Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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 Chapter 30


Lebanon, Ohio, February 20th, 1942

Klaus Seydlitz stepped out on to the caboose platform with the conductor close behind him. The driving wind and snow that had buffeted them all the way from Dayton now obliged him to hold on to his hat with one hand and the railing with the other. They had slowed to a few miles an hour as they passed the Lebanon station, and Klaus dropped easily to the platform. Waving good-bye to the conductor, he turned into the gale and marched slowly up the hill to the town.

The plans were somewhat complex. Klaus was on an inspection trip with particular reference to a new passing track that had recently been put in just north of Lebanon. Paul Harker was coming on the next train, from New York via Dayton, and they would meet for lunch in Lebanon. Harker would then continue to Cincinnati while Klaus would go on to Dayton, where he would spend the night. If Harker's report was good, Klaus would take the train to New York the next day.

There was accumulated snow on the deserted streets, and drifts were already piled high against the buildings. The light seemed to come, not from the invisible sky, but from the snow on the ground. While Klaus knew that it was just after eleven in the morning, there was no rosiness anywhere, and not even the kind of light which made the snow look white. There were instead only shades of gray, darker where there were buildings. In the resulting gloom, Klaus clumped and fought his way up the hill to the welcoming sight of Ohio's oldest hotel.

It always amused Klaus, as a European, when Americans boasted of the antiquity of something built in 1832. He admitted that an impressive number of presidents and statesmen had stayed there, and it did look older than it was. He hoped that it would be comfortable and warm, and that the food would prove to be as good as it was reputed to be. As he reached the little business district with lights showing through the murk, he was happy that the Golden Lamb, unlike so many other old hotels, had survived the depression.

Klaus entered to find a small lobby with benches arranged around a roaring fire. There were a number of men, rather elderly, sitting bolt upright on the spare hard- looking wood. They all had newspapers, and seemed to be, not refugees from the storm, but people engaging in a daily ritual. Klaus took a seat in a large soft chair in a corner, still near enough the fire to be warm. It was also near a window that overlooked the hill down to the station. While he could only sometimes make out the station building, he was anxious to see Paul Harker arrive.

In the short time since Harker had been on the job, he had found the C, L, and N a surprising amount of business. They had accepted southbound freight only, but there were at least a dozen trains a day, not counting the engines returning light with their cabooses. The line was now making money, but that hardly mattered. Unfortunately, and much more important, the freight business was of the wrong kind.

Far from a vast conveyor-belt operation taking empties, particularly empty tank cars, to the south, the consist was made up, for the most part, of loaded box cars. Still, it was much better than the preceding months of almost complete inactivity because it kept the train crews up to scratch and helped prepare them for the rush Klaus hoped was coming.

The C, L, and N operation was also slightly mitigating the congestion in the Cincinnati yards. Since those yards were always close to crisis, even a small contribution was worthwhile. But Klaus had always had much bigger ideas. Much would depend on whether Harker had been able to negotiate anything with the major railroads in New York.

People were beginning to drift from the lobby into the dining room, and Klaus remembered how early his breakfast had been. Not only that, it was virtually impossible to predict when the next train would arrive. Freights were leaving Dayton only as train loads accumulated, and it might easily be an hour or more before the next one. Moreover, Harker might not be on it. Klaus decided to go in to eat. He would eat again with Harker when he arrived.

Klaus was seated next to another window with much the same view. With luck, he would have some warning when Harker came. In that case, he would finish eating, pay his bill, and return to the lobby. When Harker entered, he wouldn't mention that he had already eaten.

Klaus had hardly settled himself properly when the head waitress led in two girls of college age, and seated them across the narrow aisle from him. Lunch at the Golden Lamb was obviously a bit of an occasion for them, and they rustled their clothes excitedly as they sat down. Klaus would certainly not have attempted to eavesdrop, but, seemingly unconscious of his presence, they spoke without inhibition as they continued their previous conversation. One asked,

"How would you describe me? I know I'm not fat, but am I chunky?"

As the other girl replied tactfully, Klaus couldn't help chuckling to himself. He had been thinking about war and railroads so much for such a long time as to be almost entirely isolated from a world in which such things mattered. After a minute, he stole a glance at the girl whose chunkiness was in question. When she came in, he had seen her only vaguely, but had thought her pretty. He now saw that she really was rather thick in the body. Her clothes were probably carefully chosen to minimize that fact. If she didn't go around asking people if she were chunky, most people wouldn't notice.

Having nothing else to do, Klaus continued to listen to the conversation. The chunky girl went to a small women's college, and was in Lebanon to attend the funeral of a grandparent. The other, who complained, in a whisper, of having too small a bust, had gone to high school with her. The small-busted one was now working as a secretary in the insurance agency down the street.

It seemed to Klaus that they carefully didn't talk about boy friends, although both were attractive enough to have some. There were just a very few references to "what you wear when you go out," and to "finding something besides the movies to do on a date around here."

They also talked of experiences at school and work, but more about clothes than anything else. There were discussions of skirt length, and the appropriateness of full skirts for school and work. There was also a good deal of talk of shades of color and a discussion of whether one could get away with complements such as a bright blue blouse and an orange skirt with a little brown in it. On the last score, both conversants thought not. A gray skirt or a brown blouse would be better.

Klaus, not normally much interested in such conversations, became fascinated. How long could they talk without mentioning the war? He was sure that there would eventually be some reference to it. He began to form hypotheses about the way in which it would enter the conversation. He knew that these girls, somewhere around twenty, would surely want to marry. But their actual and potential boy friends would soon be sent away, probably for years. Some of them would be killed. Klaus, with his interest in Freud, was willing to admit that such a concern could remain partly unconscious. But there would still be some giveaway!

Finally, with the arrival of dessert, the reference came. The chunky girl asked the other,

"How are you doing on stockings? Everyone I know has been hoarding them."

Klaus almost smote himself on the forehead. He should have known! He had overlooked the obvious on the basis of a theory.

Klaus had just put his money on the table, including a generous tip, when he heard a steam whistle. Immediately forgetting the girls, he looked out. The wind had now increased to the point of rattling the windows ominously, and the snow had certainly not slackened. Still, there was a barely discernible trail of black smoke above the vague outlines of buildings and trees. The black mass of the locomotive then hove into sight and drifted easily along. It looked to Klaus as if it was slowing to let a man drop from the caboose, as he had done, but he couldn't be sure. It might easily be wishful thinking.

After a couple of dozen cars had passed, Klaus was sure that the train was slowing. There was a brief improvement in visibility as the little yellow caboose appeared, a bright spot in the otherwise grim scene. It was just possible to see a figure, presumably Harker, detach itself from the rear platform. Klaus, horrified, saw it do a complete somersault, get up, and then fall again. Concerned for the well-being of his new employee, he rushed out for his hat and coat.

The wind was directly behind Klaus, and it felt as if it might blow him down the hill. Paul Harker was at the bottom, struggling in the opposite direction. Klaus had never realized how awkward Harker was. Instead of lowering his head and stepping purposefully, he proceeded in an odd crabwise manner, slipping often and flailing with his arms to no useful purpose.

Harker's way of combatting the blizzard was, nevertheless, appropriate in an odd way. His brand of super- salesmanship wasn't regular, mechanical, or even very rational. It involved images, fears, and dreams. Even when he was dealing with the most prosaic railroad matters, there were fantasies under the surface. It was this element, a barely controlled incipient hysteria, that riveted the attention of his quarry, drew him in, and allowed no escape.

Of course, all this had to be concealed, or Harker would never be allowed in the door in the first place. It was only in his absurd attempts to deal with the blizzard that one saw him unmasked. It was easy to see how hopeless he would be at any ordinary mundane job.

The greeting was, in the circumstances, somewhat abbreviated, but Klaus managed to inquire whether the other had been hurt in his fall from the train. Harker said not, but didn't refuse Klaus' hand on his arm as they made their way back up the hill.

Klaus was glad that the waitresses didn't give him away when he and Harker sat down at the same table he had had before. The girls were now gone, and Klaus could wait no longer to ask how things had gone. Harker answered,

"I'm not altogether sure. At the beginning I got nowhere. Everyone knew about the Walnut Hills Tunnel. They all said that no line with a restricted tunnel and such steep grades on each side could play a major role in a wartime transportation system. They said that we've proved nothing by running short light trains. They made it clear that they wouldn't risk a major reorganization of their freight traffic on such doubtful grounds."

Klaus could easily imagine the reaction and nodded sombrely. Harker then continued as the soup arrived.

"But I kept at them, particularly Joe Mansfield of the New York Central. I told him we'll be running long trains, but they'll be empties, and only half the weight of loaded cars. We'll use a couple of big mallets to push the trains up to and through the tunnel. Then there'll be a couple of other big engines to hook on to the front end of the train when it comes out of the tunnel. Mansfield couldn't see any reason why that wouldn't work, but he thought it would be slow."

Harker greedily shoved several spoonfuls of the cream soup into his mouth, and then asked Klaus,

"Did you hear about that those two tankers being torpedoed on the same day?"

"Yes. That made quite an impression on everyone. My wife has an idea that something can be done to aid the civil defenses in Florida, and she's going there."

"Well, that news was what did it for me. I knew all their lines and yards were under intense pressure, more than they'd admit to me. But, when those ships went down, probably with a good many more to come, they saw the writing on the wall. I had Mansfield half convinced already, and he got the others to arrange a test. I hope a week from Friday isn't too soon."

As Harker explained it, they would be given three trains of a hundred or more cars, some loaded, some empty, at their northern terminus at Dayton within the space of an hour and a half. These were to be delivered to the L & N at Latonia, Kentucky. The big railroads would send observers. If the C, L, and N could handle the tonnage expeditiously, the arrangements would be made.

In particular, the New York Central's Big Four division would, most of the time, clear its southbound main line for northbound traffic. This would consist of trains of loaded tank cars received directly from the Southern. These trains wouldn't have anything else added to them, and wouldn't have to be classified at all. Indeed, they wouldn't even enter the Cincinnati yards. Having rolled up from the Gulf of Mexico, New York Central engines would be waiting to couple on the minute the Southern engines had moved away. The trains would thus hardly stop, and that, in itself, would go a long way toward mitigating the Cincinnati problem.

The only question was whether the little C, L, and N could handle a test much more severe than any its founders would ever have imagined.

Klaus said only,

"I've been preparing for such a test for the past ten years. In the last couple of years, I've hardly done anything else. I can't believe that all that work will have been in vain."

Bill Todd -- Klaus: A Railway Novel
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