Train Station Lessons: Don’t Be the One Left in the Rain

Train stations are magical places. They are portals where we literally jump off to new destinations. They allow people with different lives and destinies to intersect. They are big. They are public. They are filled with promise, confusion, and noise. They can also be places of tragedy and sadness.

I have had many memorable train station moments in my life, in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt, Thailand, the USA, Canada, Japan, and throughout Europe. I have almost been robbed, lost my money, found friends, and often sat around for hours waiting to escape a few terrible places and even countries.

Sam and Rick leave Paris without Ilsa, who just moments earlier had broken Rick’s heart with her farewell letter. And, yes, it has to be raining for such a scene.

When I think of trains, I always think of the great train scene, set in Paris on a rainy June 1940 evening, as two protagonists get ready to flee the advancing Nazis. One is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, and the other is his best friend Sam, played by Dooley Wilson. The film is the Warner Bros. 1942 classic Casablanca.

Come on, you know the short scene. Sam shares the note from Rick’s lover, Ilsa, who is not seen in this sequence, but played by Ingrid Bergman. In her letter, she bids Rick what she thinks is her final farewell.

Rick is devastated and watches the words melt away on the sheet in the downpour and his heart breaks apart right at that very moment. The scene ends with Rick tossing the toxic rejection missive aside, as he and Sam steam away, fleeing for what we know will be North Africa and eventually the film’s namesake, Casablanca.

Ilsa’s goodbye letter to Rick in the 1942 Warner Bros. film Casablanca.

I thought about that memorable scene yesterday, when I found myself at Union Station in Portland.

It was raining. It also was colder than expected. I had dashed down to give a gift to a friend who was leaving town with a lot on her mind. The whole scene brought back a memory from about two years earlier, when another woman I knew had come to Portland, in the midst of a personal crisis, and I had dropped her at the station on a very rainy late fall day. I had listened to her story as well, and a few tears.

I will leave out other scenes from my first Union Station episode, but it was a terrible day for the person I was with. My job, whether I wanted it or not, was to help her out and then to be forgotten. I was disposable in some ways. The event yesterday was not quite on that scale, but it had eerie echoes from the one before.

I laughed at myself walking away from Union Station after I bid my friend farewell. So was I just the sap, getting caught in the rain, like Bogie, whose love interest left him for another man without saying goodbye in person? In both cases I was not the love interest, but I was barely a secondary character in the film unfolding for these two leads in their complicated lives.

Clearly there are elements of an archetypal modern story at play when man and woman cross fates in railway stations: The man, feeling sappy and sorry for himself. The woman, crying over another man. The station as the stage, where the drama unfolds. And of course the beating rain, soaking the characters to their skin.

On some days, you have to be Bogie’s Blaine, and stop thinking about yourself. That is OK. I have no regrets. It is fine to play the part of a tragic but complex character.

But having lived this scene, I advise any future Ricks who are left behind, avoid the habit of being the one who leaves the station alone, drenched by rain and feeling nothing but regret. There are much better ways to end your stories. And don’t wait until the bad guys like the Nazis are practically knocking at the city gates. Leave town a lot earlier.

Note: Use of images from the film Casablanca are solely for the purposes of comment and criticism.

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Remembering my friend Matt

Matt, my good friend from University City High School

I was moving my photo albums around this week, when by accident a picture of my best friend in high school, Matt, fell out.

I must have taken the picture sometime in 1982 or 1983. He finished high school early, with a GED, to immediately pursue an auto mechanics program in St. Louis. When I las saw him at his wedding in the mid-1980s, he had gone on to a career in that field.

The picture shows the guy I remember well and still respect. He was looking macho, wearing a smile.

Matt never seemed mad. He always had a positive attitude. He was born cool and did not need to have his badass status affirmed by the limited social world of my high school. Let’s face it, some people simply are born to be a little wild, and stand out from a crowd.

Matt worked his ass off at a tire retailer, making more money than me. With his savings, he paid for a 1969 black and red Camaro Z, a V8 hot rod he fixed up for speed and show. You cannot be more cool when you are 17 than having one of these cars. When Matt hit the gas in neutral, the engine roared and heads turned. He also paid for his own Triumph motorcycle with a beautiful blue trim. Both the car and bike could fly, and he loved speed.

The more mature and beautiful young women our age fell for Matt—something they told me years laters—but he didn’t pay attention to them. He had been dating his sweetheart from a different city since he was in the seventh grade.

Matt and I played soccer together on our high school’s soccer team our junior and senior years. He was stronger, more athletic than me, playing a center fullback position, holding up our defense with grit, speed, and power.

Matt learned how to play in Brazil, where his mother took him kicking and screaming when he was in the seventh grade. She saw him going wild at that age. As a teacher committed to social causes, she wanted to expose her only son to the third world and a life outside of urban St. Louis and clean him up from the many influences of drugs that surrounded all of us then. It worked. I wish I could have done the same.

He told me about clearing fields of sugar cane in the blazing sun at a village near Brasilia, where he and some other Americans were living and helping residents for a year.

After Brazil, Matt totally changed. I have never seen anything like it up to that point. Most young men, like me, at that age are immature. Matt had already become a man, he was clear about what he wanted to do (auto mechanics), and he achieved his goals with hard work.

Matt and some of our classmates (a good sampling of the diversity of University City High School)

Matt could deal with anyone from any race or culture. I never once saw any of the bad boys at our majority black high school try to test and taunt him with threats of violence—something that happened a lot. Some of that was racially motivated, and a good part was about establishing the male pecking order. Matt had street cred, and in that world, it was the currency that mattered. Matt was a different kind of dude. He had respect.

I never knew why Matt spent time with me. He was a shop guy, a genius at auto mechanics, and I was trying to be a serious, nerdy student going to college. Maybe we got along well because both of us had divorced single mothers as parents who had fathers who had left our families in bad circumstances. And we both had cleaned up from the dope scene at the same time too, when many of our peers were just starting to do drugs. We had replaced those vices with soccer and jobs. Maybe we had moved on already before we had left that school.

Sadly, I lost touch with him midway through my college degree. I left for Portland in 1983. He was married by the time he was 21. I never came back to St. Louis, except for occasional holidays. None of the few people I stayed in touch with from my high school knew where he went. I think Matt left that world behind, bought an auto garage, and became a business owner while raising a family.

Every year or two I try to find him. He has stayed off the grid or has already passed away. I don’t know.

However, Matt’s memory lives on. On a list I made of all of the mentors who influenced me, my old friend sits near the top of the list. His year in Brazil made me want to find places outside of the United States where life was more raw and more real than suburban St. Louis. Most of all he showed me that authenticity can never be faked. When you show up real, people will treat you accordingly.

Matt, wherever you are, if you are still with us, I wish you the best.

Me, Mum, and the Wisdom of Time

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Regret is not an emotion that we like to speak of. Speaking of it is an admission of failure and lost chances. By saying one regrets something, we diminish our standing in the eyes of others and ourselves.

But I do have regrets. They are sharp as hornet bites on a hot, muggy day. For me they stemmed from my foolish pride and my familial disagreements I should have risen above.

These thoughts accompany me now whenever I visit and speak with my mother.

Because of her illness, she cannot remember the past in its full richness. There are fleeting, diaphanous moments that she can recall good and bad moments. But these are fragments, not fully formed memories.

I feel this loss especially now, as I get older, and I want to hunt down stories of my past that only my mom would have. But they are now lost forever, because she cannot recall them.

Me and Mum, the Good Days:

Mom at the Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

My mom and I have had our fierce challenges. I do not intend to share them here. I always did my best to not let them cloud the possibilities for the future, even if the bargain may not have been a fair one, from my perpective. But as we both grew older, so did our friendship.

Between 2010 and 2012, when I was in graduate school earning my MPH, we hit an impasse. We once went more than six months without talking. The rifts between me and my stepfamily and my mom widened during the rough time, when I was not in a good place.

When we did talk, it was not pleasant. I was, in essence, estranged from my “unique” family when I probably needed them the most. It was not until I finished my imperfect masters program at the University of Washington—quite drained fiscally and likely spiritually—that we made amends.

My mom flew out to see me in July 2012, and we found our old routine.

At that time I was living in Seattle, and I was doing contract work while still looking for full-time employment right out of graduate school.

Mom at a Shakespeare performance in Seward Park, July 2012, Seattle.

So we had time. We visited the Ballard Locks, where I took one of the best pictures ever of my mom. I brought her to Discovery Park on a glorious sunset, where we could see the sun slip behind the Olympic Mountains and light up Puget Sound in the soft summer light. We rubbed our toes in the sand at Golden Gardens Beach. We ate out for dinner and laughed. We saw Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors, in Seward Park at Lake Washington.

These reminded me of our other precious times we spent together, without my step-dad or others around. We could confide in each other. I could hear stories about her first husband, my father, that she seemed to hide inside for years, and for good reason. That 2012 trip was a lot like one she made in 2004, the summer before I went to Alaska.

She also flew out in July that year, and we spent great days walking around Greenlake  Park, attending a Wooden Boat Festival, and being happy-go-lucky tourists in Seattle. Both times were transition periods for me. In 2004, I was getting ready to leave Seattle for a job in Alaska, unsure what living in the True North would be like. I needed to know we were still connected.

On the last day of her 2012 trip, I realized something was not right. She was having trouble remembering things and feeling more anxious than normal. I was still able to get her safely to the airport and on her plane. Not long after I learned that the issues I let slide by were more pronounced. She was not going to be the same person when I saw her again.

I would no longer be able to have a conversations with someone who could listen to me and knew me. That new person would never be the confidant I once could share my stories with, in confidence.

Facing Tomorrow, Today

The loss from a half decade ago is more pronounced today. It is July. I think of our past summer walks, in Seattle, in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and in Forest Park in St Louis, where we spent many great hours together.

Mom and the Ballard Locks, July 2012, and one of my favorite portraits I took of her.

Today, my foolish pride for two years from 2010 through 2012 seems like my greatest squandered opportunity. Why did I allow that?

Perhaps the stress of doing my degree and spending my savings on an expensive and imperfect professional program clouded my thinking. They likely did. Now, at a more calm place in life, I can fool myself and say, I could have done better.

Maybe I really would not have been able to do things differently. But I still wish I could have those days back. I wish I could have spent my precious dollars and flown from Seattle to St. Louis on a short trip to have conversations that would have been more important than my money in my bank today.

I will fly off to St. Louis to see my mom again in two weeks.

When I visit her, I won’t be able to ask her about our brief time spent in Detroit, when I was a baby and we lived as a model middle-class American family, in a city just before it started sputtering to economic decline.

I can’t ask her about her life in college, when she struck out on her own and left New Jersey as a beautiful, smart young woman.

I can’t ask her how she and my father decided to adopt two children, or what it was like for my father and her to move from Saginaw to Detroit in the early 1960s.

I wish we could have back those past Julys, walking and talking and sharing stories about our lives. They were some of the best times I ever had. I wish I had known that when I was living those moments.

Learning by the decades

I just celebrated my birthday.  The day always gives me pause. It forces me to think about what I am doing with my life and what I have learned.

I thought about the important things that emerged over the 10-year increments that I have lived on this world. Here are a few of the big “aha’s” that stuck with me and have made me a better and smarter person.

Rudy as BabyDecade 1 (0-9 years): This was a scrappy period. I learned that I could take care of myself even in situations that were unpleasant. The resilience I learned as a kid has given me the ability to overcome challenges and persevere when the going gets tough. This was a great life skill to master, and I was lucky I had the (mis)fortune to internalize this lesson early on.

Decade 2 (10-19): This was the period when I learned from mentors. My greatest teachers were guys who gave me a chance and allowed me to work for them, and get real-world life skills and also much needed cash. I was lucky to have two very generous business owners and bosses. Everything good I learned about how to run a business I learned from these two men, who decided to give me a lucky break.

Decade 3 (20-29): This was the decade I first learned about the world first-hand and saw how much we all have in common. No matter what country I found myself or how poor or wealthy the residents were, people were genuinely good to me if I treated them with respect and an eagerness to learn about their culture, language, customs, and religious traditions. The world really is a wonderful teacher.

rogerandmeDecade 4 (30-39): This was the decade I learned that life can provide you wild surprises, and what matters in the face of curve balls is how well you deal with rapid change and crisis. I reinvented myself a few times during this decade and did not allow these sideways detours to keep me from moving forward.

Decade 5 (40-49): This was the time when I learned again about the meaning of life, from the example of a wonderful person I knew who taught everyone around him how to live a good life. I made some adjustments for the better and doubled down on my goals to live even more purposefully than before.

Rudy-MaryAnne Rhododenruns
Decade 6 (50 … ): This is an open chapter, and I am learning more about letting slowly go of people I know and care about. But this particular journey this decade has only just begun, and there will be time to write the final chapter many years later.

‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck in my memory. It was not her story. Rather, it was the story of her husband’s father. Her husband is Jewish, and she is of Armenian descent. So both have a keen sense of history, and the consequences of history, including the crimes that occurred during war. So this is why I gave this story a lot of weight.

Her husband came from the city where I grew up, St. Louis. His father lived there most of his life. The father, I learned, was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Europe, with an armored division as it entered Germany in April 1945, just as the European conflict was ready to end.

The Tank Crew in the FIlm Fury

Above is a publicity shot of the WWII action film Fury, starring Brad Pitt (2014).

She told me about her father-in-law sharing war tales. They were not happy stories. There were stories of conflict and death. One story he shared was about his armored column’s capture of Nazi soldiers. The American soldiers chose not to take the surrendering soldiers into custody. Instead, they shot them down with their weapons, and kept their advance.

I had often wondered how much truth there was to that tale. I know war is pure hell, and soldiers on all sides do not allow their better angels to rule when their inner demons are unleashed in life and death combat. I just did not know what to think about U.S. GIs mowing down Nazis surrendering in the heat of battle.

I thought about that tale again while watching the 2014 film Fury, by writer and director David Ayer, starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a U.S. Sherman tank crew. In one scene, Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, leads a team of tanks and soldiers in an attack on a German position. They overcome the Germans, and in the final moments of victory, slaughter them in brutal fashion. This was far less brutal than the Nazi were everywhere, when they pillaged and committed war atrocities on an unimaginable scale, especially in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Brad Pitt as Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Above is a publicity shot from the WWII combat film Fury, with Brad Pitt.

One German soldier escapes the executions and is left at the mercy of the enraged American soldiers. Wardaddy picks out his newest team member, a teenager named Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) and forces him to shoot the surviving German soldier with a pistol. It is a painful scene, because the elder Wardaddy is initiating his new “son” into the art of death to make him ready for combat and a better team player.

The film captured a fair bit of critical acclaim for its gritty realism of combat in the claustrophobic conditions of these metal boxes that were no match for Nazi Panzers. I kept thinking about my friend’s father-in-law as a young man, faced with a choice of capturing the enemy or killing them, so they could achieve their objectives more quickly, with less risk to their side. I now believe everything I heard was true.

It was war, and the most brutal war in human history. This was how the war was won. Fury holds back nothing. It is worth watching to appreciate what happened day in and day out, from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Anzio to the Ardennes to the fall of Berlin. Mercy was in short supply, and a whole lot of killing happened to bring the horrible mess to an end—a mess started by the Nazis and carried to an extreme. As Wardaddy told Ellison, before he died, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

My favorite holiday, and for great reasons

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

My friends prepared a phenomenal Thanksgiving dinner, yet again, in 2014.

Thanksgiving approaches. By far it always has been and remains my favorite holiday.

For me it is the most genuine of our American celebrations. Commercial interests have not transformed it into a crass, commoditized event, though they try their hardest the day after we gather to give thanks with food, friends, and family.

It is seasonally specific. Thanksgiving dinners celebrate the North American harvest season, and with that, all of our land’s lovely fall foods. There are squashes, sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, potatoes, carrots, and cranberry sauce. These all taste better when blended and mixed on the plate with a big bird and gravy. Let’s not forget pumpkin and apple pie, layered with whip cream, and perhaps maybe wine or cider to add zest.

I have spent the last five Thanksgivings in Seattle with friends. It has always been a way I have let the world fall to the wayside, so I can focus on friendship, camaraderie, and celebrating all we have to give thanks for.

Two of those years were not my favorite periods, being back in graduate school and not feeling perfectly in tune with my program and the field I was studying at the time. I continue to live far from my family, so I have not been able to share it with them for decades, and during those two years, time with my family would have been nice. So for me, Thanksgiving has been about friends, actually for decades now.

Thanksgiving also celebrates a key moment in American history, marking the Union victories over the slave-holding Confederacy at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. The holiday, despite what you may have learned from myth and school, was first declared by Abraham Lincoln in October 1863, a dark year in American history when it was not clear if we would survive the storm of violent civil conflict, slavery, and division. Lincoln’s speech is a good one, even if he may not have written the whole thing (I do not know for sure).

I also have memories every late November of losing a good friend just before Thanksgiving in 2008.

So at this time of year, particularly on this great holiday, I think of what is good in my life and the good people in my life. I hope you do too, if you find yourself in the United States, with a home over your head, and friends and family to help you remember what is truly important.

Memory’s slight of hand and time

When I was young, between my ninth and 12th years, I spent time in Huntington, West Virginia. It remains a poor place today, and it was a much, much poorer place back in the 1970s. I mean it was really dirt poor.

I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile.

I did. Despite the odds, I really did.

One of the memories from this dark time were days I and my sister were left entirely without supervision at this old-fashioned amusement park, just outside of Huntington, called Camden Park. It is an old-school park, with a haunted house, dodge-em bumper cars, a wooden roller coaster called the Big Dipper, and many other rides found in the non-franchise amusement parks that still labor on in an era of corporate amusement. (I always thought these rides would collapse because the place was so rickety.)

My father would drop me and my sister off in the morning, buy us an all-day ticket, and we’d have the Camden Park wrist band on our arms for the day. We were free to run around like bandits. I have no recollection what we ate, and no one at the park cared if two juveniles were without parental supervision for hours. Trust me, it was low-brow then, so no one really cared about such things.

I suppose this place had both a blessing and a curse. It gave me temporary freedom from time with my father. And then it forced the bitter reality to crash down when he came to pick us up, in ways I will never describe here.

I recently went back to Huntington to see what I could remember, four decades on. It is funny how memory works. It shuts down what you do not need to know. It leaves you with enough to keep you going. Yet I still remember this horrible clown and the ambivalence of both the freedom of escape and dreading of when that freedom always came to an end.

Most of all I am glad I do not remember much. That is the sleight of hand our minds can pull, because our minds are awfully powerful tools that get us where we need to go, when we need to get there.