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May 2018

Watch This

Fullsizeoutput_7d27“I don’t want eco. I want a car that leaps forward like a caged circus animal with a grievance, not one that lumbers into the intersection like a polar bear trying to step off an ice floe.”

(James Lileks, “Driver’s Id,” in National Review, April 30, 2018)

A couple months short of my 16th birthday in 1974, I bought a 1972 gold in color Camaro. With a 350 cc engine and eight cylinders, it chugged gas like it was Gatorade; it averaged a pathetic nine miles per gallon. With no jockey, it sat tethered at the base of the driveway, a smoldering powerhouse of internal combustion, straining at its ropes, longing for the white line out of town, to anywhere.

At midnight on that fateful birthday, zero hour, my friend John came over to my house, scratching noisily on my ground-floor window screen. John was three months older, so he had somehow sleepwalked through and passed a 7:00 AM drivers’ training class and waltzed through a driving test conducted by a somnolent DMV examiner. He had his license. At that time armed with a learner’s permit you could drive anywhere with any licensed driver, even a novice like John still percolating in adolescent angst and fervor. (I at least had been driving with my aunt since I was six. But that’s another story.) So, provisioned with a full tank of gas, John and I proceeded to drive all night, on a school night, rolling over the darkened roads of four counties. To that point, our wanderlust had been circumscribed by the distance to which our feet could carry us, whether walking or bicycling. This was new. This smelled like freedom.

We barreled through lonely crossroads with four-way stops, and through the blinking red light of some hamlet’s intersection. Hounds sleeping on farm house porches raised their heads as we passed, curious at the insomniac vehicle rolling by. Cats paused in their nightly rounds, initially startled but then returning to their forays. Cows munched silently, unperturbed, their great heads following our lights. A full moon lit our way, our headlights searching for the next hill, the next curve, reaching for the horizon.

“Open your window, John,” I said, as I rolled mine down and let my hand drag the wind. The humid night air rushed in, heated by an earth not yet cooled from the hot mid-July day, still oppressive, weighing on us. And yet we were buoyed by a crescendo of cicadas, enchanted by fireflies in the meadows like stars come to earth, blinking on and off. “Jesus is just all right with me” sang the Doobie Brothers on the eight-track. “Turn it up,” said John, straining forward at the wheel, and I obliged, the words sermoned out into the landscape. Mapless, venturing out of town for the first time, we navigated by the white line and full moon, which is to say, not at all. We wandered.

In the early darkness of morning, we stopped at a curb market at some unknown crossroads and stocked up on junk food, and that fueled our adventure until shortly before dawn as we munched our way across county line after county line. We shared the driving. We just took it all in, like Kerouac and Nichols burning down the highways, on the road. I don’t even remember talking, each of us lost in free-fall thought. The music, the white line, the curves in the road, the rumbling power of the motor underneath the hood - our thoughts were inarticulable, inchoate.

On the way back into town, John driving, he decided to visit his girlfriend Mary. Never mind that it was 4:00 AM. The sugar and the ecstasy of the road had staged a coup de tat on what meager brains we possessed. Barreling down a four-lane road, blocks before its intersection at a traffic light with another four lane road, John looked at me, his eyes popping, barely tethered, as they were wont to do at such moments of high risk, and said, “Watch this.” He put the accelerator to the floor and we quickly accelerated to 90 miles per hour as we rocketed through the intersection. On the other side of the crossing, the road dipped. The car didn’t. For a few brief, exhilarating seconds, we were airborne, until we bottomed out on the other side, the undercarriage whopping the pavement.

I loved that Camaro. I liked looking out over the football-field length of the hood, admiring all that muscle underneath. I liked its low-slung posture, just inches above asphalt, where you were assaulted by every speed bump. I liked the roomy front bucket seats that made up for the chihuahua-sized second row. Better, I appreciated the slight bump it gave to my poor social standing at my high school. When you only had 25 minutes for lunch, speed mattered. I could whisk a carload of ravenous teenagers to the golden arches for a whistle-stop and make it back with time to spare (though, admittedly, there was always a proposal that we not return to school, usually made by one of the more reprobate delinquents in the back seat).

Long about 1977, at the height of the gas crisis, tiring of exorbitant gas prices (37 cents) and long lines, I traded the Camaro for a Datsun 210, one of the last vehicles to use regular, leaded (and cheaper) gas. The Datsun promised gas mileage four times that of the Camaro. It lacked the substantiality of the Camaro, the machismo. When you opened the car door, if you weren’t careful it felt as if it might come unhinged, featherweight, and go flying into he air. It was eco before there was eco. And it was a time-saver: when the red light turned green and you pressed the accelerator, you had enough time to search for and load another cassette tape before combustion, before anything actually happened and you had to look up at the road.

“What’s a cassette tape,” you ask? And wait, “what in the world is an 8-track tape?” Well. [Shaking head.] Go ask your parents. Go ask them about their first car. Ask them what it felt like to be free to go anywhere --- not on the internet, which is nowhere --- but in their God-given flesh to some real place in the dirt beyond their neighborhood. Ask them about the night air wafting through open windows, about an uncaged adventure with their best friend, about how freedom --- at least the freedom they thought they tasted --- is not what it’s cracked up to be, but is just a foretaste of the freedom to be who you were intended to be. Ask them if they are free. Ask them if the love of Christ has set them free.

I don’t recommend muscling cars too fast through busy intersections. But at least it was real. The road, the speed, the fear --- at least those solid realities told me I was living and asked me what for.

John became a weatherman, faithful husband, good father, and kind son to his now 90-something mother. I became a lawyer, and everyday I see or hear of men and women who are still "driving too fast" and suffering the shattering reality of their freedom, like circus animals who have burst their bonds in search of life outside the bounds, yet chained once again. To them --- to me, to you --- Christ says, “Watch this. Take my yoke upon you. It’s easy. My burden is light. In me you will find freedom."


Listening in the Dark


BCC5F60B-618C-4D76-AB2D-F6218E087928“The end of all things is at hand.”

(1 Pet. 4:7a)

In the middle of the night I awoke to hear the lullaby rhythm of a freight train passing by our hotel, its clickety-clack like a poem’s iambic pentameter. A long, epic poem, its lyric carriages filed slowly by. I imagined the poet-engineer atop its pulsing diesel heart, staring into the void of night, the darkened houses and wooded bluffs east; the dark, coursing river west. He must love its rhyme and rhythm, I thought, even if inarticulable, the aloneness of its journey. I lay still listening for its end, sad to hear its strains fade. On rising, I found out that my wife had heard the same train, had been listening in the dark, each of us unaware that the other was awake.

The trains pass regularly beneath our window, no more than a couple hundred feet away and perhaps 40 feet below our balcony. At first I thought the rumble and occasional soundings might disturb me, a light sleeper, but I found the racket mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. Watching the passenger trains pass, my mind ran to the people whose profiles filled each window -- their unknown names like words made flesh, stretched out in a line, common yet different. And then there’s the water. Beyond the tracks lies the Hudson, perhaps a half mile wide at this point, flowing south yet, given the wind, appearing to flow north, an inland sea of space in which the poem slides. An occasional fishing boat passes, lost in the couplets’ deluge, a speck on the poem’s page. An even more occasional tug bullies a barge upstream, pushing a noun, resilient against the flow.

Farther on, west of the Hudson, the Catskill Mountains rise, mist hanging over their summits. In the evenings after dinner I sit and watch the sun set behind them until the wind chills and drives me inside to watch from the window which I crack slightly so as to better hear the trains, smell the Catskill air, and catch snippets of conversation from the bar below, indecipherable yet reassuring: we are not entirely alone.

The reclaimed wood floors of The Rhinecliff Inn creak. The walls lack soundproofing. The air conditioning vent blows right onto your head as you lie in bed. We slept not with our heads on pillows but under pillows so as to allay the draft. The cold water is actually warm, the rainfall shower novel but annoying, and the service in the single restaurant excruciatingly slow, which is conducive to ruminating and conversing and, yes, listening to the trains.

The corner of the aged Amtrak station next door can be glimpsed from our balcony, airy and unkempt. The shiniest things in town are the vehicles, the Mercedes and BMWs, peppered with pickup trucks, the holdouts to the gentrifying of the river’s shore. The few brick and frame buildings at the center of this hamlet are vacant, commerce gone elsewhere. A private residence fills what once was a small brick church. The cemetery surrounding the small Catholic Church spreads out around the chapel, a meadow of silent witnesses to the finitude of life.

“The end of all things is near,” says Peter. That phrase sounds like death, not life, and yet he means it as an ending that resonates with hope. Speaking to a people who are suffering under the iron hand of a conquering nation and the religious people of the day, he gives instructions for the last days: Be sober. Watch yourself. Keep loving. Forgive each other. Show hospitality. Don’t grumble. Use your gift to serve. Speak, he says, “as one who speaks the very oracles of God.” (I Pet. 4:11a). By all means, speak.

Though my balcony is atop the bar, I am sober, and I am speaking. The dead speak from the hill above the town. The nameless people train north and south, their silence speaking. The freight of life moves in the night. Yet if you listen in the dark, you might hear the percolating life beneath: birdsong at dawn, a cross around a woman’s neck shouting death to death, a meadow whispering dandelions, the laughter of a child waiting for a school bus, waiting for something more. Waiting.

“You know what my favorite thing is about that picture,” I asked my wife, holding up a just snapped photo of my hand holding a dandelion just blown in a meadow north of town, its seeds scattered to the wind. “The ring. The wedding band.”

And the green field, and flowers. The meandering poets’ walk south of Red Hook. The buzzing bee held still in the air, evaluating us. The breeze, meadowland’s fall and rise, the Bassett hound lumbering through the life of Rhinebeck, and the glimpse of what once was and what will yet be.

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,” she reads from Psalm 25. “I like to think of the paths we walked these days with signs on them saying ‘steadfast love’ and ‘faithfulness,’” she says. She smiles behind her tea cup, and I think of the trails and country lanes we walked with all those unseen signs speaking steadfast love and faithfulness, reassurances for pilgrim-travelers.

The end is near. For all those listening in the dark, take heart. Christ moves in the shadows. The light and sound of his train will never end.