Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Untimely End of Washington

Finding unnerving things in familiar places.

* * *

By the time I was seven or eight, I was allowed to make the solo trip from the North Side of Marshall to the Texas and Pacific rail yard, a distance of perhaps a mile. My attraction to that spot was its constant opportunity for adventure.

I liked to wade among the pigeons at the grain mill and elevator across from the depot. There were always dozens of these birds cooing and clumsily wobbling about, looking for spillage. They would scatter to the left and right as I approached, but then circle in behind me as I passed. Even if startled enough to fly, they would only make one gliding pass around the structure and land again about where they had started. The sound of their wings was more of a whistle-burst than a flap.

I was fascinated with the tales of military pigeons being used to carry notes and messages long distances. I examined all the birds’ stick-like legs, searching for any tiny aluminum message-tubes, hoping some errant War Pigeon had stopped in our town long enough to forage. The excitement was high that I might seize such a secret message on its way to the front. The note might be from the enemy and I would be rewarded with a trip to shake the hand of the President himself.

“Local Boy Intercepts Enemy Invasion Plan—Hailed as War Hero by Commander-In-Chief”

Well, I found no such dispatches. I didn’t even see so much as one carrier pigeon candidate. I saw only the sameness of the bobbing iridescent blue-green heads and the pink legs void of aluminum tubes. I concluded that our pigeons were not part of the war effort, probably deemed unworthy by the military because all they did was eat and leave droppings. Even after the realization that Marshall’s pigeons had no vital mission for society, they were still curious to watch, and the soft murmurs they made were quite peaceful. Sometimes these same birds would migrate downtown and scurry around the benches at the Hotel Washington. Here, old gentlemen with strong odors of cigars and mothballs would toss grains of popcorn their way. The old men liked to tease the birds with a single kernel pitched into their midst, so as to create something of a gray-feathered calamity to serve as entertainment until the daily newspapers arrived.

In time I learned that our pigeons were not only unworthy of air-transport duty, but had no value whatsoever. The people who ran the grain elevator decided that the growing horde of wharf rats had to be dealt with, even at the peril of the birds. They introduced a poison-laced grain as bait, and soon the pigeon numbers declined then disappeared altogether. My later trips to the elevator found no birds. The sweet smell of grain was also gone and the scene had an unnerving lack of sounds. In the gutters and swales, what spilled grain there was had been abandoned in the elements to sour.

In 1940, the railroad built a passenger tunnel from the Ginocchio Hotel to the station. It went for some distance under the many rows of train tracks, and emerged at the passenger platform. It was a spacious tunnel, with walls of ceramic tile. There were framed advertisements here and there along the way, allowing for pause and consumption of whatever was being touted. Many were pitching new automobiles, some the local hotels, and one of Uncle Sam pointing at me and asking me to join up. I concluded he didn’t know I was too young but I was honored to have his invitation anyway. In the middle of the tunnel there was a ticket counter and a news stand, a last-minute troll for passengers too hurried to stop elsewhere. They also offered cigars and candy bars for the seasoned travelers who had learned that on-board treats were about double in price.

Our railroad tunnel contained the best echo this side of the Alps. I could whoop and get not one but a week’s worth of echoes before it dissolved into but a whisper. There was an unwritten taboo about such racket, and the ticket clerks sometimes would yell back the word “quiet!” which just became an echo itself. It was safest to make one’s whoops at the entrances, so there was opportunity for a clean escape if you might have to outrun a railway guard.

The tunnel ended at a steep stairway that led to the train platform and the REA freight building. REA was always a scene of hurried and noisy activity as boxes and crates were being hustled about on flatcars. I liked to read the labels of the crates headed off to Denver, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Kansas City. These were places I would never likely visit but had visions about from hearing stories of the great cities of America. I thought…if I could catch the agent looking the other way, I could crawl inside a crate and then be unwrapped in say, Chicago. Then I realized what would likely become the headline:

“Shipment of Rat Poison Arrives with Texas Stowaway. Parents Enroute to Reclaim Corpse”

On Saturdays I used my twenty-five-cent allowance to spend the day at the Lynn Theatre. The Lynn was the more affordable venue, sans the fancy statues, patterned carpets, and velvet ropes that adorned the upscale Paramount. But the Lynn was preferred for other reasons. It had twice the serials, twice the cartoons, and always a double feature. After the first showing, it all rewound. No one came to chase me out, so I sometimes sat through half the second session. The admission price of nine cents left plenty of change for popcorn, a drink, and a Holloway All-Day, the sucker that took three or four matinees to consume. Seasoned All-Day fans knew to save the wax paper because it would be needed to rewrap the sucker as some point in its half-life. The tongue can only weather so much torture, even the sugary kind.

On this Saturday I emerged from the Lynn to find it was already dark. For once I didn’t have to shutter my eyes to adjust to the sudden shock of sunlight. Washington Street was moist from a rare summer rain and the glisten of headlights from passing cars made it look like a sheet of ice. A light breeze stirred the dry leaves on the trees and some of them startled me as they blew across my path. The rain had not been enough to soften their crispness, dried by weeks of summer drought.

I made my way down Washington with a growing apprehension. Most of the streetlights had bulbs missing, casualties of rock-tossing vandals. Twice I stumbled and nearly fell as my toe caught uneven joints in the concrete sidewalk. Then a cat ran across my path. Was it black, or just black from night? I preferred the latter. It wasn’t a time to admit to a true black cat.

Washington Street ended at the Ginocchio Hotel, next to the entrance to the tunnel. I found the row of stores beneath the hotel canopy shuttered and dark. There were lights in the Hotel itself, reassuring me that there was still some life form somewhere. It’s odd how the immediate circumstances had erased any desire to whoop into the tunnel opening. Just the opposite; my concern was how to walk the distance without my shoe taps giving me away to whatever lurked in those cold sweaty confines. For once I questioned the sensibility of shoe taps. My uncle told me that taps doubled a shoe’s heel life, and that their smart clack on the concrete added style and class to one’s gait. But here they were, disclosing my presence like someone patting the metal rim of a snare drum. I stopped and unlaced my shoes. I tied the laces together and swung the shoes around my neck so my arms and hands would be unencumbered for mortal combat.

I walked in inches, listening intently for any sounds. There was only the measured beat of water dripping from somewhere deep in the cavern. My imagination flew back to the Flash Gordon serial I had watched only an hour ago. Featured in the film was Gordon’s archenemy Ming, a demon who wore a black cape having a funnel neckline. But the apparitions I feared most from that same serial were the Clay Men. These characters were molded into the walls of the caves, unseen until it was too late. Never mind that these tunnel walls were tile. I knew that tile was clay, and that was that.

With now soggy socks, I neared the ticket booth and notions stand which marked the halfway point. In the dim light I could see that everything was closed for the day. I thought…aren’t there any night trains running anymore? I was sure that trains didn’t just pull over and park on the shoulder at night.

Ten steps later I stopped cold. I heard footsteps. In the echo I couldn’t tell if they were from behind or in front of me. If behind, I must quicken my pace, but if in front, I would only be hastening a confrontation. I listened. They were in front of me! It was the heavy clunk of hard boots. No night train disembarking here. No reason anyone would be coming down here from the tracks. My heart began to beat louder than the man’s boots. I pressed myself up against the tiled wall at a place where a large pipe passed down. I tried to hold my breath and close my eyes. But I cheated with one eye opened to a small slit. It would be better to see the blow coming.

Suddenly I saw the man silhouetted against the light from the REA docks. He was a hulk of a figure, his arms swinging low like those of an ape. I closed my eyes and tightened them down as if turning a vice. His boots stopped right in front of me. Suddenly I felt his hand on my shoulder. It was as large as a baseball mitt.

“Laddie!” A voice said sternly, rolling its vowels and consonants down the tunnel like a bowling ball.

I opened my eyes to stare into those of my Uncle SB. I collapsed into his tummy.

“We got worried. Mommie Moore has supper ready and it’s not like you to be out after dark. Get them shoes on and let’s go home before everything gets cold. We got fried bologna and good homemade chili.”

As we walked toward the stairs I heard noises behind me. It sounded like something wet and squishy was moving about in the darkness.

Clay men were mushing out from the walls—likely sore over missing their own supper.