“Of all the animal kingdom only man can make this choice, can accept or reject the challenge.” (Gerald Ramsdell)

Rosenberg Archive
Past issues of Forum magazine can be found at CCSF’s Louise & Claude Rosenberg, Jr. Library, R335 (Archives).

The Measured Rail

by Gerald Ramsdell

The rhythmic clicking of the wheels as they moved across the space between each measured rail and the darkness of the tunnel through which the streetcar made its way contributed much of the material for the pattern into which my thoughts now arranged themselves, and I began to dream. It was no ordinary dream, no dream of childish hopes and fantasies, of futile wishes, but a process of reflective thought directed by my conscious mind, for I was awake.

The darkness of the tunnel was like the shroud of time immemorial that envelops each incident until the mind begins to doubt the reality of the incident. The car became the human, ever striving for the tunnel’s exit and the light. Behind lay centuries of living in filth and shame and war, enlightened by a few scattered periods of peace and happiness.

Ahead the cleansing light promised a chance for a new life. Then, as the car left the tunnel and my visual sense was assailed by the strength of the light, the car paused momentarily; a decision was reached, and a mechanical switch jerked the car to the right. Only to the right lay the challenge of the hill, of the new life. Of all the animal kingdom only man can make this choice, can accept or reject the challenge.

Now the streetcar began to climb. The power–electric power, utilized by man, controlled and yet, in part, controlling–that power surged into the motor and caused this machine, the streetcar, to move along those thin ribbons of steel. As it moved, so moved the human. Even the psychologist, with his explanation of behaviorism and stimulus and response, cannot fully explain the power that drives mankind ever upward along the path of life, guided by forces as set as those steel rails that guide the car.

The uphill movement of the car was interrupted by a level stretch. The streetcar paused. A passenger was discharged. As the car again commenced to climb, I thought of those individuals, peoples, and civilizations which have stepped from the vehicle of life as it rested momentarily on one of the numerous plateaus, and, too weary to mount again, have been left behind.

Now the car had gained the top of the hill, and my anticipation of the other side was rewarded only by the view. The hill, the challenge, was gone. Ahead lay only the downgrade, the gradual disintegration, the ultimate oblivion.

Then, as the sun began its final plunge and started to melt into the sea, the streetcar started the long, sloping, ever downhill road leading to the sea. Even as it did so, another car emerged from the tunnel’s womb.

“The Measured Rail,” by Gerald Ramsdell originally published in Forum (1948, City College of San Francisco).

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