Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christmas Story #2 - Gandydancer


Charles began his railroad career as a navvy, serving on crews that laid and maintained tracks. He built a solid reputation over fifty years as a brakeman, conductor, fireman and finally engineer.

The job demanded much of his family, moving frequently to find jobs. As rails were gradually converted to trails it seemed as if he might outlive his usefulness, but Michigan proved to be a good place to prepare for retirement at a slower pace, on a scenic run.

His habit of inspecting the train he was assigned to drive was rooted in his earlier days. He reviewed track conditions, equipment history and weather reports before boarding each locomotive. Thus, he knew that trains on the trestle over the falls near Marquette were limited to 15 miles per hour.
The Christmas Eve run was the last before the three-day holiday. Twenty flatcars loaded with timber were bound for the sawmill.

“You doing ok Charles?” asked Russell, the fireman on this run. “Baker said he’d take it for you.”
“Thanks Russ, no, the work keeps my mind…you know.” Charles looked away, toward the controls and past an assortment of dangling memorabilia. They were deteriorating with age but lovingly protected – a gold medal from a girl’s softball competition, tiny pink ballerina shoes, a trophy for the “world’s best dad.” The train’s headlights illuminated gently falling snow.

Charles turned back to Russell, misty eyed, and spoke softly, “When my wife died I didn’t think I’d make it. I know better now. But Connie and my daughter looked so much alike. It was like losing her twice.”

Russell nodded and took his seat in the cab. He turned on the radio to break the awkward silence. Delilah’s Christmas show was on 101.9. He reached to quickly change the station. Charles grabbed his hand.

“That’s ok. She’d like this,” he whispered and looked through the windshield. “The snow is pretty.”
Darkness fell as the freight pulled away from four trackside loaders, two hundred tons of logs straining behind the engine, the clanking of massive iron couplings challenging each subsequent car, a screeching cascade echoing into the distance.

It wasn’t a long run, perhaps ninety minutes, mostly a slow meandering through hills and forest, passing over a trestle at Dead River falls. It was picturesque by day and serene at night.

Forty minutes passed as the train gradually gained speed and established momentum. A red light on the control board indicated a pressure problem in a brake line, possibly in the caboose.
“Can you check on that Russ?” Charles asked casually.

“Will do,” replied Russell. Conversation with the Senior Engineer had been forced and somewhat uncomfortable. He welcomed the break.

Charles waited a few minutes, then flipped off the false warning light. He locked the throttle, then headed to the back of the cab. A second set of controls allowed him to hydraulically uncouple the next car, an emergency procedure that required a keyed override.

Russell felt a jolt and minor deceleration, but wrote it off to an expected incline, and continued on his way to the Caboose.

The plan had been forming in Charles’ mind since the funeral. He didn’t want anyone else hurt, but wanted to stop the pain that was growing more unbearable with each passing day. Christmas approached like a dark and endless tunnel.

Dead River was two miles ahead. The irony of the name was not lost on him. He knew that an eighty-ton locomotive, fully fueled, would derail at speeds in excess of forty miles per hour. A ninety-foot fall and the ensuing explosion would be hidden by the surrounding hills and quickly be extinguished by the falls.

He pushed the throttle forward, clutched a handful of prized mementos to his chest, closed his eyes and prayed silently as the unburdened locomotive quickly gained speed.





Saturday, November 24, 2012

Christmas Story #1 - 1899


Peter Cratchit stood graveside on a bitter mid-December morning. To say that the sky was dreary or gray would be understating its dismal nature, in the way ashes from a burnt log could be more pleasantly described as fluffy flakes of oxidized wood. The sky was charred, and icy pellets stung the faces of mourners who struggled to shield themselves with cloaks and umbrellas from the sideward wind.

The timid patriarch of the Cratchit clan died at home surrounded by his large and loving family. It was true that Bob was adored throughout his life, an object of sympathy from all who witnessed his servile existence at the hands of that man. Ninety-two years, not a minute of which could be characterized as easy, was the reward in this world for a humble man who showed only love, the simplest of men who lived and died in Camden Town.

It was also true that Scrooge was a man remade. Peter benefitted greatly as his apprentice, as did the entire Cratchit family. But those who knew him most intimately, in the context of a counting house, and under duress in a business transaction, spoke in hushed tones of the old one as if speaking the name might reinstate the curse and darkness of prior times in his company.

And in fact, Peters own son and namesake had suffered greatly. The third generation in the Cratchit lineage loitered silently in the presence of a father otherwise occupied, whose dilated pupils revealed a defective clocklike inner preoccupation, the greed that had driven Ebenezer mad.

But somehow, the grandson was possessed of Bob Cratchits kindness, perhaps the way a beaten dog grows more loving in response to its masters disaffection.

Peter the younger was staring out the window contemplating the approaching turn of the century and enjoying a gently falling snow when his housekeeper quietly knocked on his office door and presented him with a steaming pot of Earl Grey.

Sorry sir. Not meaning to intrude. A holiday solicitor wishes to see you. Should I bring him in or do you wish to remain alone?

He paused, turning in his chair to face the servant squarely and consider her words, so haunting and familiar. He opened the side drawer of his ancient desk, a relic from the offices of Scrooge and Marley. He reached into a cash box and brushed his hands against an ugly corroded knocker, a reminder from Scrooges door.

No, It is Christmas, Carol, he said handing her a generous donation. Give him this with my best wishes.

He hesitated and reached for the drawer a second time, closing it with a shudder.

And please tell him I wish to remain anonymous.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

50 Years Later


Dinner dishes were carried to the sink as night fell on the evening of October 20th, 1962. My eighth birthday a month earlier was a distant memory. The coziness and warmth of our kitchen provided false security against the drama unfolding on the world stage. I played on red and white checkered linoleum with a toy truck while my parents sat transfixed by a radio address to the nation.
It was not unusual for my parents to linger in the kitchen for a while after dinner. They typically smoked cigarettes and shared stories of their day. There was frequently a cup of coffee or glass of wine to prolong the pleasant experience. Our togetherness was a comfortable blanket in an insular space. Television was not yet the irresistible force drawing us to another room that it is today. The 1960s had not yet erupted into the volatile mess we now remember. But that was about to change.
All networks carried President Kennedy’s address to the nation that evening. A crisis was brewing in Cuba. In his speech, the American people were told of a Soviet build-up of missiles ninety miles from our Florida shore. He commented that the "purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere."
The generation of parents raising children in the 60s had clear memories of World War II and the subsequent chill of a nuclear threat. Some of us practiced futile exercises in grade school, ducking and covering under desks and in hallways, as if a nuclear explosion would blow over like a thunderstorm. Others buried shelters in their back yards. The threat bonded us against a common enemy, but riddled our culture with an anxiety and feeling of helplessness that tarnished our otherwise good times.
The President continued, "Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift that any substantially increased possibility of their use, or any sudden change in their deployment, may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace."
"We will not...risk the course of worldwide nuclear war...but neither will we shrink from that risk.”
I looked up from floor-level at the frightened faces of my parents, who stared at the radio and hung on every word.
“Is there gonna be a war?” I asked.
“We don’t know honey. Let’s listen,” said my mother.
Kennedy then announced a naval blockade, a quarantine of all ships carrying offensive military equipment to Cuba. The United States increased close surveillance of the military build-up in Cuba with a promise of action by the Armed Forces should it continue.
“Any nuclear weapon launched from Cuba will be considered an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response,” concluded the President.

Kennedy then phoned Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to halt this "reckless threat to world peace." The Soviets called on the world to "prevent the United States ... from unleashing a thermonuclear war..."

After his speech, the President moved the military alert to DEFCON 3, and Cuba began to mobilize its troops. I played with my truck on the floor.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fear of the Known


More than 15,000 home fires are started by dryer fires every year, usually from lint build-up, but few people are aware of this danger in their home. Tornadoes and black ice are another issue altogether.



“Get to the basement!”

Kurt captained his family to safety, wedging them in the southwest basement corner under blankets and an upended mattress.

Out of the southwest sky snaked five black vortices, tearing homes from foundations in a sinister hula as they lunged relentlessly closer to the Lindstrom’s fragile house.

 “I’ll be right back,” he shouted over the growling roar of the approaching storm.

“Kurt, NO!” cried Mary.

“Daddy!” pleaded the kids, trembling and tearful.

Kurt bounded heroically up the fourteen basement stairs, ducked into the living room and breathlessly crouched for an unobstructed view out the west-facing bay window. The sky was black. No, worse than black, it was swirling green and brown. Crackling spears of lightning shattered trees and limbs, flash-bulbing the scene in blinding stop-action images.

Two of the twisters were on course for a direct hit. One lifted off the ground two blocks away and paused, roiling with intent, seeking a target, and seemingly on a mission to strike out at Kurt Lindstrom with the full fury of its destructive wrath.

The funnel accelerated and dove.

Kurt gasped for air, sat upright like a spasming corpse and lunged forward, pulling the covers from Mary who slept quietly beside him. Morning had broken. Kurt sat panting.

*****

The day began as usual, brushing teeth and shaving. News radio 780 announced the first February forecast, a blizzard watch on the eve of Groundhog Day.

Kurt plugged in the gutter cables to prevent icicle formation on the overhang near the front door. After all, his grandfather had reportedly been killed by falling chunks of ice in the 1930s. Best not to take a chance.

Kurt busied himself where he could see Mary disappear into the bathroom for her morning shower, then scurried to the laundry room where he heard the dryer cycling through a load of wet towels. Mary had started the dryer moments earlier. A mild whistle emanated from the lint screen, a warning that the trap needed cleaning.

Kurt planned to pull the long screen from the top of the machine, scrape away a thick sleeve of soft warm fiber and toss it into the trash. He would have to be careful not to make much noise, easing the screen back into the whirring device where it would invariably dislodge crumbs of lint and dirt. They would rattle into the exhaust tube and travel most of the distance to the outside of the house behind the evergreens near the front door.

As he reached across the top of the dryer, Kurt flinched at the sound of gently padding bare feet and the peripheral awareness of a spectator in the utility room.

“What are you doing?”

Mary wore a towel on her head, a blue bathrobe and a look of disgust.

“I’d rather not say,” said Kurt.

“You were cleaning my lint screen again, weren’t you?”

“No. I mean, yeah,” he stammered. “There are fifteen thousand dryer lint fires every year, Mary, we have to…”

Mary sighed, turned and headed back to the bathroom. It wasn’t worth an argument this early in the morning.

*****

Kurt was first to leave the house for work, energized by thoughts of the approaching blizzard.

“Make sure you have a snow brush. Leave your wiper blades up, and take it slow.”

“I know Kurt. I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life.”

“Ok, have a good one,” said Kurt as he watched Mary drive away. Glancing up at the gutters, he turned and stepped with a lively stride onto the front walk. In less than the span of one second, Kurt’s entire weight turned ninety degrees, elevated upward with the rotational force of his pace, and left his body descending at near terminal velocity straight down onto the asphalt driveway. The impact of the fall was absorbed and spread throughout his frame, limiting damage to a bump on the back of his head and a scraped elbow.

“Black ice” groaned Kurt, gazing skyward, his arms splayed Christ-like at his sides.

Kurt edited his mental checklist, gathered his briefcase and snow-brush and carefully shuffled toward the car. To his right the flapping dryer vent behind the evergreens emitted a small swirling curl of black smoke.

“Need to get some ice-melt,” thought Kurt as he slammed the car door and headed to work.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Iced


A previous 24-hour writing contest submission.

**********

Marty headed out the back door with Hershey’s leash and collar.
“I’ll get your dog,” he shouted to Jess as the storm door screeched and slammed behind him in protest to the metal-warping cold.
The temperature had dropped more than seventy degrees since a frontal passage the day before. Half a foot of rain flooded and then flash-froze the acreage behind the farmhouse. Hidden beneath a silent sheet of endless blue glass, fallow fields kicked up glare from the waning January sun.
“Just perfect,” Marty said in a disgusted burst of steamy breath.
The river was over its banks, indistinguishable from the ice-covered land, but rushing beneath its solid surface was a torrent of muddy water, overflowing Wilke’s dam about a hundred yards upstream.
Marty walked cautiously over the rapidly thickening new ice. Thunderous cracks echoed beneath his feet as the shifting surface settled and groaned. He glanced at the growing logjam building behind the dam. Broken branches from yesterday’s storm and mounting ice floes combined in a powerful trail mix of inertial mass.
“That won’t hold for long,” he muttered, nervously continuing his search for the dog.
“HERSHEY!” he called angrily as he neared the perimeter of their property, thickly wooded where the farm’s fields ended abruptly. He pocketed the dog’s wireless collar and pulled his red plaid coat up against his neck. He felt the cold steel of his hunting knife against his ribs despite an intervening flannel shirt, strapped in a leather sheath under his down vest. He knew to layer in this weather, and to be prepared.
“Global warming, my ass,” he shook his head and continued on.

It had been over an hour since Marty left to search for the dog. Neighbors had grown used to Hershey’s frequent escapes and usually called Jess before Marty found out, but the phones and power had been out since the storm.
“I should have put the collar on,” Jess said to herself, and knew Marty was angry at this latest oversight. Given the expense of an invisible fence, he insisted she could at least remember to use the damn thing.
“Besides, that’s for city dogs” he protested.
Hershey was intended to be an outdoor dog, a hunting companion, but Jess pampered him, trained the instincts out of him, and now she worried about his ability to survive in the frigid cold.
The glaring sun stood in stark contrast to the darkness of the house. As sunset neared, Jess fumbled with the heavy fireplace tongs and awkwardly positioning another large log on the fire, another point of contention between the country husband and city wife. He always kept the house so cold. She reluctantly put on her parka and boots and went outside.
“Nose hair cold,” she gasped at the stinging air and began to breath through her mouth.
Jess stepped onto the ice, which stretched to the horizon. She shielded her eyes, searching.
         “MARTY! HERSHEY!” she yelled as loudly as she could, shivering violently as the distance between her and the farmhouse grew.
There was no response, just the sound of the dam in the distance, and the cracking of the ice under her feet.
As the sun dipped below the perimeter of trees, the shifting light revealed a large shape in the distance, laying motionless on the surface of the ice. She dared not run, but quickened her pace, straining to see.
Several dozen short steps, frenzied to find her husband and dog, frantic to get out of the numbing cold, Jess stopped and tensed.
“Marty!” she yelled as she skidded the remaining yards toward Marty’s red plaid coat.
A light snow began as darkness fell. Jess dropped to her knees, her lips trembling. The ice around the coat was red and glistening. A dog howled in the distance, and then another.
Desperately clawing with unfeeling hands at the frozen coat, she peeled it from the ice and looked beneath.
Jess sobbed uncontrollably on her hands and knees, no longer aware of the piercing pain and electric cold.
“Oh, Hershey!” she cried, vomiting on the ice and wildly glancing around her for help or for some kind of explanation.
“Marty?” she whimpered, pleaded.
Through a cascade of tears that froze almost instantly on her lashes, Jess spotted several shapes moving in a circle around her, closing the distance between the edge of the woods in a carefully orchestrated attack on her and the lifeless shape of her butchered, beloved dog. She screamed.

Marty washed congealed blood from the polished blade of his bowie knife in the kitchen sink. He heard Jess scream. Putting a kettle on the stove to boil, he glanced at the clock, and then at the leash and collar on the table. Night was falling. Wolves were howling. He knew it wouldn’t be long before Wilke’s dam burst under the pressure of the logjam. A cleansing rush of ice and frigid water would soon scour the land. All that was left unfinished would be swept away to nourish the land, the crops and the birds that fed in springtime.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Journey


Twenty years ago we hoped for a convenient place to buy diapers for our children, but they were not carried at The Store Nextdoor near our home in Lincolnshire. My kids were not yet interested in cigarettes or beer.

It is said that the journey is the reward. So the other day we headed west from Oxford along the brick path on the south side of Half Day Road. Our goal was a restaurant in Lincolnshire’s local downtown. Forgetting that the walkway is not part of the extensive network of Lincolnshire bike paths, we doubled back and crossed at the light by the tennis club. It was a delightful stroll over “big red,” the rusty, bouncy bridge, through the fearful forest, past the land of empty eateries to the corner of Milwaukee and Olde Half Day roads. In the distance lay an oasis now crammed full of tasty destinations. But first we had to cross an intersection where you had best not attempt a right-on-red or exceed the speed limits imposed by the Vernon Hills horsemen of the apocalypse.

One challenge remained. We just had to cross that old horse trail, Milwaukee Avenue…on foot. To the left is Walgreens. We drive there. Diagonally are the vestiges of another era, and behold, a new place to buy beer and cigarettes. Oh, how I miss the simple and somewhat disgusting, family-friendly Denny’s, Tacos del Rey and The Italian Connection. At least we still have a couple of favorite places where the sulfurous well-water is reminiscent of the beloved Half Day Inn.

We had a bite to eat at Tom and Eddies, where the plates are very large, and then began the journey home. Perhaps there was a better route.

Along the south side of Half Day Road, there is a path from Barclay Boulevard to the Des Plaines River Trail that ends across from the Village Hall, I guess because everybody walks to Village Hall from the west side of the village. The path then returns to the north side, east of the Village Hall after crossing the lightly traveled Route 22, and the absolutely rural Olde Half Day Road. The spelling of “Olde” makes it easier to cross, I think.

Remaining on the south side of the road would result in an interesting opportunity to collect golf balls, and the adventure of a river crossing, since there is no southern bridge to connect the east/west trails.

Should we be so inclined, paths on both sides of Route 22 extend from Oxford Drive to the east Village limits at the Tristate carriageway, where the path connects to the Village of Bannockburn's path system. Respirators and bright orange safety vests are recommended. Fortunately, we turn at Oxford.

The late Stephen Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind.” If that’s the case, is the desire to be upscale in Lincolnshire at odds with the need to be down to earth? Are we simply the longstanding victims of a sordid string of bankruptcies, bad timing and misplaced restaurants? What do we want to be, now that we’ve grown up? Quaint? Charming? Pastoral? Or did we miss that boat?

So, the journey continues, and we are super-excited to see bulldozers on the future site of an upscale grocery store at the much-improved corner of Milwaukee and Route 22 that features a winding rivulet and two giant cell towers. It remains to be seen what we can purchase there, but for now we can at least buy diapers at Walgreens. For our grandchildren.