JANUARY 14, 2014

The year has gotten off to an inauspicious start.  Both Karen and I have come down with stubborn chest colds.  We don't get sick very often, but when we do the illnesses tend to linger.  I hope that's not an indication of where the rest of the year is heading.

I've used some of my sick time to work on some more music, mostly just staring at blank pages.  Sometimes I'd force myself to drop notes on the staves.  But there's been little inspiration.  Up until my 30s, I was incredibly prolific.  I wrote dozens upon dozens of pieces in all different styles.  But back then, I usually had an outlet: many of the pieces, I performed myself.  But now when I write choral or orchestral music, what happens to it?  Once in a great while, I can twist Karen's arm into doing one of my pieces with our chuch choir.  The Greater Westfield Choral Association did one of my pieces.  But it's not as if there's any great desire to hear my music by anyone other than myself.  And perhaps more than anything else, that's why my output has so steeply declined.  Why force myself to write music no one is going to hear?

I've been listening to the pieces I'll be singing with GWCA for the upcoming spring concert.  When I hear Haydn's Missa Cellenis, I think, "What a piece of garbage!"  To me it sounds mechanical and uninspired, unlike other masses we've sung in the past.  Yet Haydn cranked them out, because that was his job.  Some of his work was more inspired than others.  Yet he tried to maintain a standard of craftsmanship in his writing.  The Missa Cellenis isn't technically bad.  It's just not that good.

We're also doing Hovhaness' Make a Joyful Noise.  Every time I listen to that piece, I feel like weeping because of its beauty.  All of Hovhaness' music has predictable patterns.  Sometimes it feels like his music is made up of interchangeable parts.  But it all comes together in a way that emotionally moves me, unlike the Haydn piece.

What I want to do is create emotionally moving pieces, not technical exercises.  Part of the problem is that I have no training in music theory and so I go about composition blindly, hoping by chance that I'll happen to find an idea that works.  Perhaps if I understood more about the rules of music, I'd be able to approach composition a bit more coherently.

I've often thought about the paths I've taken over the years.  As with Sondheim, my greatest joy was in lyric writing.  I would have been quite happy as a librettist.  I had a chance when I was at Columbia University in New York and was befriended by Lee Adams, the lyricist who most famously wrote for Bye Bye Birdie.  (He also penned the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, Once Upon a Time.)  He asked me to stay in touch with him after I left the college, but I let that contact drift away as I pursued other interests.

So for this New Year, I'll set myself a resolution.  At the end of last year, I put together a collection of nine hymns.  For this year, I'll create a second collection of nine hymns.  (My overall goal has been to create three such collections.)  That certainly won't make me as prolific as Haydn.  But perhaps it will keep my creative machinery moving.

FEBRUARY 21, 2014

A big piece of news over the past few days has been Facebook's pending acquisition of WhatsApp, a messaging app, for $19 billion.  That's nineteen BILLION dollars!  For an app!  I'm unable to conceive of that much money.  It's a meaningless figure.  You might as well say that it was bought for a bajillion dollars.

I can't comprehend a company with that much spare cash on hand, to drop such a huge amount on a single purchase.  Then I begin to wonder what money really means, and how much is enough.  For instance, at HCC (where I teach) students can't afford to buy $100 text books.  A $1000 projector is dying in our classroom, but the college claims to have no money to replace it.  There's also no money for sabbaticals or travel.  There's no money to fix the ceilings that are leaking.  There's no money to fix the broken pavement.  There's never any money.

But SOMEbody's got money, and just spent a boatload of it.  Apple currently has about $156 billion CASH hanging around.  MGM has proposed spending nearly a billion dollars to build a casino in downtown Springfield.  So yeah -- there's a lot of cash.  It's just not in the right places.

It reminds me of the problem with hunger.  When I was involved with the Hunger Project in the 1980s, the revelation at the time was that hunger was a solvable problem.  Before that, it was just assumed that hunger was a perpetual condition of the human race.  But with the Hunger Project, I discovered that the problem was man-made; it was a question of food distribution not food production.  There was plenty of food -- but it was being horded.  If the distribution had been managed differently, everyone would have had enough to eat.  Just walk down the aisle of any big grocery store.  Do they really sell all that food from week to week?  Or does most of it end up as trash, past its expiration date?

And so it goes with money (whether dollars, euros or bitcoins).  There is absolutely no excuse for leaking school buildings when the government flushes billions of dollars down the drain with debacles like the Big Dig.  The money simply isn't being put where it would do the most good.

I guess that was the idea behind Communism -- equal redistribution of wealth.  But we all can see where that led.  The problem with that system is that it demands a high degree of integrity from the people in charge; they always must put the good of society above themselves.  But high integrity is historically a rare human trait.  Once corruption enters such a system, eroding the underlying principles, it all collapses.

To me, money is simply a tool for survival.  I don't need a bajillion dollars to be happy.  All I need is enough so that I don't have to worry about whether or not I'll be able to eat today, and whether I'll have a place to sleep.  That's it.  Occasionally I'll buy something for myself or Karen.  Occasionally we'll take a trip.  But I know I don't need status.  I don't need a huge house.

And yet, I don't begrudge the rich their luxuries.  For some people, a $30 million mansion is what it takes to make them happy.   I'm just saddened that so much money is concentrated in the hands of so few when there are so many desperate needs in the world, and just a mere fraction of that money could fulfill them.

AUGUST 18, 2014

I posted a video to YouTube, mainly an audio track with pictures attached.  It was audio that I thought I had lost long ago but rediscovered the other day:  the overture to The Daniel Shays Rebellion, a huge outdoor drama that took place over the summer of 1976 (the year of the U.S. bicentennial).  That triggered a lot of memories from the show.

I was fresh out of high school and knew I wanted to pursue theater, so being involved in a play for an entire summer seemed like a smart thing to do.  I had no idea what I was getting into, and it turned out to be a great experience that cemented my love (at the time) of drama.  I didn't have a car in those days and rode the seven miles to rehearsal on my bicycle.  I not only had to be there for regular show rehearsals, there were also militia rehearsals where we had to learn how to load and fire weapons from the 1700s and march in formation.  And there were dance rehearsals, at which I felt very awkward.  I was athletic enough with all that bike riding.  But I never felt coordinated enough to dance.  All of those rehearsals took place within the span of about two months.  The show opened late in June and ran through August.  At the time, it was the largest outdoor drama ever staged in New England, with horses on stage and live cannons.

The director was Liam O'Brien.  I believe he was from Hampshire College.  He staged the show at Look Park in Northampton, MA, a beautiful shady retreat where my family had many a summer picnic.  The park also had a huge amphitheater created during the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s.  The entrance was an imposing two-story structure built of Goshen stone.  The audience area was a large rolling grassy hillside.  The stage was massive, about 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep, flanked by two three-story Goshen stone towers.  In the original design, the back edge of the stage was supposed to have featured an organ and a waterfall, but that area had long since been filled in.  The stage was flagstone and was fronted by water pipes.  The intent was to create a lit water curtain for scene changes.  But that too was non-operational at the time.  In fact, the place was in pretty poor shape.  So one of my jobs was to help with the reconstruction.

Outside of rehearsals, my free time was spent with the construction crews.  New concrete was poured throughout the entrance structure which was going to be used for offices, tickets and the booth for running the show's tech.  The towers were rehabilitated and would hold huge speakers and lighting.  A large platform was built on the outside edge of each tower, about ten feet in the air over thick rhododendron bushes.  The platform stage right was used for scenes in the play featuring government bureaucrats.  The platform stage left was for the band.  There were also platforms on either side of the front of the stage.  The one downstage right was for Daniel Shays' house, which was "constructed" at the beginning of each show.  I was one of the generic townspeople in that scene and we would rush onto the stage at the opening and begin erecting the walls, pinning them together with their pre-made hinges (but pretending we were hammering away at them).

The biggest job that I was involved in, though, was construction of the dressing rooms.  Underneath the stage was a cavern, accessed by winding stairs in each tower.  Crews ran electrical lines and lights down there and we proceeded to assemble a labyrinth of walls with 2x4s and sheetrock, about a dozen or so rooms for the numerous actors.  Within a few weeks, the transformation was complete.  There was a wide corridor toward the front of the stage running the entire length so that actors could cross back and forth unseen during the performance.  Various rooms were labeled for various cast members and purposes.  The "extras" were grouped together in two dressing rooms, one for men and one for women.  There were also make-up rooms with mirrors and bright lights.  It felt like a "real" theater.  There were plans to get the water curtain running again, but that never materialized.

I remember that opening night was well-attended, and the show seemed to be off to a good start.  The script by Kermit Hunter (who had written many other outdoor dramas) was a bit wooden.  The opening dialogue, spoken by Mark Shaw as Will Conkey, is a good example:  "Why, my old friend, Daniel Shays!  And his wife, Abigail!  And their two sons, Hiram and Daniel!"  To which Tom Roulston as Daniel Shays responded, "My old friend Will Conkey!  What a fine welcome to the town of Pelham.  We thank you."  Tom had a phenomenal stage voice that could be heard clearly even on the road outside the theater.  But he really didn't have a lot to work with.

Every night we would stand backstage listening to the band, Sheehan's Reel, play the overture, a collection of folk dances from the British Isles.  The music competed with the sound of crickets.  When the overture ended, the townspeople would rush out onto the stage to begin building Shays' house.  It seemed to me that something else was needed to transition into the actual show.  So after the Ballad of Daniel Shays I would shout, "Come on, you lazy bums!  We have a house to build!"  Liam never stopped me, so I kept doing it.  We would freeze when the music ended.   Another tune would begin and another scene would be established on a different area of the stage.  That continued, building up a series of tableaus.  During the final piece of the overture, all the scenes came to life once again and Shays made his entrance.

Rudy Bentz played Thomas Jefferson in the show.  He also used that summer to run a daytime children's theater with his wife.  Members of the Shays company were invited to participate in it.  The first show on their schedule was Wizard of Oz, and I had always wanted to play the Tin Man.  So I auditioned and got cast ... as a munchkin.  A 6-foot 1-inch munchkin.  My munchkin costume was basically a big colorful balloon that I squatted inside.  I (and the other munchkins) looked like a beach ball.  I didn't have much to do except bounce around the stage.  It ended up where I didn't mind that so much.  The script bore no resemblance to the Wizard of Oz I knew and loved, so I was happy to stay in the background.

Another children's show was Circus in the Wind.  I got cast as a monster.  I built myself 4-inch wooden platform shoes and used an old rubber Halloween mask and some ragged clothes I had lying around.  I couldn't see too well in the mask, and the uneven flagstone stage made walking in those shoes a challenge.  The most difficult part was at the end, when the entire cast walked down a set of stairs at the front of the stage and made their way up through the audience and out toward the entrance.  During one performance, one of my shoes got caught on a stone and I went flying off the stage and out into the audience, landing smack in front of a little two year old girl who looked terrified.  I dragged myself back up as best I could and stumbled out toward the entrance.  My monster was about as frightening as Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.

As the run of Daniel Shays continued, all of us became more comfortable in our roles.  Bill Smitrovitch was our drill sergeant in one scene.  We were positioned toward the back right of the stage, and as he paced back and forth in front of us ("the militia"), he would constantly crack jokes under his breath to see if he could get us to laugh.

All of our costumes were held together with Velcro, at that time a novel material.  The extras had to go from being townspeople to militia to elegantly dressed dancers in rapid succession.  Velcro allowed us to layer costumes on top of costumes and rip each layer off backstage so we could run out for the next scene.  But the Velcro couldn't stand up to all the abuse we were giving it.  Late in the run during the big cotillion ball, I was dancing in a circle opposite my friend Brian Finn when we all heard a tearing sound.  Then another.  Then another.  Brian's costume was popping apart with ever step he took.  Eventually, his pants were down around his knees and his shirt had completely opened up, revealing his military costume underneath.  We all tried to huddle around him so that the audience couldn't see.  Eventually, that situation was happening to all of us.

I first met Brian at rehearsals and we discovered we had a common interest in the sci-fi TV show Space: 1999.  We enjoyed kidding around with each other.  One day as we were heading back to our dressing room, I decided to show Brian a little bit of stunt fighting.  So as we stood in the hallway under the stage in front of our dressing room (which I helped build), I told him to take a swing at me, and I'd fly backward as if he'd hit me.  So Brian took a swing and I lifted myself off the floor, flying back and colliding with the sheetrock -- and plowing right through it into the dressing room.  I looked up amid the dust and broken plaster just in time to see Liam O'Brien approaching.  "What's going on here?" he asked angrily.  I rubbed my jaw and pretended to look dazed.  I looked up at Liam and said bewildered, "Brian hit me!"  Brian's jaw dropped.  Liam turned to him: "All right, Mr. Finn.  You're coming with me."  And Liam led him off amid his protests.  I can't remember who ended up having to patch the wall (probably both of us).  But fortunately, Brian didn't get into much trouble over that.

The biggest enemy to the Daniel Shays Rebellion was an unlucky streak of weather.  Nearly every weekend was a washout.  In light rain we would still perform to a handful of audience members.  But many nights the show had to be cancelled.  That was the inherent problem with running an outdoor theater.  The entire week would be beautiful, but then the whole weekend would rain.  So even though the audience response to the play was overwhelmingly positive, few people were willing to sit in the rain to watch a nearly three hour production.

The final performance was again on a night threatening to storm.  A decent number of people in attendance.  There was a scene near the end of the show, when Shays is nearing defeat, where I played a panicked soldier running by him.  He would grab me and tell me to find Luke Day and take an urgent message to him.  I would snap to attention, say "Yes, sir!" and run off.  But for that final performance, I wrapped a heavy bandage around my leg and made it look like it was covered with blood.  On my cue, I limped out onto the stage, dragging my leg behind.  Tom Roulston grabbed me, "Find Luke Day!"

"Ohhhh, my leg, sir.  My leg!  I can't walk!"

Tom was trying to hold back a laugh.  He grabbed me and shook me.  "Do you hear me!  Find Luke Day!  Tell him --"

"I ... I can't, sir.  My ... my leg...."

"Just find him!" he shouted.  He tossed me down onto the stage and ran off as I lay there moaning.

That night's curtain call was the last for the show, which lost money and was never revived.  The equipment was removed.  The platforms were taken down.  The dressing rooms were dismantled.  The Pines Theater went back to being a curious stone structure in the middle of a forest.  There were still occasional concerts held there -- but nothing like the Shays Rebellion of 1976.

AUGUST 5, 2014

I like rail travel.  I really do.  There's something soothing about the clacking and rocking of the car as it whizzes past small towns seemingly frozen in time.  However, this past weekend began to change my mind.  I can't understand what is so difficult about getting a train from point A to point B.  Well, maybe that's because I don't have to deal with the logistics.  After all, Amtrak is really the only long-haul passenger service in the U.S.  And it doesn't own most of the track that covers its routes; those rails are owned by various freight companies.  Amtrak leases rights to use those freight lines, and things don't always work out well.

Take, for instance, my trip.  I'm used to the trains being a bit late.  After all, Amtrak is near an all-time high for ridership.  If you don't make advance reservations, chances are that you won't get a seat.   Compounding the problem was that my trip was on a Friday, a busy travel day.  And Amtrak has been known to overbook which means that if everyone shows up, some people end up riding in the cafe car because there are no seats left.  I guess it's a good problem for them to have.  When I first started taking the train, the cars were often half empty.  So I'm glad that train travel is becoming popular again.  Unfortunately, that's happening at the expense of efficiency.  On my way out to Ohio on the busy Lake Shore Limited, the train left on time from Springfield (possibly one of the most decrepit rail stations in the country).  But by the time I reached my destination in Sandusky, any thought of a schedule was pointless.

My trip was an overnighter.  Usually, I'd get a roomette which has a private room and a bed.  The cost for standard coach fare to Sandusky was $76.  You couldn't drive out there that cheaply!  It was an incredible bargain.  The roomette added about $250 to the price, certainly not as cheap but usually worth it.  A dinner was included with that price and the bed was almost a necessity.  Unfortunately, the roomettes were all but sold out when I booked my trip in July.  There was one left,  but Amtrak raises prices depending upon demand.  So that one roomette was going for $550.  There was no way I was going to pay that price.  So I figured I'd just sleep in my seat.

The attendant in my car had a cold and made sure that everyone knew it.  She also complained that she was stuck on that train for four days without a break.  It seems that Amtrak's boss had implemented cost-cutting measures and was reducing staff (ironically, as ridership skyrocketed).  Outside of making sure that we knew her misery, we rarely heard anything else from her.

I was due to arrive in Sandusky at 4:55 a.m.  
Sitting in front of me were four people who were having intense conversations with each other.  I heard them mention Newton Theological Seminary and hiring practices for pastors.  So I asked them if they were with the UCC.  They were very friendly and said no, they were with the ABC.  It was interesting to hear them discussing the same issues as at my church.  I guess all religious institutions are going through the same upheavals.  For about half the journey I was sitting next to a young guy who was studying to be an engineer.  He was an avid hiker and had just come from renovating a stretch of the Applachian Trail.   We talked about various engineering challenges, including those on roller coasters.

I had a decent lunch in the cafe car.  Amtrak offered a spicy vegan burger (microwaved).  I had that with chips and a Gatorade and that tided me over for the rest of the trip.  

We arrived in Albany at about 5 p.m.  At that huge and beautifully remodeled station, the Lake Shore Limited usually stopped for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.  A train coming up from New York City had to be connected to it.  So I spent the time on that sunny and breezy day on the platform, watching the procedure.  The train from Springfield (Boston, actually) rode off down the line and pulled off by the rail yard far in the distance as the NYC train pulled up to the newly vacated platform.  Its engine detached and moved off.  Then the Lake Shore came all the way back and attached to the NYC cars.  When that was completed, the passengers boarded and we were back on our way.  I could see how that was necessary, and there really was no way around it outside of running the NYC train separately to Chicago (which would be a waste of an engine). 

That stop was built into the schedule, so it shouldn't have added any time to our travel.  But where things began to go wrong was further down the line in New York.  Our train would slow to a crawl and then pull off onto a side track and stop.  And we would wait.  And we would wait.  And we would wait.  There would be no announcement from the conductor.  None of the porters or attendants would say anything to us.  We'd just sit there for anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half-hour.  And then a CSX freight train would go barreling past us in the opposite direction.

The problem was that there was only a single stretch of track in many areas.  And since it was owned by the freight lines, Amtrak would have to obediently stop and wait for freighters to pass before we proceeded.  And that's because in the U.S., freight is much more valuable a commodity than human lives.

So once the freighter had passed, we would gradually speed up and continue our journey.  But most of it was taken at a rather leisurely pace.  The train would usually cruise at about thirty to forty miles per hour when it really should have been going seventy.  It probably had to keep a certain distance from other trains on the line.  But there were also long stretches where the track seemed extremely rough (especially along stretches with one turnout after another, causing the train car to rock violently).  I doubt the train could have reached full speed in those areas.  So considering all that, it was no wonder that the trains usually arrived late.

At about 11 p.m., it was announced that the lights in our car were going to go out and then it would be "quiet time".  But about that time a woman boarded and sat behind me.  She obviously had some serious disability and was extremely loud.  The conductor had to approach her and ask her to remove her piles of stuff because evidently the man sitting next to her couldn't move.  She spent most of the night activating Siri on her iPhone and loudly calling into it, "SIRI, CAN YOU HELP ME!?"  I guess she didn't understand the limits of the technology.  She then began dropping her tray table down and then slamming it back up into the seat in front of her (which was right next to me).  And I wished I had paid for that roomette.

The lights didn't go out.  Around 1 a.m., we made another stop and more passengers boarded.  The attendant loudly asked someone across from me if they would move so that a couple could sit together.  The person obliged, and the attendant proclaimed, "That's wonderful!  I applaud you!" And then she began clapping
.  Really.  I don't know whether she was being sarcastic, but that was a bizarre and completely unnecessary thing to do.  The lights finally did go out about 2 a.m.  The air conditioning in the train remained at full blast.  I wished I had brought a blanket.

I didn't get any sleep, and we ended up three hours late into Sandusky.
  When I arrived, Karen noticed that the back of my neck and shoulders was covered with dozens of black flecks.  The upholstery on the train was so old, it was disintegrating and rubbing off on my skin.

I headed back home on Monday.  The train was supposed to pick me up in Sandusky at 4:12 a.m.  It was due back in Springfield at about six in the evening.  I got a single text alert from Amtrak that it was running about an hour late, but one hour turned into two.  I later heard that the Chicago station was waiting for passengers from the west coast, whose train had been delayed two hours.  Instead of sending the Lake Shore Limited off on time and then finding another way to transport the late arrivals, Amtrak made everyone else late.  When I boarded, I was told to wait in the cafe car, which meant there were no empty seats.  I didn't mind that; the cafe car had very comfy padded benches and big tables.  I would have been happy sitting there for the entire fourteen hour trip.

A sign in the little cafe area (basically a small serving counter with freezers, microwaves and a coffee maker behind it) said that it would be open at 7:30.  So I peacefully sat watching the scenery go by.  At about 7:15, a woman arrived in uniform and began organizing things behind the counter.  She didn't seem happy.  She was slamming freezer doors and throwing things about.  People began lining up to get something to eat.  She snapped at them, "I'm not opening till 7:30.  Don't stand there.  Move back into the other area."  So people dutifully lined up in the room where I was sitting.  Then the woman yelled, "Look, if you got a problem with me, tell me to my face!  Don't talk about me behind my back!  I was here late last night for you people, but did anyone say 'thank you'?  No!  Yeah -- I'm talking to you, sir.  Don't give me that look!"

I was trying to see who she meant.  It looked like she was directing her comments at a short bearded man in line, but he seemed puzzled by it all.  I figured I had better get in line before more people arrived.  I looked around for a menu.  There was one posted opposite the counter.  I quietly entered the forbidden area.  "You can't stand there, sir," she immediately said in a frustrated tone.  I told her I was just looking for a menu.  "There's one over there," she clipped, pointing outside of her domain.  I walked over to it and mulled over my choices.  When she finally allowed people to approach her, I ordered a bagel with cream cheese and an orange juice.  Then I sat back down in the cafe car to eat.

More people came for breakfast, but most of them took their food back to their assigned seats.  The attendant in the cafe car called out, "Those of you sitting in the dining area, this is reserved for people who are actually eating.  If you're not eating, please leave to give other people room to sit down."  I looked around.  I was one of five people in the entire dining car.  It wasn't as if people were standing around looking for a place to sit.  No one had come to give me an assigned seat.  So I stood up, grabbed my luggage and walked into the nearest passenger car.  It was packed, but I saw one open seat and asked the man there if it was taken.  It wasn't, so I stashed my luggage and that became my home for a while.  I searched for a place to go to the bathroom and saw the rest rooms at the other end of the car.  So I made my way there.  I opened one of the doors.  The toilet was clogged.  I opened the door to the rest room on the opposite side.  The toilet was clogged.  I ventured into the next car and thankfully found a working rest room.  But the two in my car would remain out-of-service for the majority of the trip.

I passed some time chatting with my seat-mate.  He was a frequent Amtrak rider, but was getting fed up with how things were being run.  He said when Amtrak leaves Chicago late, it upsets the delicate dance with the freight lines.  There's a small window where the schedules match up, so Amtrak can travel relatively uninterrupted.  But once the train begins to fall behind, all bets are off.

Interestingly, he had just bought his first electric car so we talked a bit about that.  An attendant came by and obviously didn't recognize me.  She asked where I was heading.  She seemed skeptical and told me the conductor would have to see my ticket.  The conductor eventually did come by and I explained what happened.  He re-scanned my ticket and told me I was already in the system.  A young couple sitting in front and across from me had a 17" MacBook Pro on which they were watching The Return of the King.  So I had a little entertainment to pass some time.

Repeatedly, the train would slow down to a crawl and then stop.  Once a freighter passed us in the same direction we were heading.  My seat-mate remarked how dumb that was, because freight trains traveled slower than Amtrak.  That meant we'd be following it at a slower speed until the tracks cleared.

When we arrived in Rochester, the couple with the MacBook left.  I moved over to their place so I could have a window seat.  In front of me, coincidentally, were sitting the same foursome from the ABC that I had encountered on my westward trip.  We chatted a little more.  By that point, the train was falling further and further behind.  The estimate for arriving back in Springfield was 9:15 p.m.

The attendant for our car got on the intercom and loudly complained about the state of the rest rooms.  "There's a button in there that says FLUSH!  Push it!  You should be courteous to other passengers!  Don't let children go into the rest rooms unattended!  Clean up after yourselves!"  Her admonitions were pointless, however, because the rest rooms continued to be non-functional.

By the time we reached Albany,  our car was about a third empty and three hours late.  Notice I said that we reached Albany.  But we didn't reach the Albany station.  A few hundred yards before it, the train came to a dead halt next to the rail yard.  Then the power went off in the car.  And we sat in silence, with no air circulation.  They were in the process of detaching the New York section of the train.  In our car were several passengers who had been on the train since Chicago and whose destination was Albany.  I thought they were going to riot.  They couldn't understand why we couldn't have pulled into the station, let them off and then decouple the trains.  Instead we sat there, with no communication from the crew.

The minutes wore on.  We began joking with each other at Amtrak's expense.  For instance, we saw a worker walking along the tracks beside the train.  Someone said, "He just finished his shift, but none of the trains are working so he has to walk home."  To which I replied, "It'd be faster than taking the train, anyway."  One of the ABC members tried to look on the bright side: "At least we're in the shade."  I corrected him: "That's because it's nightfall."  Everyone laughed ruefully.

The air in the car was becoming stifling.  The conductor passed through.  When he was asked what the holdup was, his response was that the crews were looking for an engine.  We all looked at each other incredulously; there were three unattached engines sitting in the yard next to us!  And what happened to the one that was just pulling our car?

It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get our car hooked back up and functional.  Then we slowly inched toward the station platform as passengers swore they'd never take Amtrak again.  After a brief stop to load more passengers, we continued heading east.

The attendant walked by handing out complementary snack packs (a small collection of cheese crackers, almonds and cookies).  Then she handed out small bottles of water.  It was a token to appease the irate passengers.  But the passengers looked upon the food as the least that Amtrak could have done.  Working bathrooms would have been more appreciated.  People were on their mobile phones, updating friends or relatives on their status -- friends or relatives who were waiting at train stations to pick them up.  The inconvenience was not just to passengers.

I stared out the window into darkness.  But unlike in The Fugitive, fate did not move its huge hand.  We passed through Westfield, the dual bridges lit up brightly across the river, and flew by the city's railway station that had long ago been converted into an insurance agency.  I wanted to throw myself off the train at that point.  In years past, I could have gotten off the train there and walked home.  But instead we continued on toward Springfield, where I would have to then drive all the way back.  We arrived at about 10:30 p.m., over four hours late.  In the time it took Amtrak to get me there, I could have driven home from Sandusky twice!

There's no excuse for Amtrak's poor operation.  They've been at this for decades!  Obviously, they're paying for bad decisions that the U.S. made long ago, decisions to dismantle the country's rail service.  Most of those rail lines have been repurposed as bike trails and rebuilding them now would be prohibitively expensive.  But if Amtrak is to continue, there has to be better management of the resources they have.  It's ludicrous that Schenectady is a 20 minute drive from Albany, yet it takes nearly an hour and a half by train.  (In fact, several seasoned passengers bound for Albany got off at the Schenectady stop.)  And to have the conductor tell us that they were looking for an engine when there were three idle ones sitting right next to us in the rail yard was incomprehensible.

Right now, rail travel is on the verge of a long-awaited and sorely needed renaissance in this country.  But that renaissance might be short-lived.  Amtrak's low prices make it seem like a really attractive way to travel. 
But if passengers repeatedly have bad experiences, ridership will dwindle.  Then it won't matter whether the trains run on time, or run at all.