Is Your Lantern Lit?

Some of you may know about a small bridge that stretches between the Bronx and Manhattan. It is called the Spuyten Duyvel bridge. This bridge receives trains coming up from Westchester that cross it and ride down the Hudson to lower Manhattan. What is special about the bridge is that it is constantly opening and closing in order to allow ships, large and small, to circle Manhattan.

During high school I spent a lot of time in the magical area of overgrown grass, abandoned railroad cars, and open space between the banks of the Hudson and the train station. It was there and then that I first heard the legend of the great crash. It goes somewhat like this:

In 1904, a train was coming up from Westchester, wanting to cross the bridge. In those days, there would be a lantern swinger who stood at the bridge to let the train know if it could pass. When he heard the call of the train's whistle he would swing his lantern if the bridge was up. If the lantern was not swung, the conductor would understand that the bridge was down and safe for passage.

Early one Friday morning at about 3 a.m., a train crashed into the water. It was a serious accident, a great tragedy, and of course everyone wanted to know who was responsible. Suspicion naturally fell on the lantern swinger. After all, he was the one responsible for swinging his lantern if the bridge was up and could not be crossed. He, however, protested his innocence with such vigor that the case, which had in the meantime been brought to court, could not be decided.

After six months of hung juries, his lawyer in a dramatic break from courtroom practice at the time decided to call the lantern swinger to the stand.

"What is your name?" the bailiff asked.

"Mr. Lantern Swinger," he responded with alacrity.

"Where were you early on the Friday morning in question?"

"At my post," he responded calmly.

"Did you see the oncoming train?"

"Yes I did."

"Were you inebriated?"

"No sir, I never drink."

"Then tell the court what happened when you saw the oncoming train. Did you or didn't you swing your lantern?" A hush fell over the courtroom . . . Only the sound of baited breath and reporters' pencils were faintly heard.

And strangely, strangely, the lantern swinger, who had been fully poised, began to stutter . . .

"Yyy . . . ye . . . yes. I d-d-d-did swing the lantern," he finally blurted out.

Although the jury did not know what to make of his stutter, they believed him. He was acquitted. However, as the last person filed out of the courtroom, and the defense attorney was left alone with his client, he exploded.

"I've been defending you for six months!! I've worked day and night! I've barely seen my wife and kids. You told me you were innocent. Why the stutter of a guilty man?"

The lantern swinger looked sadly at his attorney. "You asked me the wrong question," he said. "You asked if I swung my lantern. You forgot to ask if the lantern was lit."

We live in age of competence and skill. We are well trained in our chosen fields. We have read all the books on parenting. Plumber, Professional, Mother, Worker, Sales and Marketing, or Computers—we know what we're doing. We are good managers of ourselves. We manage our time; we are even taught how to manage our relationships. We are experts at swinging the lantern. We know at just what angle to swing it, we know how to hold it and what kind of material it should be made from.

We forget however that for the lantern to respond to the call of the train's whistle the lantern must be lit.

Yes, we know how to go through the motions of living and even of loving. We have fun, make money, make love, raise families, go to church, go to therapists, frequent seminars, read literature of self-development. After all is said and done however there is only one essential question: Is your lantern lit?

9/7/2011 4:00:00 AM
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