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Learning things gives life a lot of meaning

In 1961 I was a junior in college, still a full year away from a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. But I was very lucky; 1961 was also the year Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey was published, and all my teachers recognized at once, and said at once, that this was a masterful translation not likely to be matched by any other in their lifetime.

And now mine.

It is still called “the best, and best-loved” translation of this epic Greek poem in the world. I still have my copy of the one I bought in 1961, now nearly 60 years old.

About a decade before that, there was a very popular afternoon TV show called “Welcome Traveler.” Perhaps it was “Travelers”. I don’t remember. But the voices of the hosts were mesmerizing as they welcomed and interviewed disembarking guests from trains like the Panama (or Sunset) Limited. They were genuine conversations with travelers about their “odyssey.” I think that was my first familiarity with that word. Ten years later, I was majoring in it.

I’m not sure why, but I genuinely fear young people no longer learn things that way; no longer “know” them that way.

The reason I’m writing about it today is that it provided me both a reference and a sustaining cultural base for a lot that I still treasure today. I’m not at all certain that it’s still present or part of the education that young people are receiving today.

A few years later, I was still young, but sufficiently old enough to lawfully patronize a place in Chicago called “The Gate of Horn.” It’s now a parking lot. But in that magic, all my fellow English majors and I knew from Homer’s Odyssey that there were two gates through which all dreams would pass. The Gate of Ivory was the deceptive one; the one that lied. But the Gate of Horn was the one where dreams came true. I only knew those things because I majored in English — and accompanying Greek epics. But they have been rivers of access, of learning, and culture all these years since. I can’t dislodge from them.

When Arlo Guthrie first recorded “City of New Orleans,” I thought he had rediscovered some ancient, plaintive tune long lost and since revived. I had no idea that that haunting melody and all those evocative words and phrasings were the work of a contemporary of mine, actually eight years younger than me, and born in Chicago where I lived.

I’ve flown far more than I have ridden trains. But any kind of travel even now elicits that song for me and another way to understand an odyssey. 


Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,                                                                             

Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail

All along the southbound odyssey,                                                                                                    

The train pulls out at Kankakee

Rolls along past houses, farms and fields,                                                           

Passin’ trains that have no names

Freight yards full of old black men,

And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles…


Learning things gives life a lot of meaning. It began for many of us with Homer’s Odyssey and Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.


Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.