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Flying is for the Birds
Jaroslav Pelikan

I was born on December 17, 1923 — twenty years to the day alter the Wright brothers launched their first plane at Kitty Hawk. Early in my life that coincidence combined with the avian origins of my family name to give me a certain mystique about flying. I felt that I was born to fly. My career in aviation began thirty years ago last summer, when one of my father's parishioners offered to pay for my first flight. I can still remember watching for our house as we circled the city in the Ford Trimotor, the hottest thing on wings in those days. This was really it, I knew. I vowed that if I could ever afford it, I would fly all over the United States.

Since then I have flown all over the United States, and a good part of Canada as well. I have flown across the Atlantic in both directions. When the airplane buffs gather to swap stories about near misses, I can recount my share of engines conked out, landing gears stuck, ceilings at zero, and three separate times when I was on a plane that crashed after I disembarked — in Washington, in Minneapolis, and in Newark. I have circled the field at Hancock, Michigan, which is surrounded on three sides by Lake Superior, while a jeep plowed the snow from the runway for our plane to land. I have long since been inducted into the "hundred thousand mile club," entitling me to pay full fare on any scheduled airline. I have eaten airline filet mignon as rare as it could be and still be dead, and sipped airline Martinis as dry as they could be and still stay in the glass. My boyhood dream has been fulfilled, and I am a citizen of the modern world. Tomorrow the jets, and then to the moon!

But when I want to travel instead of merely going from one place to another, I take the train. I fly when I must and take the train when I can, because flying is for the birds and the railroads are for me. The girl at a travel agency where I sometimes buy my tickets once asked me, "Do you want to take the plane, or are you going first class?" Citizen of the modern world or not, I prefer the Twentieth Century Limited (of happy but now lamented memory) to any "executive flight" between Chicago and New York, in spite of slippers, steaks, and pretty stewardesses. Perhaps I am becoming conservative as I close the first half of my three score years and ten, and my rapidly graying hair may make a Republican of me yet. But whatever the real reasons may be, I have often pondered my growing enthusiasm for rail travel and my deepening dislike of flying.

You Get too Close to the Wrong People

One factor that makes me suspect this dislike as a species of snobbery is my feeling of discomfort amid the compulsory intimacy of a plane. It's actually a flying bus, only a little more crowded and a lot more expensive. I love children, and not just fried, as W. C. Fields used to say; but I do not love them so much that I enjoy having them crawl over me and under me (to mention only their more prosaic activities) during the seven-hour flight to the West Coast. On a modern airliner — Super-G Constellation or DC-7C or Viscount or whatever its Buck Rogers title may be — there is simply no place to hide. As an ex-smoker, I sputter and smart at the eyes when one of my fellow travelers tries to make a Smithfield ham of .me, but there is no place to hide. I shall never forget a flight out of Covington, Kentucky, on which about two dozen college girls were going home for the Easter recess. The rough air over the mountains gave one of them a bad case of what might be called "mal de air," and soon all the others were following her example. My deep sympathy for their plight did not help them or me one bit, and I found myself wishing I were in a roomette. Nowhere else except in an induction center or the I. R. T. subway will a modern person permit himself to be so cramped and so manipulated — so "thingified," to use Paul Tillich's pungent expression — as in a luxury flight aboard one of those six-mile-a-minute sardine cans. I don't like it when I have to do it, and I avoid it whenever I can.

It's not only how close you have to get to people that bothers me, however. It is also the sort of people you have to get close to that makes me uncomfortable on a plane. Somehow flying seems to attract people who look upon it as the thing to do for those who have made it. As one matron with more than her share of both flesh and spirit said to me when we were leaving Atlanta, "You know, the planes are still one place where you meet mostly white folks, and proper ones at that." Maybe I simply don't enjoy the company of such proper folks or their endless name-dropping, complaining about income tax, and bragging about the market. Or maybe I am becoming an anti-snob snob, which is supposed to be the worst kind. But I had a lot more fun with the fans I used to meet in the stands behind third base at Comiskey Park last summer or the crowd at a concert by the mighty Odetta last spring. The lady coming out of Atlanta was not only mean but dull, for she had never permitted people different from herself to buff away her dullness; and she was so happy that on the planes she could meet so many white Gentile Protestants. Of course, the airlines are y integrated — a lot more integrated than most of the churches! But there is still a sameness about so many of the passengers one meets while flying, and about the conversations.

Another type of passenger on many flights bothers me even more, because I find myself falling involuntarily into line with him. This is the character whose time is valuable. He has a sweep second hand on his watch, as I do, and at each take-off and landing he checks the schedule, muttering some sort of meteorological wisdom about "I hope he [this always means the pilot] picks up a tailwind! Maybe he should go to seventeen [this always means seventeen thousand feet]." By the time such an amateur dispatcher has covered the miles from Chicago to International Falls, Minnesota, with five or six intermediate stops, his ulcers have ulcers. Yet this is the pattern of behavior that comes over me when I fly. A tight schedule and a tight stomach go together. If I catch an earlier flight in order to give myself plenty of time, it does not help. I still worry when it falls behind schedule, and I keep consulting the schedule to see whether I can change planes at Syracuse if this one is delayed too much. Being by nature afflicted with anxiety about transportation schedules — the late biographer of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, reports that this was one anxiety of which even Freud could not rid himself — I suffer with the realization that I cannot switch to a speedier form of transportation, but will simply have to miss my appointment, as I missed the New York premiere of the film Martin Luther, on which I had done some work, because of engine trouble in (of all places) South Bend, Indiana. And being by nature afflicted with compulsion about work, I stay at my desk as late as possible until take-off time, when the compulsion gives way to the anxiety. I am afraid that flying will make me neurotic.

Whereas, On a Train . . .

If I take the train, I still experience some anxiety about missing it; but once I have caught it, the anxieties and the compulsions disappear — for reasons that I am sure both Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones could explain quite vividly. Here on the train I have a privileged sanctuary. There will be manuscripts and galley proofs in my briefcase, perhaps even some dictation. But for now my time is my own. I can read a church father or a detective story without being interrupted. If I have some writing to do, I can have a table brought in, set up my "portable portable" as the ad men call it (no forty pound limit on the train!), and work in peace. And if I am cramped by the church father or by my quarters, I can get up and walk about. These are only some of the simple pleasures that attract me to the train. Then there are the pleasures that are not so simple. If I don't care for pot roast well done or bland chicken a la king (and I don't), I may enjoy a luncheon or a dinner as I like it. A generation of travelers is rising now who may never know how good a meal en route can be. The salad bowl on the New York Central, the wheat cakes on the Wabash, the baked potato on the Great Northern, the whitefish on the Canadian Pacific — these are truly patrician. Or at least they used to be. On a railroad as in a marriage, the cuisine is one of the first things to suffer when times of trouble come. Still the dining car remains a wondrous place to see and to smell, and one of the pleasures of being a parent is to take a boy into the dining car with its gleaming napkins and heavy silver and to induct him into the mysteries of food and service as America rolls by the train window.

The America that rolls by the train window is itself one of the deepest mysteries. Perhaps I am still under the charm of the Thomas Wolfe I read so greedily in the late 1930's, but to me the spell of America will always be associated with the sights and sounds of the train. The whistles and the wheels and the brakes, even on the Diesels, form a link with the American past which we need very much in a country where any heritage more hallowed than the seventh inning stretch is so hard to preserve. The Canadian roads are still close enough to the bush country and to their own past, and therefore they supply this link with automatic coupling. In our country, too, a road like the Santa Fe or the Union Pacific bears in its very name some of the power of the past. For one who spent the happiest years of his boyhood in Pennsylvania, the sound of a train in the night will always be the sound of adventure and excitement. I may have wanted to run away with the circus, but I think I wanted to do it on the train! And there is still no better method of sightseeing and catching the sweep of America's plains and forests.

Despite this enthusiasm for travel across the plains and forests, I am by choice an apartment dweller, urban in my fundamental instincts. To me the railroads stand for something important and meaningful about the life of the American city. Sometime, perhaps in the Cresset, I want to make explicit some of my misgivings about the failure of American Protestantism to grasp the genius of the city. The airport and the railroad station are almost a parable of that failure. The railroad station is right in town, in a section that is down at the heels by this time. It is large, poorly designed, poorly decorated, poorly lighted, bearing all the architectural marks of the period that produced it — what an architect friend calls "a McKinley stinker." But it is in town, and it is there to stay, dirt or no dirt. The airport, meanwhile, is away from town, where "the air is clean and the nicer people live." It is sleek, combining utility and beauty, as the new airports in Pittsburgh and Saint Louis do so well. But it is cut off from the life of the city; and like the citizens who live near it for the sake of the clean air and the nicer people, it can often represent an irresponsible attitude toward the city and its problems. Ironically, the railroad station has gradually become a symbol of such irresponsibility, too, for the commuters have come to outnumber the travelers at its ticket counters. But though they may get off at Westport, the commuters know that without the railroad and without the city they could not live.

Thus the railroad can help to restore a sense of proportion. It does so in a more profound way as well. One does not have to be a party-line Kantian to recognize that human life and experience stand under the two rubrics of time and space. Many of the world's most creative thoughts have come from the effort to attune the mind to these two given elements. The more sophisticated a culture becomes, the more deeply do its wise men reflect about the problem of time and space as the precondition of reality and of experience. But our modern culture can give us the illusion of having overcome this problem by the simple achievement of being able to cover more space in less time. We speak of "conquering distances" by means of coaxial cables and Convairs. We even subordinate space to time and measure the distance to the stars in light years. And behind much of our thinking is the intuitive impression that we are on the way toward transcending our bounded existence, trammeled as it is by space and time.

Now I would not claim that riding a train will cure a man of this idolatrous impression; in an ultimate way, I suppose, only the Biblical doctrine of creation can do this. But I will say that there is a salutary effect to matching miles of earth against minutes of schedule. It may only be a legend that some transcontinental travelers get a needle from their physicians just before taking off and thus wake up on the opposite coast without having had any sensation of movement at all, but the story does illustrate how completely air travel can banish the dimension first of space and then even of time in favor of a non-stop Nirvana. It has taken the human race countless ages to develop some sensitivity to space-time and to understand a little about it. There is not, I would suggest, unalloyed benefit in the traumatic experience of being suddenly jerked out of space-time, only to discover that space and time have been there all along and that air travelers grow older too. Without indulging in any romanticism about it, I am convinced that it is good for anyone to rediscover the delicate balance of space and time, and that rail travel is an excellent way to do this.

Do the Railroads Want Passengers?

But the iron horse has become a nag, and the old gray mare ain't what she used to be. The railroads have been on the defensive so long before the attacks of the more glamorous modes of travel that their losses can never be recouped. Much as one might wish that the trains could capture the imagination of Americans again, it seems impossible. What is more, they are not even trying. When representatives of the roads told Congress that they do not want passenger traffic, they were confirming what every passenger has been suspecting for years: that his business is an imposition upon the railroads, and that they would rather not be bothered with people. As some librarians give the impression that books are their friends and readers their enemies, so some trainmen wind their Hamiltons and stroke their service bars with a contemptuous disregard for any mere passenger who cannot equal their record of twenty-seven consecutive years on the rails.

How different the airplanes. Capitalizing upon the boost which flying received during the war, they appeal to the ego and to the imagination of their passengers. Several years ago I had to fly to Cedar Rapids , Iowa, to pick up my car, which I had left there because of a snowstorm. Since it was a Saturday, I took my older boy (then seven years old) along. Shortly after we left the Chicago airport, a stewardess came to ask him whether this was his first flight. It was. From one of the ingenious little cabinets of which a plane seems to have so many, she produced a pair of wings, which she pinned to his blouse. A few minutes later she presented him with a certificate signed by the entire crew, commemorating this historic event. His first flight, you may be sure, was not his last. He was theirs for life. Yet all they had done was to treat him as though he were real, and to take advantage of the excitement in a boy's first commercial flight.

But catch the railroads doing something like that! Even courtesy sometimes seems to come hard for them. Last sprin0 I had to change my plans on a trip to Baltimore and fly home instead of taking the train. When the situation is reversed, the airlines will refund the full amount of the ticket on the spot; indeed, one airline even paid my taxi fare to the railroad terminal last year when a plane was delayed. But when I canceled my train reservations, I encountered one obstacle after another. Although I informed the Baltimore ticket office, I could not even turn in my tickets there, but had to wait until I got back to Chicago, where I had purchased them. In Chicago the rail tickets had to go to one office (with one form to fill out), and the Pullman reservations to another office (with another form to fill out); I was not required to file an affidavit. A couple of weeks later I finally received my refund. Cancellations and refunds are a nuisance, I know, and they entail much unnecessary bookkeeping. But the quick courtesy of the airlines stands in sharp contrast with the Canossa to which the railroads made me come.

Clearly the railroads don't care enough to change. The late Robert Young tried to do something about their plight, and others have been dreaming bold dreams for them. But they are always one track away from their opportunities, and thus they cannot take advantage either of their romantic past or of their potential. The governmental regulations governing the operation of the railroads were intended to prevent them from becoming an empire, and have been successful in doing this. There will be no railroad empire; but unless these regulations undergo some drastic revision, there may be no railroads, either. Citing old abuses of power by the railroad barons of the nineteenth century is like keeping the bounty on wolves in Cook County. Unless we have a healthy and versatile railroad system, the economic and social life of the United States is in for trouble.

For rail transport remains a basic need of the economy, while a strengthened transit system is the basis for any practicable solution to the centrifugal problems of the metropolis. But when passenger traffic drains off any profits that may come from freight, and when commuter traffic has to operate at an even greater deficit than passenger traffic, how can the railroads become healthy and versatile enough to meet these needs and problems? Travelers will give up and will take their business where it is wanted. Already the rail schedules are being drastically reduced. There are fewer stations than there used to be, and fewer grains to the stations that are left. Revenues go down, deficits go up; service goes down, disgust goes up; and so the revenues go down even more.

The Constant Lover

But whenever I can, I still take the train. I suppose I'll go right on taking it until the run from Chicago to New York is via New Orleans. (Come to think of it, there would be certain culinary advantages to that routing.) And occasionally, on cold gray nights in March or November, I shall discover that I am not alone on the train. For into the club car will stomp the refugees from the airlines who have discovered (if only for one cold gray night) that flying is for the birds. Then I shall take my pocket notebook from my briefcase and turn to the page where I have copied my favorite poem by Ogden Nash, "The Unwinged Ones":*

I don't travel on planes.

I travel on trains.

Once in a while, on trains,

I see people who travel on planes.

Every once in a while I'm surrounded

By people whose planes have been grounded.

I'm enthralled by their air-minded snobbery,

Their exclusive hobnobbery,

And I'll swear to, before any notary,

The clichés of their coterie.

They feel that they have to explain

How they happen to be on a train,

For even in Drawing Room A

They seem to feel declasse.

So they sit with portentous faces

Clutching their attaché cases.

As the Scotches they rapidly drain

That they couldn't have got on the plane,

They grumble and fume about how

They'd have been in Miami by now.

They frowningly glance at their watches,

Ond order more Scotches.

By the time that they're passing through Rahway

They should be in Havana or Norway, And they strongly imply that perhaps, Since they're late, the world will collapse. Then, as station merges with station, They complain of the noise and vibration. These outcasts of aviation, They complain of the noise and vibration. Sometimes on the train I'm surrounded By people whose planes have been grounded. That's the only trouble with trains; When it fogs, when it smogs, when rains, You get people from planes.

From The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery, (Pocket Books 1955), pp. 66-67. Copyright 1952 by Ogden Nash. First published in The New Yorker.

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