Riding the Rails

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A beat-up Range Rover. Photo: JH.

Thursday, June 22, 2023. Cooler and a lot breezier yesterday in New York, with lots of Sun occasionally accompanied by masses of grey-ish looking clouds on the horizon. A beautiful day nevertheless.

My trouble with reading books. I’m a compulsive reader; whenever I see print/newsprint, I start to read. That doesn’t mean I finish. Two or three sentences in, or even one, I’ll stop if I’m not interested or don’t have time. Otherwise I read all the day, all day long if I’m at my desk and not actually writing. And I have a lot of books, too many now actually because of the space they’re occupying.

A portion of my overstuffed bookshelves.

And there’s always a new one as well as the ones I really want to read. And I’m a slow reader. Usually, if I’m interested. I’m going through all this as I write now, for my own head because I’m in the middle of a book that I promised I’d read (and therefore would write something about it), but I hadn’t started because of the workload I put in front of myself.

Kathy and Harvey Sloane with daughter Abigail during the early years of their marriage in Louisville.

The other and most important thing about this book, is I know the writer; it’s a memoir. I’ve known him for 20 years, although not really. He’s the husband of a friend of mine — Kathy Sloane — here in New York. So I’m often hearing about him when I run into his wife at a lunch or dinner. He lives in Washington although I think he comes up to New York on many weekends (or she goes South to DC).

What I’ve always known about him via conversation over the years is: he’s a doctor, an MD. He’s a native of DC, from a wealthy “old” family, and he was once mayor of Louisville, Kentucky (he’s a Democrat). And he’s also done a lot of medical practicing in this country and other countries also. In person, he’s a very agreeable personality, a gentleman, congenial and a worker.

And now he’s written a memoir. Recently published (the book I’m referring to), it’s called Riding the Rails; My Unexpected Adventures in Medicine, City Hall and Public Service.

His name is Harvey Sloane. 

Those aren’t motivating subjects for this particular reader although the background and sets are always interesting. However, a teenager who in summertimes liked riding across America on the top of railroad cars? Now, that is fascinating. Do you know how mortally dangerous that is? Especially to me who knows the rider/writer as a very stable, sensible, intelligent professional adult. And so I was curious as to Who Was This Guy?

Click to order Riding the Rails.

In a very real way, the cover of his memoir tells you more about this man’s life. He’s moving, he’s serious and there’s a big smile on his face. And people are happily following him. In a way, that’s the story. But.

I sat down yesterday morning with the intention of getting more of a feeling for this man’s story so that I could tell you about it.  I spent the better part of the afternoon reading faster than I usually read (half the book) in that time. You’re with him. 

First of all, the kid riding the rails as a teenager in the late 1950s turned out to be the natural curiosity that he had for people who lived a life far far from his own. He’d read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when he was at St. Paul’s. He was exposed to, in his words, “an existence utterly alien to me, that was playing out in my own country.” It showed him how he really knew nothing about life out there. 

“To climb into life, I reasoned, I would first have to leave comfort behind and live on society’s margins, give up the East and go to the frontiers …”

It started with the hitchhiking, at first with a friend, across America in that era before the transcontinental system was still “in its preliminary stage” so that it was small town America and real life of The People.

Harvey and I are of the same generation although he has a few years on me, but it is an America that I am well aware of from birth also. It is greatly changed today, of course, but in reading I’m completely into his objectives which are/were in many ways the objective and ideals of our generation.

Harvey Sloane on the ground assessing the damage from one of the 37 tornadoes that struck Indiana and Kentucky on April 3 1974, including the F-4 in Louisville and F-5 in Brandenburg.

The long and the short of this book: his personal experience, which is varied and very active, is compelling to read about. You can relate to it. It’s our history but also a perfect example of how to make the most of life for yourself, and very possibly at times, for others. It’s also a celebration of What’s Possible in real life; the real American ideals (often missing from our story but still possible), thanks to the Harvey Sloanes of our world.

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