Train Travelogue – Part II

More dialogues with passengers aboard a cross-country Amtrak

Wednesday, April 13, 2011, 11:10 AM, Albuquerque, NM

As I deboard the train for exercise during our stopover, I notice an old man having great difficulty stepping down the coach stairs. There he stands wobbly on the platform, mustering the energy to walk hesitantly with a cane, struggling to pull his baggage. I offer to help him cross over the double set of tracks, pulling his baggage for him. We accomplish that, but since he is so halting I continue with him to the lobby.

He is in his nineties I would guess, tall and thin, arched forward perhaps from osteoporosis. The veins of his hands are purple and swollen under thin skin discolored with purpura blotches. He wears a wide-brim shade hat over a crop of gray hair. Bags under his eyes suggest insomnia.

Twenty minutes lapse before we reach the Amtrak lobby. My patience, at any rate, is getting its exercise, I muse. At my normal pace it would have taken but a minute to reach the building. As we find seating, I learn of his need to phone a retirement home for his ride there.

He slowly makes his connection on a pay phone as I guard his luggage. I begin to feel pressed for time since the train will be departing soon, but finally he shuffles back to me and we sit down together. I tell him I have some important things to do before the train departs without me. “I must leave now,” I tell him.

On hearing this, the tall frail man insists on standing up. He does so with great difficulty, aided by an alert young fellow sitting next to him. The 92-year-old railroad pensioner shakes my hand vigorously and says not once but twice, “You’re top o’ the heap! Top o’ the heap!”

His words of appreciation grip my heart as I envision myself someday in his shoes, if I should live so long. (I am 71.) Will there be some young man nearby to help me walk and stand when that day comes?

I hurry to fill two water bottles and buy a chicken sandwich, leaving him in the care of that gracious young man who hastened to help him. I turn back to see the two of them sitting together, smiling towards me as I run for my nearly departing train and wave goodbye.

 

1:08 PM, east of Albuquerque, NM

I just finished reading an excellent essay in the New Oxford Review by Eric Brende, “Why Consumerism Still Consumes Us.” It describes society’s loss of Christian puritan principles replaced by consumer hedonism.

What an ironic coincidence that so many Amish are aboard, the Anabaptist cousins of the Hutterites, Mennonites, Shakers, Bruderhofs, et al. They are the last vestiges of the Puritan work ethos that made America great. The Brende article comments about the changing Amish lifestyle and how it’s falling prey to our conspicuous consumption. I hope to ask the bearded Amish man next to me if he would care to read it, just to see how he reacts. He is so stoic looking I hesitate to disturb him.

Amtrak’s seating has no lumbar support and is most unpleasant. I recall the comfort I felt sitting in shaped wooden chairs built by the Shakers a century ago. Their work ethic endures in prized functional relics of handcrafted furniture built by devoted craftsmen in self-sustaining communities for two centuries. Only three active members remain in a sprawling community near Poland, Maine, that I visited on a previous trip. Their homespun lifestyle is about to go extinct.

The Shakers considered manual work a sacrament deserving of meticulous attention to every notch, pin, or bevel. Today, such quality workmanship is rare in secular society and less evident than say 50 years ago. Calligraphy is a dying art. Computerized assembly-line machines and heartless tin robots are punching out inexpensive, durable metal chairs for mass consumption ― while ravaging the heartfelt humanity of dedicated craftsmanship, once so prevalent in America.

The Amish as Anabaptist cousins of the Shakers have resisted high technology conveniences, preferring the austerity of “doing without” to quicken spirituality. Yet, modern society has lately caused a more pliant attitude among them. I reread an excerpt from the Brende article: “See that van whoosh by? Look closer and you will spy a group of men in long beards and black hats ― driven by their paid chauffeur in a leased Suburban, perhaps on their way to a Phillies game, where they may well own a private box …. Others will not be visible at all because they are wintering in Florida at the Amish condominium community known as Pinecraft, near Sarasota” (NOR, April 2011).

If I get to speak to one of the Amish here, I will take pleasure in telling him I have never owned a TV or a cell phone. Like me, however, the Amish are feeling the pressure to keep up with the times, and many now carry cell phones (phone booths are becoming passé), use convenient electricity (candle light only in emergencies), and sport a car instead of a horse and buggy.

 

2:00 PM, west of Raton, NM

I walk the aisles until I find a more kindly face among stern, grim visages. I sit next to a man in the lounge. He is a good looking man in his 30s, with spectacled brown eyes and a full beard. He wears his brimmed black hat but removes it for our conversation.

After a hesitant beginning with small talk, we enter a lengthy conversation. His speech pattern is a little difficult to understand ― a cross between French, German, and English. I can understand most of what he says but find it difficult when he pronounces, for example, ‘says’ as rhyming with ‘ways’ or ‘goote’ for good. I knew upfront that the Amish are not compelled to attend school beyond 8th grade, so I find myself upgrading his elementary choice of words for journaling purposes, to clearly capture what he means to say.

I learn the group of Amish returning to Missouri on board this train has just had Mexican medical services done at one-third the U.S. cost.

“What do you think of the medical services you received?” I ask him.

“I have naught to compare it with, but that many of us over the years have been so well treated seems proof enough of quality.”

“So what kind of care do you go there for?”

“Everything, except emergencies. We got good dental care, all forms of major surgery, including stem cell therapy. We Amish have no national health insurance like Medicare. We all contribute to a community health plan that allows no frivolous issues. We must be frugal and responsible.”

He has a couple of front teeth missing that softens his ‘s’s. I ask why he did not get that cared for in Mexico.

“Well, our community doesn’t have enough money for that right now.”

He continues to relate that his wife had a massive stomach hernia, likely from a Caesarian section with their fourth child. Even today the Amish tend to have large families, much as my own Catholic Italian ancestors did a hundred years ago. His wife, whom he met at a family gathering, is 12 years older than him. “It was ‘love at first sight.’” His wife’s sister wed his uncle who thus became his brother-in-law as well. I had to digest what that meant, having an uncle who is also a brother-in-law.

This practice of clannish inbreeding has caused genetically defective offspring not only for the Amish but for Hassidic Jews as well. Come to think of it, isolated Appalachian clans present serious disabilities, too. No question the human race has been inbreeding all the way back to Genesis. My family came close to clannish inbreeding: I have a paternal aunt who wedded my maternal uncle. Their two male offspring are my genetic double-cousins.

This Amish fellow says he owns and operates a health-food store in their town. I am curious about their daily routine.

“We go to bed at 9 PM, up at 4:30 AM. All meals are self-prepared and eaten at home except for gatherings at Sunday service. The Bread and Wine sacrament we celebrate twice a year at Easter and Oktoberfest. We keep silent throughout the day unless work or our neighbor require speech.”

I remember how the Trappist monks practiced silence except for similar reasons. I wonder what other sacrifices besides limited education these folks have made for their close-knit communities. It would be easy to spawn a false rumor or religious delusion among them, accepting hearsay as fact many generations later.

I ask, “Have you ever heard of contemplative prayer or ‘practicing the Presence?’”

He says with his unusual deference, “No, sir, I sure haven’t.”

He is genuinely humble and polite, which I find lacking in society’s educated mainstream. Ivy-league sheepskins at high cost have failed to confer this upon us.

He sits quietly next to me, gazing out the lounge window, as his wife joins us.

I stand to let her sit with him. She looks haggard, pale, and much older ― in her late 40s, I would guess. I had hopes he would quiz me about ‘practicing the Presence’ and contemplative prayer, but he says nothing more, with a nod to her. They retreat behind a moated wall and lift a draw bridge. I’m no longer welcome.

I say goodbye with a wave of my hand and return to my coach. Not sure how I feel: maybe as an unwanted alien or an infidel unworthy of their company. Maybe they are right to protect themselves from the consumerism I represent. I suspect neither need to ask about deep prayer. Their reverent manners offer us evidence of habitually practicing God’s presence all day long.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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