The Winslow Tunnel
by John M. Floyd
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The scariest day of my life — and the most wonderful — happened when I was ten years old. The time was summer, the location northwest Arkansas. It was a place I’d never been before, and have never been since, but what happened there on that Saturday morning in August forever changed the way I would look at the world.
When that day started out, of course, none of us had any inkling of what Fate had in store for me. If we had known, would I have done anything differently? I don’t think so. Would my parents? You bet they would. My dad would have put Delores, Arkansas, in our rearview mirror, and faster than you could say Jack Sprat. What happened was harder on them, I think, than on me.
But the fact was, I had no idea I was about to experience something amazing and terrifying and marvelous. Or that what I was looking at through the car window would turn out to be far more than it appeared.
All I knew was what Dad said...
* * *
“It was my great-grandfather’s train.”
The three of us — Mom in the front seat, Jenny and I in the back — sat and stared at him.
“It was what?” my mother asked.
Dad grinned. “I’m serious. He worked here, for this railroad, for twenty years.” He pointed through the windshield at the dusty station and the shining tracks and the long cars lined up behind the locomotive. “This was his train.”
“You mean he was the engineer?” I asked. At ten years of age, I was young enough to be excited and old enough not to want to show it. Jenny, who was fifteen and half-asleep anyway, had no such problem. She just rolled her eyes and yawned.
“He was the conductor,” Dad said. He nodded toward the first passenger coach, the one just behind the engine. “His place was on that car, right there. It’s been rebuilt now, the folks in the ticket office said, but underneath all that it’s the original car.” Dad couldn’t seem to stop smiling. “How about that?”
How about that, indeed? I thought. So this was what Dad was leading up to, when he suggested this little side trip yesterday. We had stopped for a bathroom break at the Arkansas welcome station on I-40, on our way back to Nashville from Amarillo, when Dad spotted the “Great Railway Adventures” brochure in the rack at the information desk. Ten minutes later he’d talked us into a detour, called ahead to book a room at the Delores Holiday Inn, and aimed the car north on Highway 71 into the heart of the Ozarks.
And now here we were, the only people in the station parking lot at seven a.m. on an overcast Saturday that also happened to be my tenth birthday, holding tickets Dad had purchased a moment ago in the little building next to the tracks and staring at the train. And, for three of us at least, trying to adjust to this unexpected information from the cobwebs of our family history.
“At eight sharp,” Dad was saying, “we’ll board the train and—”
“Eight o’clock?” Jenny groaned. “We could’ve slept another hour.”
“We’ll board the train,” Dad said, fixing her with a stare, “and take the front four seats. That’s why we’re here early, so we can be first in line. Understood?”
Jenny sighed and leaned her head against the window glass. Dad glanced at Mom, who was still pondering all this, and then at me. I just nodded. Most of my attention was focused on trying to control my rising excitement. He could have instructed us to pull our pants down and dance the Bossa Nova in the dining car, for all I cared. I just wanted to get on the train.
During the next hour, as the sun climbed into the gray clouds above the town of Delores, Mom and I asked Dad a hundred questions about this newly discovered ancestor. We found out, among other things, that the old man had not only spent most of his working life on the train, he had died on it as well. On the afternoon of July 4, 1910, the train sitting before us had derailed and crashed into the White River. There had been no survivors.
“They think it was the Langtree Gang,” my dad said. “A tree was down across the tracks, and the engineer couldn’t stop in time.”
“You mean like, Owen Langtree?” I asked.
“That’s him. Not long after that, he and his brothers—”
“Murdered all those kids, at the Brineyville schoolhouse,” I said. “I saw it on the History Channel.” Sitting there, safe in the car with my family, it was a sobering thing. The site of the famous massacre wasn’t far from where we were, actually, though we’d made sure to avoid it on our trip up from the interstate. Rows and rows of tiny gravestones weren’t my mother’s idea of vacation fun. But the tragedy was still morbidly fascinating, probably because of who had caused it. The notorious Langtree brothers had been the scourge of the early 1900’s.
“Anyhow,” Dad said, “the train wreck was what killed your great-great-grandfather. Not far south of here.”
At that point in my dad’s narrative, while he paused in thought and my dumb sister snored like a drunk sailor beside me, my mother said, “You never even mentioned having any relatives in Arkansas, Robert.”
He gave her a sad smile. “I didn’t, after that. Six months later his widow and the rest of the family moved to Tennessee.”
“My great-great-granddad,” I said, half to myself. “Was he a Franklin, like us?”
“No, he was my father’s mother’s father. His daughter — my grandmother — married a Franklin.” Dad paused again, remembering. “His name was Burnside. Cecil Burnside.”
I repeated the name to myself, rolling it over on my tongue. I think I was even more affected by this whole business than Mom was. It stayed on my mind as other passengers began to arrive in the parking lot, and as we locked our car and took our places at the head of the line. I tried to picture what all this would have looked like, so many years ago.
“I wish I could’ve lived back then,” I said.
Dad raised an eyebrow. “What about computers, and video games, and rollerblading?”
I looked up at him. “What?”
“It’s your birthday, Timmo,” he said, with a grin. “Be careful what you wish for.”
“All abooooooard!” a voice yelled, from somewhere behind us.
* * *
Obediently Jenny and I followed our parents up the metal steps and into the lead coach. Once inside, we passed through a small front compartment and then into the passenger area, which looked big enough for forty or fifty people. Dad motioned Mom and Jenny into the front seat on the starboard side of the aisle. He and I sat together in the seat behind them, with me at the window.
The four of us were quiet for a time, watching the other passengers file past us into the car. Jenny, still yawning and frowning, brightened a bit when she saw a uniformed young lady bring a tray of food into the forward compartment. Apparently we were to be served breakfast on our little outing.
While my sister watched the food and Dad watched the passengers and Mom gazed out the window, I looked around the interior of the coach. It was impressive. I would learn later that Dad had been correct: this was the original car, one of three that had made the countless mountain runs up and down the Ozarks during the early years of the twentieth century. It did not, however, look its age.
I remembered what Dad had said about the restoration. The bench-style seats were now padded with a green leather-like material, their arms and backs capped with ridges of gleaming brass, and all the woodwork around the windows and in the seats and side panels was mahogany. Old sepia-toned prints were framed and displayed on the bulkhead wall.
Several minutes after the last of the passengers were seated, our conductor came on board. His name tag said THOMAS HARDY, and he was wearing a black uniform and a pillbox hat and a stiff white shirt. He even had a pair of round spectacles on his nose, which made him quite believable, I thought. Every conductor I’d ever seen on TV or in the movies had worn those same little wire-rimmed eyeglasses. There was something, though, that seemed wrong about him as I watched him standing there in the front doorway. Something missing. I just couldn’t place it.
After studying the assembled passengers a moment, he sat down in the front row on the other side of the aisle, across from my mother and sister. With practiced ease he took a “reserved” sign off the seat and tucked it into his pocket, then picked up a little black box — it turned out to be a portable PA system — and unhooked a microphone from its side.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said into the mike, “welcome to the Ozark & Arkansas Railroad.” Mr. Thomas Hardy was, it appeared, our tour guide as well as our conductor.
He spent the next few minutes briefing us on the history of the railroad and the train itself and our upcoming day’s agenda. We would, he explained, be departing soon for the city of Van Buren, Arkansas, seventy miles south. The trip would take about three hours. Once in Van Buren we would have some free time in the downtown historic district, to shop and have lunch. At around two o’clock we would reboard the train for the return trip, and would arrive back here in Delores at five p.m.
“But the first order of business,” he said, “is breakfast, to be served in the forward section of the coach. Please help yourselves.” With that, he clipped the mike to the side of the box and left the car.
Since we were in the front row of seats, we were the first in line again, and Jenny led the charge. The meal consisted of strawberries, grapes, cheese, croissants, muffins, juice, and coffee, laid out on a small buffet table in the front compartment. We ate on little paper plates in our laps and stared out at the window at the rail yard and wondered when we were going to get the show on the road.
We didn’t have long to wait. As soon as the last passenger was served and re-seated, the train made a sound like a huge exhale, then started to inch forward. Within minutes we were bumping and clacking through the southern outskirts of town, the warm August wind riffling our hair. Even though we continued our meals, every eye stayed on the spectacle outside the open windows. We were underway.
“It’s easy to imagine my mom’s granddad doing that,” Dad said. Neither Mom nor Jenny had heard him above the noise of the tracks, but I did, and I turned to look at him. He was staring up at the conductor, who had reappeared in the coach’s front doorway. Dad grinned at me. “Except for the speaker system, of course. Doubt that was around, back then.”
I was a little surprised by the emotion I saw in my father’s face. “What else do you know about him?” I asked.
“My great-grandpa? Only what my mother told me, when she was in a reminiscing mood.” He paused. “She said he let her ride with him sometimes, but not often. That was a different era, Tim — they thought girls belonged at home. Besides, she always suspected he wanted a grandson, not a granddaughter. A boy to talk to and take along on runs and maybe even teach about the business. He never had one, and that bothered him. Or so she thought.”
I waited for Dad to continue. Mom, oblivious to our conversation, turned and smiled at me, then faced front again. She seemed to be having a good time. Jenny just kept eating. I wondered idly how many times they’d let her go back for refills before they threw her off the train.
“My mother loved him anyway, of course,” Dad went on. The conductor seemed to be taking a headcount. Both of us watched him as Dad kept talking.
“She used to tell me about his little hat, and glasses, and mustache, and cologne. And most of all...” He broke off, frowning.
He turned to face me. Tipping his head toward Mr. Hardy, he said, “Look at his watch.”
I did, and saw immediately what it was that had struck me as odd a while earlier. On Mr. Thomas Hardy’s left wrist was a black digital watch. An old-timer, I thought, with a new timepiece. I was disappointed. To my way of thinking, a conductor was supposed to wear... “A pocket watch,” I said.
Dad nodded. “Right. That’s what’s missing. And that’s what my mom always remembered most about her granddad. His big thick railroad watch, with a copper case and a gold chain and a little key for winding and setting.” He shook his head sadly. “It’s a shame she never got it, afterward.”
“After he died, you mean?”
“Who did get it?” I asked.
“Nobody did. It was lost in the wreck.”
I was still thinking about that when I saw Dad watching me. “What?” I said.
“This is something, isn’t it, Tim?” He waved a hand to encompass the coach, the passengers, the whole adventure. “All this, I mean.”
“It’s a surprise, for sure. Really cool, Dad.”
He grinned. “Birthdays,” he said, “are good times for surprises.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by John M. Floyd