By Einar Bohlin
The night we put a penny on the track a ghost train crawled by on the other side.
First we recovered the flattened penny two feet from where we had balanced it on the rail, then we turned to watch the rest of the train vanish past a viaduct and around a curve. A man sat on the back of the caboose smoking a pipe and waving at us. After we rubbed the smooth copper that once bore Lincoln’s face we heard the muffled roar of a diesel engine and lifted our heads in time to see its headlight sweep across four sets of steel tracks. The smell of burning coal from the first train’s locomotive still hung in the air. The diesel rolled toward us, but we knew the diesels pulled passenger cars and used the fourth track, farthest from where we stood. As the sleek diesel engine neared us we waved at the engineer but got no response. We studied that train, so slow and unlike the usual clean and shiny silver cars that flew by like arrows from Chicago’s center southward. Behind dirt-streaked and dimly lighted windows we saw only shapes of heads and shoulders, not the usual clear visions of what we thought must have been prosperous businessmen streaking by without so much as a glance from behind their newspapers.
We climbed down and raced to Bud’s house, where Bud’s father looked down at us and shook his head. “You two….” he said, trying but failing to look stern, “shouldn’t be up there.”
“We saw it from my house, my back window in the attic,” I said.
“Uh-huh,” said Bud’s father. “You probably saw a prison train.”
“Prison train?” we said in unison, lifting our eyes from the war we were waging with tiny metal tanks, cannons, and soldiers.
Mr. O’Brien held up his newspaper, turned the page, and folded it lengthwise, like men did on trains and streetcars so they read from a narrow strip and didn’t put their newspaper in front of the persons sitting beside them. He spoke to us from behind the Chicago Tribune. I looked at a Sear’s ad for paint on the back of his paper and listened.
“Article right here. The last of the krauts, the POW’s from the war.”
Bud parked a tank. We looked at each other, and he nodded toward his father.
“Mr. O’Brien,” I said, “what’s a kraut POW?”
Bud scrunched up his face and I shoved him. Mr. O’Brien put his newspaper on his lap, took his glasses off, and rubbed his eyes.
“Krauts. Germans. Prisoners of war. Hundreds of them penned up down in Southern Illinois somewhere in an Army camp. Says in the paper that most were sent back to Germany right after the war and some asked to stay in the U.S. Or maybe it was just a car going out to Joliet Prison.”
He returned to his newspaper and Bud and I didn’t need words to know what came next. We put away the miniature war machines and warriors in silence, slipped into our coats, and headed back to my house.
My back yard was three city blocks from Englewood Union Station at 63rd and State Street, where the tracks of the Pennsylvania crossed those of the New York Central and Rock Island railroads. Right in my back yard, at the same level as my second floor attic window, great, dark, mysterious, smoky, noisy steam and diesel locomotives pulled long, loaded, empty, brick red, weed green, and pee yellow boxcars, flatcars, hoppers, refrigerator cars, cabooses, and passenger cars resembling huge rolling cigars, with strips of light parallel to the tracks, and in the windows hats and heads bent low over newspapers and books, and sometimes faces staring blankly at the South Chicago bungalows whizzing by.
When we go to my attic window a Pennsy steamer, a genuine 4-10-4 mountain steam locomotive was stopped in its tracks right in our yard, sitting there blowing steam and whistling “Can I go now?” questions down toward the crossings at Englewood Union Station. Two men stood by the locomotive. One man took a few steps toward Englewood Union Station and motioned for the other one to follow. We watched them gesturing at each other. They looked like they were arguing, but we couldn’t hear them.
Bud leaned out into the chilly air and waved, but the two men began running and disappeared around a curve that took them behind some houses. The wind plastered Bud’s wispy brown hair flat on his head and slapped at the sleeves of his coat. He leaned so far out the window the frame made a cracking noise and I pulled him back inside. I often found myself trying to decide if Bud was more friend or more pest.
“Damn, Bud. You’ll break my window leaning out like that.”
“Let’s go,” he gushed, pointing at the train.
I held my finger to my lips, then pointed down to where my mother was cooking and all she had to do was look out the back window and see us up on those tracks and my room would become my prison for a week or two.
I pulled at Bud’s sleeve, held my finger against my lips and crept down the stairs with Bud right behind. At the bottom I twisted the doorknob with the care of a safecracker and eased it open enough for a ray of light to slide through. Bud lost his balance and we spilled into an empty kitchen. My mother’s cough came from the bathroom.
“Quick,” I whispered, returning my finger to my lips.
Once we were outside the noise from the locomotive more than covered the noise we made getting off the porch and running to the fence. We climbed the fence, then up on the shed, then up on the roadbed almost alongside the locomotive. We held our hands to our ears against steady roar of steam, and then I noticed the passenger car; dull, dirty brown, with dim lights struggling through windows streaked with grime. I had studied the big trains rumbling by in my back yard for years, and this was the first time I ever saw a steam engine pulling a passenger car. There it was: engine, tender, boxcar, passenger car, and a string of other freight cars that curved out of sight back toward 6oth Street.
I looked up at the little rectangle that was the engineer’s window, directly above us. The window was as empty as night. I took a few steps toward the rear of the train to get a better look inside the engineer’s cab but still saw no one. I thought Bud was right behind me, but he was grabbing for the ladder up to the engineer’s cab.
“Where are they?” Bud said. A cloud of steam came blasting out from somewhere in the front of the locomotive as Bud climbed up the ladder.
“Bud! Get back down here!” I yelled.
I scrambled to the bottom of the ladder. The steam cloud cleared and I watched the white bottoms of Bud’s black gym shoes take a last step and disappear at the top of the steel ladder. I grabbed the bottom rung but kept my feet on the gravel roadbed.
Bud’s head poked out of the engineer’s tiny window, a softball with hair and eyes.
“Two. Up here. On the floor,” he yelled.
“One of ‘em’s bleeding.”
I looked at my new watch thinking if I knew what time it was everything would be okay.
“Let’s get outta here!” I screamed.
Bud’s skinny rear end came out of the cab and began to come down. He missed a rung and fell on top of me and we crumpled to the ground. We sat up and looked at each other. A trickle of blood started at the end of his eyebrow and rolled down his cheek. He swiped at it with his sleeve.
“Somethin’s bad wrong up there,” Bud sputtered.
We got to our feet. Bud wobbled and I caught him. We were two steps from the edge of the roadbed, almost to where we could jump back down on the shed. My leg moved but something grabbed my coat and twisted me back around. I looked up. The two men wore gray sweatshirts and pants and black, clumsy-looking boots. Two thick bands of faded yellow wrapped around the legs and arms of the sweats. The one on the right was a foot taller than the other one. Both were stocky and I could tell they had short hair even though they wore dark watch caps pulled down to fit snug above their ears. Their faces made me think of a pair of thugs in a Superman comic book; scowling faces, unshaven, eyes like rats.
I remember feeling it was a good thing someone held me up by my coat because I was shaking so much I’m not sure I would have been able to stand. When I tried to turn to look at Bud I was jerked back to facing the two thugs. “Keep still,” one of them commanded, in a voice as rough as gravel.
The tall one leaned over and asked: “Is that your old man up there?” He pointed up to the cab of the locomotive.
“No sir.” If words could shake, they did then.
He looked toward Bud. “Yours?” Bud must have just shaken his head, because I heard no answer.
“What now?” the voice behind me shouted.
“Put ‘em on the train,” said the taller one. “We’ll toss ‘em out somewhere up ahead.”
They pushed us up in the grimy passenger car, threw us into seats across the aisle from each other nearest the door in front, toward the locomotive, then told us to shut up and sit still. As we were pushed inside I saw other men wearing the same kind of sweatshirts and sitting apart from one another, each at a window. A smell wafted through the car, reminding me of the time my father and I found a dead cat in the shed, another time I felt like I was going to throw up any second. I held my breath and sank back into the seat, keeping my head still but moving my eyes to see what I could see. A round mirror hung over the doorway. The mirror made everybody look small.
A new voice called out from a place farther away but still in the passenger car.
“What now, Jimmy?”
Gravel voice answered.
“Listen up, all of you. We got us a new engineer. Marlin. Marlin’ll take us on ahead where we can get off somewhere safe, where we won’t…..”
Another voice interrupted. “You kill anybody yet?”
Jimmy – Gravel voice – was still behind me. I could see the back of his head in the mirror. I could also make out the rest of the shapes inside the passenger car. The man who asked if anybody had been killed sat on the floor a few rows away. I could make out enough to see he was hurt. He wore a dark coat and hat pushed too far back on his head. The side of his face was smeared with blood.
“Not yet,” Jimmy said, and took two steps toward the man and hit him with something. The man fell sideways and his hat rolled away when his head hit the frame of the seat and then the floor. I hear his head hit twice. Thump. Thump.
“You want to be first?” Jimmy said, standing close to the man and looking down at him.
The clang of metal on metal made everyone look out their windows. The train lurched forward and Jimmy stumbled and fell to his knees. I jumped up and ran toward the door. I saw Bud behind me out of the corner of my eye. We reached the open doorway and I felt Bud fall against my leg. I turned just as his head bounced back from the steel railing and he dropped to the floor. I pulled at his coat and turned him over. The train was picking up speed and I heard shouting behind us. I had to move, get away. I pulled at Bud’s coat but as I jumped to the roadbed and sprawled on the rocks I felt his coat tear. I ignored my stinging hands and legs, got on my feet, and ran. I didn’t look back until there was half a city block between me and that passenger car. There was no sign of anyone coming after me. There was no sign of Bud, only the red lights on the back of the caboose getting smaller as the end of the train rolled away.
I ran two blocks along the stones, climbed down on the garage roof by Joe’s Grocery, jumped the familiar eight feet down into his back yard, and ran into the back of his store.
“Call the cops!” I yelled. “Bud’s been kidnapped!” I saw Joe look up from behind his counter. My breath came in gasps as I crashed into a display stack of Cheerios boxes and sent them flying across the wood floor. I sat up, cleared away a few boxes of Cheerios, and stared at the blood on my hand and the fingernails that were ripped away from the skin.
My mother arrived in a police car. I was sitting at Joe’s table, behind the counter and through a doorway. Joe had a little kitchen back there, and he fixed me up with Band-Aids, a warm washcloth, and a cold Pepsi.
She didn’t come into the back room right away, but shook her head and her finger at me through the doorway while she listened to Joe tell two cops what I’d said. Then she came in with one of the cops, the younger-looking one that looked like Jerry Gates, an older kid from the neighborhood. It was Jerry Gates!
She pulled out a chair and sat with her eyes locked on me. Gates squatted in front of my chair.
“You OK?” he said.
My mother fished a handkerchief from her purse. While I answered Gates’ questions he stared at the floor, wrote in a small notebook, and nodded every so often. When I got to the part about the man that was sitting on the floor, Gates asked me if I thought the man was all right.
“All right? The guy hit him with something and he fell over. The train started moving and I took off. I didn’t see him again.”
“And your friend Bud. You think he was right behind you but you didn’t see him after you started running?”
“How did you hurt your hand?”
“Guess I hit it on something.”
My mother squeezed her handkerchief and said: “I saw them up on the tracks from our back porch. I yelled at them to get down but the train made so much noise. I ran into the house to call the police.” She turned to me. “Maybe now you’ll listen, stay away from those tracks.”
I nodded, barely able to move my head it was so far down in my shoulders with the shame and embarrassment of it all.
The older cop held his hand over Joe’s phone and called to Gates to join him. The two cops whispered back and forth a few minutes, each taking a turn on the phone. They hung up and stood looking at me a moment, then motioned for my mother to join them and they walked away, to the main part of Joe’s store. I sat alone and watched their mouths move while I sipped my Pepsi.
After a few minutes my mother came back and sat down. She stared at the floor a while, then stood and came to me and pulled me up by the arms and hugged me. Through her sobs I heard the whistle of another train, felt the rumble come up through the wooden floorboards of Joe’s grocery as the locomotive roared across a viaduct. I looked around my mother’s side and watched the dull red diesels lumber by, followed by a string of passenger cars, their silver sides reflecting the scant light the night had to offer.
# # #
Though I live far away from the house in South Chicago where Bud and I climbed up on those tracks almost every day, I am haunted by trains. In my mind’s back yard a whistle blows and a great, dark mountain locomotive waits, hissing great billows of steam that disguise the train’s shape while railroad men squint down at their pocket watches and up and the lights down the track. And I am bigger and stronger and I carry Bud from that passenger car as easily as I had pulled him away from my attic window.
Not long ago I took my two sons on a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia and back. We found our seats and I made them look out the window and listen to me ramble about semaphores and sidings, roundhouses and turntables, Y-turns and switch engines. I’m fairly certain my words didn’t penetrate that fortress of MTV, video games, and the Redskins. After a while I gave up and led by example, looking out the window at piles of crushed cars, buildings with missing walls, skinny dogs sniffing at garbage cans that overflowed. The gleaming Amtrak trains sped along at ground level, and I looked up into occasional attic windows searching for boys waving at trains; but saw none.
I turned from train window memories and ghosts to my very real sons. David held an electronic game and pushed the buttons. Ted made suggestions and snorted when his older brother paid no attention to him and his electronic warrior was defeated.
A huge part of me wanted to hug my sons and tell them about my friend Bud, but another instinct won out. I was already haunted by trains and did not want to be haunted by questions a father could not answer.
# # #