The Train to Nowhere
© 2019 CR Britting
Ten miles east of Holdrege, Nebraska 1985
Onboard Amtrak train number 5, the westbound California Zephyr
"Dispatcher to Amtrak Five."
"This is Amtrak five, dispatcher. Go ahead."
"Amtrak five, take the pass track at Holdrege. Extra 2776 is waitin' for you on the main."
"Okay, Dispatcher. We'll be lookin' for him. Amtrak five out."
The radio went silent again as I listened from the club car. Outside the night sky was completely black, broken only by an occasional flash of lightning. I stared outside, my head resting against the rain spattered window, as the plains of Nebraska passed in an unseen blur of darkened shadows.
The car leaned a bit as we rounded a curve and up ahead, I saw the headlight of our lead locomotive, as it bored a tunnel through the rainy night.
It was late, probably two or three o’clock, as I sat in the empty club car. I didn’t care, I just wanted to be alone. A small roomette in the sleeping car had my name on it, but going back there wouldn’t help. I sat motionless, my mind and my heart far away. A tear ran down my right cheek and I absently brushed it away, my fingers feeling the coarse stubble on my unshaven face. Time passed, the miles slid behind me and except for an occasional passing member of the train crew, I was alone in the night.
I’ve loved trains as long I can remember and so what better way to escape the mess I’ve made of my life than by riding the train. From my home in Ohio, I took the Capitol Limited to Chicago, the Empire Builder out to Seattle and the Coast Starlight down to Los Angeles. After a few days' rest, the Sunset Limited took me back east to New Orleans and beyond.
By now you must be wondering what’s wrong with me, why I abandoned my job and my family to ride the train. it’s not any one thing, really. It’s my whole life. I feel so useless. I work hard, sometimes 60 hours a week. The money’s good, but sometimes I don’t care about the money, I just want to go home. But when I get there, I feel like a stranger. Thanks to me, Kathy is raising two small children essentially alone. I know I should help, but I’m so tired all I want to do is watch the tube and go to bed, so I can get up and do it again the next day.
My youngest, Melissa, is five. She climbed up in my lap one day and put her little arms around my neck. “Daddy, why can’t you come home and play with me?”
The memory of those words is burned into my heart. So is seeing Kathy watching, tears in her eyes. She turned away, went into the bedroom and shut the door. She was in there a long time and I ended up putting Missy to bed myself.
When Kathy came out later, her eyes were red. “John,” she said, sitting down across from me. “I can’t go on like this. You’re never home and the girls miss you terribly. So do I. I go to bed alone nearly every night and even when you’re with me we never touch. All I do from morning to night is run after the kids. We never go out. I feel like a prisoner in my own home.”
I didn’t know what to say, except I’d try get home earlier. It might have worked, except for the episode with Denise. She is an admin in our office. She’s a sharp gal and filled with all the enthusiasm of youth. For some reason, she took an interest in me and having her around provided a brief respite from my troubles at home.
Now don’t jump to conclusions. Nothing ever happened between us. She was just a much needed, bright spot in my day.
As it happened, the night after my conversation with Kathy, instead going home early, I had to work late to finish a report that was due the next morning. I called Kathy and said I was sorry, that I’d be home in a couple of hours. She was disappointed, but said she’d keep supper for me.
I was hard at work around 6:30 when I heard footsteps. I glanced up and I was surprised to see Denise. She was carrying a couple of bags of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It smelled delicious.
“I thought you might be hungry,” she said with a smile. “Let’s eat and then I’ll help you finish up that report.”
I laughed and leaned back to stretch. “That’s a great idea. I just realized how hungry I am.”
We unpacked the food and it smelled better by the second.
“Uh, oh,” she said. “I must’ve forgotten the napkins. I’ll get some from the kitchen.”
I dished up the cole slaw and salad, glad for the break in my long day.
Hearing footsteps, I glanced up. “Thanks, this is great. I…”
Then I realized it wasn’t Denise, but Kathy. She was wearing a brand new dress and she had her hair fixed really nice.
“Surprise!” she said with a smile. “Since you couldn’t come home for supper, I decided to bring it to you. I made…”
That’s when she saw the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the table and her smile faded. “Oh, I guess you already got something.”
And that, of course, was the cue for Denise to come back.
“I got ‘em, John,” she said as she rounded the corner. “Let’s eat. I’m starved.”
She halted when she saw Kathy. “Oh, hello.”
I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. My feet were nailed to the floor.
“Kathy,” I managed to say, “this is Denise Phillips, one of our admins. She volunteered to stay and help me finish my report. Denise, this is my wife, Kathy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Richards,” Denise said. “Your husband is one of our best account managers.”
“I’m glad he’s so great in his job,” Kathy said, a bit of frost creeping into her voice. “I wish he felt the same about his family.”
And with those words, she turned to me. “Here’s the rest of your supper.” She dumped the picnic basket on the table and stalked from the room.
Well, from there things went from bad to worse. When I got home, the front light was on and when I got out of the car, I found my clothes on the front porch, along with a note written with a large magic marker.
“Find somewhere else to sleep,” it said. “Don’t come back until you’re ready to love us as much as your job.”
That’s why the long distance train to nowhere. The days have stretched into a week, then two and the miles have grown from hundreds to thousands. I hadn’t taken vacation in two years, so the boss told me to take as much time off as I needed. Money wasn’t really an issue, either: I took an early withdrawal from my 401K. No, the issue was John Richards and his need to get his life together.
A sudden jolt from a bad spot in the track brought me back to reality. The train slowed and we began a sharp curve to the right. Up ahead, I saw a signal mast next to the track, its bright green light a stark contrast to the night sky.
We were now about 40 hours west of Chicago and approaching the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The train would arrive in the San Francisco area late in the afternoon, after a journey of more than 2400 miles.
The door at the end of the car opened and one of the train crew stepped inside. I recognized him as William, the porter from my car. He was a tall African-American guy and I had never seen him without a smile. Tonight was no exception.
“Sir, we’re stopping in Reno, Nevada shortly. We’ll be there about 30 minutes while we fuel the locomotives. You’re welcome to get off the train and stretch your legs or have a smoke, if you wish. Just don’t leave the platform.”
His smile was contagious and I couldn’t help but return it in spite of my troubles.
“Thanks, William. That sounds like a great idea.”
“And you know, sir,” he said with a grin, “I took the liberty of turning down your bed. Why don’t you give it a try once we leave Reno? I know you’ll feel better.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “All a service of my friendly Amtrak onboard crew, I suppose.”
“You got it, sir,” he said with a chuckle as he turned away. “We’ll be there in about five minutes.”
When we reached Reno, I stepped down from the train and took a deep breath of fresh air. It was cool and refreshing after being on the train for such long time.
Wandering down to the end of the station platform, I left all the activity behind and soon I was alone. Off in the distance, the eastern sky was brightening, a gentle reminder that a new day had begun.
I took a deep breath as I stared sightlessly into the distance. I was thousands of miles from home, all alone and had no idea what to do next. Something wet ran down my check, but it wasn’t worth the effort to wipe it away.
“Oh, God,” I said. “If you’re out there, please help me. Show me what to do. I can’t do it by myself.”
At that moment, something caught my eye and I looked up, just in time to see a bird landing on a nearby telephone pole. It was a hawk, a big one. It flapped its wings a time or two and, to my surprise, he turned his head and looked right at me. Or so it seemed. Then, with a cry, the hawk took wing and headed into the dawn of the new day.
Was that for me? I wondered. God, is that you? Are You trying to tell me something?
I watched until the hawk disappeared, then turned back up the platform, where the activity had increased considerably. Men had fuel hoses connected to our locomotives and down the platform, I could see twenty or so passengers waiting to board. Just as I reached my car, William stepped down from the train, his hand over his mouth to cover a yawn.
“I thought the on-board crew didn’t need sleep,” I called.
He laughed as he turned in my direction. “Yeah, we do, but we only get it a few hours at a time, between stations.” He shrugged. “Goes with the territory, I guess. But when we finish this run, I get three days off, so it all evens out.”
“Can I ask you a question? A personal question?”
He glanced in my direction, a look of curiosity on his face. “Okay. Go ahead.”
“How come you’re smiling all the time? Every time I see you, you look like you’ve just won the lottery.”
He chuckled. “Nope. It’s nothing like that. But since you asked, I smile a lot because I know the Lord is watching over me, every day.”
I frowned. “Oh, are you one of those Jesus fanatics I hear about?”
His smile faded and I realized I’d gone too far.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s none of my business.”
“No offense taken, sir,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “In fact, I’m glad you asked, because the Lord has been prompting me to speak to you.”
“Really?” I replied in surprise. I thought about the hawk and wondered if it was coincidence.
“Most people,” William said, “think God is just some mysterious force out there somewhere running things. He just does His own thing and leaves us to fend for ourselves. What they don’t realize is the Lord loves each of us, me and you, as an individual.”
I thought about that. Kathy had been pestering me for a long time about going to church.
“Religion is a waste of time,” I told him. “Those church people are all hypocrites anyway. All they want is your money.”
“I’m not talking about church, sir. I’m talking about having a personal relationship with the Lord of the Universe. I’m talking about a friend who will walk with you through life, so you don’t have to go it alone.”
I was beginning to regret talking to him. “I don’t need anybody else,” I said stubbornly. “I’m doin’ okay.”
Well, that brought a look of skepticism to his face. “You’re doing okay? Really? Can I been honest? You look terrible. You’ve hardly slept since we left Chicago. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Fortunately, I was saved from having to answer, when another passenger came up, needing some assistance. The train left the station ten minutes later and I returned to the empty club car. But once I settled down, I remembered William’s question. He was right. My life was a mess. But what could I do? I had a big house and two cars with big payments. And my credit cards? I didn’t even want to think about those. I was surrounded by debt and it took every waking moment to earn enough to make the payments. I was in a trap and there was no way out.
I leaned against the window and glanced outside into the darkness. From up ahead, I heard the locomotive horn as it blew for a grade crossing and I was tempted to turn on the scanner again. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what William had said. About God loving me and all that. Was there really something to it?
“God, if you’re out there,” I whispered softly. “If You really do love me, please help me. I don’t know what to do.”
It was the second time I’d said it, but if there was a hawk outside, I didn’t see it this time. But I did see something else. We were passing through a small town and near the tracks was a church. The place looked dark, but just past it I saw a lighted billboard. “Whoever would draw near to God,” the sign said, “must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” There was a scripture reference, too, but I didn’t catch it as we passed by.
I thought about the sign’s message. “Believe that He is”, the sign had said. Did I believe in God? Well, yeah, I guess so. But what about the “diligently seek Him” part? Had I been doing that? Had I been seeking God? Well, except for the last hour, the answer was no.
So, if I wanted God to reward me, I had to diligently seek Him. “But how do I do that?” I wondered. “Who do I know that…?”
I stopped mid-sentence, got up and headed back through the train to my sleeping car, where I found William talking quietly to another passenger. When they finished, he turned to me with a smile.
“Ready to take that nap now, sir? Your compartment is ready.”
“Actually,” I replied. “I’d like to talk to you, if you have time.”
A moment later we were seated in the club car and I told him about the sign I’d seen.
“You were right,” I said after giving him the mini-version of my life story. “I’ve pretty much made a mess of things. I’ve asked God to help me, but what do I do now? How do I diligently seek Him, like the Bible says?”
“You may not realize it,” William replied, “but you’ve already made a great start. The Lord is looking for people who realize they can’t do it themselves, who are willing to turn to Him for help. Tell me something, do you still love your wife?”
“Yes, very much,” I told him. “I miss seeing her and my girls.”
“Then it’s time for you to go home and tell her so. It’s also time for you to prove your love, by honoring her as your life partner and not just a maid and baby sitter. That’s a big commitment. Are you willing to make it?”
“I’d like to, but my job…”
He didn’t let me finish. “What’s most important to you, Mr. Richards, your job or your family?”
I hesitated. They were both important.
“Let me rephrase the question,” William said. “Are you willing to give up Kathy and the girls to keep your job?”
“Of course, not,” I told him.
“Then find a way to make it work. Take Kathy out on a date, every week. And if you have to work late, ask her to bring over the girls and your supper, then spend a hour with them before you get back to the job.” He waved a hand at me. “There are ways to make it work, if you want to.”
I nodded slowly. “Those are great suggestions, William. You sound more like a marriage counselor than a…than a…”
“Than a train porter, Mr. Richards?”
I nodded, a bit embarrassed at what I had been about to say.
“I wasn’t always a train porter, sir. I do it because I want to, not because I have to. And because I like helping people. Like you, for instance.”
I smiled for the first time and realized that I felt better just by talking to him. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“Glad to hear it,” he replied. Then he leaned back in his seat. “So, are you ready to take the next step with God?”
“There’s more?” I asked. “You said what God wants is for us to ask for His help.”
He nodded. “That’s right, but there’s more to it, if you’re willing.”
“Go ahead,” I told him cautiously. “I’m listening.”
William told me the Lord loves us all very much. I’d heard that before, but then he said God knows me personally and He actually cares about what happens to me. He wants my life to be a success. There’s just one problem. God expects perfection from each of us, but no matter how we try or how moral we are, we’ll never meet His requirements.
“There’s a gap that will always separate us from God,” William said. “It’s caused by our selfishness and the evil thoughts all of us have from time to time. The Lord can’t tolerate such things and the result is we can never enter into His presence, no matter how good we are or how hard we try.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” I asked.
“Not on our own,” he replied. “It’s impossible. But since God loves us in spite of our evil nature, He sent His son, Jesus, to be the bridge across the gap. When he died on the cross, God transferred our evil nature to Jesus, as payment for our wrongdoing. As a result, God will forgive anyone who accepts the sacrifice Jesus made.”
“That’s seems pretty simple,” I told him. “What the catch? There’s always a catch to everything, you know.”
He leaned forward. “The catch, if you want to call it that, is simple. We are all selfish, so wrapped up in our own self importance. A person who wishes to accept Jesus’ sacrifice, has to give up his ego, his desire to go it alone and surrender his life to God.
“And that,” he continued, “is something most people will never do. It goes directly against our inborn nature. And so, when they are presented with the decision, most will scoff and say they want to run their own lives.”
William sighed and shook his head. “The sad part is, such people will go their whole lives without knowing a wonderful friend and companion, someone who wants only the best for them. They stumble through life alone, never seeing the doors the Lord could have opened for them or the pitfalls they could have avoided with His help.”
Then he smiled. “So what about you, Mr. Richards? You’ve already admitted you can’t make it on your own. You’re halfway there. Are you ready to go the rest of way and accept the sacrifice Jesus made for you?”
“Please call me, John, William and the answer is yes. I guess I don’t understand it all yet, but I want God to be a part of my life.”
He led me in a prayer and when we were done, it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.
“Congratulations, John,” William said with a grin when we finished. “I’m so proud of you I could bust a button. And now, if you’ll accept one more bit of advice, it’s time to go check out your bed.”
Late that afternoon, we pulled into the station and I stepped down from the train, freshly shaven and feeling like a brand new man.
“Thanks, William,” I said as we shook hands. “I owe you, big time.”
“Let’s give God the glory on this one, John. He was the one who planted me in your path.” He fished in his pocket and handed me his card. “Here’s my contact info. Give me a call, or drop me a line occasionally and let me know how you’re doing.
“One last thing,” he said as I slipped the card into my pocket. “When you get to your hotel, you give that wife of yours a call. Something tells me she’ll be mighty glad to talk to you.”
She was. Kathy and I talked for an hour and I found myself excited to get back home. Four days later my train was almost to Chicago when my cell phone rang.
“John, this is Fred Dawson,” my boss said. “How ya doin’?”
“Much better, Fred. In fact, I’m on my way back home.”
“That’s great,” he said. “I need you back in the office by next Monday.”
“Monday?” I replied in surprise. “What’s going on?”
I could feel a bit of hesitation from the other end. “Well,” he said finally. “I was gonna wait ‘til you got back to tell you, but since you’re on the phone, here’s the news. Business has been improving lately and the company has decided to open a new sales office in Richmond, Virginia.”
“Really? That’s great news. We’ve needed a presence in that area.”
“True, but that’s not the best part. We need someone to manage it, John, so we’re promoting you to regional sales manager. Congratulations. You’ve earned it. We’re going to move you and your family down there as soon as possible, so start packing your stuff as soon as you get home.”
"That sounds great, Fred. I'll talk to Kathy about it when I get home."
We hung up and I thought of what William had said about God opening doors. Could it really be true?
I don’t remember getting off the train, but I sure remember what happened next.
I had stopped in the station concourse to check the schedule. The next leg of my journey was the Capitol Limited back to Cleveland and then home from there. I had about three hours before train time and I was debating how to spend it, when I felt a hand slip into mine.
Startled, I glanced down and my eyes widened in surprise.
“Going my way, mister?”
“Kathy? But…but…what are you doing here in Chicago?”
“I couldn’t wait to see you, so I came to escort you home.”
She smiled and after that, life was good.
* * * * *
Five years have passed since that morning in Chicago. Kathy and I love Richmond and our daughters now have a baby brother. We’ve downsized our lifestyle, too and now we’re out of debt. We love riding the train together and we’re good friends with William. Who would have guessed he has a master’s degree in counseling?
As I said, life is good. Thank you, Jesus, for dying for me and changing my life.
* * * * *
While this story is a work of fiction, many parts of it are true. That is because in many respects this story is *my* story. Back in 1985, I was 43 years old and caught in a mid-life crisis. I had a good job, a loving wife, two daughters and some mixed up priorities. During the early years of our marriage, I had Alice all to myself and life was good. When we discussed having a family, I was in favor of the idea, but I guess the truth is I was not prepared for how much our lives would change.
Instead of being able to pretty much go wherever and whenever we pleased, we now had the girls and their schedules to consider. Frankly, I had a hard time with it and sometimes I felt like I wanted to run away from life. As John did in the story, I took a withdrawal from my 401K and spent the best part of five weeks on the train.
There are, of course, differences between the story and mine. Alice never threw me out of the house, although I probably deserved it more than once. And when I took the trip, she came with me. We spent a lot of time on the train together and we had some frank late night discussions along the way. I think it drew us closer together.
Unlike John, I never ran into a train porter with a masters degree, like William. But we followed his advice. We reserved Saturday night as date night and Alice often brought the girls and my supper to the office when I had to work late. We've been married now for nearly half a century. We love to ride the train together and we thank the Lord for blessing our family.
CR Britting 2019