“Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain;
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For Death is in charge of the clattering train.”
It is a verse from a volume of cartoons in a late 19th century edition of the British magazine Punch. Memorized by a young Winston Churchill, it was on the tip of Churchill’s tongue during a 1935 Parliamentary debate over what to do about the rising Adolf Hitler. Experiencing a “sensation of despair” at being unable to convince his colleagues of the growing danger of German might, Churchill considered — and then rejected as too sharp — the idea of reciting this poem to underscore his point. In his memoirs of World War II, The Gathering Storm, Churchill obviously regrets the lapse.
As the summer of 2006 lazily unfolds along the eastern reaches of the Long Island Sound, where time always seems to stop in an endless series of days and nights filled with seasonal pleasures, The Gathering Storm makes for interesting reading. Before the book even begins its author takes two pages to lay out, in brief, the “Moral of the Work” and “Theme of the Volume.” The “Moral” is simple enough. “In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Good Will.” All solid, if unremarkable, precepts. But it is the “Theme” that rivets attention: “How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.”
The words, and the dramatic tale that follows, should be required reading for every person among today’s English-speaking peoples. And since the principles illustrated are eternally relevant to humanity in general, those peoples who speak other than English would benefit as well.
YET SITTING HERE AMID THE Long Island farms, vineyards and beaches bordering the Sound, it is the confluence of the personal and the political that makes the old book such a valuable read. The personal comes in the very physical form of the 89-year-old man seated out on the porch, playing a halting game of cards. The man, my father, was born and raised in the nearby small town. It was here that he met my mother, two years his junior, she the sparkling eighth grader, he the high school sophomore who was hard to get off the town’s tennis court. Next week they will celebrate sixty years of married life.
But those sixty years could not begin for quite some time after they became young adults, and the details that describe the time of their growing up are, many of them, found in Churchill’s book. Before their life together could proceed, my father would have to take an unexpected ride on Churchill’s “clattering train.” His youth, still innocent in the way of a very middle class American boy whose farthest venture was to hotel school in upstate Albany, was in fact already being hailed by a series of the clattering train’s conductors.
No one would voluntarily climb on a train that had Death as the engineer, of course. To make the clattering train attractive it, like all trains, had to have conductors. People wearing the brass buttons of authority who could make the ride seem something other than what it really was, something effortless and easy for prospective passengers enticed by the political equivalent of a shout for “All Aboard!”
The Gathering Storm mentions many of those conductors by name, and pairing those names with the siren shouts of “All Aboard” make for an interesting reading in understanding my father’s life.
As Dad finished his first year of high school in May of 1931, his horizon nothing more threatening then summer days on the Sound or with a wooden tennis racquet in his hand, Churchill was already sternly addressing a Conductor, the British Foreign Minister of the day, Liberal Party leader Sir John Simon. “Do you wish for war?” Churchill demanded, advising of the folly of assigning moral relativity to the rearming of France and Germany. Gazing at the gleaming train that was then still motionless, Churchill predicted “almost measureless calamity” if the Conductor’s call was heeded.
By the time Dad had seen the young Kathleen walking the school halls in 1933, Churchill was addressing another Conductor, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. “When we read about Germany, when we watch with surprise and distress the tumultuous insurgence of ferocity and war spirit, the pitiless ill-treatment of minorities, the denial of the normal protections of civilized society, the persecution of large numbers of individuals solely on ground of race….one cannot help feeling glad that the fierce passions that are raging…have not yet found any other outlet but upon themselves.” In a famous declaration that year, a young Conductor Churchill identifies only as “a Mr. Joad” inspired his fellow students of the Oxford Union to pass a resolution proclaiming “That this House refuses to fight for King and country.” While Churchill notes that this incident was easy enough to laugh off for many Brits, “in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations.”
AND SO IT WENT. As Dad graduated in 1935, the train had begun to leave the station, its engineer easing the throttle forward. There would be many stops to come and many more friendly conductors waving people aboard with a warm smile and assurance that they were in fact boarding the Peace Train.
The conductors included British Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and, most infamously, Neville Chamberlain. There was another British Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, a homegrown fascist by the name of Oswald Mosley, and a sobering collection of the British media elites. And, of course, an eclectic group of Americans waved their own population aboard, from the glamorous hero-aviator Charles Lindbergh to the American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy. Kennedy was a happy warrior for Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, believing that whatever was happening to the Jews they “brought on themselves.” The father of today’s most vehement critic of American exceptionalism, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, the American Ambassador looked at Hitler’s Germany and saw “great things,” telling the German Ambassador personally that he simply did not believe a report that food in Germany was limited because it was being given to the German army. The reason this could not be possible? The academic who authored the report “was a Jew.”
For Dad, the actions of all these Conductors finally meant that getting married in 1941 wasn’t in the cards. The clattering train had pulled into his hometown. The smiling conductors were gone now, replaced by men in a different kind of uniform. The engineer was at last stunningly and terrifyingly visible. While Dad survived his five-year ride, ending it in the Philippines, some 400,000 of his fellow Americans who climbed on board the clattering train with him did indeed make that rendezvous with death. A different man altogether than the young high school boy had ever imagined, he would not marry Kathleen until 1946, when he finally stepped off the train.
Today, his mind hobbled with dementia, this one-time embodiment of “small town America” sits on the porch and stares across the Long Island Sound to the shores of Connecticut. There, thanks to the television airwaves bringing news and a barrage of political commercials, he listens to a disturbingly familiar voice.
The voice, and the smiling, friendly face that beams through the television, belong to a man named Ned Lamont. In cheerful, upbeat tones, Mr. Lamont is busy summoning Connecticut Democrats to the task of defeating Senator Joseph Lieberman, a rare Democratic hawk whose principles Churchill — and Dad — would recognize instantly. The polls show Lamont, a wealthy entrepreneur from Greenwich, running ahead of Lieberman. Hour after hour the Lamont commercials from across the water pound away with a message.
The message? “All Aboard!”
For Ned Lamont’s voice is the tell-tale call of the newest Conductor on the clattering train.
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