Save Cornwells Heights
Saturday, October 28, 2006
The Original Home of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak Monthly Pass Fare Fight
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Of Trains and Songs and Plumbers' Sons:
Memories of a Train That Was Never Coming Back
Today, Saturday, October 28, 2006, marks an anniversary, of sorts, for Cornwells Heights. A year ago today, at 8:11 a.m., the last Amtrak train to New York City was supposed to leave the station and never come back. At least that was the plan Amtrak had in mind up until last September when the station was spared from closure at the last minute. In fact, for about six months last winter and spring, Cornwells Heights was nowhere to be found in the main system schedule book distributed by Amtrak. They had already sent the schedules to press with Cornwells Heights gone, as had been their original plan.
Though a devastating fare increase drove away most of the job commuters who used the station a year ago, and the number of people boarding at Cornwells Heights has declined from about 40 a day to about 25, the station still survives, and the trains keep coming back. If anything, ridership appears to be slowly returning, back up somewhat from a fewer-than-20-a-day low reached late last summer. Since Cornwells Heights is still on the new Winter/Spring schedule for this coming pair of seasons, the station is fairly well assured another six months of Amtrak service. Then, of course, it's back to nail biting in April. ;-)
Every once in a while, I like to try my hand at waxing eloquent on some topic that's a bit tangential to the trains, but nonetheless worth, I think, a pondering. Last Easter, in revisiting the things that happened at Cornwells Heights just more than a year ago, I wrote, "Sometimes in life, you get inside a story without even knowing it until you look back." Seems like it happens a lot. In looking back for a year and a lifetime, here's another tale of the twining stories of Cornwells Heights.
Two Songs in September
On September 18th of last year, I published an article about the haunting train song, The City of New Orleans. Katrina had devastated the City of New Orleans just as I began the fight to save the station at Cornwells Heights. In watching and hearing of the news from New Orleans at that time, I was rather haunted by the lyrics of the train's song, "But all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream." And so they did, "through the Mississippi darkness, rollin' down to the sea." I bought eight different CDs in search of just the right rendition of The City of New Orleans to match my mood and spirit of cautious optimism about saving the station. My favorite was the Randy Scruggs recording on his Crown of Jewels CD. But also in the search, I came across another song that surprised and haunted me, which I also mentioned in the September 18th article, John Denver's Jenny Dreamed of Trains.
The song Jenny Dreamed of Trains was haunting to me in several ways. It's a song about a little girl who is thought to be, quite frankly, "nuts" for always going back to the depot where "the rails have turned to rust" to wait for "the train that was never coming back." The mill in her town, you see, had closed long ago, and the trains were all long gone. So, as the song goes, "Jenny left a penny on the track one day. 'In God We Trust.'" The next day, all she could find was a flattened piece of copper by the rails. Besides being a wonderful metaphor of hope and dreams come true, the lyric of "the train that was never coming back" struck a chord with me, and not just because of the train that might never have come back to Cornwells Heights. Far, far back in my memory I recalled it, my first train ride as a child – on the train that was never coming back.
The Ride on the Train That Was Never Coming Back
I remember the lectures well. I was a young child, and my father briefed me not once, but several times, that I was about to take a very important ride, one that I should always try to remember, for the rest of my life. The last passenger train was going to leave Cambridge, Ohio, my home town, and he wanted me to be on it. He said he didn't know if I would ever have a chance to ride on a train again. He told me they were disappearing. This might be my last chance. He explained how important the trains had once been. How his own father had worked for the railroad as a telegrapher, and how he himself had gone off to the navy during the Korean War, on trains. He had a great story about landing in Morocco and barely catching the train to Casablanca since no one there spoke English. Another tale concerned a very smoky tunnel that messed up his uniform. And there was the trip my grandfather took to explore for himself the American West in the 1920s.
I remember the lectures well. I knew there was something important to my father about the trains, and I knew he was sad to see them go. I suppose most little boys are wide-eyed on their first trip on a train, but I think my eyes were wider than most. I'd been briefed. This was it. Last chance to ride a train. And so I rode off to New Concord, just barely in the next county, eight miles away. I tried to remember it all, everything I could of the train that was never coming back.
Two Trips to New Concord
I must confess that, though I tried to remember all, many details of that first train ride faded from my memory. What year was it? I couldn't remember. But I did remember another trip to New Concord that happened, it seemed, at roughly the same time of life. That other trip I could date quite well. It was 1962.
I was six, and we were going to New Concord to welcome back the son of some friends of my grandparents. The husband did plumbing work once in a while for my dad's folks. The couple's son had been a pilot in the Korean War at just about the time my grandparents were building and breaking-in their new dream home in the country, a little house on a little farm they called Sky Ranch. While my grandfather would play the assistant plumber in the basement, the plumber's wife used to sit on the couch with my grandmother and tell her of their son's harrowing exploits in the skies above the Korean peninsula. (The son's squadron mates had even nicknamed him "Ol' Magnet Tail" because he often came back from missions with holes and extra metal in the tail of his plane, if you know what I mean!) It was about a decade later than all that, though, when we went over to his New Concord homecoming parade. His name was John Glenn. On February 20th of that year, 1962, he had ridden a rocket and a little spaceship called Friendship 7 into history, and America went wild. President Kennedy had already set the nation's goal to be the moon – by 1969. We were back in the space race, and everything seemed possible again.
A Rendezvous in Washington
Last March 14th, I went to Washington to meet with representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration to represent the commuter cause. Leaving the meeting, I had a feeling that even though the DOT representative had promised to get back to me after relaying my concerns to his superiors, he wouldn't. Indeed, he never did, but I had learned to expect that from entrenched bureaucrats. With no particular agenda as I walked west, back toward the subways, I overshot and found myself on the Washington Mall, looking at the long, flat side of a familiar-looking building of the Smithsonian. It was the Air and Space Museum, and even though the main entrance was street-side, I noticed an inconspicuous little door that seemed to be a mall-side entrance as well. I walked over, went through the mini security check, and walked on in. And there to greet me, just inside the door, was Friendship 7. I had been to the museum in years past and remembered the little spaceship well. And my thoughts returned to New Concord and the homecoming parade with the open-top convertible, and the other trip to New Concord on the train that was never coming back
A month or two later, on a visit to my parents in my home town, I finally thought to ask my father if he could remember what year it was that he and I rode on that last train out of Cambridge. To my surprise – and somewhat to my chagrin – he said he didn't ride the train with me. My mother did. (Oh, the mortification that I had forgotten that detail! :-) He had driven ahead in the car to pick us up on the other end of the ride in New Concord. My mother, he said, wasn't up to making the drive because she was quite pregnant at the time. That nailed the seasons and the year. It was the spring or summer of 1959, and my little sister was on the way. And so the math was easy. I was three.
It was quite a surprise to me to find that the lectures and preparations I remembered so well had come from such an early age. Indeed, I can't think of anything else anyone said to me at that age that stuck. I suppose I remembered because I realized that my father was trying to entrust me with something that he wanted me to keep for a lifetime, and so I kept refreshing it in my squishy, slimy, little kid-sized cortical memory banks until it wouldn't go away. That's all I can think of. And then along came John Denver's haunting little song of God and hope and a train that was never coming back... but did.
The Death of Denver
John Denver died in a plane crash nine years ago on Columbus Day, October 12, 1997. He had first flown his new, little, semi-experimental plane only the day before. He also apparently forgot to top off at least one of his two fuel tanks before flying on the 12th. When the gas ran out in that tank, he failed to switch over to the secondary tank in time, and plunged into the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of California. But being dead didn't stop John Denver from winning one last Grammy!
Six weeks before he died, John Denver released what was to be his final album, a CD of train songs called All Aboard! The first song listed on the album is Jenny Dreamed of Trains. The last song listed on the album cover is The City of New Orleans. But the actual last song on the album, not listed on the jacket, is a final short reprise of Jenny Dreamed of Trains. (He actually used the name "Jesse" instead of "Jenny" in singing the reprise, apparently to reassure the listener that he hadn't simply cheated and identically repeated the first song's recording a second time.) Dead, John Denver won the 1998 "Best Musical Album for Children" Grammy award for his last album, All Aboard!
To me, there's something haunting, something almost mystical about the last two songs John Denver left us with before he died: the foreboding of the earthly, disappearing railroad trains of The City of New Orleans, and the heavenly one that came back – Jenny Dreamed of Trains.
Jenny Dreamed of Trains
On Halloween Day last year, like a gift from the ghost of Houdini, a train snaked its way all the way from Washington, D.C., to Cornwells Heights to pick up its first new load of passengers there. Then along with the winds of November came new riders as well, not knowing what came before. One, an infectiously pleasant and often effervescent young woman working at her first job out of college, became a good friend over the months. Best of all, she discovered and actually liked the things I wrote on this website, and she didn't hesitate to tell me so. As any writer knows, that's the kind of praise and receptive audience that keeps an author going; keeps a writer going back to the creative well to toss out another essay or two. (A couple of times, I even earned an "awesome"! :-) She took part in one of the "protest rides" I (largely unsuccessfully) tried to get the press interested in last spring. She even scouted for train news and helped fill in the blanks for me with what was going on on the trains that I hardly rode on over the summer, having taken time off from work to fight the fares in Washington.
As I wrote last Easter, sometimes in life, you get inside a story without even knowing it until you look back. I don't think that that feeling is anything peculiar to my life in particular, or to trains, or even to Cornwells Heights. Yet the more I reflect on the interwoven threads of trains and songs and plumbers' sons, the more I wonder, this first anniversary of Cornwells Heights' train that was never coming back... why it was that it did.
Sometimes in life, you get inside a story without even knowing it until you look back. But sometimes, looking back gets you looking forward as well, to stories yet to come. Today that young woman, swept in on the winds of November, is getting married. I don't think I've ever seen a happier prospective bride. This is her wedding day. And so October 28th will be her anniversary, too, far off into the happily-ever-after years of oldest age and grandkids, God willing.
And something tells me, He is. What with Hurricane Katrina haunting to me the song The City of New Orleans last year, it struck me that Jenny Dreamed of Trains was more the echo in my mind today. Out of curiosity, I once asked the young woman if she had ever been known as "Jenny," thinking there might be one more mystic connection there to mix in with my memories of trains and songs and the plumber's son. Alas, she said that she was never called "Jenny." Her name was Jen, but her folks still called her Jennifer.
Close enough. ;-)
Congratulations and best wishes, Jen. May you and your new husband have a long and wonderful life together. And as Scott Carpenter said when that son-of-a-plumber rode off toward the stars, "Godspeed, J[ohn Gl]en[n]."
– Rick Booth, firstname.lastname@example.org