Freight train, freight train going so fast,
Freight train, freight train going so fast,
Please don’t say what train I’m on,
So they won’t know where I’ve gone.
-Chorus from ancient folk blues artist Elizabeth Cotten’s Freight Train.
As this story unfolds, Elizabeth Cotten’ s Freight Train, in an upbeat Peter, Paul and Mary-style version complete with Bleecker Street reference, is being covered just then near the well firewood- stocked, well-stoked fireplace of the great room in a hard winter, February version, snow-covered rural New Hampshire old time religious order assembly hall by some upstart urban folkie a long way from his home and a long way from that 1960s folk revival minute that then had had even jaded aficionados from the generation of ’68 clamoring for more.
Meanwhile, the front hall entrance adjacent to that great room where that old-time folkie and his old-time tune are being heard by a small early-bird arrival gathering crowd who never tire of the song, and who this night certainly do not tire of being close by the huge well stocked, well-stoked fireplace where the old brother, hell, let’s give him a name, Eric, Eric from Vermont, okay, is holding forth is starting to fill with more arrivals to be checked in and button-holed. The place, for the curious: the Shaker Farms Peace Pavilion (formerly just plain vanilla Shaker Farms Assembly Hall but the “trust fund babies” who bought and donated the site, ah, insisted in their, of course, anonymous way on the added signature) the scene of umpteen peace conferences, anti-war parlays, alternative world vision seminars, non-violent role-playing skits, and personal witness actions worked out. A handy hospice for worn-out ideas, ditto frustrations, and an off-hand small victory or two.
That very last part, that desperate victory last part, is what keeps the place afloat, afloat in this oddball of a hellish anti-war year 1971 when even hardened and steeled old-time peace activists against the Vietnam War are starting to believe they will be entitled to Social Security for their efforts before this bloody war is over. Hence the urgency behind this particular great room fireplace warm, complete with booked-in urban folkie singer, umpteenth anti-war conference. But onward brothers and sisters and let us listen in to the following conversation overheard in that now crowded front hall:
“Hi, Joyell, glad you could make it to the conference. Are you by yourself or did you bring Steve with you?” asked Jim Sweeney, one of the big honchos, one of the big organizational honchos and that is what matters these dog days when all hope appears to have been abandoned, these now fading days of the antiwar movement trying yet again to conference jump start the opposition to Nixon’s bloody escalations and stealthy tricky maneuvers.
“Good to see you too, Jim,” answered Joyell, who said it in such a singsong way that she and Jim Sweeney, obviously, had been in some mystic time, maybe some summer of love time before everything and everybody needed twelve coats of armor, emotional armor, just to move from point A to point B, more than fellows at one of those umpteen peace things. Joyell knew, knew from some serious reflection last summer, that she had put on a few more armor coats herself and, hell, she was just a self-confessed rank and filer. Their “thing” had just faded though for lack of energy, lack of high “ism” politics on Joyell’s part unlike frenetic Jim, and for the cold, hard fact that Jim at the time wanted to devote himself totally to the “movement” and could not “commit” to a personal relationship.
“Jesus, can’t any guy commit to anything for more than ten minutes,” Joyell thought to herself. From the weathered look on his face Jim was still in high thrall to “saving the earth” although rumor had it that Marge Goodwin, ya, that Marge Goodwin, the “mother” of organizers every since she almost single-handedly called out the national student strike in 1970, almost had her hooks into him, into him bad from all reports.
“No, Steve and I are not together anymore since he split to “find himself” on some freight train heading west, heading west fast away from me, I think. But you don’t want to hear that story, and besides we have to push on against this damn war, Steve or no Steve and his goddamn freight smoke-trailing dreams.” What Joyell didn’t say was that she was half-glad, no quarter-glad, Steve had split since the last couple of months had been hell. A fight a day it seemed, two a day at the end.
Reason: Steve too was not ready to “commit” to a personal relationship what with the whole world going to hell in hand-basket (his expression). Besides they all had plenty of time, a life-time to get “serious” and, forbidden words, “settle down.” Here is where the quarter-glad part comes in. Steve was getting in kind of heavy with some Weathermen-types and while that did not cause an argument a day between them it didn’t help. Joyell half expected to hear that Steve, Steve the meek pacifist, a freaking meek Catholic Worker guy just a couple years before, blew up something, or got blown up. Jesus, she thought, was I that hard to take, hard to get along with.
“I’m sorry to hear that Joyell. Maybe when we get a break later we can talk.” Of course, and maybe for the same Steve smoke-trailing-freight-dream-escape-seeking-the-great-American be-bop night reason, or maybe a heroic end traced out since boyhood redemptions reason, Jim and Joyell never would meet later, as Jim would be tied up, well, tied up in whatever organizational thing he was honcho of these days. Their time too had irrevocably passed. And now, and from here on in, this is Joyell’s time, her story, her voice as she enters the spacious but cold, distant from the well-stoked fireplace cold, conference room to the left of the great room with its rickety elongated table weighted down with timeless banging against ten thousand flickered night dreams, scarecrow chairs that caused more than one modern arched-back to falter helplessly, and unhealthy air, air make rank from too many spent speeches, and spent dreams.
“Who is that guy over in the corner, that green corner coach, the guy with the kind of wispy just starting to fill out brown beard, and those fierce piercing goy blue eyes, that I just passed? I’ve not seen him around before,” Joyell asked herself and then Marge Goodwin, expecting Marge the crackerjack organizer of everything from antiwar marches to save the, and you can fill in the blank, to know all the players. Moreover Marge and Joyell got along well enough for Joyell to ask such a question, “girl talk,” they called it between themselves although to the “men” this was a book sealed with seven seals since the “correct” thing was to put such girlish things back in prehistoric times, four or five years ago okay. Joyell also sensed that since Marge’s “thing” with Jim hadn’t worked out they had something in common, although nothing was ever said. Nor would it be.
“Oh, that’s Frank Jackman, the anti-war GI who just got out of the stockade over at Fort Shaw last week and he is ready to do some work with us,” volunteered Marge. Later that evening Joyell would hear from a reliable source that Marge had gotten, or had tried to get, very familiar with the ex-army soldier resister. Marge had a thing for “heroic” guys. Heroic guys being guys like Jim, Joan Baez’s hubby, David Harris, who had refused draft induction, the Berrigan Brothers who were getting ready to do time for draft board record destruction (although she, Marge, couldn’t get that damn Catholic trick part that drove their actions) and now this Frank Jackman who had done a year, a tough soldier non-soldier year, some of it in solidarity, in the stockade for refusing go to Vietnam (and refusing to wear the military uniform at one point). Joyell also heard from another source that evening that it was no dice between Marge and Frank. This source thought it was that Marge, always getting what Marge wanted when it came to “movement men,” figured this guy would just cave in and take the ride. Not this guy, no way, not after taking on the “big boys” over at Fort Shaw. No dice, huh. That’s a point in his favor. But that was later fuel.
“Oh, that’s why his beard is so wispy and he is wearing those silly high top polished black boots and that size too big Army jacket with those bell-bottomed jeans. He certainly has the idea of what it takes to fit in here,” Joyell figured out, figured out loud. Marge just nodded, nodded kind of dismissively that she was right. And then left to do some organization business setting up the evening’s work.
And then suddenly, she, Joyell Davin (suitably Americanized, naturally, a couple of generations back), freshly-damaged in love’s unequal battles but apparently not ready to throw in the towel, got very quiet, very quiet like she always did when some guy caught her eye, well, more than her eye tonight, now that Steve was so much train smoke out in the cornfields somewhere. Maybe it was the New York City armor-coated brashness, hell Manhattan grow-up hard and necessary brashness required in a too many people universe, and learned from her very opinionated father, that her quietness tried to rein in at times like this so guys, guys like this Frank, wouldn’t be thrown off. But whatever it was that drove her quietness she was taking her peeks, her quiet half- peeks really, at this guy. With Steve, and a few other guys, it was mostly full steam ahead and let the devil take the hinter- post. This time her clock said take it easy, jesus, take it easy.
And as she found herself catching herself taking more and more of those telltale peeks she noticed, noticed almost by instinct, almost by some mystical sense that he was “checking” her out, although their dueling eyes had not met. Then, after Jim had finished giving the opening address about what the conferees were trying to do, this Frank Jackman stood up quickly without introduction and started talking, in a firm voice, about the need to up the ante, to create havoc in the streets, and in the army camps. And do it now, and with some sense of urgency. But he said it all in such way that everybody in the room, all forty or fifty of them, knew, or should have known, that this was not some ragtag wispy–bearded fly-by-night “days of rage” kid spirit, freshly bell-bottom pants minted, but some kind of revolutionary, some kind of radical anyway, who had thought about things a lot and wasn’t just a flame-thrower like she had seen too many of lately, including Steve, before he went to find himself.
When Frank was done he looked, half-looked really, quickly in her direction like he was seeking her, and just her, approval. And like he needed to know and know right this minute that she approved. She blushed, and hoped it did not show. And hoped that she had read his look in her direction correctly. But before that blush could subside she blushed again when out of nowhere this Frank gave her a another look, a serious checking out look if she knew her “movement” men, not a leer like some drunken barroom guy, or “come on, honey,” like a schoolboy but a let’s talk high “ism” talk later, and see what happens later, later. Maybe this umpteenth conference would work out after all.
So our Joyell was not surprised, not surprised at all, when during the break, the blessed break after two non-stop hours of waiting, Francis Alexander Jackman (that’s what he was called from when he was a kid and it kind of stuck but he preferred simply Frank) came up behind, tapped her gently on the shoulder to get her attention, introduced himself without fanfare or with any heroic poses, and thanked her for her work on his behalf.
“What do you mean, Frank?” she asked, bewildered by the question. “Oh, when your Peace Action committee came up to Fort Shaw and demonstrated for my freedom,” he replied in kind of a whisper voice, very different from his public voice, a voice that had known some tough times recently and maybe long ago too, but that soft whisper was what she needed, needed to hear from a righteous man, just now. The shrill of Steve’s voice, and a couple of others in her string of forgotten luck, still echoed in her brain.
“That was you? I didn’t make the connection. I didn’t know that was you, sorry, that was about a year ago and I have been going non-stop with this antiwar march and that women’s lib things. Were you in the stockade all that time?” she continued.
“Ya,” just a ya, not forlorn or anything like that but just a simple statement of fact, of the fact that he had needed to do what he did and that was that, next question, came that soft reply like this Frank and she were on some same wave-length. She was confused, confused more than a little that he had that strong effect on her after about five minutes of just general conversation.
Just then Marge, super-organizer but, as Joyell had already gathered intelligence on by then, not above having the last say in her little romances with the newest heroes of the movement, or trying to, called to Frank that Stanley Bloom, the big national anti-war organizer, wanted his input into something. But before he left soft -whispering still, calm still, unlike when he talked, talked peace action talk, he mentioned kind of kid-like, bashful kid-like, maybe they could meet later. Joyell could barely contain herself, and although she usually acted bashfully at these times, kind of a studied bashfulness starting out, even with Steve and some of the movement guys, she just blurted out, “We’d better.” He replied, a little stronger of voice than that previous whisper, “I guess that is a command, right?” And they both laughed, laughed an adventure ahead laugh.
Later came, evening session complete, as they were sitting across from each other in the great room, the great fireplace room where Eric was going through his second rendition of Freight Train to get the room revved up for his big stuff. Frank came over and asked, back to whisper asked, if Joyell would like to go outside for a breath of fresh winter air. Or maybe somewhere else, another room inside perhaps if she didn’t like the cold or snow. No second request was necessary, and no coyness on her part either with this guy, as she quickly went to the coat rack and put on her coat, scarf, and boots. And so it went.
They talked, or rather she talked a blue streak, a soft-spoken blue streak like Frank’s manner was contagious, and maybe it was. Then he would ask a question, and ask it in such a way that he really wanted to know, know her for her answer and not just to ask, polite ask. As they walked, and walked, and as the snow got deeper as they moved away from the pavilion she kind of fell, kind of helpless on purpose fell. On purpose fell expecting that he might kiss her. But all he did was pick her up, gently but firmly, held her in his arms just a fraction of a second, but a fraction of a second enough to let her know, and let her feel, that they had not seen the last of each other. And just for that cold, snow-driven February night, as war raged on in some distance land, and as she gathered in her tangled emotions after many romantic stumbles and man disappointments, that thought was enough.