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Nostalgia By Proxy (some Father’s Day thoughts)

Isn’t it amazing how listening to a song can instantly transport you to another place, another time?



I was out running errands the other morning. It was a typical Southern California June morning – cool and foggy, the kind of day where the mist never quite coalesces into rain, not willing to be one thing or another. Walking along the street, with that dampness on your skin, and the cool air in your lungs, it’s possible to imagine you could be almost anywhere.

I stopped for coffee and a bagel at an internet cafe. There were people at the tables focusing on their laptops, there were cops at the counter getting bagels. The scene was very SoCal, with the clothing, and the hairstyles, and the multi-ethnic crowd.

And outside, through the windows, there was that grey gloom which the cafe’s lighting failed to combat; a pervasive darkness so different from the usual SoCal hard hot sunlit glare.

Take away the laptops, and it suddenly seemed to me this could be any place, any time, within the past few decades.

So there I was at a table, drinking coffee and reading a cheesy vampire novel. And a song began playing.

The cafe had been playing some kind of quasi-folk soundtrack. I wasn’t familiar with the artist. And then one song began to play, a song popularized by Arlo Guthrie in 1972, called “The City of New Orleans”.

***
Ridin' on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday mornin' rail
15 cars & 15 restless riders
Three conductors, 25 sacks of mail

All along the southbound odyssey the train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms & fields
Passin' graves that have no name, freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles

Good mornin' America, how are you?
Don't you know me? I'm your native son!
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done

***

My father was quite the one for talking, but not much for going beneath the emotional surface. But when that song came out, he listened to it, and he started talking one day. He told me all sorts of stories. About the war years, which he spent in Mississippi, and of the years after, and of the many times he took the train from Mississippi to Kankakee, where his father lived.

I don’t know if he realized how much of the bleakness of the life he lived at that time that he let slip through the interstices of what was said and what was left unsaid. But I understood something very important about him that day: about his own dreams, derailed long since by chance and choice and circumstances. I saw him, perhaps for the first time, not as my parent, but rather as a person, with his own separate goals and dreams and ideals.

***
Dealin' cards with the old men in the club car
Penny a point, ain't no one keepin' score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
And feel the wheels rumblin' neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters & the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers' magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep, rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good mornin' America, how are you?
Say don't you know me? I'm your native son!
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans.
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.
***

My father went much further than that 500 miles, moving here and there throughout the US, never quite achieving his goals, but all the same seemingly having few regrets. He liked to meet people, he liked to talk – boy, did he like to talk! – and I think – I hope – that he thought his life in general was good.

We never spoke much. Or rather, he talked and I listened. And in his conversations, I could see the clear outlines of the daughter he thought he had; but the daughter he talked about, the girl and then the woman with my face and my name, was an utter stranger to me. When I tried to talk to him about matters that were important to me, or tried to actually discuss ideas, if there was any point of disagreement between us, he quite literally would not listen. I remember this disconnect between us bothered me – but not tremendously. I recognized that he lived in his own world; that his world only glancingly intersected with mine, and that this was OK. It’s the nature of many children to grow up and away; it’s the nature of many parents to remember the baby and the young child and not recognize the adult.

Perhaps if we’d had more time this would have been a different story. But we only had a few short years to know each other as adults. Those years were not enough time to tear down the illusions of childhood, and to construct some new bridge between us. That is the nature of time, and of death.

***
Night time on the City of New Orleans
Changin' cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home, we'll be there by mornin'
Thru the Mississippi darkness rollin' down to the sea

But all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rail still ain't heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
"The passengers will please refrain:
This train got the disappearin' railroad blues
***

With every moment that we breathe, the past is irretrievably gone. And yet, with music, with memory, it can seem as if long-ago memories are brand new. It’s been nearly half my lifetime since my father passed away. And if, perhaps, I understood him better than he ever understood me, that’s OK. I would like to think that, on some deeper level, we always understood each other, in those places that exist without words.

Father. I loved you then. I respected you then. For who you were, not who I thought you ought to be.

I love you now. I respect you now.

And if and when, in whatever metaphysical world lies beyond this one, we meet again, my feelings will be the same.

***
Good night America, how are you?
Say don't you know me? I'm your native son!
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans.
I'll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

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