Harold Bishop has a posse

The Rae St Institute > Blog archive > Paper Chess and War Stories

Were I to be accosted by a TV crew at this point of the trip and asked one of the stupid questions that contemporary journalists tend to ask, requiring me to distill the previous almost two weeks down to a single "moment", it'd have to be playing chess on a hand-made paper chess set, half-drunk on red wine, in the early hours of the morning, with a beautiful stranger from Idaho on a sleeper train bucketing through the back end of Nebraska.

There's something very civilised even about the idea of it; but at the same time something ramshackle and random. Our chess 'pieces' were made by my counterpart and were squares of paper with various symbols drawn on them, and the board was two folded, overlapped sheets of paper with ruled and shaded squares.

The robot served as adjudicator.

The whole trip from San Francisco to Chicago had a weird air of class about it; in stark contrast to the gaudy, sprawling dysfunctional mess of the Mission, or the Tenderloin, or any number of suburban shopping centres.. there's something old world about the whole thing. And admittedly I think us chess players were the only two with sleeping compartments younger than 40.. maybe even 50.

Though how exactly a year 10 kid from Michigan got to sit in on a detailed chemistry lecture about the mechanisms of both effect and neurotoxicity of MDMA is another story. And spoils the picture I'm trying to paint.

But that there was a year 10 kid from Michigan travelling without parents, almost the full distance, coming back from a wedding outside Denver, CO points to the strange cross-section of the population to be found on the train. On the first day of the trip I chuckled to myself as one of my 'DAYS TAKEN FOR X TO HAPPEN' check boxes
n.b. I don't actually have a check list
was ticked.


A woman sitting diagonally opposite me in the lounge car pipes up:
So y'all are from Australia?


Y'all been to Brian Houston's church?



Erm, I'm not really religious.

--because it looks so huge on the TV, on those specials they do. Y'all been there?

I'm not really religious.

Ohh.... [said with mild but still friendly disdain]
I was tempted to continue the Grand old Australian Tradition of making up bullshit stories, and try to convince her that Hillsong is actually all CG; and that the real church is some guy's garage in Campbelltown with a green sheet taped to the wall, and an old Super VHS camcorder on a plastic tripod.

But I didn't.

I figured the savage and unhealthy situation in front of them to which they seemed oblivious was bad enough.

Picture two evangelicals/fundies/pentecostals (one or the other or all three, I'm not entirely sure), travelling with their eight or nine year old son, sitting oblivious, watching the scenery go by, as their little son tried to hustle people on games of Gin Rummy. I sat reading Hunter S Thompson's Hell's Angels, and the wife eyed me with a mixed air of curiosity and suspicion; I don't think she could work out whether I was reading something Christian or something decidedly not-so. But let me back-track.


Ok, maybe hustle is the wrong word; I never saw any money involved and I didn't hear talk of it, but he was clearly playing people for all he could; playing the newbie/naif and then at the last minute coming from nowhere and nailing his opponents to the wall.


He asked me if I wanted to play, and I said no, and suggested he should have got off back at Reno; money/women/power to be made etc.

One strange thing about the people I spoke to on the train is that while their politics varied wildly, from Conservative Republican to Former Marxist, nobody liked the war, especially not the Republicans as they usually had a personal stake (knew people who'd died, husband had been a contractor there etc..), and everybody seemed worried about the strange Orwellian times we live in (phone taps, scanning of phone records, omnipresent surveillance...). I was waiting for people to pipe up and lambast those openly attacking the fact that the US is even in Iraq at all in the dining car, but nobody did.

The only person I really saw get fired up about anything was a Fundie, on the last day of the trip. A polite, rational, white haired fifty-something guy I'd been talking to about transport policy, nuclear power, and a few other things over the previous two days was attempting rational discourse with a Fundamentalist Christian (MISTAKE NUMBER 1) about the process involved in the distillation and gradual twisting of the Bible into the form it is today. BUT NO IT IS THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND HOW DARE HE QUESTION IT.

In the end he said, "There's no point trying to reason with you, you're a zealot." then got up and walked away. He came over and sat near me, a partition separating us from the fundie, and asked "Have you got many of these nutjob Fundamentalists over in Australia?".. we had a chat for a little while, when we both realised that the Fundie was still pushing his loud dissertation on the Absolute Truth Of The Bible.. BUT TO NOBODY. I got up and had a peek over the partition and he was speaking to several rows of empty seats.

Notwithstanding fundamentalists arguing with themselves, and a completely smitten train conductor (another story in itself, perhaps for The Expanded Edition AVAILABLE NOW SEVENTY NINE NINETY FIVE), and despite protestations to the opposite by a woman I met in a club a few months before I left ("I lived in America for seven years and I never met an American I liked."), Americans have proved a decidedly interesting lot...
OK, so I'm falling further behind.. but it's ok, I'll probably catch up today or tomorrow. I've got Chicago and Boston to talk about, but I'm in New York right now and I'm itching to go run amok somewhere well known (MAYBE I'LL STEAL A HIPPO FROM RUPERT JEE'S HELLO DELI) - now that I'm firmly ensconced in some solid Manhattan lodgings with both television to remind me why I don't watch much television, and private space to write, I'll be able to sit down and properly digest the last fortnight.

2 Comments - [post a comment]

Jess, Wednesday, May 31, 2006, 6:04 AM
Compltely off topic but...

I think we might be neighbours.

*looks warily out the front door*
Well done good doctor! - colonel, Thursday, June 1, 2006, 9:03 AM
mmm...teaching kiddliewinks that the way to fame, fortune and power is through their inherent gifts of sharking people is to be admired. That kid would be a chance for president in the current era where acceptance speeches resemble words to the effect of...*"Look; this is a war; a war that has to be won; a war that shall no know victors (apart from us...) and a war in which the victors shall be victorious. Wars are nameless and only dirty when played by the rules. And the
only way forward is to be with us (me) or against us (me) um."

* This is not a real excerpt from the presidential acceptance speech.