Sentinel at the Railway Tracks
It was time for the 4 o’clock train to pull in. Bud was standing alone at the railway tracks, patiently awaiting his younger brother’s arrival on the train. Snow was falling and the northern Canadian wind blew down the barren streets of Eagle River. The cold nimbostratus clouds hung over the town, while at the same time occluding the sun’s warm rays.
There was not much happening in town today—deader than a doornail—just the usual two or three cars this Monday afternoon. A few people were bustling in and out of Trigg’s Supermarket, dodging the cold, while Bud stared resolutely down the tracks. His mind drifted back to when he was eight years old and John, the brother he was anticipating, walked him to kindergarten.
Though John was a year younger than Bud, he was in first grade and said kindergarten was as easy as eating a slice of blueberry pie! Bud was terrified of going to school, but everyday John would walk him a block closer and explain to him how exciting it was going to be. The kindergarten had swings outside and inside was Ms. Macy, who had been there longer than the fir trees in the forest. She was a sweet, grandmotherly type teacher, who loved the younger children. Often she would bake homemade chocolate chip cookies for the kids! Bud smiled thinking about the cookies. How he wished he had one of those crunchy cookies now!
In the far distance, if he stretched his ear, he could hear the faint sound of the Chicago & North Western’s whistle penetrate the stillness of the day. With the air carrying ice chips on its tongue and the atmosphere so crisp you felt you could bite it, the lonesome yet steady song of the whistle could be heard, though it was still forty miles away. Soon John would be home! He couldn’t wait!
Maybe John would take him out on the snowmobile track just as he had two years ago, before he left for the Army. Bud didn’t have many friends, but John always included him and treated him just like one of the guys. Bud was twenty-two but could not think like a twenty-two year old. His Baptismal name was Robert and he was sometimes called Bob, while his parents affectionately referred to him as the “Golden Boy,” because he always wore a smile on his face that glowed like the sun while John called him, “Bud”—because he and Bud were best buddies.
Yup, he and John were Buds! The last time they were snowmobiling they ended up going through the thin sheet of ice on Deer Skin Creek! Yeah, Mom and Dad were not too happy about that! Even though their sheep-furred lined boots were laced with ice and their socks were as stiff as hard nails, they had a glorious time, traveling 55 miles per hour through Nicolet National Forest. The spotted a few deer along the way, and John said that when he returned from the Army he was going to teach Bud how to hunt.
“Just imagine!” thought Bud to himself, “I’ll be a real deer hunter.”
Bud had been standing at the tracks since early morning. He had heard his parents whispering in the kitchen that John would be arriving on the 4 o’clock train. He was so anxious now knowing that John was coming home, that he left the house without a word to anyone and went straight to the railway tracks!
The cold, winter wind streamed down the tracks rather briskly, as Bud tightened the knitted scarf around his neck and pulled the cap with flapping earlids around his head.
He remembered John leaving on the train two years ago. The army had sent him to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for his basic training and after six months, he was sent to Vietnam. He had gone though basic training without a hitch. His down-to-earth experience living Up North, fishing and camping, and not to mention, his great aim, prepared him for the worst of boot camp. The winter nights camping out in Missouri were nothing to him and he survived the training nights with dignity, unlike the city boys, who were unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground or preparing food without a McDonalds or Dairy Queen nearby. On the first night, John was able to snag fish in the stream and hit a deer with precision. He was the hero of the night! Fresh venison and fish! Camper’s delight!
John’s entire life changed the day the US Army recruiters had come to the local high school, encouraging the young men and women to serve their country.
The young recruiters with their smartly starched, impeccable uniforms began their speech: “You are being asked to represent your country,” the recruiter confidently and proudly spoke to the willing ears. “You are being given a chance to help others enjoy the freedom and life that we have here in the United States. We need strong, young people like you to help those in the world who do not have the freedom you have. You are being given a chance of a lifetime. You are offering others freedom. Can you imagine, in places like Vietnam, kids like you can’t even go to school! The Communists kill those who are educated and do not allow them to even read a book. Just think what you will be doing if you join the service and help ensure freedom for these young people, like yourselves. Also, when you have completed your time in the military, you will be eligible for the G.I. bill that will give you money to go to college. We will also give you a $500.00 sign-on bonus that you can keep for tuition or whatever you need.”
It was partly the glory of being a hero, going off to a foreign country, and offering those poor, unfortunate souls democracy, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, but more so, the promise of tuition and adventure that persuaded John to join. He would give those Commies holy hell! He recalled when he was younger and he and Bud would find some old 2×4’s, take the saw, and carve themselves some wooden guns and then head for the woods to kill the Nazis! Now he would be doing the real thing!
John came home that evening, proud and pumped up. He had enlisted! He was eighteen and signed the papers.
His parents were very supportive of John’s decision, especially since living in the North did not seem to offer many opportunities for employment at the time. The economy was in the ditch and many people were out of work. The locals spent their time in the corner grocery store playing cards, while their wives worked either as nurses in the only hospital caring for the sick or establishing themselves as beauticians in the porches of their home beauty parlors to add to the glamour of the town’s faces.
“Better to devote yourself to something worthwhile—like helping others gain their freedom—than sitting around doing nothing,” his Dad offered.
His Mom, however, secretly cried at the thought of her young son leaving home when the summer months rolled around. She knew that he would be going off to another country—another world. She would not be there to protect him. Bud cried when his Mom cried, but John was thinking of adventure and leaving the forest of the North for sheer excitement.
Bud’s mind reverted back to an earlier time when John came home from school with two trophies he had received in basketball for his outstanding performance! John shared one with Bud, and said if Bud had not been in the stands cheering him on, he never would have won it! Bud was so proud of the golden trophy on his shelf.
He and his brother were connected like the wind and the river…one gently pushing the other forward—always going forward. John said, “Buddy, together we can do anything!”
Bud loved his brother John as much as any brother could.
Then Bud’s thoughts drifted back to the present and he was becoming anxious. The train should be here soon. What would John look like?” Would he have even bigger muscles than before? Would he have a beard? Would he have medals on his chest? Bud had seen photos of his uncles from World War II. They had all kinds of bright shiny metals on their jackets! He wished he had one! He and John had done everything together forever, it seemed. But when John joined the army, Bud was not allowed to. “Why?” He thought. He was tall, strong, and fast but he had difficulty speaking and putting his thoughts together to form a sentence.
Often he was told, “Golden Boy, you have a good heart but no common sense?” “What is common sense?” he thought to himself. “Whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be that common, because I don’t see much of it around!” John was there to help him so it didn’t matter. It was good that John was coming home now. Bud continued to peer down the tracks…waiting…waiting.
It was now almost 4p.m. The whistle was getting closer. It had to be past Crandon by now. Only another thirty miles after that and it would be pulling into the station. Bud’s stomach was in knots; he was extremely anxious. He recalled the time he had tried to be helpful on the farm, feeling badly that the pigs were all penned up, that he opened the gate and gave them their freedom. Their Dad was a bit upset as it was time for butchering and now it would be delayed until all the pigs were caught! John gave up going to the movies and a date to help Bud gather the pigs together. They had to walk over five miles before they caught every last pig. He was a great brother, indeed!
The shrill of the whistle was nearer but the sky was becoming more dismal. Black clouds loomed over the town and the wind seemed to pick up speed. Then, around the bend, came the train! At last!
Bud ran as close as he could to the tracks, peering into the windows of the train, as it traveled past him, hoping to catch a glimpse of his brother.
Soon the train came to a halt. The people filed off of the train. Bud watched with eager anticipation, stretching his neck to find John.
Meanwhile, at the far corner of town, Bud’s parents were stopping at different stores looking for Bud. They had been looking for him all day. First they searched the barn, calling his name, and then with no response, scoured the nearby woods and creek. Still…no Bud. Finally, they drove to town.
Suddenly the last person had departed from the train. Where was John? Bud was quite nervous now and in a panic began shouting his name, “John! John! John!”
Around the corner, his parents appeared while at the same instance some men were lifting a rectangular box out of the cargo coach of the train. Bud saw his Mom run to the box and throw herself on it, with her husband close behind, trying to calm her. Bud was confused. He ran to them.
“Mom! Dad! Why are you here? What is going on? Why are you crying, Mom? Dad?”
“Bud, “ his father spoke to him somberly, “Bud, we have been looking for you all day. We did not mean for you to find out this way. Bud, this is not going to be easy for you. We were aiming to tell you this morning, but we couldn’t find you. Your brother, John, was killed in Vietnam. This is his body. He threw himself over a hand grenade to save a young Vietnamese boy.”
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Ten years have now past since that November day. The sky shifts from sunlight to clouds and back to the sun again…from spring to summer to fall and then the dreaded cold winter. Time continues. However, for Bud, life stood still that one winter day and has never been the same since. Each morning he walks to the train track…waiting. After the 4 o’clock train leaves, he somberly walks to his home, in silence and stunned. He thinks that perhaps one day, his presence will change the outcome …one day John will bound off the train and together they will once again fish, swim and snowmobile through the northern woods. He is the lone soldier of the railroad tracks, standing vigil in remembrance of one who gave his life for another.
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This story is part fictional and partly true. In Eagle River, when the railroad track was still present, there was a young man who would go to the railroad tracks everyday to wait for his brother to come home from Vietnam. Sadly, his brother was killed in that war.
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Jane H. Johann and johannisthinking.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jane H. Johann and johannisthinking.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.