“…Don’t you know me/I’m your native son./ I’m the train they call/ the City of New Orleans…”
Ah, thank you Arlo, for getting into my head this morning. Have a listen if it’s been a while for you:
As melancholy as Goodman’s song is, it has always reminded me of the hope and promise of America–growth and ingenuity, occasionally at our personal expense. The railway was once the showpiece of American promise–the laying of rail across the continent was a feat of engineering and wealth, even as wrapped up as the act was in social politics (race and class, most strikingly).
Today, Barack Obama will take the Oath of Office of the President of the United States of America; he has, for many, become a symbol of hope and promise similar to the rails of yesteryear. Enduring ingenuity and a craving for wisdom (a polar bear mentality, you might recall), rather than fear and punishment. I hold hope for reconciliation among American voices; we need not bear the same opinions; indeed, we should not, but I do hope for increased civility in our discourse.
Obama, Biden, and their families began the Inauguration events on Saturday, when they took a train into Washington D.C..
“And the sons of pullman porters/And the sons of engineers/Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel.”
So today, the son of a used car salesman who had found himself down on his luck, and the son of students of the 60’s–an American and a Kenyan in Hawaii, will take Oaths in promise of leading the U.S. of A. Though Obama, born in 1961, is by some accounts, a member of the Baby Boom generation (albeit at the tail end), on the cusp with the advent of Generation X. Some have identified this group–born roughly between 1954 & 1965 as Generation Jones.
I’m going to simply with with Boomers and Xers…because it makes the most sense to me, false though the distinctions will ever remain (generalizations being what they are). Obama will be the first president elected since Kennedy to have no memory of J. Kennedy’s assassination, and to have memories of the assassinations of King and R. Kennedy gilded in childhood, though he no doubt grew up in the shadows of these deaths. This is a major distinction between Boomers and Xers…the signifying moments. Xers were too young (even the upper end) to experience the “Summer of Love” directly, having it instead translated by pop culture; our friends did not die in Vietnam, though our older siblings might have. But we grew in it’s shadow.
We grew in a shadow of Nixon, of Ford, Carter, Reagan, a military that watched events in Iran and Iraq with trepidation, an energy crisis (which would be oft symbolized in the orange stickers on switch plates in our schools, reminding us to Turn the Lights Off!). Fourteen years younger than Obama, I was even more in shadow for many of these events than he would have been, but in the umbra we were, nevertheless. Boomers were, at that time (at least in the late seventies and eighties), beginning their ascent to power in their ever memorable power suits.
As one who sits on the cusp, he embodies the shifts in the mindsets of generations. Railroads have been on the brink of failure for his entire existence (well, Amtrak did have a fine year this year), and we have been abandoning the rails–or transforming them to trails–by degrees throughout his years. Perhaps the rails still hold promise for us–a greener America, a more civil and connected America, not rooted in the individual car, but in the shared transport of train. Not in the skies that lift us above the fray, but in the train cars that pull us beside it.
Best wishes to you, Mr. President. I’m rooting for you.