In the wee hours of an early December morning in 1975, I was on a mission. My college town of Stockton, California, had played host to the American Freedom Train for three days, and the train was being moved to its next gig in Oakland. It was drawn by a restored steam locomotive and part of its route paralleled a lengthy stretch of rural highway. I was one of the railroad enthusiasts who drove alongside the train on this road, pacing it for miles in an informal motorcade. I reveled in the spectacle of the great engine, illuminated with on-board floodlights, pounding along at forty miles per hour in the first visit of a steam locomotive to this line since the last revenue operation of steam a generation before. The highway and the rails eventually parted; the train rolled on towards the Bay Area’s sleeping suburbs, and her euphoric escorts began to disperse, bound for daytime obligations of workplace and classroom.
The memory of that night remains one of my fondest. But along with the memory, there abides a lasting regret. The American Freedom Train was a traveling museum, assembled to tour the nation in celebration of our bicentennial in 1976. Artifacts on display included George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s pulpit and vestments. But I never took advantage of the opportunity to see, or even rightly know or appreciate, these treasures and what they represented. I only cared about witnessing the passage of this great locomotive in the night, not the legacy of freedom aboard its train.
Ask yourself this Independence Day, and always: “Are you as free as you once were?” The answer is clearly, no. In everything from what you eat to what you can do with your property to your health to your travel, your freedom is being eroded. But far too many of us are of the mentality I had in 1975: We are too distracted by passing pleasures, be they steam locomotives rolling through the night or what have you, to truly appreciate the precious and fleeting nature of our freedom.
I pulled off the road where it veered away from the tracks to watch as the train rushed on into the night. The roar of the engine and the rattle of cars bearing the icons of freedom quickly faded into silence and the deep whistle became fainter with each increasingly distant road crossing. The white plume of exhaust lingered overhead in the calm sky, then slowly dissipated into the dark, leaving only memories of the now-vanished glory and lost opportunity.
So it is with our liberty. Freedom is won only at great price; but, taken for granted, it is very easily lost, vanishing like that train and its exhaust into tyranny’s night until all that is left is sorrowful memories of what we could have known. If we continue to be distracted by the engines of our pleasures, then, like me long ago, we miss the train of freedom’s treasures.
Thomas Berry, for the Children of Liberty, www.meetup.com/The-children-of-liberty.