A Chance Meeting on a Train

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The chance meetings or random coincidences always intrigue me. I’m travelling cross country by train and I‘ve met two writers already just as table-mates in the dining car. One, age nineteen, has two published books (what was I doing with my time at nineteen?). The other is a ghost writer and mostly now does short stories. The nineteen-year-old just started a university writing program so, who knows, she may never write again – or maybe be a great success. I knew her when…

I had lunch in the dining car yesterday with a lady from the island of Hawaii travelling to St. Louis, which happens to be my destination. As we talked, she shared some of her experiences of moving to Hawaii and what her immediate surroundings were like…plants and animals. There was also another lady sitting at a table across the aisle who was glancing over from time to time. It turned out that she also was also from the “Big Island” and they were, in fact, near neighbors. They lived in adjoining communities. So what are the odds of two people starting off on separate journeys from the same general place at different times and meeting in a dining car in New Mexico on an east-bound train? How many different things had to fall into place for that to happen? I suppose someone could figure out the odds with enough information but I’ve learned just to accept it.  Maybe a butterfly in Tibet flapped its wings and things fell into place. Maybe not.

My life is full of similar random coincidences that defy explanation. My late wife’s birthdate matches exactly with my brother’s wife’s birthdate…same day and year. They were born in the same state but not the same city. Also, totally unknown until later, my wife once worked for my sister-in-law’s mother when she was starting her career before I met her.

About a twenty years into my work life I was living in a small town and employed in government as a program manager. I had to hire a new secretary so I interviewed maybe a half dozen candidates. I hired a local woman from the small town and never really thought much about her background or family. In small towns one doesn’t pry into family connections unless the topic is initiated by the other person. My experience was that many people were related to each other either directly or by marriage and it was best not to express opinions or comments about someone. Now, realize that I was born and raised 150 miles away and had no prior connection to this town. That is what I thought until a chance conversation with my secretary revealed that we were both cousins to the same person. Somehow one of my cousins married her cousin and we were commonly related to their children. It was a second marriage for both of these cousins; both being divorced in different localities.

I also have two insurance agents, both living in that same small town that I moved to at age 27, and both of these agents share my birthday. One is exactly the same — day and year – and the other a few years later. They don’t know each other and work for different companies. There are other date-related coincidences: my dad died ten years, to the hour, before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. I could list almost a dozen other odd, seemingly random occurrences but you get the idea.

I was recently reading a short passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which he questions how things happen. Often we see things as planned and managed by a talented leader (in this case, Napoleon) but maybe that is an illusion. Maybe things are set in motion in another way. Maybe a peculiar string of random events led Napoleon to Moscow with a huge army. Maybe he was just along for the ride. We plan things and sometimes the plans work out and sometimes they don’t. “Serendipity” is one English language concept – to find something good by accident without seeking it. In history, one person’s serendipity is sometimes another person’s catastrophe. I suspect that concept is not unique to English speakers.

At any rate, things have an odd tendency to fall into place in ways that, while seemingly random, also give a hint that something else is in control. My daughter says that it is the angels at work. She got that idea from my wife who attributed certain happenings to an unseen hand…”Let it be – marvel but don’t question” was her philosophy. Maybe so. Maybe the angels are bored and play these games to keep busy.

Carl Gustave Jung, a clergyman’s son and prominent psychoanalyst, was also intrigued by these chance happenings and devised the concept of synchronicity. To his way of thinking, events do not need to have a causal relationship to have meaning — perhaps meaning eclipses cause? Out of all of these events that I’ve mentioned above, or others I haven’t described, or those others have experienced, none of them really had much of an impact. I didn’t change my behavior or plans in response to the events and it made no difference to other people whose lives intersected in the events. It is just a curiosity, sometimes with meaning to the observer, sometimes there is no meaning. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. Other than that one fact, there really isn’t anything else to say except that they both went on to change the course of history.

For a number of years, beginning in 1975, my wife and I would take a week-long vacation each year…maybe longer some years. The dates of our vacation coincided with a number of major events including the stock market crash, the death of Princess Diana, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the assassination of Anwar Sadat, disappearance (and death) of Jimmy Hoffa,  various plane crashes, coups  and military invasions. We would occasionally joke about the CIA or FBI wanting to track our movements — something big was going to happen if we took a vacation. We still took our vacation and we were finally able to shake off the “curse” about fifteen years ago. Nothing would happen when we went on a trip. It was sort of a let down…we didn’t have any special powers after all.

(Revised from the original posted at The Green Room, August, 2016)

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The View From the Observation Car

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I enjoy train travel. There, I said it for all the world to see.

For some reason there is a lot of complaining and ill-will directed toward train travel and especially Amtrak, the only nation-wide rail passenger service in the United States. I just completed a 2,000 mile round trip train journey from Albuquerque to St. Louis and it was an enjoyable experience. This was a trip for a family reunion and I had a nice long visit with family and friends — some from forty years ago.

One important point needs to be made….I had a roomette in a sleeper car. Sleeper car accomodations are, for me, the way to go on any long train trip. This is for several reasons: You get to stretch out and actually attempt to sleep in a bed. Secondly, you have a place to keep your stuff reasonably secured. Thirdly, your dining car meals are included in the price of the sleeper…and the food is 100 times better than anything airlines are serving. You still have to pay for alcohol. Fourthly, there is an attendant assigned to each sleeper car who takes care of your routine needs and keeps the coffee pot going and ice available. Introduce yourself by name and consider a tip for exceptional service. The attendant makes your bed at night and converts it into seats during the day. Fifthly,  on this trip I get to sleep through Kansas…the best way to go through Kansas in my opinion. On the shorter leg of my journey, from Kansas City to St. Louis, I used business class — which means I had a little more space and wi-fi as well as free coffee in the adjoining cafe section.  I’m getting a little robust in my old age…some would call it portly…and I’m considering a larger compartment on my next trip at least in one direction. Americans are not as small as they used to be and two large-sized adults in a roomette is pretty tight.

Cost is a factor but when I compared the round-trip sleeper costs to a round-trip airline ticket with reasonable departures and arrivals and only one out-of-the-way layover (Denver or Houston) the train was about $130 dollars more expensive. That was worth the cost to me. Of course time is a factor as well. If you have to be somewhere in a hurry, don’t take the train. The horrendous stories about late train arrivals are not as common as one would think. We got into St. Louis five minutes early and were back into Albuquerque about thirty minutes late. The delay was caused by a stalled truck on the tracks in Kansas. I left Albuquerque on a Tuesday and returned from St. Louis on a Friday. Sleeper car accomodations fluctuate in cost based on season and demand and there could be a very significant difference from one day to another. It pays to be flexible and schedule your trip for days when the costs are lower. That’s not always possible but it works well for retirees or for people with sufficient time and flexibility.

I enjoy the dining car experience because the food is good and because Amtrak practices open seating, which means that you will be placed at a table with other travellers. Don’t expect to eat alone…you will have company and often an interesting conversation. On this trip I met an interesting lady from Hawaii (also going to St. Louis), two published writers, a man who seems to have personal communication with the Lord…who gives him stock tips, and a fellow train buff on his way to Minneapolis. On other trips I’ve enjoyed the dining company of park rangers, film producers, bee keepers, and a man on his way to Osawatamie. The standard menu is pretty good but there are often meal specials like braised pork shanks with mesquite BBQ sauce, mashed potatoes, a roll, dessert, and iced tea. That was a lunch special and included in the sleeper price.

So…what about the view from the observation car? I’ll post some pictures but you really don’t have to be in the observation car to watch the scenery go by. There is a small snack bar on the lower level for drinks and light snacks or sandwiches. Since I enjoy photography I take a bunch of pictures. Here are some from the trip….It was monsoon season in New Mexico when I left so the clouds were often as interesting as the landscape.It was less cloudy on the way back.

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One doesn’t always see the most scenic side of towns or cities along the way but there are some interesting sights like prisoners in an exercise yard, a nice park pavilion, agricultural operations and a few interesting old houses along the way. Coming back on the return trip it was somewhat comforting to recognize the familiar mountain profiles and the far-off horizons of New Mexico.

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