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All Aboard

Tom Updegraff

     The screech of the air brakes putting pressure of metal against metal alerted the dozen or so passengers waiting to board the 10:25 to Ashville.  As the mid morning fog swirled about the legs of the businessmen clad in tweed suits and wearing heavy wool overcoats, wives dressed in housedresses and holding the hands of little ones leaned forward for those last goodbye kisses.  The noise of the crowd encompasses the quiet of the foggy morning.  The fighting between siblings hangs in the air, echoing off the clouds of mist. 
     A weekly occurrence, this band of up-and-coming men with the Wall Street Journal folded under one arm and their soft mahogany brown leather briefcases in the other, saying goodbye to their families of stay-at-home moms and preschoolers and infants, as they embark into the city to crunch numbers and meet people for the work week.
     As the rumbling steam engine slowly creeps to a halt, a conductor, clad in an ebony colored jacket with a snappy felt hat on his head, hops off the middle car with his step box and bellows, "ALL ABOARD, 10:25 to ASHVILLE BOARDING NOW!"  He steps back from the entrance to the train and pulling his shiny gold pocket watch from his vest pocket double checks the time to make sure the schedule still holds.  After checking the time he slowly winds the timepiece to while away the minutes during boarding; glancing up every few moments to watch the progression of commerce at work.
     With a last peck on the check and a last tousle of hair to a youngster, each man pulls himself away from his family and quickly works his way to the step box to enter the passenger car of the 10:25 to Ashville.  Filing through aisles of seats to find an open window, each man works his way forward, placing his briefcase down on red velvet padding and leaning out the window to wave and call out a final "I love you" to his young family. 
     A straggler, still standing with his wife and son takes a quick glance behind him at the conductor, pleading for another minute.  "Son, you be sure and mind your mother this week.  I don't want her telling tales when I get home on Friday night.  Is that clear?"  He says to the tow-headed youngster holding his wife's hand.
     "Yes, papa, I'll be good.  I promise.  Will you play catch with me when you get home?  How many days is it till you get home?" the little one asks, holding up three pudgy fingers and says, "will it be this many days?"
     "No son, it will be this many," and he repositions the boys hand to show five little fingers.
     With one final twist of the winding mechanism on this engraved watch, the conductor lifts his step box into the entryway and hollers one last time, "ALL ABOARD WHO'S GOING ABOARD."  A few stragglers hustle to grab the bar and swing their bodies up onto the platform, calling endearments back to loved ones waiting under the overhang of the train depot.  The lone straggling father brings up the rear, racing to hop onto the impatiently waiting train.
     Waving frantically out the windows, calling to the people they know, the men hold tight to the window frame as the mighty engine belches a ball of thick coal black smoke and lurches forward.  As the swirling fog swallows up the depot building the locomotive moves forward first at a snails pace as the coalman shovels coal into the furnace to build up steam. 
     The passengers, watching as the scene behind them fades away settle themselves into plush seats, picking up their newspapers and settling in for the ride to Ashville.  Those left behind slowly gather their children and pocket books and make there way back around to the front of the station and to the parking lot.  Many of them load children into the back seat of Woody station wagons and old Chevys and Fords, tossing their handbags onto the front seat and turning the keys to hear the radio begin blaring Judy Garland's The Man That Got Away from a static-filled am station.
     As car after car pulls into quiet Monday morning traffic the parking lot empties.  The milkman's truck rambles down the street, the sound of his glass milk bottle rattling together, interrupting the serenity of this quiet Monday morning. The postman carries his satchel from house to house, stopping to pet the dog that just bounded across the street.  All is well in this tiny community as life goes on.
     Shortly after the final carload of women and children pull out of the depot parking lot, another car pulls in and comes to a halt at the curb.  A couple in their mid fifties step to the pavement, and hand in hand with camera bag in tow, walk into the doorway of the depot.  "Look, honey, I told you this Railroad Museum would be a great place to stop on our way to Ashville to see the kids."
      "I never even heard of this place before, Caleb." she replied. "What do you know about it?"
     "You know me, hon. Anything train related and I'm there.  Just like you and lighthouses.  Let's at least go in and look at the displays."

     As excited as a preschooler on Show and Tell day, Caleb pulls Abbey into the building, stopping only long enough to pay their admission at the ticket gate.  With his camera ready for action, he begins passing past displays of local railroad history.  "Hey Caleb, come see this," Abbey calls to her husband.  She stopped in front of a photo display with the heading OCTOBER 25, 1954- THE 10:25 TO ASHVILLE.  "This picture looks just like the one on our piano at home.  Why would it be here?"
     "You're right hon. That picture does look just like ours.  Hmmm, wonder what the deal is.  What does the caption say?"
     Abbey begins to read, "Circa 1954.  Hanna Fisher donated this photograph in memory of her husband Thomas.  Pictured are Thomas Fisher and his five year old son, Caleb." 
     Taking a step back from the display, Caleb begins shaking his head.   "Why would my mom donate a picture of me and my dad to a railroad museum?  That makes no sense to me."  As Caleb continues to stare at the photograph in amazement, the museum page comes to stand next to him.  He begins to speak: 
     "About fifty years ago the most economical way for businessmen to make it to Ashville was by taking the Monday morning 10:25 train.  They were supposed to ride into the city and they'd stay until Friday.  It always seemed that every Monday morning would dawn dreary and foggy.  The mists would swirl around the platform and the wives of these men would come to bid them farewell.  Every Monday morning the train would screech to a halt and the conductor would step down and call for passengers to board.  Every Monday morning last kisses were given and children were admonished to behave for the week.  And every Monday morning these men would board, waving out the window, finding a spot to sit and look forward to the workweek ahead.  The eerie thing was, that on Monday, October 25, 1954, the train belched and bellowed black smoke and the old steam engine came to life and pulled out of the station and no one ever saw the men again.  The train never made it to Ashville.  The train, along with all of the men aboard, just disappeared. There was no explanation, no evidence, no nothing.  It became such a frightening time that the railroad ceased all train traffic to Ashville.  Finally the wives of the businessmen who disappeared wanted a place of memory for their husbands.  They asked the railroad to turn this old depot into a museum in their honor.  A train hasn't passed by this depot since 1954.  The railroad ties are broken and the rails are no longer worthy of the weight of the mighty steam engines used to pull passengers to the city.  All that's left is this museum.  A tribute to men who left on the Monday morning 10:25 to Ashville. 
     "I remember my father, vaguely.  He was always dressed in a three-piece suit.  Always reading the newspaper.  Always gone throughout the week.  I was so little when he didn't come home anymore.  My mom just told me he moved to the city.  I never questioned her.  I never imagined that she was keeping something this mysterious from me."
     Hand in hand the couple continue to walk through the museum.  Seeing paraphernalia of the commuter's life in the 1950's, the pictures of all of the families affected on that day, and the pocket watch that was found not a hundred yards down the track by investigators and was believed to belong to the conductor of the 10:25 to Ashville. Wiping tears from his eyes, Caleb turns to his wife and smiles, "I'm ready to go now.  I think I've found a part of me that has been missing."
     Arm in arm the couple walks back out to their vehicle parked in the midmorning sun.  As he turns out of the depot parking lot into the bustling city traffic, off in the distance a train whistle quietly breaks the still air.  Is that the 10:25 to Ashville?
 
 


 
 
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