3/22/2004

Train Ride With F. Scott Fitzgerald

Of all the fine conveyances that have conducted me from Point A to Point B, perhaps none has been so tranquil, so meditative, as the glass train. Even on an Apache helicopter lilting over the rice paddies--even watching the sun unscroll on the water below through a lens of pot-damage--you still have engine noise to contend with, and the distant possibility that you'll be called to fire this gun that's right now resting against your leg. Not so the glass train. Here, where an engine would be, there is only glass. One spreads one's lanky frame out on one of the broad pews in the front car and watches the world chugging steadily toward oneself. Well, there are disturbances, but aren't there always?

The French call their railroads "Chemin du Fer," where "Fer" refers to the iron construction of the track, and all other languages save English (railroad) use cognate phrases. However, the French would not call the glass train the "Chemin du Vitreau"; the track on which the glass train proceeds is not made of glass, but of conjoined wood blocks, rather like enormous bits of typeface.

The last time I traveled by glass train, the floodwaters had just receded. We could still see the standing liquid in the ditches that ran alongside the track, and the earth was swampy. F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that the mosquitoes would be hell this year. In places, the deluge had washed the track out, and I would have to climb down from the front car, walk all the way to the back of the stopped train, remove a heavy piece of wooden track, and carry it all the way to the front, to fill in the gap ahead of us. It was hard work. The corners of the heavy wood I carried, cut into my belly, and splinters were a very real possibility. But soon we would be moving again, and my sense of equillibrium would return. There were only two of us in the front car--me and Scott Fitzgerald--and the silence and the breeze were pleasing.

It was late day when we came to a screeching halt. Another, non-glass train, having arrived from the other direction, stopped on our tracks facing us. There was an impasse of sorts. Only a dozen yards or so separated the two vehicles, and in that impasse was a large gap in the track. Then the bagpipers and horses and flagbearers disembarked from the other train. We all climbed out to watch them.

The bagpipers, in full Scottish guard regalia, struck up an air of such surpassing loveliness I found myself saluting them. It could have been a song of love, but when I saw the flag-draped coffin being lowered into the soft earth, I understood that this was a funeral. A firefighter's funeral, to judge by the device of the flag--on a field an axe rampant, within a wreath of hose. We all held our breath while the damp sod was shoveled on. When the burial was over, the funeral party traipsed off over the land toward the distant horizon, leaving their empty train behind him.

My fellow-passengers continued to mill around on the siding, as though after church. I noticed Mr. Fitzgerald had not doffed his cap.

I hurried to the back of the train to retrieve some track pieces to fill in the space between our glass train and the other train, not glass. When I tried to insert them, I heard the crowd shouting. F. Scott Fitzgerald's voice rang out above the others. "Not there, you idiot" he said. He pointed to the far end of the train that was in our way. "Put it down there." I saw what he meant. On our train, we were stuck, even if the track between us and our obstruction was in good repair. But we could restore the track this other train had torn up behind it, board that train, and ride it backwards to the place where we were going, albeit without the comfort and freedom of glass.

I stood up, my equilibrium a distant memory. I tucked the piece of track into his gut the way a quarterback hands off a football. "Do it yourself, motherfucker," I told him. This got a good laugh from the crowd, and F. Scott Fitzgerald really had no option but to slink off to do the necessary track repair. It's the kind of thing I never say to people, and I have to admit it felt good. F. Scott Fitzgerald was evidently impressed as well, because he paused at the edge of earshot to yell back to me joyfully, "Goddammit, man! I'll meet you on the broad fields of Erin!" If we both manage to reach our destination, he and I, I suppose we'll have to have a drink.