Indulge me. Indulge yourself. We're about to take an adventure. You're already on it. I'm just going to point at the scenery outside your window as we chug along. The train's pulling out of the station.Take a breath and relax.
WHY A FREEDOM TRAIN? The Freedom Train was conceived as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of American citizenship at a time when the nation was finding a new and central role in world affairs. Americans had experienced a decade of pre-war economic Depression...The result, they hoped, would enable Americans to rediscover for themselves just how hard-won their freedoms were. Clearly, they hoped to enable personal reconciliations with the still-fresh sacrifices and human costs of war, and to impart a sense of meaning and worth to those sacrifices. — FreedomTrain.org
Today, the situation is no different. We are engaged in a war which we question far more deeply its worth — in economic terms and in the toll of human life, misery and death. We search even more deeply for meaning and national purpose in a nation divided, though mercifully not as deeply as during Lincoln's age. We search for our place in the community of the United Nations, and even the value of that august body. We should keep on the rails of our principles, and honor theworth of all human life, American, Iraqi, yours, mine, and our most distant neighbors.
Whistle Stops on the Freedom Train: 1215, 1658, 1776, 1828, 1863, 1947, 1963, 1964, 1976, and 2006 (Not Necessarily in that Order)
Follow the train to its first whistle stops in 1947. Read what the new web site, the Western Queens Gazette, uncovered just last year from the old, folded Long Island Star-Journal, and what it was like when the train rolled into Queens, New York on December 7th, 1948. What it meant to the people of that day and age.
Follow that train back to 1828, to when William Lloyd Garrison met Benjamin Lundy, the Quaker (remember them), who inspired him to found the Liberator, which worked on Emancipation. He was a man of peace, but adamant principle.
"Our country is the world - our countrymen are mankind...
I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard."— William Lloyd Garrison
Now we need to turn this train back around. Chug uphill once again to 1947. Pull the load of history along with us. The grade is steep. The train will move slowly, but gather momentum year by year. And at times the train will backslide with a screech of metal-on-metal, until it gains traction again. And while it races to the top of the pass, beside it another railroad of tyranny tries to out-race it.
Show Me the Independence
We've arrived at last in 1947. But we have not found the last stop. The Freedom Train was not finished in its work. But let us pause here, where the first red, white, and blue Freedom Train was being prepared, and when its rolling stock first left the station on its mission.
Work was still ahead of it. And Harry S. Truman, the man from Independence, Missouri, the "show me" state, wanted to show the nation what we had wrought so far, so we could see what we had ahead of us still yet to go. He wanted to show independence to the American people. He loved the whistle stop. So the Freedom Train was born.
For those of you who love your railroading, here's information from North East Rails about the 1947-1949 Freedom Train.
The United Nations was brand new. They had agreed to their origins in San Francisco, on October 24, 1945. I have stood on the spot where it happened. There was no UN Headquarters. Temporarily, the founding fathers of the United Nations met at Lake Success, on Long Island. The unity of the body was challenged from practically the very start.
The United Nations was faced with thepartition of Israel. The peace proposal in the Middle East the looks incredibly similar to the facts on the ground today, decades later. The first UN soldier lost his life in the pursuit of peace.
The UN also had to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations dealing with the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
We the People...
And most urgently, they had to face the sundering of India into the new states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Jammu and Kashmir.
India's story, and the inspiration of Mahatma Ghandi, are supposedly well-known to many Americans. But many see the spectacled leader of the Indian people with quaint nostalgia without ever reading his words. He was a revolutionary, with the same passion as William Lloyd Garrison.
"A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history."— Mahatma Ghandi (and see his other quotes.)
"We the people of Jammu and Kashmir, have thrown our lot with Indian people not in the heat of passion or a moment of despair, but by a deliberate choice. The union of our people has been fused by the community of ideals and common sufferings in the cause of freedom".— Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, in the History of Kashmir
"We the people of Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh and the Frontier regions, including Poonch and Chenani Illaqas commonly known as Jammu and Kashmir State in order to perfect our union in the fullest equality and self-determination to raise ourselves and our children forever from the abyss of oppression and poverty, degradation and superstition, from medieval darkness and ignorance, into the sunlit valleys of plenty, ruled by freedom, science and honest toil, in worthy participation of the historic resurgence of the peoples of East, and the working masses of the world, and in determination to make this our country a dazzling gem on the snowy bosom of Asia, to propose and propound the following constitution of our State."
We the people? Great Madison's ghost! Note how that same phrase was as resonant from a Muslim leader of a new nation in 1947 as it was from our own founding fathers century's before? We the people! The Constitution of our own nation had inspired the world to their own freedoms.
What sort of people are these? Ladakh is a traditional Buddhist land. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, even Christians, all living and loving together? Such hippies! Crazy talk! Wasn't it? All done with a sober knowledge of the beauty of open land, living near the roof of the world.
Within two years, the year after the Freedom Train ran its last route, Tibet would be invaded, and the Dalai Lama would be propelled on his own way on the Freedom Train, which he rides each day, with his smile and gentle laughter. But not yet. In 1947, Tibet was free. And many others wished to be.
Thank You, Eleanor
Another thing that occurred in 1947 was Eleanor Roosevelt. She happened in a big way. The once intensely shy woman who encouraged and supported her polio-stricken husband to rise and stand again, who stood beside him and behind him through the years of the Depression, who had worked quietly and diligently for the rights of women and all peoples, who had helped in her own small way during the Second World War — the silent partner behind the New Deal — was now a widow. Yet it was then she made her greatest contribution to human law.
She helped craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1947, at last there was a vehicle for the Freedom Train that was not just for English barons against their tyrannical king, nor just for white male Americans, or even just for all Americans regardless of gender. It was a revolutionary idea: freedoms for all people in all nations.
The impact of it was the shot heard round the world, from Lake Success, New York, to Jammu and Kashmir.
You can't get more revolutionary than Eleanor Roosevelt!
I Have a Dream
It was still another decade and more before the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior stood up in Washington DC, at the symbol of Lincoln's Memorial, and declared "I have a dream!"
It was a hot August day, the 28th of that month, in 1963. I wasn't born yet. I would be born into the world where the dream had been spoken on September 23rd, 1964. The year of the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows. By then, the United Nations Headquarters had been established in Manhattan. I was born in the capital of the world.
I was born on the Freedom Train, in the Bronx. My first stop was in the hospital at Pelham Bay. I was born into the same borough of New York where the Piccirillis brothers carved that statue of Lincoln in 1922 which Dr. King stood before. It was carved around the same era when my own grandparents moved to the Bronx on their own migrations from Ireland, each seeking personal and economic freedom. My grandfather's job? He was a motorman on the IRT.
When I was a young lad, he took me into the cab of an elevated train. He lifted me up in his arms. He put my hand on the throttle of the IRT subway train, and he pushed my hand down. The train lurched forward.
I clearly remember that day. I didn't even know how to read. I recall clearly the vast row-upon-row of the tracks stretching out before us. The narrow rails converging towards a vanishing point on the horizon. How the trees began to approach and then move past the train to the side. The glass windows of the motorman's booth. The feel of the metal under my hand. The mostly grey cloudy sky and the sunlight behind it. He taught me how to drive the train.
It didn't last very long. I was lowered to the ground, and I got to stare up at him as he took the train faster and faster. And then, it slowed. He gently pulled the train into the next station, and with a nod of his head he handed the train back to the other fellow he worked with from whom he had borrowed it for a "treat" for his grandson. Yes, I guess you could say that he broke the law, but he was not going to let that stand in the way of showing his first grandson how to drive the IRT! That was my grandfather, through and through. I didn't just love my grandfather. I worshipped him.
The dreaming was just beginning. "I have a dream!" My Irish-Catholic mother heard that speech. She loved it so much that in 1969, the same month that humankind first stepped foot on the moon, in fulfillment of the words of the dream of the fallen Irish-Catholic President, she gave my brother the first name "John" in honor of that President and the middle name "Martin" in honor of the man of freedom and that speech. And his other middle name was "Robert" in honor of the other brother struck dead while running for President.
She had gotten the dream too, and she passed it down to me, and to my brother by name. I clearly recall when she gave me the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I blinked and wondered why she'd give that to a grade-schooler. It's a good book. A highly different dream, but my mother could see how Malcolm X and Dr. King saw the same problem, and just were tackling it from different points of origin. They were both heading to that same vanishing point before the rails of the Freedom Train.
I missed the 1976 Freedom Train. For me, that was the year was Operation Sail. It was another legacy of John F. Kennedy, founded in 1961. My heart and my mind went to sea as the ships sailed up and down the Hudson River, and swirled around the George Washington Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty, and the World Trade Center, and the docks of Brooklyn. We followed every glimpse of it we could from the windows of a small car packed with seven sweaty kids. We'd get out and crane our necks. The radio music was alive with Paul McCartney's top hit, "Silly Love Songs." Casey Kasem did a special American Top 40 for all the July 4th songs of the century.
In my youth, I also remember the train that ran to the Mark Twain-like town of Willoughby, which Rod Serling introduced me to through television re-runs of the Twilight Zone. In recent years since my 2001 layoff, I have had my own stop at Willoughby, I suppose it's fair to say. Now, in 2006, I'm back in school for my MBA and have a sweet consulting position. I'm out of Willoughby of my reclusive reflection, perhaps, but I'm also not at the job that was telling me to "Push! Push! Push!"
I'm in neither place. I'm back where I belong.
I'm back on the train.
Next Stop on the Freedom Train
Just yesterday, I was informed that on Epiphany of this year, my grandmother passed away. She had faded off, her heart slowly and gently beating softer until she slept eternally. She's gone to see my grandfather. I'm sure she's got all the subway tokens heaven can shower upon her, and he'll be driving her to whatever station she wishes. Her husband, my grandfather, will be there to meet her at the turnstile.
I was born the grandson and son of dreamers with adamant beliefs in what was good and right. Now my own brothers and my sister have their own children; two were born just around this Thanksgiving past. My grandmother died a great grandmother — which she always was. A great grandmother.
I can only dream about the world my niece and nephews will find on their own train ride. So when I get aboard this Freedom Train, I'll be bringing the hand of possibility the youngest motorman in New York City history, and the love of all those I have known who have loved freedom I have ever met since then. I'll be bringing my mind, filled with the possibilities for the generations ahead.
Hope to See You On Board
It doesn't matter if you own a car, or need to borrow five bucks to pay for your ticket. I've been unemployed for years (and I recently got a job, yay!), butI'llloan you the money if you need.I'll give you the money I have in my pocket until it's gone. Just to get more on board.You just need to get down to the train station, and we'll get on that Freedom Train together. I'll get myself to the Palo Alto station, as Malcolm X said, "by any means necessary." I'll see you there unless something untoward happens. You'll see me on that trainin spirit, even if something happens to my body, even if it's standing-room-only. I'll be the guy hoping to peek over Mr. Ghandi's shoulder to read what headlines Mr. Garrison published today about Mrs. Roosevelt's latest appeal to us all.
If you miss getting on the physical Freedom Train this year, then plan for next year, the 60th Anniversary of the original Harry S. Truman-era train, and to celebrate the Universal Bill of Human Rights. But if you can, come on out this year. Join the revolution. You'll be able to tell people you've been there and did that for Freedom.
Only One Way We Can Go Out — Singing!
We need people on the train just as much as ever. Blue Meanies are still around every corner. We need Crazy Wisdom to fight them, as Wes "Scoop" Nisker would say. If you can't get on the train because of a Blue Meanie, maybe you can take a Yellow Submarine. As you know, St. Jude the Apostle in Cupertino has a great choir. With them in mind, and "Hey, Jude" running through the back of my brain, I end our train ride today. Hope to see you on January 16th for the next ticket to ride.
It's been a long time comin' -
How You Can Ride the Freedom Train in San Jose, CA, 16 January 2006
21st Annual Freedom Train — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Santa Clara Valley, Inc.