Railroaded "An American Odyssey"
Riding The Rails: A Portal To The Past
Thunderous knocks woke Andy out of a deep sleep. “Open the door,” a voice shouted. “We’ve lost control of the train!” Andy leapt to attention, nearly losing his footing as the motion pitched his body forward. Andy braced himself by slamming both palms against the wall of the tiny cabin. “This must be a dream. Trains can’t move this fast.”
The insistent banging on the other side of the door startled him. Pinned in place, the sensation of speed vibrated from his toes to his fingertips. Swiveling slightly, Andy accidentally activated the touch operated door. He watched in amazement as it swung open to expose a uniformed attendant. “Sir, you’re urgently needed in the engineering compartment!” Attempting to straighten his bearing’s Andy shook his head saying aloud, “This has got to be a dream.”
“No sir,” the attendant said. “There’s a serious problem with the mechanical system. That’s why they sent me. No one wanted to wake you. We thought we had it under control. But the train is picking up speed. We’re moving at a clip of about 500 miles per hour. You’re the only one who knows how to fix it. Please sir, we have no more time to talk. We must get to the engine car now!”
Andy followed the uniformed attendant into the narrow corridor. Neon lights blared beyond the glass window. Sleek steel buildings sped by. Transfixed for the briefest moment, Andy was suspended in a state of shock awe and disbelief. Blinking twice he pivoted and caught up to the man in five fluid strides. Mind racing, Andy sensed he on the verge of losing consciousness. Lightheaded, his last lucid thought was a request to the heavens for an answer, “Why is this happening to me?”
“Get up boy.” Connor McGinty sneered kicking Andy’s threadbare pant leg. The painful jolt to Andy’s shin woke him with a start. “Sorry boss, he intoned.” Jumping to attention, Andy wasn’t sorry. He was exhausted. He’d worked three shifts in the colored car back-to-back. Andy was tired of enduring McGinty’s endless racist assaults. He hadn’t accidentally fallen asleep on the floor of the luggage car. Andy passed out from lack of sleep, but McGinty didn’t care. In the month since McGinty had been promoted to Conductor he’d mercilessly goaded Andy. What McGinty really wanted was to bash Andy’s black brains in. McGinty reasoned that is was the only thing he could do to permanently wipe that smug grin off his face.
Demoting Andy from engineer to porter was McGinty’s first action after assuming control at the Spartanburg, South Carolina Train Depot. He limited Andy’s access to the train’s segregated car. McGinty wanted Andy to feel inferior to its darkest-skinned occupants. McGinty who’d done a short stint in the booth collecting fares, took perverse pleasure in extorting money from illiterate Blacks. Knowing their desperation to flee the south, McGinty took unfair advantage. He overcharged then dared them to turn him in for pocketing the overages. Countless people had paid exorbitant fees to sit in poorly ventilated spaces devoid of even the most basic amenities. McGinty was dead set on making sure Andy spent his days in those foul-smelling cramped spaces, lugging over-stuffed suitcases.
Prior to his promotion, McGinty seethed every time he saw Andy consulting with his predecessor, the former Conductor Scott Perry. Now at the helm, McGinty’s aggressions toward Andy were designed to demean and demoralize. McGinty had to be careful to hide his shenanigans from the folks the Klan deemed “Nigger-loving” railroad brass. Making Andy work three shifts in a row could get McGinty fired. Regardless, he’d sworn an oath to the Klan to champion hard-working white men. McGinty perceived Andy’s presence at the train station as an insult to every decent white person in town.
Since McGinty’s ascension to the role of conductor the most prominent white men in Spartanburg sought him out. They expressed outrage at the affront of a black man who had the audacity to work in what clearly was a white man’s role. Though nearly a half century had passed since the Confederacy fell, townspeople still lamented the loss and seethed over the emancipation of Negroes. McGinty was egged on by County Sheriff Clem Colfax who stressed the importance of maintaining the local social order. Clem was a classic good ole’ boy, who pulled double duty as the grand wizard of the Spartanburg County Chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. Of late, McGinty and Clem conspired to coordinate a contingent of nightriders.
Andy steeled his resolve to endure every micro-aggression his recently appointed supervisor doled out. “McGinty’s an ass-kissing, imbecile who’s dumber than a box of rocks.” This refrain from his former boss, Conductor Scott Perry, soothed Andy’s troubled mind. He was comforted by the knowledge that his tenure under McGinty would be brief. Perry assured Andy that he’d filed transfer papers. Perry was a man of his word. When he said he was going to do something, it was as good as done. This thought helped Andy ignore McGinty’s nightmarish treatment. Soon Andy would be employed as an Engineer at the St. Louis train yard, where he’d again be able to contribute his expertise.
What troubled Andy most was the longer term effect of McGinty’s shortcomings on the train’s staff and passengers. Andy knew it was only a matter of time until McGinty ultimately made a decision that led to a lethal mistake. Andy didn’t know what it would be. Nor did he know when it would happen. He prayed that when it did, no one would die because of it.
McGinty rationalized his mistreatment of Andy as payback for stealing a white man’s space in college. More specifically, the space he deserved. McGinty was convinced that Irishmen not Negro men were at a disadvantage in America. He hated the uppity niggers of his youth who paraded around New York City, while his family had nothing. McGinty saw it as his sworn duty to the Klan to make Andy’s life hell on earth. His first unofficial order was to skirt railroad policy to demote Andy.
Taking away Andy’s title was easy. Changing his pay was impossible. The fact that Andy made more than him galled McGinty. One of the things they discussed at Klan meetings was the way pay scale rules had backfired. Long ago, the vaunted white men who established the train depot linked salary to level of education. Stringently enforced to keep all but white men out, the rule was now working against them.
Andy’s college degree served as bane of Colin McGinty’s existence. A degree is what McGinty coveted and lacked. A Negro attaining an engineering degree was unprecedented. But that’s exactly what Andy had. He’d graduated first in his class in 1906. Andy followed in the footsteps of his first cousin. William Walter Smith was the first Black man to confer an engineering degree in America. Andy’s entire family had always championed education. His cousin’s accomplishment was the reason Andy chose to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
Andy believed racism was coming to an end in the United States. Men like McGinty stood in the path of progress. Andy would soon learn that in the eyes of southern white men, skin color casted a pall on every degree. In the backwoods of South Carolina, Andy’s bachelor’s degree in engineering equated to little more than a meaningless scrap of paper.
Growing up in the slums of New York City, McGinty’s immigrant father indoctrinated his impressionable young son with hatred. The senior McGinty labored as a dock worker for low wages. He blamed the southern exodus of the formerly enslaved for stealing white men’s jobs. Escaping a dead-end life was how McGinty’s landed in South Carolina. Yet his mind remained mired in the muck of the past. That’s why he found it so easy to unload his ire onto Andy.
McGinty’s father died a pauper, passing on a legacy of hate to his 10 children. Born on Ellis Island in the waiting room as his family disembarked from Ireland, Connor McGinty escaped speaking with the brogue of his brothers. Coddled and spoiled as a child, McGinty’s bitterness stemmed from a glass half-empty attitude. Gratitude escaped him as it had his family. Alcohol introduced at an early age was the most likely catalyst of vitriol rants. The McGinty Clan shared the tendency to off-load blame for personal shortcomings. They fixated on the advantages of others to explain and excuse their bad behavior.
McGinty was a power-hungry bully and drunkard. He’d risen from the ranks of laying railroad tracks to the position of conductor. McGinty would never confess that he’d been put in place by the Klan to take down Andy, who they saw as destabilizing a solid system. The Klan’s network crisscrossed the country, snaking into every organization in America. McGinty was embraced by the brotherhood after marrying into the Trimble family. Staunch Klan supporter Thomas Trimble had been an ardent supporter of McGinty. One conversation was all it took for Trimble to understand that he’d found a willing puppet in McGinty.
Eleanor ‘Elly’ Trimble was heiress to Peachtree Plantation. Penniless, her family had once reigned supreme as the largest slaveholders in South Carolina. The Civil War claimed the death of all four of her brothers and the ensuring enforcement of the “Emancipation Proclamation” drained nearly all the family’s financial resources. Elly’s introduction to Connor McGinty by her father began with the splendor of fairytale proportions. Elly’s parents rejoiced as their courtship blossomed. They spoke in hopeful tones about Connor’s ability to restore the shell of the ramshackle mansion to what it once was in its glory days.
Marrying Elly, the only surviving child of Thomas Trimble rectified the Connor’s problematic Irish last name. When McGinty first arrived in the South Carolina town, his surname served as a stumbling block. Under the banner of holy matrimony McGinty ditched Catholicism (rarely practiced) for Christianity which he practiced even less. The shift allowed him to seamlessly blend into a world that was increasingly intolerant of differences.
Painfully shy and plain faced at age-27, Elly had not entertained one, gentlemen caller. Her father’s dinner invitation to McGinty’s changed that. Unconventionally good-looking, Elly was initially wary of Connor’s advances. But his frequent visits both warmed and charmed her. There was no way for Elly to anticipate that she’d become more punching bag and sexual surrogate than wife. Elly knew Connor’s secret. He desired men. He’d done a good job of hiding up until their wedding night. Elly had wholeheartedly fallen in love with Connor. The truth of who he was and what he wanted became obvious in the span of an hour. Connor had gotten rip roaring drunk at their reception. Later that night, he exposed himself commanding Elly to drop to her knees.
Shocked, Elly drawled that she was a virgin. Hearing those words infuriated McGinty. He drew back his fist and punched her in the stomach. Doubled over in pain, McGinty proceeded to rip her mother’s Victorian lace wedding dress to shreds. Gawking at her naked body, Connor snorted in disgust, “You’re ugly all over.” Those words cut Elly deeply. Mind in a fog, she relented as her husband shoved her roughly onto the bed. He held down her thin wrists in one hand and lowered his head, biting each nipple so hard that she screamed out in agony. Aroused, McGinty attempted to penetrate her.
Contact with dry pink flesh immediately deflated his erection. Undeterred he flipped Elly on her stomach and began grinding his flaccid penis against the crack of her behind. Tears that fell in torrents, gave way to heavy sobs. Hearing evidence of Elly’s pain excited McGinty. He hardened and groaned like an animal as he sadistically sodomizing her. The whole ordeal lasted less than a minute. McGinty, in a drunken stupor rolled off her and passed out. Elly cried herself to sleep. She resigned herself to the fact that this is what the rest of her life would be. The birth of their first child solidified McGinty’s status as one of the… good ole’ boy’s. His occasional Sunday appearances at the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg upheld the illusion of the idyllic, young, progressive southern family.
Married for a decade, Elly McGinty was terrified of her husband’s violent mood swings. His hair-trigger Irish temper would flare at the slightest provocation. The nights following a Klan meeting were the worst. Her husband would return home in a rage, stoked by the awful men who fueled his delusions. Elly knew McGinty would never visibly hurt her or their children. The psychological and physical abuse would forever stay hidden behind the closed doors of the mansion. However, Elly feared for the lives of others. Over the past two weeks, Klansmen frequently gathered in the parlor. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she knew they were plotting something atrocious. Elly didn’t know exactly what it would be. Nor did she know when it would happen. She prayed that whatever it was no one get seriously hurt.
McGinty was practically giddy about the Klan gathering later that evening. He worked himself into a fit looking for Andy. Finding him asleep in the baggage car yielded a physical effect. Looking down on Andy’s lean muscled body and smooth dark skin stirred his loins. McGinty licked his lips, imagining what Andy would look like naked. Shame for what he felt sparked McGinty’s temper. In response, he kicked Andy’s shin as hard as he could. Seeing the pain in Andy’s eyes gave McGinty the same type of pleasure he felt when he hurt Ally. Stepping into Andy’s personal space, McGinty barked, “Boy don’t let me catch you laying down on the job again. You’re just lazy. Get out here. Go home. I can’t stand to look at your black face another minute.”
Andy didn’t dare reply. Lynching’s, throughout the south were on the rise. Andy held his tongue and nodded at the dullard McGinty. Keeping an eye on him, Andy inched toward the cargo door and slipped out. The man was an impossible ignoramus. Of late, McGinty had gotten into the habit of pushing and tripping Andy to provoke him to react. Stepping out into the night air helped Andy compose his fuzzy mind. He had a five-mile hike back to the boarding house. To remain alert Andy allowed his thoughts to wander to happier times.
Underneath the light of the stars, Andy stopped and stared at the heavens to conjure images of his commencement ceremony. A recording stored in the deepest recesses of his mind replayed his family’s cheers as he proudly strode across the stage. That had been four years ago. The first, unfruitful, tinged with the sting borne of the inability to find employment. Andy’s elation at returning home to Chicago was soon replaced with sadness. Plentiful engineering opportunities mysteriously disappeared when he showed up to apply. A letter inquiring how he was faring from a former college professor offered a glimmer of hope.
Andy fought the urge to pen a reply stating all was well. Instead, he poured his heart out on the page. Andy addressed the futility of his situation. Sharing the unvarnished truth provided a key that unlocked a hidden door. The professor’s best friend worked as the Conductor in charge of the Spartanburg, South Carolina Train Depot. As fate would have it an engineering position had just opened. Should Andy agree to relocate the job would be his. The following week, his new boss Scott Perry sent a formal offer of employment via telegram with instructions to pick up an advance from the Chicago Western Union Office. Andy nearly fainted at the teller window when the man handed over three crisp $100 bills.
Leaving his family in Illinois was hard, yet Andy relished the opportunity to apply his engineering education. Scott Perry, the Conductor who hired him at the Spartanburg Train Station was a decent man. Perry treated Andy with the respect due an intellectual equal. Perry sang Andy’s praises all over town. Perry arranged for the Charleston Gazette to print an article about his depth of knowledge and attention to detail in 1909.
The period between attending college and plying his professional craft had been among the best years of Andy’s life. Those experiences built to what might have been his crowning achievement. After two years on the job, Perry nominated Andy for membership in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Inclusion into the union (had he been accepted) would have distinguished Andy as its first African American member. Yet that would never come to pass.
A resounding cacophony of racists raised their voices to prevent it from happening. Scott Perry’s willingness to support Andy, became his downfall. After the newspaper article ran, South Carolinian’s cast Perry in the role of villain… labelled him a “Nigger Lover.” As a result, the railroad brass relocated Perry to St. Louis. On the heels of the union debacle, Perry was replaced with good ole’ boy Connor McGinty. In short order, McGinty leveraged Andy’s union application as a rallying cry to reinvigorate clan members.
Andy wondered what had happened in McGinty’s life that caused him to turn into such a human horror. “I know there’s a reason for everything.” Andy said aloud while looking up into the night stars that lit the sky. He reflected on Reverend Ingram’s Sunday sermon. Gods plan was infinite. Life on earth was finite. “I know you didn’t bring me this far to forsake me.” Andy said, “Please, I’m asking for the answer.”
The rumbling of hooves startled Andy, he turned to see ghost riders in white robes. Andy panicked and ran. The ground shook as Klan members moved in on horseback. Seemingly out of nowhere a lasso encircled his body, pinning his arms to his side. The rope tightened, knocked him off his feet and drug him into a clearing where his head collided with a tree. The skin on his body burned as Andy inhaled dust. Rolling onto his side, Andy caught a glimpse of Sheriff Colfax’s shiny black Model T. A throng of men in white robes surrounded him. They cursed spat and kicked his body. Oddly, Andy felt no pain.
Laying on his back, starlight illuminated the rope that hung from the tree above him. Andy’s body was numb, but his mind was clear. McGinty stepped forward and yanked the hood covering his face off. Smiling he sneered, “Welcome to your necktie party nigger boy.” Frigid, Andy stared impassively into the eyes of McGinty’s as he raised a baseball bat over his head with both arms. McGinty froze for a moment. That look would haunt him for the rest of his miserable life. Andy didn’t blink or wince as the full force of the bat bashed his skull open. Lightheaded, his last lucid thought was a request to the heavens for an answer. “Why is this happening to me?”
Peace be still sang the angels. Their whispered words softly caressed Andy’s ear as energy drained from his body. The fragrant floral aroma of lavender tickled his nose. Eyelids aflutter, Andy realized he was transitioning. He was floating in the space in between. There was nothing to fear. There was no pain or sorrow or regret. There was only love. It was the end of yet another reality. Andy’s mind awakened to the knowledge that the date of this death coincided with date of his rebirth. It was a repeating cycle that had continued across centuries. Floating in a state of pure awareness, Andy was propelled toward the final action that would complete the cycle of all his past lives.
Joy heightened the sensation of Andy’s conscious state. “To save them.” An ethereal voice uttered. That’s the answer. Andy’s vision was restored. A movie featuring himself in the many roles he’d played across centuries made sense of his struggles. The final scene captured his body running down the aisle of a speeding train. His soul surveyed the shape of the man he was. How… Andy wondered could a consciousness so large fit inside a being so small.
Existing in the state of nothingness clarified everything. The end played out the summer of 3022, as Andy’s body raced toward the engine car. Engineering knowledge accumulated over successive lifetimes, uniquely equipped him with the skills to stop the train before it crashed into Chicago’s Union Station. This was Andy’s date with destiny. This moment made sense of all the others. This was his entry into eternity.
Andy’s soul watched his body take control and clear the engine room. He dispatched staff, with orders to safely secure the train’s 25,000 occupants. Andy instinctively knew he would not survive the impact of the crash. He would be its sole casualty. The name Andrew Lester Crim would finally make it into the history books. He would be immortalized as the engineering genius who prevented what would have been the worst train crash in the world. As the credits flashed the associated names of supporting cast included both saints and sinners. The last clip was from a collage of newspapers, representing every major city and small town on the face of the earth.
A full body photo (captured in 3002) featured Andy poised beside the last high-speed train he’d ever work on. He’d assumed a similar pose beside many different models of trains in each lifetime. Each picture an interwoven thread that bound the fabric of all his past lives. Each taken when he was 28 exactly years old. Each showcasing the same handsome face engaging smile and fit frame.
Every newspaper headline on June 19, 3022 - heralded Andrew Lester Crim as a hero. Every article detailed the accolades and accomplishments due a man lauded as the world’s foremost authority on railroad engineering. Seemingly born with an encyclopedic memory, Andy was the youngest person to ever be accepted into the freshmen class at Harvard University. Four years later, he matriculated to MIT, completing his master’s coursework in electrical engineering. Andy turned 21 years-old, a month after his doctoral hooding at John Hopkins.
The mortal existence of Andrew Lester Crim was returned to the cosmos on his co-mingled birth/death date: June 19, 3022. He fulfilled his purpose and became a star. His energy will exist for all eternity to shine a ray of light into the darkness.
About the author
“Someday my words are going to change the world by bridging the gap between diverse people.” Those words are etched on my psyche and motivate me to push the boundaries of possibility. Pivoting (2022) to write fantasy/historical/fiction.