That Incident at Connellsburg
by Ralph E. Shaffer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Ilsa was surprisingly undisturbed by his tardiness. Rick had called, sincerely apologetic, as soon as the bus came within cell phone service. She understood, knowing the importance of deadlines to the editors Rick dealt with. When he finally arrived, over an hour late, she was her usual endearing self. Rick knew he was lucky to have her as a friend and, maybe, eventually, something more than just a friend.
He had made no effort to tell her of his experience that evening other than the necessity of making that West Coast phone call. But after dinner, which he rather matter-of-factly noted was another one of her unusually delicious meals, they sat together on her sofa and he could no longer withhold from her his experience in Connellsburg.
“Ilsa, the strangest thing happened after I made that phone call to the editor.” To an enthralled Ilsa he related the entire adventure, brief as it was, in full detail, including the part about the attractive, dark-haired girl in the immaculate white dress. He described it as though he had in fact gone back in time.
“Rick, you’ve seen or read too many time-warp stories. It can all be easily explained.”
“Okay, smarty, how could she not know that Briarfield was the big city to the west?”
“Come on, Rick. You did say ‘big’ city. If Pittsburgh is big, Briarfield is piddling by comparison. You didn’t even mention Briarfield by name, and she was just replying to your reference to a ‘big’ city.”
“No, you come on, girl, explain how there could be a town in this day and age without a telephone?”
“You don’t really know that there wasn’t a phone in town. I think the ticket seller’s response about a phone in the jail was clever, a quick-witted response to your question.”
“Then what did that silly comment about Menlo Park and Tom Edison mean?”
“Rick, this was a pioneer day celebration. His reply was in keeping with the time warp. I’m not just an English teacher, Rick. I also teach a class in American history, and I know that Connellsburg was settled in the early 1880s. The telephone was in its infancy. They surely wouldn’t have had one there in those days. That’s what the guy meant.”
“No one turns down paper money. He did.”
“Rick, you may be bright when it comes to global warming or nuclear disarmament, but you sure don’t have a feel for history. The late nineteenth century, Rick. ‘You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold,’ ‘free silver,’ ‘16 to 1,’ and on and on. The Connellsburg pioneers would have hated paper money as bankers’ money, a scheme to take the profit out of farming. They thought it was a means of cheating them. They wanted silver coinage. And the men at the ticket table played the part perfectly. You were just too” — she almost said ‘dumb’ — “uninformed to recognize a good act.”
“Perhaps you’re right but, if it was a charade, it was certainly done brilliantly. Those folks ought to be in show business.”
Ilsa put her hand on his shoulder as they sat there. Rick looked at her. She was just as attractive as Lisa, smarter probably, and their relationship had endured over a period of time. He felt a great desire to hold her close. She willingly accepted his embrace, and they sat there that way for a while.
Rick, however, kept thinking of his amazing experience at Connellsburg. What about the Studebaker?
“Okay, Ilsa, explain this one. I told Lisa I had a Studebaker. If they were all just pretending it was the nineteenth century, why did Lisa tell me her Dad had a Studebaker station wagon?”
Ilsa paused for a moment. “Are you sure she said ‘station wagon’?”
“Actually, she said ‘Studebaker wagon.’ But wagon, station wagon, they all mean the same, and a lot of people drop the word ‘station’ before ‘wagon’. She lives now and they have a station wagon, wherever they live.”
Ilsa smiled. “Another history lesson, Rick. John Studebaker was a major wagon builder before he started making cars. They really were wagons, and a lot of farmers owned them. Lisa was just acting the part, and she apparently did it quite well. But you misunderstood. Is there anything else that needs to be explained?” Ilsa asked, a bit too smugly.
“Yeah. One more thing... As we were walking out of Connellsburg. How are you going to explain away that puffing steam locomotive sitting on tracks that weren’t there when I first arrived?”
Ilsa had to pause a bit longer this time. After a brief spell of silence that caused Rick to think she had finally met her match, she smiled and offered a rational explanation.
“Sorry, Rick, but that one is easy when you think about it. That wasn’t really a train you saw. It was something like a float in a parade. I’ve seen them before. They show up at fairs or other celebrations. A mock engine, sometimes with mock train cars, and surely a caboose. But they aren’t real. They were simply pieces of metal and wood patched together, sitting on a trailer and made to look like a train. The puffing was a recording. If you saw steam that might have been real, coming from a small boiler. The whistle was real, but it was not a live steam engine.”
“Then what about the train schedule. If this was just a float, why did she try to lure me into staying if she knew there wasn’t any train east?”
“Rick, if you had changed your mind and gone back to the hay mound with her, you wouldn’t give a hoot about how you got home. You wouldn’t want to go home. You would have stayed all night and caught the bus west in the morning. But what she probably had in mind was that the train float would be leaving at the time she mentioned, and she knew it was headed east through Willowbrook and she was sure you could have ridden home on it.”
“And finally, Miss History Teacher, explain away that familiarity with Mark Twain and Josh Billings. Twain she would have heard about, but no one today knows who Josh Billings was, even though he was Twain’s big rival back then.”
“Lisa’s been well coached. I’m not surprised she mentioned Billings. I’d be more surprised if, a century from now, some pretty girl had heard of Rick Blaine.”
“Darn it, Ilsa, isn’t there any part of my experience at Connellsburg you can’t explain?”
“Yeah, one very critical point: what was there about this geeky-looking guy that so excited a bright, attractive girl? And that leads to a deeper, nagging question: If you really were in a time warp, what prompted it? You’re a rising young writer who seems happy with his life, even if there aren’t many sparks when we’re together. What would you be trying to escape by living in the 1880s?”
Before Rick could answer, Ilsa squeezed his hand. “Rick, Connellsburg’s a real place, deserted though it may be. But it exists. You didn’t get off at Willoughby,” referring to Rod Serling’s classic time travel story.
“The girl was real, too, Rick. I wish that weren’t true. I have ‘an immaculate white dress’, too, but you don’t go ga-ga over me when I wear it. And to think you could have lain in the hay with her but instead you came home to me. That makes me feel pretty important in your life.”
“You are important to me, Ilsa. But, golly, if you had encountered some good-looking guy under similar circumstances, what would you have done? Would you have said, ‘Rick’s expecting dinner at 7:30 and I have to catch the bus?’ I hope so, but I would have understood if you had chosen the hay mound instead. I would have been a bit disappointed that I wasn’t the one in the hay with you, however. Maybe we ought to try the hay mound together.” They both smiled, thinking of the possibilities.
“Are you going to drive out there on the weekend and look at the place in daylight? Will you meet her Monday evening? You could get off the bus on your way home from Briarfield.”
“Ilsa, let’s forget about Connellsburg and move on. I don’t need a Lisa. You’re my girlfriend.”
He had never called her that before. She welcomed the news. They kissed.
Despite Rick’s apparent willingness to move on, Ilsa knew that he could never forget that incident at Connellsburg.
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Copyright © 2019 by Ralph E. Shaffer