The Stranger on the Train
“Do you mind if I sit here young fella” asked the old man in the faded duster? “Help yourself,” I said. Meanwhile I’m thinking great, as if this trip couldn’t get any worse, now I’ve got this old fart sitting next to me and he’s probably gonna talk my ear off. The old man sat down and began to stare out the window, something about him just seemed out of place. I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it. Slowly the train began to pull out of the station at Chicago and continue its long journey westward. It’s not that I mind heading out west for the summer to spend some time with my dad, I haven’t seen him forever, I just can’t believe he would spring for an airplane ticket. This train ride is gonna take like three days to make it all the way to the Spokane terminal.
As the train began to pick up speed and click-clack along the tracks I quietly stare out the window and watch the filth and hustle of the city fade into quiet suburban neighborhoods. Before long, its endless miles of cornfield passing by as the sun begins to slowly fade off into the horizon. Just about the time I finally settle myself back into my seat and go to grab my book to kill some hours, the old man turns towards me and smiles. “First trip on the ol locomotive son?” He asked gingerly. “Yeah, I’m headed out to Spokane to visit family”, I said. “Luke, by the way”, trying to be friendly. I guess if nothing else some small talk with the old man might help to while away the hours I thought to myself.
The old man then, after a long drawn out sigh, introduced himself. “The names James, James Fitzpatrick, and I’m doin a bit of travelin myself. I just got back from the war and I tell ya somethin, I can’t believe how much things have changed since I left.” Oh boy I thought, looks like I’m in for some war stories from this old codger, great. What the hell, I’ve got nothing better to do but sit and listen anyway so I bit. “The war?” I asked inquisitively. “Yes sir, the Great one” he said. “I was stationed over there for eighteen months.” “I’m fixing to head out to Montana and catch up with a fellow I used to work with. He bought a ranch just outside of Helena and I’m going to give him a hand for awhile.” “That sounds cool”, I said, “ever been out west before?” “No sir, but I’ve seen pictures in the storybooks of cowboys and such and it sure looks like a beaut.” James replied. It was almost as though he was thinking aloud.
As the train clattered along, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and into N. Dakota the minutes turned into hours. The two men continued their conversation about a host of topics ranging from swapping stories about their lives to the state of world affairs. Luke glanced down at his phone and noticed it was approaching 4:00 am somewhere outside of Minot, ND. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this whole experience was somehow surreal. It was as though his evening with James kept getting stranger and stranger yet he couldn’t quite pinpoint what exactly it was that was off about it. The old man turned out to be quite pleasant to talk to, though he had a strange wisdom about him. After swapping a few more short stories with each other, both men began to fade off into slumber, not intentionally, the darkness and the hypnotic clanging of the railcar had begun to work their magic. Sometime before dawn, Luke was out cold, his head resting against the backrest, half slumped against his shoulder, with a warm wet smudge of drool pooling on his right cheek.
Luke realized that he must have been out for a while. He awoke to the screeching sound of the train coming to a stop and the intercom announcing its arrival at the West gate to Glacier National park. Bewildered and groggy, Luke glanced at his phone and realized it was almost noon. The early June sunshine beating in the window, Luke began to squint and rub his eyes. After a couple of minutes of sleep induced discombobulation, Luke gained his composure, sat his seat upright and gathered his thoughts. He turned his attention once more back towards the window and realized that the seat beside him was empty and cool. James must have debarked sometime earlier this morning, he thought to himself, as he continued to gather his thoughts.
Just then he caught a glimpse of something laying in the seat beside him out of the corner of his eye. There on the seat, half tucked into the crease between the seat and back section was a little black book. It looked almost like an old journal. Luke reached over and grabbed the book. It was worn and tattered. The black leather binding faded and cracked with age, the seams rubbed smooth from years of wear. Luke carefully removed the elastic binding ring and began to open the book. The pages were yellowed and brittle and the writing contained within was the most ornate cursive he had ever seen. The first page contained what looked to be a journal entry. June 29th 1917. Just arrived in St. Nazaire France. This land seems so exotic for an old farm boy from rural Montana. The French seem very excited to see us. This war should be over in no time…..
Luke continued to read on, each page telling a harrowing account of battle and bravery, of camaraderie, friendship and loss. Dec 7th 1918. I can’t wait to get back home to Betsy and the boys. It’s been so long. What a horrible horrible place this is. Everywhere, nothing but despair and hopelessness. Command Sergeant said I’ll be on the next ship out of here. Hopefully before Christmas. Stay strong, it’s almost over. Luke had been son entranced by reading the entries that he had lost all track of time and space. He was only shaken back to reality when he heard the conductor over the intercom stating, matter of factly, “Next stop, Spokane, ETA 10 mins”. Luke didn’t know what to make of his discovery, it all seemed like a dream at this point. Was the journal left behind by James? Was it intentional? Was James even real or just a figment of his imagination? So many thoughts were swirling around in his head at that moment. Pull yourself together Luke, he thought to himself, I’ll sort this out later. He closed the little black book and replaced the elastic binding ring. As he went to stand up to grab his duffle bag from the overhead compartment, he heard a slight clanging. Something had fallen off of his lap as he stood up. He looked down but didn’t see anything immediately. Luke stepped out into the aisle and perched down on one knee to look around. Suddenly it appeared, a shiny gold coin looking object had landed on the floor, up against the metal seat bracket in front of him. He picked up the object and began to examine it. Huh, he thought as he thumbed over the object. It’s definitely a coin of some sort, I’ve never seen anything like it. The coin, golden and gleaming, reads Liberty on one side and has some sort of eagle on the other. The Liberty side has, what looks like Lady Liberty on it and the roman numerals MCMXVII. He had to stop and think, been a while since I learned my roman numerals. 1917, he realized. Wow, this day just keeps getting odder and odder.
Luke stuffed the coin in his pants pocket, grabbed the little black book and his duffle bag and departed the train. Once on the platform he spotted his dad and waved to signal. As they made their way back to the parking lot, Luke began to tell his father about his experience on the train, about meeting the strange old man and of the little black book and the mysterious coin. On the way back to his dad’s house, Luke showed his father the coin and was immediately met with a gasp of surprise. Oh wow son, that’s a Saint Gaudens double eagle $20 piece. Those things are worth over twenty grand, I can’t believe you just found that on the train. “I know, the whole situation is so strange, the coin and the journal both date from 1917” Luke was telling his father. “What did you say the guy's name was that was sitting by you again?” asked his father. “James Kirkpatric”, Luke said. He could tell immediately something was amiss. His fathers jaw dropped and he became dead quiet. “Luke, your great-grandfather on your mom’s side was named James Kirkpatrick. He was a Montana rancher that got drafted to WWI. He died in the line of duty just days before he was scheduled to ship home. They never recovered his body, your great grandmother was only sent his dog tags and a condolence letter from the United States Army.” Luke’s father went on to explain. “Are you sure that’s what he said his name was?” Luke continued to tell his father about the long conversations that they had on the train, now, beginning to doubt himself as to if the man was even real or, or what exactly. Luke’s mind was still racing when they got back to his father’s house, he didn’t know what to believe anymore. His father went upstairs and returned a few minutes later with an old photograph. “Oh my god dad, that's him, that’s the man I was talking to on the train” Luke sullenly acknowledged. “What just happened?”