Web writes: "Before I became a military intelligence soldier and later a writer, I took a memorable train trip."
A Literary Encounter
The West doesn’t seem to have it. The South does. That’s what the man said as we bumped along the coulee (wash, arroyo).
He was betting his life and career on it. If he were correct, his writing career would take off. If not, he probably would be returning . . .that is, if he had the money. With him it was almost a life-gambling proposition.
I happened to be talking to him because
we were fellow travelers -- both in quests. He was looking for a comfortable,
productive place to live and work as a writer. I was out for a little
trans-geographic adventure -- perhaps to find myself.
I don’t quite know now why I was headed for Montana on this train. Perhaps I was on my way to visit the University of Montana. The year was 1954, if I recall, but I can’t remember now exactly what I had in mind.
Be that as it may, our rendezvous for what turned out to be a soul-delving tete-a-tete, had started two to three hours earlier in Tacoma where we both boarded a Milwaukee Road train bound for...well, points east.
After smoothly cranking along snow-bound Snoqualmie Pass, the train dwindled down onto a semi-desert sage bench. Then we were negotiating a bend before rambling along another stretch of flat sage.
The sky, which had been cloudy and snow-flurrying in the mountains, now was clear. The moon was out, converting the uneven landscape into a silver-and-shadow mystery.
To me this was enthralling. You see, I was from the rainy, grey-skied, brushed and treed west side of the Cascade Mountains, and I had only once before been in drier, sunnier. vastly more open eastern Washington. And I had never seen it from a train.
We were bumping along this nocturnal, silver-illuminated landscape when I decided to go up to the observation car to take it all in -- in panorama. When I reached the observation car, I was surprised to find so few folk sitting there, enjoying vistas out the window. In short I had my choice of seats. So I picked one, and almost immediately became fascinated with the view.
I observed as the train negotiated another bend and a series of coulees, and I saw in the distance a lights-illuminated square -- no doubt a town. Oh, I was spellbound at first. But as time bumped on, the semi-desert became repetitive, of course, and I began to look around inside the observation car more carefully, perhaps as closely as I had been observing outside.
There was this smallish, but intelligent-looking man sitting farther back, alone in a double seat. After while he began looking at me. Maybe staring. Finally, he motioned me over. I was curious who he was and why he was doing that. There was no visible family with him. So I went over.
We exchanged greetings and destinations. He had boarded in Tacoma bound for Chicago. But once he got to Chicago, he would board another train for St. Louis, and the South.
At the time I was not a writer. That would come later, although I had a writing career on a future back burner. At that moment I was sort of a tramp athlete, but a mild one, as I was adventure seeking, as well. Moreover, I had heard that the University of Montana surprisingly had good programs in the arts.
So myself and this fellow – of course, nearly 60 years later I can’t come up with his name (I am not sure he ever told me) -- launched into immortal discussion.
He was a writer -- an unpublished novelist -- and he was frustrated. He had been living in the Seattle area, and before that he had lived up one of those Cascades-to-Puget Sound rivers, perhaps ‘twas the rushing Skykomish.
He said he had perhaps a hundred rejection slips from publishers. As it was well before the advent of computers and the fact that almost all literary agents and publishers were in New York, he found it laborious and dollar draining to be constantly doing transactions (submitting written material for consideration and receiving rejection slips) by mail. Not to mention time consuming. Frustration of the first water.
So, he said, one day he began looking at what was being accepted and published. Two-thirds -- or at least half of it – was from The South. The rest seemed to be from New York or Philadelphia, with an occasional goodie from California or Texas.
Published material from The South appeared to be the kind of stuff he would like to write about -- spiritual, mysterious and almost superstitious yarns about poor folk who live in southern Appalachia, or in the remote swamps of the Carolinas.
So, he said, he sought the same kind of stuff from the urbanized Seattle-Tacoma area, or the intermontain and foothill redoubts of the Cascade or OIympic mountains. He searched and searched and could not find much of what he wanted. The Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades, he said, was an ignoble rain-soaked, cloudy, miserable wasteland of material and literary appreciation. The east side was too new -- too middle class. Nothing.
So he was headed for The South, which was older and soaked with the kind of atmosphere he was looking for.
I was surprised -- but not shocked -- to hear what he had to say. I, too, had come to realize that many of the popular and not-so-popular novels were about poor life in either New York City or the southern states.
We rambled on. I can’t remember what I said I was about on that particular journey. I do remember telling him that I, too, harbored a modicum of literary urge. Or something like that. It was enough for him to find me somewhat interesting.
We prattled on.
Finally, I said, “Have you tried praying about it? Jesus knows your problem. Maybe He can help.”
He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Either he had prayed about it endlessly with no result he could see, or he thought I was a little balmy. Perhaps both.
However, he was affable.
Finally we came to Plummer, Idaho, and then on the way up to the Bitterroot Mountains at Avery, Idaho. The train stopped at the latter a few minutes. (I don’t know why). A woman in a track-side café/shack was selling and handing out brown-bag lunches to travelers on the train.
It was there that I lost track of the frustrated, unpublished novelist. I detrained about 120 miles later at Missoula and never saw the man again.
And yet -- after all of these years and all the folk I have met throughout the world -- his memory and comments have stuck with me.
Every once in a while, I say a prayer for The South-bound unpublished author of swelling heart and good intention, whom I encountered nearly 60 years ago. After all, if he came to know Jesus and prayed a lot, he might have become reasonably successful.
I pray so.
(© 2012 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)