In 1995 I traveled across America via Amtrak, whose dismal on time track record and other failings led critics to call for their shutdown and to brand them (thanks to their logo) “the pointless arrow.” Not one of my trips on Amtrak was less than two hours late, so I knew exactly where those critics were coming from, though I quite liked train travel generally.
One particularly outrageous delay, though I might add not the longest, afforded me a valuable life lesson. Helpful, since it was otherwise just another example of Amtrak’s ineptitude. I was going to visit my friend Sue, a grad student at Purdue, and see how she’d spent her time since we hung out together as undergrads at the University of Portland.
The train was 20 minutes out of Chicago when it stopped dead. No warning. Just chug, chug, chug, stop. We stayed on the tracks there for something like six hours. This being the pre-cell phone era I had no way to call Sue to tell her what had happened and that I was unlikely to make the scheduled 10 PM arrival. Not that I knew anything anyway since Amtrak never gave an explanation. I heard from another passenger that a freight train had stopped on the tracks ahead and that because their union crew had worked their maximum hours, they had shut it down right then and there, and Union Pacific (or whoever) was having to round up another crew. I had no idea if any of that was true, but it was a guess that fit the factsâ€”the main fact being we were just sitting thereâ€”and it was a fair bit more than Amtrak ever told us.
After we finally got rolling again, the engineer was playing like Casey Jones in looking to make up for lost time. We’d whip into a station, virtually throw people off the cars, hustle the appropriate people on board, and -boom- we’re outta there. Pity, sort of, for any smokers on board. They couldn’t smoke on the train and here they were being denied enough time to take a smoke break at stop after stop. And this after sitting still for six hours.
As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones who had to worry about the short station stops.Â Lafayette’s train station was being renovated or rebuilt or something, because it was closed. I did not know this. So the train that was due in at 10 PM, arrived in a West Lafayette gravel parking lot at 4 o’clock in the morning. The conductor pulled up the step stool I used to get off the train, said, “Have a nice stay!” or words to that effect, and -boom- the train was gone. I remember literally turning around to ask the conductor where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do and the doors closing while the train pulled out. It could not have been more than a 20 second stop.
I was already sleep deprived, but now I was stunned too. I was thinking, “Oh my God. Oh my God. This can’t be worse.” Sue’s obviously not hereâ€”where was here, anyway? Since Amtrak didn’t tell the passengers anything, I could hardly expect that they would have told anybody waiting in a gravel parking lot about a train delay. Sue wisely and rightfully went home to bed. I was hoping she didn’t think that I blew her off. In the spill of the single overhead street light, I saw a ’70s Cadillac that I was pretty sure was not Sue’s get-around vehicle. Other than that, gravel. Emptiness. Desolation. There was nothing else there.
Only two others got off at the stop with me, a portly fellow in my train car who headed toward a woman waiting for him at the Caddy, and some other guy to my left who exited a few cars down. I didn’t see a phone booth and as far as I knew, I was in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it didn’t matter where I was. What was open at 4 AM? “Oh my God. Oh my God. This can’t be worse.”
Then I glanced over again at the fellow to my left. What was he doing? It was a little difficult to see at first in the dark. “Oh my God. Oh my God. It can be worse. He’s tapping a cane. He’s blind!”
I still don’t know what I or, perhaps more interestingly, the blind fellow would have done if not for the kindness of the husband and wife team with the Cadillac. They gave us both a ride to the local Steak ‘n’ Shake, an all-hours joint particular to the Midwest and after a few hours I was able to call Sue and the blind guy was able to contact his party.
It’s not always possible for us to see life’s lessons as they are generated. Usually I think that if we’re open to growth, we tend to absorb things over time and they become a part of who we are. Occasionally, though, life smacks us full upside the head, and we learn important things about perspective, about how things really could be worse, and about the kindness of strangers. For me in 1995, the “pointless arrow” made it possible.