Train Travelogue – Part VI

A long train journey ends with family

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1:00 PM, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Friday, April 15, 2011

Jason, Craig, Joe, and I sit together in the train’s lounge. We are absorbed in the luscious scenery where Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland conjoin with the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The Appalachian Trail runs through here. We are entering the quaint tourist district of Harpers Ferry, a collection of buildings with patio restaurants, a wax museum, and cheerful flags. Thomas Jefferson described this region as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.” The tree foliage is not seasonally dense enough yet to block our view of a certain street in town.

Joe, a retired US history professor, points to the John Brown Fort as our train crosses the Potomac.

“That’s where John Brown at age 59 in 1859, with three of his sons, led a raid on the federal armory that George Washington established there. During that raid, Brown seized the armory and held hostage 60 local land and business owners, hoping the local slaves would join him. He intended to arm those freed slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but his plan failed.

“Within 36 hours, Brown’s men, after being surrounded, had either fled, been killed, or captured by local farmers, militiamen, or US Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee. Ten of Brown’s 21 followers, including two of his sons, were killed. One of those female slaves he ‘rescued’ was an ancestor of mine.”

Jason’s head swivels to Joe. “Really? You have an ancestor who was involved in the raid?”

“That’s what my folks passed down in family lore. Can’t be sure, though.”

“So Brown managed to escape?”

“Yes, but Brown was captured soon after by federal forces and his hanging a month later gripped the nation’s attention. Every newspaper had details about his life, how he killed slave holders in Kansas in raids, then went back to New England and convinced The Secret Six, a group of abolitionists, to provide him financial support. He hoped all the slaves would rise up and form an unstoppable force.”

“Why didn’t they?”

“Hard to say. I’d have to guess fear, mostly. A meal you can count on is worth two in the bush. But historians agree Brown’s raid played a major role in the start of the Civil War. The fuse had long been set for a conflict that would slaughter over 620,000 patriotic men. John Brown seemed to know that he was to be the spark, if not the new saint, of a righteous and noble cause. He was willing to die a martyr’s death for what he believed in.

“’This is a beautiful country,’ Brown said, while seated on his coffin being driven to the gallows. He wrote on a slip of paper, ‘I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.’ His statement was prophetic of a Civil War that cost more lives than all other American wars combined.”

“My high school teacher never brought history to life as you did for me, just now.”

“You can thank my ancestor for that.”

 

1:20 PM, Leesburg, Virginia

We’re passing a rail yard on our west side, with 15 sets of tracks and hundreds of loaded coal cars from mining operations hereabouts. The forest gets much thicker as we move south into Shenandoah country. The decayed forests of long ago now sit in coal cars, the labor of miners with faces painted black from coal dust. Many of them die in middle-age from black lung disease.

We are not far from D.C., where another sort of pollution from dirty politics kills people.

 

2:30 PM, Union Station, Washington, D.C.

We’re arriving 1 ½ hours late due to the priority of freight trains over Amtrak, which rents use of available rail tracks. This nation desperately needs to modernize passenger train service.

We four part company in the D.C. train station and promise to communicate.

*

I reach Budget Car Rental after a labyrinthine ordeal involving two escalators and one elevator. The station signage is deficient. I complain to a security officer seated in a raised podium. He blames the station administrator. Minor complaints like mine likely go in one ear and out the other. A suspicious unattended suitcase is what they might get worked up about.

Once in my rental car, I find the traffic out of D.C. is, as expected, heavily congested on the two-lane Route 29/15 south. Compared to California, traffic engineering here is backward and inadequate ― surprising in the capital of the greatest nation on Earth. California’s six-lane freeways are a motorist’s dream compared to this shameful nightmare. I spend three anguished hours driving 78 miles on a congested third-world roadbed to meet my sister in Culpeper.

 

5:37 PM, Culpeper, VA

I arrive in downtown Culpeper, corner of Main and David Streets, and phone my sister, knowing she will be working at her restaurant. She gives me simple directions, so I can find her parking lot. I see a slim, curvaceous Italian beauty with an olive complexion and dark brown eyes and hair. We hug each other, after five years apart — since our mother’s funeral in 2006. She was 34 when our father died  and 46 when our mother died. She’s had it rough, being the baby of the family and 17 years younger than me. The elegant entrance to the 150-year-old building frames her in a living portrait.

Her Chiusano Italian Table is off-street in old town, in a renovated elevator factory decorated inside with an Italian ambiance ― the perfect setting. Pictures of our immediate family decorate the walls. A Frank Sinatra recording (O Solo Mio) plays in the background, as my sister’s fresh Italian seasonings waft through the air. The dining room is packed with clientele, as she ushers me to a small reserved table and serves a steaming dish of spaghetti and meatballs. The first taste flashes me back to my mother’s magic. There are over 20 different Italian cuisines, but my sister has captured our mother’s Calabrese-Sicilian style to perfection.

Patrons seated nearby notice how she dotes over me, her oldest sibling, but turn away to pretend they’re studying pictures hung on the wall. Lisa eagerly introduces me to them.

“I can see a resemblance to those wall pictures of him,” an older woman says, while sipping her glass of red wine.

I cringe over my lost youth. Time has taken its toll.

*

My visit preceded by four months the August 2011, 5.8 magnitude Mineral Earthquake felt by tens of millions of people along the East Coast. In Culpeper’s old town the structural damage to buildings was especially severe. My sister’s restaurant roof, deemed unsafe, sadly forced its closure and liquidation.

 

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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