I have some very exciting news. After many months of the most debased begging, wheedling and cajoling on my part the splendid people at the Arnold Schnabel Society have handed over to me the army footlocker containing the hundreds of small notepads which comprise the poet Arnold Schnabel’s unpublished but legendary memoir, Railroad Train to Heaven, and have said, in essence, “Do with this what you will.”
So what I will do is dole out this treasure-trove of modern literature in its unexpurgated entirety, but occasionally, on the installment plan, for litterateurs throughout the universe to read and savor and to cut and paste and send to all their friends.
I should mention that, unlike the poems, which typically went through numerous densely-amended drafts, these notepads appear to be only sparsely revised. All the entries were written with ball-point pen, usually a Bic. Very occasionally a word will be crossed out and replaced, or a phrase or a sentence will be interpolated in the space between the lines. Sometimes a line will be drawn through a sentence or a great X engraved on a paragraph or page, often accompanied by a comment in the margin such as "rubbish" or "nonsense". Schnabel only rarely indicates the date of composition (and usually then only through a reference to a holiday or some historical event, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy) but, working through internal evidence, I shall do my best to present these memoirs in chronological order.
And so we begin this serialization of Railroad to Heaven, which I would rank alongside the great confessionals of world literature, second only perhaps to the immortal Pepys.
The time would be June, 1963. Observe the complete lack of any sort of preamble. As with his poems he simply gets right to it.
(Note: I have silently corrected the occasional misspelling. Everything else is directly transcribed from the Schnabel holograph. As with the poems, these excerpts are presented thanks to and only with the imprimatur of the generous people of the Arnold Schnabel Society.)
I hate the beach, and truth be told I’m not all that crazy about sunshine.
But I have come here, to my aunts’ place in Cape May, because my mother thinks it would be good for me, and because she likes to see her sisters now and then.
My mother also has no interest in the beach. She spends her days mostly working in the garden, or trimming the hedges.
I read, walk around, try to stay sane.
I go to mass every morning without fail, and I think that helps. (Or so I pray. I pray that the daily mass helps. I pray that my prayers help.)
Occasionally I stop in a bar and nurse a beer. I look at baseball games on the television.
Sometimes I get into conversations with people. Americans seem to be a friendly sort by and large. People like to talk. With little or no prodding they will and do tell you everything about themselves.
I listen, or sort of listen, I like to think I have always been very much a nice guy, but I do not reciprocate their autobiographical effusiveness.
What can I tell them?
That I am a Catholic bachelor in his forties, that I live with my mother and except for the few years of my decidedly unheroic military career have always lived with my mother, that, again excepting for my time in the modest service of Uncle Sam, I have worked my entire life as a brakeman for the Reading Railroad, that last winter I went completely out of my mind and spent eight weeks in Byberry?
That after a while I returned to work but, following a few embarrassing episodes (some of which I was aware of at the time, others to which I was oblivious), it was strongly suggested that I take an extended leave of absence on half-pay?
That I was on prescribed pills but stopped taking them?
That after ceasing to take these pills I would occasionally suffer the most frightening hallucinations, hallucinations which while they were happening were as real as anything I have experienced in my life?
And that -- knock on wood -- it has now been a few weeks since my last “episode”?
No, I choose not to share all this with my new temporary friends.
I won’t say no one wants to hear this sort of thing because actually people love to hear horror stories, as of course do I.
No, I simply don’t want to be the one telling them, with me as the subject; except for here, in this notebook, where it’s all between me, myself and that other lunatic: I.
(Up-to-date listings of links to other episodes are posted on the right hand side of this page, as well as links to many of Arnold Schnabel's classic poems. Nihil Obstat, Bishop J.J. "Smilin' Jack" Graham, S.J.)