The Christian’s Runaway Train


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I am Rich Christian. I drive the runaway train.

Down the tracks, sliced through time. Every year in October, when you hear some story of a ghost train rumbling with no one at the helm? When someone mentions an unexplainable journey? One that makes no sense at all? Then you can know I am up and traveling again.  

Once again trying to make my way back to Laura. Grabbing ahold and firing up any old unexplainable journey. Always to get back to Laura.

It always starts just before an autumn sunrise. The train lurches to life. A gravel voiced songwriter of the centuries, man named John Stewart, tosses out a line that sparks the train engine silver orange and rolling. He sings that the ‘curves around midnight, aren’t easy to see.’ And the train starts to roll.

This year, 2013, east down the middle of a highway in the god forsaken town of Chicago Illinois. They call this road of dizzying speed the Eisenhower Expressway. My ghost train on a track between 8 lanes of zooming cars. A driver sitting at the wheel of every car. But no one sees a driver of my runaway train.

The speeds of these cars make my head spin. My last time walking the earth was long ago. Laura was my wife. I was a soldier. A Private. In the army of the Confederate States of America.

And that bleached white bone scraped by the workman’s shovel in six inches of soil at a construction site this autumn of 2013? That was my left leg.

To get to where I am now, time follows no order and respects no boundaries. So, I can only say listen hard. Hear shovel scraping bone and a ghost train rumbling, picking up speed that generates a rhythm for John Stewart singing

I’m worried about you

I’m worried about me.

Then watch the workman who just scraped my leg. Watch his eyes go wide as he scoops a rib from the soil. And if that sets off a choral hum rising from the earth first faintly and then growing stronger; you will be in the presence of the 10,000 souls left here in shallow graves like mine. Resting fitfully under what they now call The Gold Coast and South Lincoln Park areas of this city, Chicago, Illinois.

There were 4,000 of us Confederate  prisoners of war held at Camp Douglas, in the southern part of this city.But the main grave site for this muscular mushroom of a town was here. About two miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River.  Why are so many of us prisoners buried here? Why not at Camp Douglas?

Well, I will tell you. But first, remember. This is a town where men actually decided to make their river flow backward! So it was no surprise to any of us spirits, when our remains were moved up north of the river to join the Catholics, the Jews, and the Protestants. Yankees all. Money changed hands. Property was valuable. So the graves were moved from south to north. Then when the mushroom of people started bloating up again, that giant gravesite of the north was emptied. The remains taken even further from the heart of the town. Land cleared for living.

And that would have been the end of it. There used to be a cemetery here, but now there are homes for the living. That would be the story. But not in Chicago. In Chicago, there were winks, nods, contracts and unspoken deals made. Money changed hands. And not all the bodies got moved. They built the homes on our graves. And they remain that way today.

 So ten thousand of us remained. Houses of rich men were built right on top of our earthly remains. Ten thousand of us trapped underneath the mansions of power.

 Which of course made most or us wander. Made most of us go searching for something. Searching for home.

 And in the red, brown and golden crinkled leaves that shivered across my body’s resting place, when I once again know autumn, I can begin again my unfinished work of finding her.

As the train lurches forward, I am again amazed at just how anyone could live here in Chicago. Even as the centuries pass, I never understood. My only clue was autumn. Especially October, when there would be a rustle of a breeze that brought the smell of tomorrow. An evergreen instant taking me back. To our home in the mountains. Back to our quiet diamond of a town.  Asheville, North Carolina. I’d catch the smell of Asheville and home  just as the leaves, even here in cruel Chicago lit up in colors so achingly alive that even we wandering dead just had to smile for a moment.

Just how did I get so far from Laura Christian? What led me to the shore of this terrifying inland sea?  It was the Great War between the states. The blue coats had money. They had arms and horses and beans and sizzling grilled meat on their campfires at dusk. My regiment fought hard. Most of us fighting like mountain lions. But we were captured and tamed.

Surrounded we were till our white flag waved. Then put in chains, given the first meat we’d had for weeks. And shipped by rail to Chicago. To Camp Douglas. Prisoners of war. We simply lost the battle for our way of life.

 I would often think, before the pounding guns of fire would go quiet for the day, that if we had Laura fighting alongside us men, that the battles would have taken such different turns. A snarling Mama Bear gone wild if you crossed her. Worse yet, if you ever dared hurt someone or even something she loved? Then you could only count on your next breath being your last.

Why was it then that this towering fury of a fighting woman could cry as if the floods of ancient times had just unleashed raging waters of sorrow? What was it that made that river of pain flow into her unfathomable curiosity and musical laughter? Ignorant questions all. Like asking ‘why did I love her?’ If you could answer that question, there would be no answer.

 Stubborn? Like a tree stump stubborn. Still, when she would laugh? The world would applaud.

I saw her last on the front porch of our cabin in the green forest just outside of Asheville. She was smiling. No one knew how long before we’d win this war. But it had to be soon. Laura crying out “Write me!”

And for a year, as our battalion fended off Yankee horror, I did. But then the war took some turns and something buried deep in me seemed to fade. I no longer could believe in our cause.

 And when belief fades and distance grows, love is tested.

Laura knew the cause. She was sure. But my faith was built on doubt. Forgiveness came so much easier to me than it did to her. So I got quiet. My only writing was scribbles in the dirt.  Laura stopped listening. My quiet like a knife gone slashing her heart. And in that pain of her pain, deep in the winter wind off that icy terror of the inland sea, I passed from this world to the next. To the runaway train. There being no worse pain than causing Laura pain.

Then as the years passed, I saw Laura moving on. Loving deep and alive someone else. I even saw her forgetting our tiny home looking out, as the writer once said, at the ‘soft stone smile of an angel’ in the green hills that circled Ashville. Fading from the thought of the two rocking chairs on the front porch we once shared. Simply not caring anymore, she went on and rocked happily with the love of her life.

I remember all this as my runaway train builds up speed. It happens like this every year. Faster and harder and miles and miles of gleaming rail track rumbling, tumbling to what could have been or should have been. This love like a runaway train. Then just when the speed hits a peak, when the wind is whipping along side, just when you think the train can go no faster, harder or deeper . . .

The crunching shamble of sheet metal. The train stops cold by another train. The journey ended. Autumn into winter.

November’s bare trees. I will rest now. But only till next October.

Next October. When you will see another runaway train. Trying again to find Laura. Just so I can say that I remember every golden moment.

Every autumn breeze.

 

 

 

 

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