Saturday, May 05, 2007

Everything I Needed To Know In Life I Learned On The Train


Indiana Railway Museum, Greensburg, IN, 1975.
LtoR: Me, Mike Winkler, Alan Barnett, Tom Knowles and Bill Jenkins

Last Sunday I was returning from the Midwest Conference on Masonic Education in Evansville. Those of us who live in Indiana know that Evansville is in the unfortunate position of being in the big toe of Indiana's boot, as far southwest as you can get. And if you live in Indianapolis, you also know there's no way to get to Evansville and back - at least no way that is logical. You either drive 9/10s of the way to Louisville in the southeast, then double back all the way across the state on I-65. Or you hotfoot it west to Terre Haute and then take a thoroughly unpleasant drive south for another two hours on a state highway that is totally unsuited for the job. Either way, you are going 40 miles out of your way if there was a shining ribbon of concrete going straight between Indy and Evansville. This dream is known as I-69, and as its number implies, its supporters have been screwed frontwards and backwards for decades, waiting for it to be built.

I decided on the trip home on Sunday to take the straightest route, which adds nearly two hours to the voyage on Indiana's scenic back roads. My real excuse was to drive through the towns of French Lick and West Baden, two legendary, side-by-side resort towns from Indiana's early 120th century days.

My grandmother used to come by train all the way from Louisville back in the 1920s to gamble at the resorts and "take the waters." I am no stranger to French Lick, because my first trip there was in 1977. And this is where this story is really headed.

My step-brother and I both had a long-standing love affair with trains. We used to ride the city bus to downtown Indianapolis as boys and spend the day at Union Stations watching the trains pass through the city. We explored every nook and cranny of the nearly abandoned building. We knew all of the bums who lived in its secret hiding places. We snuck underground into the subterranean mail-handling caverns. We rode the baggage elevators. We explored the long abandoned offices and vaults. We climbed on the roof, and even snuck into the building one night to ascend all the way to the attic level, where we walked on narrow beams across the five-story high stained glass ceiling. Union Station didn't belong to the railroad, it belonged to us. At the age of 13, this was the coolest private fort a kid could have. Then we found something better.

One day in the old passenger car storage area known as the Capitol Avenue Coach Yards (where the RCA Dome stands now), we stumbled across a group of 8 or 10 folks in their 20s and 30s restoring a 1950's era Pennsylvania Railroad observation car, Samuel Rea, named after the Pennsy's president from 1913 to 1925. It wasn't immaculate, but it was beautiful. And in one evening, I was hooked on the whole package - trains, restoration, being treated almost like a grown up, and having not just one, but a whole fleet of private railroad cars I could pretend were mine.

The cars actually belonged to the Indiana Railway Museum, which had just moved from Westport to Greensburg, Indiana. There, we operated a tourist train from Greensburg to the wide spot in the road 5 miles up the line called Sandusky, and back again. The bane of our existence and our pride and joy was our steam locomotive, #11, a Baldwin oil-fired 0-4-0 saddle tank switch engine. Every Friday night our routine was to gather in Samuel Rea over dinner, drink beer, and make big plans for the future. We had almost no money, but what we did have was a dedicated core group of endlessly inventive members who found ways to achieve the impossible every weekend and keep the train running.

My step-brother Mike Winkler, Bill Jenkins, Tom and Marti Knowles, Tom and Pam Slater, Coleman Sachs, Bill Doran, Ralph Baker - and too many names I can no longer remember - we all spent every weekend for four years working on our private railroad empire. And our fearless leader through it all was the Museum president, Alan Barnett. Alan's father was the Mayor in Greensburg, and apart from the courthouse's "world famous" (appearing in Ripley's Believe It Or Not) Tower Tree - a tree that sprouted from the courthouse's clock tower, we were the only tourist attraction in town. As a result, when we needed favors from the town, we usually got them.

Working on the railroad taught me how to run a business, how to weld, how to deal with the public, how to understand basic accounting, how to drive a stick-shift, how to drive a train, and how to drink and cuss like a railroad worker. It taught me personal responsibility and teamwork. It even motivated me to teach myself art and design concepts. But it also taught me about motivating people in a completely volunteer organization. All before I turned 16.

So what does any of this have to do with Freemasonry, you ask? As I said at the top of this story, I drove through French Lick to see the train and the museum, but mostly to see my old friend Alan Barnett. The train cars of my youth are now almost all rusting hulks, with a few exceptions, replaced by other equipment in better repair that has remained in regular service. They haven't aged well. But Alan doesn't look any different to me than he did almost 30 years ago. We had a chance to give each other the quick thumbnail sketches of our lives since we saw each other last. He has been bedeviled by some health problems. The new French Lick casino was big news. The West Baden Springs Hotel is reopening soon, and they want to run train service between the two hotels. And I told Alan about my strange new life of late, and gave him copies of my books.

"Freemasonry," he said, "You're a Mason? Me too. I must've joined my lodge in Greensburg almost 40 years ago."

All those years ago, this man I admired, who was the town sheriff, the president of the Museum, and a man who taught me so much about responsibility, common sense, mechanics, public relations and lots more - he had been a Freemason all along.

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