Nation Building Train

In “The Home Run That Tours America” transportation is both a literal and metaphorical concept. An imagined cross country train ride in 1975 inspires a reflection on the role of transportation in American history. By the book’s conclusion, the concept transcends its literal terms to explain how an aging neglected infrastructure — as Thomas Friedman describes in “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” — influences our nation’s diplomacy (foreign and domestic), pride, and optimism.

In the New York Times article “Been Workin’ On the Railroad,” author William G. Thomas describes the role of America’s railroads in the Civil War and emancipation. He explains:

A whole generation of black railroad workers came out of the Civil War . . . Their experience in the first months of the Civil War in 1861 and 1862 suggested an important truth: that they could turn enslavement on the railroads into freedom

“The Home Run That Tours America” considers these facts and picks up where Thomas leaves off. The book explores the concept through Chicago’s Pullman Porters and the Civil Rights Movement with a recurring meditation on Curtis Mayfield’s Civil Right’s anthem “People Get Ready. There’s a Train Comin’” serving as the book’s chorus.

2013 State of the Union and Infrastructure

The United States infrastructure is in crisis. Our roads, bridges, and tunnels are in desperate need of repair.

In the 2013 State of the Union, President Barack Obama stated:

America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs.

Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” addresses this crisis and provides a prescription for nation building. His reflection on the deterioration of our country’s infrastructure explains how its demise influences citizen morale. He writes:

Robert Hormats, the Vice chair of Goldman Sachs (International), notes in his book The Price of Liberty–about how America has paid for its wars since 1776–that George Washington in his Farewell Address, warned against “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” But that is exactly what we have been doing–and the cracks are starting to show. I was particularly troubled by the sudden collapse of the bridge on Interstate 35W in my home state of Minnesota because it was a bridge I’d crossed hundred of times in my youth.

Friedman’s pride in his home state and disappointment over its failing infrastructure is clear. Its health is a thing of the past, and therefore so too is its glory.

Set in 1975 the characters in “The Home Run That Tours America” are charmed and excited by our nation’s infrastructure like one might imagine Friedman was in his youth. The mere fact of our bridges and trains is not what excites them. On the contrary, what the trains allow them to imagine for their future is what inspires the boys.

For Joe and Jack in “The Home Run That Tours America” the health of our nation’s trains inspires them to imagine better lives beyond the limits of their hometown. For Jack this means his ambition to become a Major League baseball player. For Joe this inspires his career in public service and his eventual election as President of the United States.

Juxtaposed against the story of the Freedom Riders and Jim Crow, the boys learn a tough lesson when their unbridled imagination over their cross country tour screeches to a halt, and they discover what the struggle over desegregated interstate travel represents literally, spiritually and personally.  They learn the impact of prejudice on upward mobility, self-esteem, and ambition.

At the conclusion of “The Home Run That Tours America” Joe reflects on the state in diplomatic terms. He suggests:

When we can no longer see over that mountain to the shining city, when we can no longer imagine the bridge that separates me from my neighbor, when we can no longer envision the track, when we no longer tend our garden and weeds obscure what we once planted, friends, that is when we must summon the courage of generations like the Freedom Riders. We must muster their strength and remember their history.

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