a poem (of sorts). A week before, I was standing with a friend in the Hillburn yards near the Ford auto plant in Mahwah, watching a westbound Erie Lackawanna train add a string of boxcars from the factory into its already lengthy consist. Railroaders called this a "pickup" as a technical term (and not a sexual reference). I usually tried to get up near the engines of a train so as to get a picture, but that day I was content to just watch from the middle of the yards. It struck me that Ms. S's unspoken presence in my life was like that railroad pickup, as it increased the size and variety of my own "train of experience", if you will. Inspired by that thought and by the Queen Annes lace surrounding me, I tried to use words to paint a picture of my conflicted emotions regarding Ms. S. When done well, a thing like that is called poetry. In my case, I'm not sure what it would be called. But after an hour or so, I had some lines down on a piece of paper. I titled it "Westbound Pickup" and folded it into my pocket. Some trains soon went past, and I headed for home.
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels
Thy train of cars, behind, obedient, merrily following,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
Walt Whitman, To A Locomotive In Winter
(Another irony: I unknowingly composed my little missive not far from George's Island, NY, where 90 years before, Ms. S's English great-grandparents lived and found employment in a brick factory. Brick mills were once quite common along that stretch of the Hudson River.)
I couldn't appreciate (or write) poetry back then, and I still can't. My mind is a bit too literal. Still, there was a quotient of feeling in "Westbound Pickup", and I wanted to convey it to the woman who inspired it. And then again I didn't, as I didn't want to make her think that I was changing my mind. Graduation was a few days away, so I had to make a choice. I wanted to say it and yet not say it. So I brought the "poem" or whatever it was with me to the graduation ceremony. Perhaps as I was leaving the field that evening I'd give it to her and run off into the sunset, never to be heard of again (shades of Bogart and Casablanca). Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn't see her. My friend Kenny and I got into my car and drove down to the big train yards in Secaucus, to watch the 9 pm westbound freight for Buffalo leave while celebrating with a ginger ale toast (Kenny had once lived a few houses away from Ms. S, and vaguely remembered her). We drove up near the Hackensack River, where I was about to throw the poem off the train bridge into the river (no, I didn't think about throwing myself into the river; I'm a survivor who 15 years later walked over another Hackensack River bridge at 2 am on the night my marriage ended and resisted the lure of the inky, shimmering waters below). But then I thought, NO, WAIT! It was graduation night, and it was only 9 o'clock. I had the right to do something silly and impulsive! So I told Kenny that we were going to drive up to the S residence on the hill and deposit the letter, encased in an official Erie Lackawanna Railway envelope, onto the property under the cover of darkness.
Well, we sat there in my car for a few minutes up the street from her house, casing the joint like some undercover men. Things were pretty quiet. Perhaps the S family had taken their daughter out to dinner at some dignified eating establishment. Whatever. We got out of the car and crept up near the house, depositing the work of art on the lawn near a bush. To make my intentions clear, I had scribbled "to K S" on the front. I never found out for sure if the missive ever reached its intended target. I do recall hearing the 10 pm westbound freight for St. Louis rolling by down in the valley below as we snuck up on the premises. And I recall receiving a rather mysterious phone call some days later from a female who didn't have much to say, other than a cynical laugh. Was it her? I never found out. A few weeks later I got my summer job on the railroad, and in September I started engineering school. High school involvements soon became a part of the distant past.
... very silent when I was out during meditation -- only a distant train.
To have only one far noise is now equivalent to silence.
Thomas Merton, Diary, Feb. 10, 1968
Here I am some 30 or more years later, a graduate of many different life experiences including marriage and other episodes of female relationship (a few, anyway). Actually, I'm glad that I never got to know the real Katharine S. She was different from me in many fundamental ways; it really wasn't meant to be. And yet, her influence turned out to have been much more important to my life than I had realized back when it was happening. Only many years later do I see the value of what she and I might have had in common.
You're right, Katharine; to think is to be. To learn is to grow. To be open-minded and inquisitive is to be forever young. Even though she doesn't know it, she helped me see what my own spirituality is about: being an eternal learner, a student of life for all of life. Perhaps not the most intelligent of students, perhaps not really intelligent at all. But I feel called to use my mind, however successfully or unsuccessfully. Called to use it in a way that somehow helps the Lord's children. The spirituality of thinking and learning can only be called a true spirituality if it somehow grounds itself in human caring. As various Biblical writers said, you truly know a spirit by the fruit of its works. Certainly, I must admit my many sins and failures in this regard. But at least I see myself better now. Ms. S inadvertantly taught me an important lesson. She was an unknowning prophet calling out in the wilderness. Let me again say what I fearfully tried to say with some obscure railroad allusions back in 1971. In plain English this time, let me say THANKS . . .