I am thinking back to my last
days on the rail.
Back to a final run that ended
in Cave City, KY.
My conductor and I
waiting for a van ride home.
We dogged, didn’t make it.
Thinking back to the train derailment
in Colesburg, Kentucky.
Thinking back to the locker room
Sitting at the picnic table, in the crew room –
listening to five trainmasters
make light of an unsafe situation
that could have killed
four of my union brothers
and possibly an entire town.
A 16,000 plus ton train.
Two locomotives on the head-end.
Two locomotives in the middle.
The train being in total, almost two miles long.
Two days before, a train just like this one
came off the rail putting 20 something
cars on the ground.
Half of it, still sitting up on Tunnel Hill.
Rumors, as of that morning were;
that the cleanup crew while
trying to move the rest of the derailed train,
what was left of it, almost derailed again.
I am thinking about the day
that broke the camel’s back.
My plan was to go to work and
just do what they tell me to do.
The trains that we were being expected
to run, were the talk of the town.
Something was always going wrong,
numbers were being crunched,
books being cooked, and we were all
being expected to just, “run the plan.”
I am thinking about
with my bosses.
The tremendous pressure that was
causing them to try and gauge
what my modus operandi would
be for that day.
One on the bosses, matter of fact,
the Terminal Superintendent,
suggested that he had heard,
“that us Louisville boys
don’t really like this train.”
I asked the railroad officials
the names of the people who were
almost killed the day before.
They didn’t know their names.
I am thinking about what I said,
pissed off more than ever before.
I almost marked off sick. Language, native.
A language only railroaders know.
Marking off sick,
the ace up the sleeve
that gives us a way out.
I told them very sternly
to get out of my fucking face.
I told them, I would show them how
to inspect four locomotives.
Twenty minutes for each machine.
They knew what I was saying. Implying.
They knew I was right to be throwing this fit.
Nobody thought these new trains were, a good idea.
That is why I never heard
the threat of insubordination.
And to be more explicit and
somewhat to conjure another voice
that was informing my resolve –
I told my train masters to …
Go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut,
go take a flying fuck at the moon.
Ting a ling, and so on.
They didn’t mention that they would
charge me with delay of trains.
The five bosses knew that what we were
being expected to do was insane.
They mentioned that this was not their idea
and were only taking orders.
They were half drunk on kool aid –
half on my side and wanting the strength
of my union educated foot to somehow
strike out at the ass of the message maker,
not their messenger positions.
I am thinking about how,
for almost two years before that day in the
locker room – about how a fragment of a speech –
from a presentation at Yale University
that Wendell Berry,
the poet, family man,
and how it
in my soul.
I am thinking about how two lines
haunted my moral convictions.
I am thinking back,
in hopes my hindsight is 20/20.
I am thinking about being part
of an organization that beat down
the first widespread union supported
attempt to reduce trains crews
to just one person.
I am thinking about the
luddites who quickly new –
“the industrial economy from agriculture to war
is by far the most violent the world has ever known
and we are all complicit in its violence. The history
of industrialization has been violent
from the start”
I am thinking about the word,
how that word is used to suggest an authoritative
voice that speaks from experience.
And how that thought
takes me to this fragment.
I am thinking seriously about a moral.
A moral to a folk story and how that story,
and the fragments of a presentation from a poet,
informed my decision to walk away from a career.
A career that I was proud somewhat,
to be part of.
John Henry died for our sins!
John Henry lives every day when a
human being is being asked
to conform to an unreasonable shift.
A shift to the inhumane practices
of an industrial economy.
He died with a last request.
He wanted a cool drink of water
before he died.
What informed my decision
to abandon my post of Locomotive Engineer
was a complicated list that stretches as long
as the trains that were being demanded of us
And down a side track, I go, again.
I am also informed by another folk story
of what seems to be happening to me now
because of my decision.
Jumping Mouse, the fictional mouse in a well know
native peoples’ folk tale, is found to be suspicious after
his decision to leave his community.
After Jumping Mouse
was tricked to fall into the river –
he found himself not
trusted by his friends!
The searching –
that want to go away –
leave, find wisdom –
became a serious burden
and a long, difficult journey.
And what seems to me
to be a one-track pondering –
most of my narrative of late is …
A burning question
that fuels this want
to present ideas,
may call prose,
other may brand
a long read –
Isn’t’ this enough?
The creative questions presented!
Isn’t the hook baited well enough to be
expecting further questions?
I have named dropped well known
contemporary thinkers, folk tales,
scary stories of possible destruction!
I guess I am tied to John Henry
and his demise.
As many railroaders
who have not a clue
who their own
folk hero was,
there are as many
folklorists who didn’t
ever stop to think –
what was the moral to the story?
I have never heard a question
presented by any academic
accreditation that went to the
very end of the folk thesis.
Did John Henry ever
get his cool drink of water?
If I must suffer another narrative
of what is wrong with the railroad,
I also may just die before being allowed
time to vindicate the demise of my fellow
worker and brother,
I am thinking back to
the day, I walked away.
I am thinking back
to a lonely dark spring early
morning, watching leaves
blow down the street in
Cave City, Kentucky –
the day I sidetracked
my train and went home.