Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

BLOG #25, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Four)
June 18, 2014

Now we come to the end of our study on Amtrak trains and I’ve saved the most unexpected aspect until last: the impact of trains on young people. Not only that, but how I related to them.

Let me begin with the lovely young coed from Mesa State, the one who was so taken with the far-ranging conversation around our breakfast table. Permit me to begin with her appearance. Since her eyes still retained that magical childlike sense of wonder about the world around her, I‘m all but certain she’d been home-schooled. We saw no tatoos, no jewelry hanging from lips, cheeks, or nose. Clearly, she was highly intelligent and most curious about our worlds. Later on, I chatted with her for a while in the Observation Car. Some time later, as I walked past her coach seat, she moved over and asked if I’d be willing to talk with her for a while. She was full of questions about life, what it was all about, how she was to avoid the moral and ethical land-mines laying in wait for her at every turn. I told her about my 2014 Christmas in My Heart story, “The Tides of Life,” the love story of an artist just a little older (at the beginning of the story) than she. But her questions ranged so much wider than art that I introduced her to the 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in which I distill the most significant life-related wisdom God has entrusted to me during my lifetime. Also how I was able to incorporate that wisdom into what I called “The Nightingale Assignment,” a six-week period during which I challenged each student to come up with goals they could live with, and strive toward. Sometime during the discussion, she brought up the subject of birthdays, shyly admitting, “My birthday was ten days ago.” That was all I needed. Telling her I’d be right back, I moved forward to my seat, rummaged around in my briefcase for a book, took it back to her, and then showed that it was Christmas in My Heart 22, which contained that goal-setting story; then backdated it to her birth-date, and inscribed it to her. She then told me that a certain soldier had been moving in on her and she didn’t know how she could hold him off. She was so overcome by my taking so much time to talk to her, listen to her, and offer counsel, that she broke down in tears, convulsively hugging me. One of the last things she said to me was, “Oh, how much I wish I could have been one of your students!” I told her I’d always be there for her, no further away than a letter, email, or phone call. She got off the train at Grand Junction. But I’m hoping our time together and the stories in the book will make a real difference in her life.

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Our reason for making the trip was to attend a 55th alumni weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, Pacific Union College in the verdant Napa Valley. While there, as one of their honorees, I was asked to speak about the impact of my own principal mentor, Dr. Walter Utt, who I’d worked for three years. I told those assembled of the incredible impact that one man had on my life, how he’d remained in touch with me–until his untimely death [he was a hemophiliac] in his early fifties from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion out of San Francisco. I noted that after that never-to-be-forgotten remembering service (after I returned home), in gratitude to Dr. Utt’s impact on my life, I made a vow to God to make mentoring the #1 priority of the rest of my life.

Well, two days later, we boarded the eastbound Amtrak in Sacramento. We were soon climbing the newly snow-capped Sierras [a snow storm had just made a significant deposit of moisture in the higher Sierra Nevada Mountains]. In order to revel in the beauty more, I found my way forward to the Observation Car, and took a seat just inside the door. Turns out I’d joined a large group of college students and young singles. They were curious about me and I about them. For some unknown reason, I was impressed to ask a coed this question, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” In seconds, her face was radiant–and the entire group was galvanized by the question and her answers. Afterwards, I asked another student the same question, and another, and another. By this time, older people in the car had figured out that they were missing out on something really interesting–so they moved into our group. The students were soon asking me questions. Learning I was a full-time author, and had been for many years a college professor of English, they pumped me for all I was worth. During the course of the next couple of hours I’d referenced the mantras for making a success of life in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Incredibly, that half of the Observation Car became my class, and they proclaimed me to be their teacher. I passed out all the business cards I had left. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating and far-reaching discussions on life I’ve ever had.. Finally, I told them I’d better see how my wife was and left them; I didn’t see them for some hours afterwards, and they then reproachfully asked me why I’d deserted them.

It was late afternoon, when at one of our Nevada stops, many of us disembarked in order to get some fresh air. Several of those students were turning the air blue with cigarette smoke–so thick were the fumes that I couldn’t stand getting too close to them. But even so, the coed I’d spoken to first in the Observation Car turned to me, and in an earnest voice said, “Dr. Wheeler, do you know why I’m on this train?” I’m on because I wanted to get some answers about what life is all about. ”

I assumed I’d later be able to find her and follow up on her open invitation for me to talk with her personally. But unfortunately, she got off at the next stop. I’ve been troubled ever since . . . and prayed that, if it be His will, that God would have her reconnect with me.

So what does all this mean? I submit that there was something about Amtrak travel that caused all those students to buy tickets on The California Zephyr for reasons perhaps unknown even to themselves. But clearly they were seeking answers. Even more, they were seeking people who really cared about them, their goals, their dreams.

I suspect that they aren’t finding those answers in the hedonistic society we’re part of today. For universities have all but abandoned God, country, and values worth living by. People who attempt to live by a spiritual code are ridiculed and discounted. Thus these young people who clung to me like a life raft had clearly found in me something they weren’t finding anywhere else.

I will never be the same person I was ten days before. Nor, I am guessing, will those young people who spontaneously annointed me as their “professor.” And who got off the train with at least a few of their life-related questions dealt with or answered.

SPECIAL NOTE: All illustrations in this series taken from Amtrak Timetable and Vacations.

Trains — The New Way to Travel (Part Three)

BLOG #24, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAINS – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Three)
June 11, 2014

During that long night, the train would stop at Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City, Utah. At Salt Lake City, many got off, and many got on. But since the overhead lights were left at dim, we were only partly aware of the stops. Then came Elko and Winemucca, Nevada; but again we were little aware of the stops. Not until Reno, did we thoroughly awaken. By breakfast time, we were climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Never before had we seen so little snow in the Sierras in mid-April. It was late afternoon when the train drew into the Old Sacramento train station. Here we disembarked, rented a car, and drove up the San Joaquin Valley to Red Bluff, where my sister and brother-in-law live.

IMAX ON WHEELS

A week later, we boarded the east-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento. Right on time. By now we’d become one with the rhythm of the train and life inside it.

Europeans and world travelers are fascinated by America’s vast open spaces, the grandeur of the West; for there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. They don’t show that fascination in planes–but they certainly do in trains. On trains you see people from all over the world who are entranced by the majesty of the American landscape. To them, rolling through the West in an Amtrak car is like looking through IMAX lenses at some of the world’s most iconic scenery slowly rolling by. Just as interesting: to see Americans discover for the very first time their own heritage outside their windows.

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Everywhere we’d been, during that intervening week, people had asked us what it was like to travel on a train. We couldn’t have attracted much more attention if we’d announced we’d be on the next space flight. Because we live in a “ho-hum” and “whatever” time, almost never do people get energized or excited about anything any more. Planes certainly don’t excite any more; indeed, the normal response to hearing we’re taking a plane somewhere is either complete boredom or commiseration. Not even cruise ship travel excites any more. But rather, “sure hope you don’t get sick!” or “Where you going this time?” Hardly anyone travels by bus anymore. And car travel is–just car travel. This is why it’s so amazing to see so many people light up and gush when told we’re traveling by train. “Oh, be sure and tell me what it’s like when you get back!” or “You lucky guy! Can I tag along?”

Life has, in truth, come full circle: what’s old has become new, and what’s new has become old. Retro is in. Roughing it is in. Five-star hotels are passé. Children and young people are searching for experiences that are fresh, new, and not cookie cutter. This is why trains are in and planes are out.

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Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon is true on trains. All you hear around you are variations on “Thank God we’re traveling by train!” “Isn’t plane travel awful!” “Isn’t it great to be free to get up, walk around, talk to people, play games, eat whatever or whenever we want, relax or sleep, with no timetable to worry about!”

Really, it’s one big mutual admiration society! Hardly a soul wants to be anywhere else but on a train. And they love the Observation Car. The interaction with people of all ages, the running down to the snack area below whenever they want a bite to eat, the opportunity to play board games, to laugh, to reminisce, to joke–but more than anything else: to talk with people and find out what makes them tick.

Then there’s the Dining Car (right next to the Observation Car). We actually looked forward to the three full meals a day they offer there. The food was surprisingly good. And the vegetarian options were most palatable. But really, you’d have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the full difference. Had we been traveling by auto, it would have taken us two and a half days (including two nights at a motel), the stress of driving long hours, finding acceptable eating options on the road, gas costs alone would have totaled over $500 for the round trip–not counting repair problems or road hazards. Meals would have cost us at least as much, per meal, as on board Amtrak.

But oh the difference! To get on the train and be able to fully relax. No driving pressures. No hauling in and out suitcases each night. No missing much of the scenery because of driving demands. Just sit back, relax, and watch America slowly pass by. Tired of sitting? Wander down to the Snack Car, the Observation Car, the Dining Car. Get acquainted with your fellow passengers.

Occasionally, one of the train personnel would get on the mike and tell us about the history of sites we were passing by. Later on, I discovered that someone has written and published three books detailing every significant history-related spot in the entire transcontinental train route from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I saw all three in one of the train station gift shops.

There’s also not a little of “Now that we’re here, let’s close the door! We don’t want too many people to discover how wonderful train travel is, because they might then wreck it for the rest of us.”

The one sad negative for the host of wanabee train travelers is that trains service all too few locales across the country. Radically different than it used to be when trains connected virtually every hamlet in America. Europe is much more fortunate than we are in this respect.

Next week, I’ll be bringing to a conclusion my paean to train travel.”

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MEMORIES THAT BLESS AND BURN

Last Wednesday, I revisited my past, the face of which was a long ago student of mine, Donna Diebel Beehler.

All too rarely, does the frantic pace of my life slow down enough for reflection. And without reflection we lose focus; we risk veering off course, forgetting to re-ask ourselves Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who am I?” “Where have I come from?” “Where am I going?”

So it was good to go back to one of the earliest stages of my teaching career, to the campus of Sacramento Adventist Academy. More beautiful even than it had been in the 1960s – except its iconic symbol, its great oak, was no longer there. Other trees vainly attempted to take its place, but it was not the same for limned in a double-exposure image was the tree that was still there – in my heart.

Have you ever noticed how certain moments of your lifetime are frozen in time? When time itself seems to momentarily stop. I looked for the classroom where it happened. It was an early November afternoon, and I was teaching an English class – or trying to, for afternoon classes are, by nature, sluggish. Suddenly, the door of the classroom was yanked open, and a student cried out, “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!” With those six words, all classroom control vanished. Television was so new back then, there wasn’t even a set on campus. All we had was radio. We all headed to the gymnasium, as I remember, to listen to ongoing commentary – every last one of us in a state of shock.

* * * * *

Later in the day, Connie and I managed to find our way – no easy task after all these years – to our old home on Pueblo Avenue. It was still there! Just a different color. I embarrassed Connie by stopping, walking up to the front door, and ringing the bell. When a man opened it, looking at me quizzically, I explained: “We used to live in this house.” After inviting me in, and summoning Connie from the car, we revisited that part of our lives: The foyer (once amber bottled glass by the door) where our then little boy, Greg, used to sit in the morning sun, mauling our Siamese cat, Nuteena (fondly called “No Nuts” because he’d been neutered).

Next door, a Majong-obsessed couple used to live – they regularly hosted noisy Majong tournaments. But what we remembered most vividly was that dreadful weekend of Kennedy’s assassination when we crashed our neighbor’s house (they had a TV and we didn’t) and sat with them in their living room, immersed in the gloomy black and white (no color then) images of Washington in mourning beamed into households all across the nation. This couldn’t be happening! But it was. What I remember most clearly: the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, the firing of guns, the somber bells, choral dirges, muffled voices; standing on the steps of the Capitol, beautiful Jackie dressed in black, holding little John John’s hand, dressed in his now famous blue jacket – and his saluting as the body of his father went past; the long lines of mourners slowly walking by the coffin – and people weeping unashamedly.

And next morning, our neighbor banging on our door, shouting, “Come on over! Oswald has just been shot!” Blood, blood everywhere – the end of innocence for our generation. That did it! We drove down to Sears and bought our first television set.

* * * * *

That evening, en route to an alumni gathering in Rancho Murietta, we drove by one of my alma maters, Sacramento State University. And my mind drifted back to one of the key epiphanies of my lifetime: It was a sizzling summer afternoon and I was sauntering past an open door when I heard a familiar voice, “Joe! Got a minute?” It was Dr. Victor Comerchero, one of the University’s most beloved teachers. I’d taken several English classes from him. After some small talk, he got to the point – bluntly: “Joe, what are you doing here?” Noticing my bemusement, he chuckled and added, “What I really mean is, what are you doing with your life?”

I sputtered, “Well, I’m taking English classes, trying to bring my undergraduate English minor up to a major.”

“The reason, I asked, Joe, is that I’ve been looking over your records . . . . Do you realize you’re half way to a Masters in English? Why are you wasting time with just aimlessly taking classes?”

My mouth gaped open. Huh? Half way to a second Masters? Suddenly, my inner stars came into alignment as I considered the ramifications and resultant possibilities. So many times since, I’ve thought back to that life-changing moment when a busy professor on a hot summer afternoon (with no air-conditioner in his office) cared enough for a student he barely knew, to search his academic records, stop that student as he walked by, and challenge him to build a foundation under his dreams. The result was that I completed my course work, wrote my thesis on utopian and dystopian writers; even before graduation, my proximity to that second Masters catapulted me out of the high school classroom into the collegiate world, clearing the way for my Vanderbilt doctorate and all that has followed.

* * * * *

But my life nevertheless remains imprinted on one seamless bolt of cloth. In God’s eternal scheme of things, Sacramento Adventist Academy was just as significant as Sacramento State University and Vanderbilt University – each would play a central role in my life’s journey; just so, equal weight to the human faces along the way: Donna Diebel Beehler and Debbie Bighaus-West (more on her later), Dr. Victor Comerchero, and Drs Warren Titus and Kenneth Cooper of Vanderbilt University.

For each of them, I am profoundly grateful.