Train Travelogue – Part V

Why do I keep meeting like-minded people on the train?

On an Amtrak train approaching Maryland, Friday, April 15, 2011

Craig invites Jason, a young genius in his late twenties, to join us. He is a non-degreed application technician devoted to robots as chief artist and scientist in the employ of Mechanimal in Pittsburgh, PA. He is traveling to D.C. to demonstrate robotics at the Natural American History Museum, a free show for kids during Spring break. He speaks of his creation as a loving father would his child. I think maybe I’ll try to see the show, so I take his business card.

Jason looks of Scottish descent, fair-skinned, narrow-faced, skinny and tall. He looks the role of geeky genius, wearing a silver twin-bobbed pin piercing through his skin at the nose bridge where the eyebrows meet. His clothes are fashionable — celebrity tailored and artistically combined, with his rusty-red shirt matching his red beard and shoulder length, unkempt hair. His green eyes complement the color of his vest.

I ask him for the names of colleges noted for robotics, hoping he’ll mention my alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). However, he states without the slightest hesitation, “Academia really hasn’t kept pace. Academic degrees actually just get in the way of inspiration and creativity.”

“You have a point! The same thing has happened in religion.”

“Please explain,” Janet says to me, looking eager to hear my response.

“Highfalutin intellectual theology suffocates the true spirit of Christianity at ground level. People seem to forget that Jesus of Nazareth was a non-degreed carpenter and most of his Apostles were fishermen. Yet, the Church keeps trying to explain His common sense doctrine with burdensome tomes that few lay folk read or understand.”

“Given the rampant clergy scandal, the Church has failed to reach me,” Janet says.

“And me,” says Craig.

We all are distracted from further discussion on this delicate topic by the gorgeous scenery of  Savage River State Forest in West Virginia. We’re still 100 miles west of D.C.

 

10:43 AM, entering Maryland

Maryland was named after Queen Mary, the Catholic English monarch, because in 1633 it was settled and governed by mostly Catholics.

The river alongside our tracks is about 30 feet wide and rushing south inside a deep gorge. Before we reached the mountain summit, the river seemed to be flowing north. Maybe my lack of sleep has me imagining things.

My AT&T cell phone is in a null zone, so I cannot phone my sister Lisa to let her know I’m late.

 

10:51 AM, Cumberland, Maryland

George Washington had his first military engagement and built his headquarters here in 1750. It’s titled the Queen City of the Alleghenies, once the second largest city in Maryland. Too bad I don’t have ready Google access now for more detailed historical descriptions.

 *

I am sitting across from two older men who like me are close to or in their seventies. I sit by the window and could have dozed, or watched the scenery go by, but I am committed to meet America in its people. So I introduce myself to the well-built man sitting next to me who has been chatting with the other two men across the aisle.

I overhear them discuss their teaching experiences. Since I taught at a vocational school for two years, I have a few things to say about it. I enjoyed teaching but only to eager students. I taught about 30 years ago, but these guys taught until recently. The four of us must have sounded like a gaggle of geese, loudly honking in complaints about the kids today being ignorant of simple “Reading, Riting, and Rithmatic.” One man said that Chinese students would soon be four grades above our students of the same age in mathematics. If we don’t shape up soon, they’ll decimate us economically.

To my delight, I opened a flood gate of commentary.

“I was a high school principal retired after 30 years on a typically skimpy pension that isn’t offered anymore to newcomers. To keep from going bonkers, I took a part-time job as personnel manager of a supermarket chain. I’ve had to approve hiring older teens girls who can’t count and can’t write or speak proper English. Our primary education system is failing miserably.” He sat on the other side of the aisle by the window.

A former middle school teacher next to him said, “I expected homework to be done on time, but few ever turned anything in. When I told their parents, they shielded their kids and made excuses for them. God help them as adults working a job that requires reports.” He was balding and bearded.

“A form of child abuse when overprotective like that,” the first man said.

The third teacher turned farmer said, “Kids today are like an untrained grape vine that grows wild on a trellis. Without ‘tough love’ pruning, they produce little of worth in life.” He was sitting next to me.

“‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ will ruin this nation,” the second man added. “Kids who disobey parents won’t obey the laws of the land either. We’re headed for big trouble. The day is coming when scandals and rip-offs will be expected. A simple handshake was all we needed …our word was our bond, but not anymore.” He wiped his head every time he spoke.

“All the bleeding heart liberals say spanking is bad. What a pile of rubbish!” the first man adds. “We’re raising a generation of white-collar criminals who haven’t a twinge of guilt after ripping off people in subtle Ponzi schemes like Bernie Madoff and the Enron government bail-outs.” He tried to twist toward me to speak but his big belly wouldn’t allow it.

Then I chipped in, “My younger brother was a handful as a kid, back in the early 1950s, but now owns and operates two producing gold mines. I asked my mom if she had ever used Dr. Spock’s book on him, and she said, ‘It was exactly the right size to smack his butt with so I didn’t hurt my hand.’” That got a chuckle from the former teachers and nearby folks who overheard me.       

Then our discussion turns to the impact of advanced technology on humanity, each contributing to the discussion so rapidly that I can’t record who said what.

“You see kids today thumb-texting on a cell phone keyboard all day long.”

“I see kids walking around with ear plugs, though talking to themselves. When I was a kid, anyone talking to himself was crazy as a coot.”

“That’s it. They’ve all gone crazy. I saw four of them huddled on a subway across from me, texting to their friends sitting right next to them.”

“Cell phones create an illusion of intimacy that’s isolating us more than ever. Youth don’t look anymore into one another’s eyes. They’d rather text offensive memos without taking trouble to cushion their differences.”

“Hell, Big Brother can track someone’s every move with cell phone GPS, and a drone missile aimed at exact coordinates might someday kill off an enemy walking down the street, and nobody would know why. Scary times are coming.”

“It’s scary already. What if North Korea launches an EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse) bomb that fries all our electronic gear? Or how about a massive solar flare?” I asked. None dared consider such questions and the conversation died a natural death.

Why do I keep meeting like-minded people on this train? I guess the silent moral majority of Middle America conservatives along this train route outnumber all others. Maybe the more educated, wealthy folks prefer traveling on planes and dare not risk Amtrak’s dismal trains.

I am weary of all the chatter, so I find myself dozing. I wander into a daydream about what would happen after a major catastrophe. At that point, we educated seniors might finally get a little respect from youngsters dependent on our legacy knowledge of long division, of cursive writing, and of a vocabulary that comprehends printed instructions in survival manuals. I dream of all us older folks dying off and the arcane knowledge of wise traditions going to the grave with us, and of our spoiled progeny striking flint stones for fire and using bows and arrows to hunt boar.

 

To Be Continued…

 

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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