Monday, December 14, 2015

the train to Harper's Ferry

  The train from NYC to Pittsburgh costs almost 400 bucks. The train from DC to Pgh costs 150 and you get a private room.
   Union Station, just a few blocks from the Capitol, is one of the most beautiful structures in the country. I imagine the old days. House members and maybe even a Senator walking the distance and hopping on a train home, their term complete.
  When DC was said to be a quiet town and politicians spent as much time in the State they represented as the place they made their name.
   Now DC seems to me more like the Kremlin I saw once when I was 17 or Wonka's factory behind the walls. No one ever goes in. No one ever comes out. Or to tell the truth, like a Steel Mill, like the one I live next to in Pittsburgh- in all the years I've spent in my hometown only once have I seen an employee walk thru the gates.
   The 4:15 to Chicago. I had an empty room. A thin thing- two seats faced each other,  a drop down bed, a sliding door with a curtain that velcro'd to the aluminum threshold.
   My window was huge but the sun had almost set by the time we cleared the Maryland suburbs and by the time we crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry it was dark and I had to imagine the old town; period houses preserved from falling down its hillside to the warehouses and shops where Lee had once commanded a garrison and John Brown had tried to end the Civil War before it began.
   I thought of two things.
   1) We. Traveling by train is always we. You're part of a troop, a continuum, a gathering of emigrants leaving one place, finding another but always welded to the ground. The rails deliver you or they take you away but you are always home. You're in America.
  Trains I think are mechanical metaphors for the best of the States, the best we ever did. Yes, rail travel and the Railroads brought the murderous wealth of the Eastern States across the continent and helped burn and bury the Native tribes. That's for sure.
   But they also literally became the skeleton for a nation that was previously only an idea. They let us make it flesh. They were Will incarnate. They were the sound of hope for generations of American kids trapped in tiny towns across Middle West and the Plains. When Fitzgerald talks about the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night, his wild dreams rolled across them by train.
  Maybe I was born in the wrong century under the wrong star but to this day I can't think of anything more elementally astonishing than a full locomotive roaring by pulling a half mile of metal. Not planes, not movies, not a cruise ship spinning on its 1000 foot axis to dock on the Hudson, not anything made by humankind shakes me the same way.
  My family on both sides worked for a Railroad that at the peak of its strength had more employees than the federal government. I can't help but feel that I belong to them, the rail yards and the old stations and the dying men sitting in little museums up and down the East coast telling the occasional visitor how these mammoth furnaces on wheels once worked.
  The second thing I thought as I crossed the Potomac was that, soon enough, we're going to have a battle on our hands. Because a new Civil War, started in the imagination of extremists on both sides, is going to raise up a new Cloudsplitter, a new John Brown for whom the only solution to America's deep sins is more violence.
  This is what I see-
   And before I tell you what I see, let me say that I own a gun.
   I wish I owned several more.
   My father had 8 guns in the house, two of which were rare and beautiful family heirlooms that I wish I had been able to save. My brothers sold them when he died, emblems they claimed of a culture they wanted no part of.
  I shoot skeet and trap and sporting clays. A Pennsylvanian, I've of course gone deer hunting. I've shot grouse and pheasant and I tried once to shoot a turkey. (It didn't go well.)
  I have more than a few friends -some veterans, some not- who hunt regularly, who own multiple weapons, and who can strip, rebuild and repair them like you'd clear a pencil sharpener.
   They lock their weapons away. They separate the ammunition stores from the gun. They pay copious license fees to hunt where they hunt- fees that make up the majority of the money raised to maintain the State Forests of Western PA.
    That said, I believe resistance to increased Gun Control legislation is more than a tragedy. I believe it's criminal. As a nation, as a people, I think we are responsible for every mass shooting, every gun death - we have the blood on our hands, our souls really- until we change our laws.
    No true hunter needs an assault rifle. Most hunters I know pride themselves on Robert DeNiro's mandate in The Deer Hunter- one shot. You should be able to kill a deer or an elk or a bear with one shot, if you know what you're doing. Hunters train themselves to do so. They train their sons and daughters. And mostly, they treat the weapon with the utmost respect, always treat it as loaded, know its every part and tooling, learn to strip it cleanly, learn to kill cleanly and use as much of the animal as you can.
   I see nothing wrong with this. There's no intrinsic evil here, just a choice. Cattle farming is more deadly, more disruptive to the environment, than hunting.
   But, none of this lifestyle, this gun culture requires unlimited liberty. This life can continue with NO change even if we demand stricter registration and purchasing laws.
   What would change is the body count. Plain and simple.
   It's simple statistics- change the laws, fewer people by a factor of ten are murdered.
  When these laws are changed does it mean you can't buy almost any gun known to mankind? No. Does it mean the government is going to come and take your weapons? No.
  All it means is you're going to be required to pass some tests that you, as a responsible American, would already pass. All it means is your unfettered liberty is now slightly ( and not even "well") regulated. Within reason.
   I frankly don't care what the framers of the constitution meant in their 18th century minds when they wrote the second amendment. They were fine with slavery. They had no inkling women should vote. I can handle that they may have not been able to foresee the future.
   No original intent, no abstract notion of Americanness or liberty or freedom is worth thousands of deaths. Nothing is worth it.
  But that's just me. And I'll argue this all day. Hell, I'll argue it at a gun range with my radical republican friends, some of whom were Navy Seals. And then we'll hug and go home. Usually.
  But that's not what came into my mind as I crossed the Potomac.
  What I saw was this.
  There's going to be another John Brown.
  There's someone out there. A man who saw his kids or his neighbors gunned down in an Amish church, or in a grade school in Connecticut, or his wife killed in a VA Tech classroom, or one of his co workers blown across a wall by an AR-15 held 2 feet from her chest in a Municipal office in San Bernadino, there's a guy out there, or maybe even a woman who's watched this madness up close, or maybe only watched it play out again and again on the tv as people look the camera straight in the eye and say "If we put more money into mental health this would all end"- this person is going to go and buy a gun, and train themselves how to use it and then they're going to walk into the government office of a Representative who got an A from the NRA, or they're going to walk into an NRA meeting itself, or a gun store, or a shooting range, and they're going to kill a few people.
  Maybe hold some hostages, maybe live long enough to say, "This is how the fires come back , this is the circle of justice, this is what your laws bring you." And gun down the gunners.
  I hope I'm wrong. It's everything each lunatic fringe would love to see happen.
   For a long time slavery was something abolitionists prayed would end. They spoke eloquently that an enlightened nation should legislate it out of existence. The met, they organized, they asked for sanctions, they abhorred what they felt was a culture of violence, a civilization built on human cost.
   And then one day one of them, John Brown, got up and was willing to kill people to end it. He watched his own son die as he tried to start an insurrection to stop it.
  Most people, abolitionists included, called him a madman, a radical extremist.
   His last words were, "I am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."
   Under the dark hillside where he was cornered more than a century and a half ago, as the steel behemoth taking me home crawled into the trees, I thought- he's out there now, he exists, he's been brought up by what we've left undone in this country.
   God help us.



  1. I re-read this passage three times. First, at a purely emotional level, then I read it again questioning your statements and observations. Finally, I read it again with a new view of the world, that in all honesty, I would have preferred to miss, so as to preserve my unending optimism. The truth is that your essay opened my eyes to a situation, and that is what excellent writing should do.

  2. As always I enjoy ur writing, u go into such detail, which is great. So how long does it take to get from either NY or DC to Pittsburgh? The only train ride I can remember taking was when I traveled with a friend from Philadelphia to Virginia beach for a week. I can see ur point in regards to gun control, it is sad the way this world is today, with all the gun violence, that all u ever see on the news. I just think in general u have to live ur life but at the same time be careful because there are some crazy people out there and that's just my opinion.

  3. I love trains. I find the swaying of the locomotion both comforting and invigorating. I can think more clearly and I'm able to dream more vividly. I love trains. I hate guns. I went hunting with my first boyfriend for the first time and the last, I killed a six point buck, first shot,I was hailed by him and his father and I'll never be able to eat venison again. That was 24 years ago. I'll never forget the dead eyes. I did that, I took life. I've committed many sins, far ranging and many, I in no way consider myself a good person,I'm constantly looking for redemption. I can in no way pretend to live a totally moral life. But I am completely self righteous when it comes to guns. I hate guns. I've felt that power in my hands, wielded it and loathed every part of it.Having said that I do carry a knife, I'm not completely delusional. I've had friends die from gunshots on city streets, in accidents, gang violence. I've had friends die in war. I know all this sounds as if I'm about to say no guns ever. But it's important to understand that with these strong emotions about guns that I have I in no way would deny any one the right to choose to own a gun. But there is no need for open carry on a college campus or a grocery store or bar. I want a national registry and backgrounds checks at gun shows and an end to the sale of semi automatic weapons and an end to all straw sales. But the second I say I Hate Guns, which I do, others stop listening and shout you hate the second amendment,not only do I not hate it I know it. I carry a mini constitution with me and it may not stop a bullet but it does protect me and if I die only holding that, I'll consider myself saved. If there is another John Brown coming I'm not saying I won't fight with him, I'm just saying I won't be fighting with a gun.

  4. A Powerfully sad thought, another John Brown-esque revolt...

    After ziplining with the boys we toured Harper's Ferry...Very cool to experience the tight cobblestone streets and historic buildings up close. The snug on the hillside structures reminded me of Etna and the homes and business along Ohio River Blvd.

    Union Station's grandeur...undeniable. See the rehab after the earthquake we had a few years back... the costly collateral damage of fracking, imo.

    Carpe Diem - c

  5. so this is weird.
    i just went on a rant to my columbia advisor about why he doesn't have my work...because somewhere in reading 60 years of memoirs by american secretaries of state's memoirs i got really angry at condoleeza rice (surprisingly the rest of it is really compelling, even if for the WTF!?) and i was writing about what it was like to be down there from midnight to 8 am, and about how everyone was rad and weird in the night because it was so awful and spooky and dark but really bright and during the day they were regular cop jerks who could get mcdonalds and everyone in america just wanted to help and that guy with a station wagon full of PB&J and all those pallets of toothbrushes no one needed...and those pies that some old ladies had made. they were apple but all different. i showed up one day and you were sampling all the pie. And I felt like you got it; no one could do anything to help the fact that everyone wanted to help was the only good part about i. anyway I wondered what ever happened to you.
    for a name like david conrad you're pretty easy to find.
    And it looks like you have a following. Tell those flyovers what guns are for: killing bambi.

  6. I thought ny times admitted that they made up the term assault rifle

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  8. I found your blog a couple weeks ago and I enjoy your writing. This evening I took my two daughters to the mall to see Santa. The line was long and the crowd was thick. I know I shouldn't worry about a shooter, I know I can't protect my kids from everything and I know I have to live my life, but the fear is there. The fear that someone will see a line of families waiting to see Santa as an opportunity to hurt as many people as possible. I told my daughters we would go back during a time when it was less crowded. I hate that I worry every day when my kids go to school. I hate that I plan escape scenarios in my head at work, thinking up places to hide if a shooter entered the building. I hate that I avoid movie premiers now. It sucks. I don't feel like a paranoid person, but after writing this comment, I think I may have become one. Shoot (no pun intended).

  9. Well I never been on a train but flew to lots of different countries. I don't get the hunting thing killing innocent animals. I think it's much easier to live and respect all living things but that's me. And gun control . Well I don't own one. But it seems to be more crazy ass people who shouldn't have a gun at all! And yes we are heading for some kind of civil war because our government is corrupt. Stay safe.

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  12. Thank you for the wonderful article. I am a young Polish citizen, but since childhood I admire you for the knowledge and wisdom they provide. My dream is to see you just once, but you can not all dreams come true. Your articles helped me look at the world in a different way. I'm looking forward to the next. Thank you.

  13. You write very well. I like reading , when the text teaches me something.

  14. Beautiful. Thanks for giving me the gift of a pleasant ,thoughtful distraction.