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Original Issue

All aboard for a peek at sport

Freedom Train, which features a sports car, is chugging the rails

Charlie Topper ofOgden, Utah is a red, white and blue American. He not only knows the words tothe national anthem, but sings them on appropriate occasions. His idea ofnatural beauty is those American flags over yonder that frame the snowy WasatchMountains and blow against the postcard blue of the Utah sky.

So Charlie looksand feels in his element as he walks down the ramp leading from the red, whiteand blue American Freedom Train—10 cars of exhibits lauding America's past. Thetrain is nomading its way about the country these days as a principal thread inthe Bicentennial quilt.

One car is devotedentirely to sports, and Charlie likes it a lot. Why? "I think everyone canvisualize himself holding that Hank Aaron bat and dream of hitting those homeruns," he says. "Besides, I'm a sentimentalist. I get tears in my eyeslooking at this kind of stuff." And in fact Charlie's tear ducts do lookready to respond.

Another trainvisitor, Richard Clayton of Logan, Utah gives the sports car high marks andsniffs at the observation that devoting an entire car to sports might beexcessive. He comments, "Sports are a big part of the American heritage.Once you've worked hard, you play hard." Norman Evans, a Brigham YoungUniversity student, thinks that "sports bring out the true American spirit,of responding to challenge, and it is competition that makes us great."

The train isscheduled to make its last appearance in Miami next December after 21 months,$17.5 million in expenses, 17,000 miles, and stops in more than 115 cities inthe 48 contiguous states. By then, an estimated eight million people will havepaid $2 each (kids and old folks $1) to stand on a conveyor belt and be whiskedthrough America's first 200 years in 22 minutes.

Sara Wolf, curatorof the exhibit, says of the sports car, "It's sort of everybody's favorite.They don't learn anything but they have fun and see things they like." Wolfis perhaps too harsh on her own exhibits. It is true, of course, that you don'tlearn much staring at a shirt worn by former National Basketball Associationofficial Mendy Rudolph. But for a generation of kids who assume that plasticwas here before the Indians, there is much to be said for the presence of theold leather football helmet. And maybe the Cherokee lacrosse stick is similarlyeducational.

The sports car isglittery, garish, chaotic, showy. Which puts it in step with sport. Elsewherein the train is a quotation from Andrew Wyeth: "I want to show Americanswhat America is like." The sports car helps do that.

In a bit less thantwo minutes' gliding past 60 sports artifacts and a montage of pictures andsounds, much will be missed—like the Chris Evert tennis racket just as youenter, since at that moment you'll be trying not to fall down on the conveyorbelt. There are Jim Thorpe's medals, Gale Sayers' No. 40 jersey, the HeismanTrophy won by Leon Hart, a Larry Mahan belt buckle and those funny-lookingshoes that gave grip to the feet below Elroy Hirsch's crazy legs.

There are theOakland A's championship trophy from 1973, caps worn by Johnny Bench and WillieMays, a picture of Intrepid hidden by A.J. Foyt's helmet and a pair of JoeFrazier's trunks that have the style and shape of a pup tent. There is a boxingfilm being shown on television screens, but you will not come close to seeingit all, because by the time the film is finished, you will be out of the sportscar and well into the performing-arts car admiring a hat that Mary Pickfordwore in The Taming of the Shrew in 1929.

That's the rub;once a visitor sets foot on the conveyor belt, there is no chance of gettingoff. As you move along you get an informational overload, and there is no wayto pause and organize your head as you can in a museum. Charles E. Aly, boss ofthe train, says the belt originally was set at 42 feet per minute, "butafter three reports of whiplash, we slowed it to 36 feet." The latestreduction to a still quick 33 feet is it, says Aly. Running the belt anyslower, he contends, would mean waiting lines of intolerable length.

Still being stungby complaints that a visit to the train is mostly a blur at 33 per, a trainofficial posted a memo for the train's employees: "We are not a museum. Weare trying to present the growth of our country over a 200-year period andtherefore we are an 'experience' rather than a museum." Says Aly,"We're an impression."

And the impressionin the sports car is of a lot of excitement generated by many athletes, ofextraordinary performance under pressure, of Americans who done good. In thosemoments on the conveyor belt, the sports car does better than any of the othersin generating a feel for who we were and who we are.

According to trainofficials, the sports car also has the best-remembered item of all: the size 20shoe of Detroit Piston star Bob Lanier. It certainly leads the train in beingpointed at. An old lady in a flowery dress is aghast as she points and says,"Are there really people with feet that big?" For years Lanier hatedeveryone looking down at his feet instead of up at his talent. Now he seemsable to handle it: his personal stationery has a big foot on it.

The No. 2 sportsattraction is the bat Aaron used to hit his 714th home run—the one that tiedBabe Ruth's record—and the ball that took the trip. Fahy Robinson Jr., 18,talks glowingly of seeing the Aaron treasures: "You watch on TV and itseems so far from reality. You see up close yourself and that makes itreal."

Nikki Longworthhelped collect the sports artifacts, and she admits the train people would havepreferred the 715 bat and ball, which were not available. But that is a minordisappointment. A major one is that Ruth is represented only by a film clip.Train staffers say the baseball Hall of Fame wouldn't part with anything. Thedirector at Cooperstown, Ken Smith, says that's not true: "They asked forRuth's locker and we said no. Then they never asked for anything else." Thetrain's designer, Barry Howard of Scarsdale, N.Y., says, "I don't want tosay the various halls of fame were uncooperative. Let's just say they wereskeptical."

Muhammad Ali isrepresented only by his mouth via tape recording. Joe Louis kept promising tosend a pair of boxing gloves, and Bear Bryant did the same with a hat, butneither item was there when the train pulled out of Alexandria, Va. last Marchat the start of a journey that had been nearly aborted more than once.

Freedom Train wasconceived in 1969 by a New York commodities broker, Ross Rowland, who lovestrains and the chance to play engineer. There is $250,000 of Rowland's ownmoney in the project, but not one federal dollar. Says Rowland, "I called ameeting to see what people thought of my idea. Of the 812 who came, 811 said Iwas nuts. It was then I knew I was on the right track." The AmericanFreedom Train Foundation was formed, but it developed the alarming habit ofgoing broke routinely.

When the ideaseemed hopelessly derailed financially, Rowland caught the attention of thewheels at Pepsi-Cola. They kicked in $1 million; three other corporations(Kraft, GM and Prudential) were cajoled into doing likewise; so was an oilcompany that prefers anonymity. Suddenly, Rowland was able to say, "Allaboard." Petr Spurney, president of the Freedom Train Foundation, crows,"We're the only Bicentennial box-office smash." And while the projectlikely will finish in the red with a deficit of $1.5 million, it is attractingan average of 13,500 visitors a day (capacity is 16,500 in a normal 14-hourday), and Spurney says, "Any businessman would love to be operatinganything at 80% capacity like we are."

"Sports arethe third most important subject in the United States," says Rowland,"behind sex and religion." The train has no sex or religion car. Itdoes, however, have cars focusing on exploration, growth, innovations and finearts. "Women say they like the fine-arts car best," says Aly,"because they think they should. Men say they like the sports car becausethey think they should."

"I would hopethe sports car would generate questions," Spurney says. "Are weapproaching sport the way we should be? Do we have our sense of prioritiesright?" Aly says, "We want people to feel pride in America when they gothrough this train, but we want to leave them with one basic question: Where dowe go from here?"

One visitor thinksa good place would be to Pittsburgh, to pick up something belonging to theSteelers' Franco Harris. "Can you imagine," he snorts, "havingnothing here from Harris!"

The train has hadits moments. It hit a dump truck in Nebraska, an antelope in Wyoming and delaysin Omaha, where it needed extensive repair. Engineer Doyle McCormack says,"This isn't just a bunch of junk in a museum in Washington that most peopleare never gonna see. We're stopping within an hour's drive of 90% of the totalpopulation of this country. There is too much negative news. This ispositive."

That is sentimentright down Charlie Topper's tracks.