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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Family · #809639
Winner! Writer's Cramp 2/1/04
The New Prompt is:
Write a story or poem using a train, missing luggage, an elderly family member and a deja vu memory

Set Up Running

With apologies to author John Orr for borrowing the title.

          “Uncle Jack? Why do we have to take the train? Why can’t we fly to visit Grandma and Grandpa?”

          “We’re taking the train because it’s fun and you’ve never ridden on one before. Grandpa used to work for the railroad. He was an engineer. Maybe we’ll get to meet the engineer on today’s train if we’re lucky.”

          “If it's so much fun Uncle Jack-how come we’re the only two taking the train? How come everyone else is flying? Don’t they like to have fun? Huh, Uncle Jack?”

          Jack just looked down and smiled at the boy. Bobby was six going on twenty. They made the turn into the railroad station and found a parking spot. Two of Jack’s friends would be by tonight to pick up the car and take it home. He didn’t feel comfortable leaving it at the station for the two weeks they’d be gone. After all the station wasn’t exactly in the best part of town anymore.

          It wasn’t the original passenger station. That had been torn down years ago to make room for a high-rise office building. It had been located downtown in the business section. Jack remembered that station from the first time he had ever been in it. He was on a troop train heading for the coast. From there he was shipping out for the Philippines. They stopped long enough for him to get some smokes and to view the architecture of that superb building. There was an unofficial competition amongst the railroads back then to build the most magnificent stations they could. Few of them remained today.

          He remembered-that as he walked back to the train with his Camels-there was a young lady arguing with one of the porters about missing luggage. She stopped in mid sentence as he walked by, ran over, grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek. She smiled at him and said, “That’s for good luck. Come home safe.” Women did that sort of thing then. His buddies teased him about the lipstick endlessly. Today nobody notices the uniformed soldiers as they are shuttled around the country. Today, nobody notices the trains either.

          Bobby helped him get the luggage from the car and together they walked towards the station. The passenger service had been moved to the freight station when the old station had been torn down. A small section had been partitioned off from the rest of the freight station and a hand-lettered sign above a door said passenger tickets. They went in. There were one or two other people there waiting for the train east. Jack took the luggage and went over to baggage handler who was standing next to a half full baggage cart.

          “Is this for the luggage heading east to Chicago?” he inquired.

          “A rather gruff, “Yep.” was the only response he got. He tossed their bags on the cart and couldn’t help think about how different it would have been forty years ago. Then, all he would have had to do was flash his father’s pass and he would have been treated like family. Even the regular passengers received royal treatment then. The railroad employees fell over themselves trying to help you. He looked around the dingy room. “My, how times have changed,” he thought.

          It had been his idea to take the train. His mother and father were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. No one else wanted to go, so he conned his nephew Bobby into the idea with promises of excitement and adventure on the trip east. It would take 3 days. If they had flown it would have taken four hours. He planned to spend the time explaining to Bobby all about the railroad and his grandfather’s life as an engineer.

          The day his dad had come home from work and excitedly told his mother he had been “Set up Running” was a happy one. In railroad talk that meant he had gotten his own train. He was a full-fledged engineer. He would run on the Pennsylvania Railroad north from Altoona to Williamsport and from there down to Harrisburg and back again. That was the PRR”s northern route. He knew his dad longed to run the Mainline that ran from Philadelphia through Harrisburg to Altoona and on to Pittsburgh. He’d have to wait his turn for that. Still, he was “Set up Running” and that was something. They all went out for ice cream that night.

          The passenger train pulled in the station. The conductor came into the room and announced the train. Gone was the familiar “All Aboard!” A cheap crackling loudspeaker and a “Passengers for Amtrak 3045 heading to Chicago may now board” had replaced it. “Gee”, thought Jack, “The trains don’t even have names anymore.” Gone also, were the days of The Zephyr, The Comet, The Royal Blue and a dozen other famous passenger trains.

          They took their seats in the third passenger car. Jack offered Bobby the window seat but Bobby said he’d rather sit on the aisle. Jack smiled. He knew why. It allowed him more freedom to roam. He had done the same thing when he was Bobby’s age.

          “Uncle Jack?”

          “Yes Bobby.”

          “I know what happens next.” The “I know something you don’t know” look on Bobby’s face made Jack smile.

          “You do? Tell me.”

          “Well, in a minute the door on the end of the car is going to open and a man in a uniform will walk in. He’ll say good morning and then begin to take our tickets and tear part of them off…”

          As Bobby spoke, the conductor entered the car and said good morning. He started to take the tickets.

          “… when he gets about half way up the car the train will start and he’ll lose his balance…”

          Jack watched, fascinated. Bobby had never been on a train before. The conductor quickly moved through the four or five passengers ahead of them. Just as the train started the conductor lost his balance and he reached out to grab a seat.

          “See, Uncle Jack, I told you. Can I go exploring now? Can I?”

          "How'd you know that?" Jack asked incredulously.

          "Because that's what happened last time."

          "What do you mean, last time? You've never been on a train before.

          Bobby shrugged his shoulders and took off up the isle, exploring.

          A cold shiver went up Jack’s back. He looked out the window as the platform rolled by. An older lady was there, arguing with the baggage man about lost luggage. For a moment their eyes met and Jack touched his cheek checking for lipstick.

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