Looking for Screaming Jenny

Amtrak Residency, Day 2. The Capitol Limited and Harpers Ferry, WV.

Amtrak Residency, Day 1
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About to ride the Amtrak Residency rails and write. Philly to DC to board Capitol Limited overnight to Chicago, then California Zephyr to SF and back. See youse (as they say in South Philly) in 10 days.

Ensign Vernon "Copy" Berg, 1974.
Ensign Vernon “Copy” Berg, 1974.

Mainly I’ll be working on a polish of a screenplay, working title LITTLE ROCK, a bio-pic of artist  Vernon “Copy” Berg, the first officer to legally challenge the US military for anti-gay discrimination in 1975.  It’s adapted from the memoir Get Off My Ship: Ensign Berg v. the US Navy by E. Lawrence Gibson, Berg’s partner at the time.

I applied for this award because my wife told me about it and knows of my love of trains. In particular she learned about it not long after my second of three Washington Post’s On Faith section pieces came out in 2013 about a crazy, funny, spiritual experience I’d had aboard a commuter train, entitled “A Jewish-Hindu Connection.”  Also, when we first made the move to Philly from NYC for my wife’s career needs I was dreading the commute I’d have to make a few times a week only to find out it was a blessing in disguise. I get tons more writing done than I ever did before. I now actually look forward to my commutes two or three times a week, and I genuinely miss them between semesters when I’m not teaching part-time at my alma mater NYU Tisch School of the Arts (I also teach part time at Drexel University Westphal College of Media Arts & Design).

I have also enjoyed writers retreats in the past including Yaddo, which is haunted in more way than one.  So, applying for a writers residency where I could hole up and write for a week while feeling the rocking of a train beneath my feet was a joy for me.  I am the only dramatist among the 24 writers, so to all of you playwrights and screenwriters out there–I’m representin’.

I chose the California Zephyr because I wanted to pick a part of the country with which I’m least familiar.  The California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief became my first and second choices.  A ride through the Sierra Nevadas won out.

IMG_6883I was thrilled to learn that the private berth action starts as soon as I pull out of DC on the Capitol Limited which runs the route of the former B&O Railroad. It’s an historic route and it goes through Harpers Ferry, WV (formerly Virginia, my home state), a town I have visited often due to my love of history.  Many’s the time I’ve stood outside the small building that was the Federal arsenal that was seized in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of 20 followers including his son and five African-Americans. They holed up in the arsenal and I’m sure you know were thwarted by a detachment of US Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee, who hadn’t yet joined another armed insurrection called the Confederacy.  In 1865 as the Civil War ended, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry to educate recently freed slaves.

Years before John Brown’s raid and Storer College, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry and waited while a local iron worker created a collapsible canoe according to his specifications.  I don’t think it was ever used by the Corps of Discovery during their expedition (someone will surely confirm or correct me on this) but Lewis started out from here in 1803 in a Conestoga wagon following almost the exact same route that is now the train line. He  met up with Clark near Pittsburgh to continue their journey West.  I’ll be thinking of this as I roll up through western PA.20150313_172422-001Inevitably during my many strolls around this hilly town I’ve watched the trains pass just a stone’s throw from the arsenal and wished I could hop aboard one of them and head off into the forest.  I’m thrilled that this small moment, a whistle stop in Harpers Ferry, got to be part of my rolling retreat at about 5:15pm this evening.If only it were darker I’d also have my eyes peeled for Screaming Jenny, the flaming ghost said to haunt the tracks near Harpers Ferry.  According to legend she died in 1850 when her dress caught on fire while cooking and she ran screaming down the tracks in a panic.  Today she’s occasionally spotted by train personnel–so it’s claimed (rest assured I intend to query them)–as a screaming, burning woman running through the night who vanishes just as the train approaches her. I’ll report back with any updates.

IMG_6888ps – At dinner tonight I wound up talking shop with one Simon Tarr, a South Carolina-based independent filmmaker who teaches at the University of South Carolina, who was riding the Capitol Ltd. to get footage for an experimental film he’s making about his grandfather who grew up in western Pennsylvania and who was killed in World War II.  You can view some of his work here.  Good luck, Simon.

Thanks also to Capitol Limited staff Larry Picard and Kima for their kindness and help.