Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 32

Priestly Garb

The next morning, Sidonie got Speed and myself our outfits, and she then took the train to Eugene. The plan was for us to spend the day in Portland, getting used to being priests, and join her in Eugene the next day.

The first hour in a priest's outfit is bound to be a bit disconcerting for the wearer. People's reactions, particularly in the largely Protestant northwest, are so exaggerated. I met with no hostility, but I did meet people who seemed to have no idea what species of animal I might be. Speed then compounded the problem by leading me into what looked very like a bar for lunch. When I protested, he whispered,

"Priests aren't supposed to be teetotalers. Besides, you were worried that we'd meet a real one. There isn't much risk in here."

I knew enough to order wine instead of beer with my sandwich, but Father Trent had beer. He then struck up a conversation with yet another set of rough-looking men.

Speed really did have the common touch. He convinced the men in short order that priests weren't as bad as they had thought. He even got them laughing. While I have several times resorted to priestly garb in the intervening years, I have never managed to get anyone to laugh when I was so costumed.

After lunch, Speed and I wandered around the city, made some purchases in stores, and struck up conversations with various sorts of persons. I discovered that people are always a little surprised when a priest speaks to them, but then make an effort to be extra polite.

We had dinner with John Henry, the latter dressed in an austere and impressive blue suit. By that time, we had decided that we were missionaries, just returned from Africa, and that we were a bit out of touch with recent developments at home. That might account for some of our awkwardness, even if we did meet a real priest. John Henry would, of course, be one of our converts.

By the end of the evening, when I carefully brushed and hung up my outfit, I had come to rather like being a priest. It certainly sets one apart, but in a rather nice way. Everyone assumes that one is terribly good and terribly pure. As I said to Speed,

"All it takes is a benign little smile to slide effortlessly through society."

Speed rejoined,

"It won't be so effortless if you get in trouble in a priest's outfit and they find out you aren't one."

I was rather surprised. It seemed that Sidonie had told Speed about the incident of the previous evening. She must also have warned him of what I was likely to do and enjoined him to keep me out of trouble. I agreed in a vacant way and prepared for bed.

When Sidonie met us at the Eugene station the next day, I had another peculiar set of sensations. I had never become so convinced that I possessed this beautiful young woman that I was enjoined, by Kierkegaard's philosophy, to doubt it. The upshot was that I did believe that the young lady smiling mischievously at me was my wife, but I also believed, with something like the same intensity, that I was a recently returned missionary priest.

I was not, however, quite sure how the priest should set about greeting his wife. A kiss of the sort that I strongly desired to give seemed not at all the thing. On the other hand, did priests shake hands? I was inclined to think not. Instead, I mumbled and made some show with my hands, not entirely sure whether I was crossing myself or blessing Sidonie. Speed embraced her in what he evidently took to be an avuncular way. At any rate, he had left off addressing me as "captain."

Walking away from the station, Sidonie was full of Cindy's new boy friend, whom she had met the night before.

"His name is Axel Olsen, and he looks just like a Viking. As striking as he is, his looks might disconcert some people. But his personality makes all the difference. He's open and spontaneous and fun. I can't imagine how anyone would dislike him."

I replied,

"Cindy's representing herself as a married woman on the loose, isn't she?"

"Yes. Axel isn't bothered in the slightest. He jokes about husbands who've taken pot shots at him, but he doesn't seem wicked or mean. He just makes you realize that any healthy young man would want to have affairs with healthy young women, married or not."

Speed gave me an amused look. It wasn't hard to imagine Cindy and Sidonie sharing this extraordinary young man. Sidonie then continued,

"Of course, Cindy has a problem. Axel was out of town during the troubles, but he's heart and soul with the men, and he's all set to pitch in. Cindy really wants to marry him, but she doesn't dare tell him who she really is."

Speed pointed out,

"If she did, she'd put us in a hell of a spot."

"She knows that, and she's a good soldier. But Cindy isn't interested in play-acting the way I am, even though she's done a lot. She now wants to be honest and open the way Axel is. He'll tell you anything you want to know about himself, no matter what. It's very unbalanced if Cindy has all these secrets."

I could say only,

"I guess she'll have to go on having them. If she does marry him, something will have to be worked out. But Axel doesn't sound like the marrying kind. If Cindy's going to be disappointed again, she might as well pretend to be married all the way along."

"I don't think you can understand what it's like to be a woman in Cindy's position."

Speed assured her, in a way that didn't sound overly sincere to me,

"No man can. What else should we know about Axel?"

"He's angrier than I would have thought possible. If he knew you were here, and knew who you were, I think he'd attack you with his bare hands. Right on the spot. And, of course, he's the nicest and best balanced of the lot."

While Sidonie and I were on quite good terms at this point, her tone, just for a moment, suggested that she might not be so very displeased to see Axel beat up Speed and myself. Indeed, I was sure that Cindy and Sidonie both had a strong inclination to side with Axel and the men against us. It was hardly surprising. How could either Speed or I compete with an exciting young man? I was pretty sure that Cindy would be loyal enough to resist all temptations to go over the hill, but I determined to keep Sidonie away from Axel as much as possible.

The hotel was not, needless to say, the one we had patronized on our previous trip to Eugene. This was a small one, only a few blocks away, and I did remember it as being on our line of march to the Eugene yards a week previously. Sidonie said that it was nice, even luxurious, and that it was much used by the parents of students at the university.

We were still in view of the tracks when I heard a familiar sound, and looked back just in time to see one of our turbine engines passing at speed. I had started them running again the day after our victory in the Eugene yards, at least partly with the idea that their daily passing would help convince people of the inevitability of our coming and of the changes we intended to make. According to Sidonie, they were doing that and more.

"Through Axel, Cindy's met some of the other men. Some of them were beaten up in that fight they had with you in the yards. You apparently made quite an impression and convinced them that it was pointless to try anything on that large a scale. But, every morning, when they hear or see the new engines, it makes them furious all over again. They can sometimes see into the cab enough to see that the men are black, and that makes them even madder."

It turned out that a little group, often including Axel, gathered at the station every morning with signs to protest the passing of the engine. Sidonie added, with a smile,

"Axel and the others are probably out there now. If you want to test your disguises, we could swing by and meet them."

Neither Speed nor I was terribly keen to do that just yet, and we pleaded the necessity of getting our luggage to the hotel.

It was, indeed, a pretty little place, and Cindy was there in the lobby to greet us. It hadn't been long since I had seen her, but she seemed to have taken on an entirely new look. It was quite an elegant one, featuring a new hairstyle and new clothes, and Speed actually whistled when he saw her. I noticed a surprised look from the bell captain standing nearby which intensified when Speed embraced Cindy in his usual fashion. Cindy, a little embarrassed, explained,

"I thought that a rich but disaffected wife might dress like this and stay in a place like this."

Sidonie added,

"She's been a rich disaffected wife all along. The new element is Axel."

Axel obviously did make a difference. At the moment, however, I was more concerned with the question of whether or not I would be recognized in Eugene. When I asked Cindy, she replied,

"People just don't look at priests the same way. It won't occur to the men that they've seen you before. And, of course, Axel was away at the time. You needn't worry about meeting him."

I was sure that what Cindy most wanted was for me to meet Axel and render a favorable opinion on him. Since he was coming to lunch, I would soon have the chance.

We then went upstairs and settled into our various rooms, Speed and I sharing one. Seeing me unpack, he asked,

"Are you really going to sleep here?"

"I think so. Maids can tell which beds have been slept in, and I don't want any rumors. The next thing might be a delegation of railwaymen to see to the fake priests."

Speed obviously thought I was being ridiculous. Admitting as much, I went across the hall to Sidonie's room and knocked on the door. She opened it a crack, and then pretended to be shocked that a priest wished to enter. Seeing that another action fantasy was well under way, I claimed to have mistaken the room number and went down to the lobby. Cindy was there alone, and she greeted me, saying,

"Axel isn't due for another fifteen minutes, but he sometimes turns up early."

I felt slightly odd with Cindy, I suppose because my previous intimacy with her couldn't very well be maintained now that I was married. She, on the other hand, seemed perfectly comfortable with me, and told me again how much she liked Sidonie. She then added,

"I know you think this is just one of my things, and that Axel will leave me the same way Dave did. But I'm more attractive and confident now. I'm not a woman men are always going to want to leave."

I added my assurances. Cindy did look better. She also looked older, and, while women don't usually want to look older, Cindy had previously looked so young that men might have been inclined not to take her seriously.

When Axel entered, he waved familiarly to the clerk, and proceeded in our direction. He did look like a Viking, but a pleasantly disposed one. Cindy had evidently told him that he would be meeting a friend of hers, but hadn't told him that the friend was a priest.

Although surprised, Axel was the first person I had met in my priestly outfit who didn't seem to think that I had to be treated in any extraordinary way. Unfortunately, he was curious about my experiences in Africa, and I had to invent quickly and not very plausibly. Cindy changed the subject to the only one that could be guaranteed to take precedence over others, the recent disturbances on the railway. Axel explained readily enough,

"We don't mean to be violent, but we don't like being taken for fools. Garner's taken over a whole mess of railways one by one, and, each time, he replaces the men, one union at a time. He usually starts with the engineers, and here he is doing the same thing to us."

I made sympathetic noises, affecting ignorance of the railway scene in America. Axel continued, in an engaged but reasonable tone of voice,

"My father and grandfather've both worked on the SP all their lives, and I've busted my butt trying to keep the engines in steam. I figure I've as much right to my job as anybody has to anything."

Axel smiled as he finished, and I could hardly fail to voice agreement. Indeed, I was at least half convinced in reality. It was no wonder that Cindy and Sidonie had gravitated so readily to his point of view. I wished that we could hire Axel ourselves, but was fairly certain that he would refuse to join us on the ground that he would be betraying his comrades. Just then, Speed came up with Sidonie. Axel laughed when he was confronted with yet another priest, and I retired thankfully into the background.

A little later, in our room, Speed said to me,

"I found out why Cindy really called us."

Speed and Cindy had always gotten on well together. It wasn't, I think, a matter of sex. It was just that the disowned daughter of a primitive Bible-belt minister and the partially disowned scion of the family who had provided Louisville with the Speed Art Museum had more in common with each other than either had with the rest of us. In any case, Speed didn't keep me in suspense for very long.

"She thinks Axel and his friends might wreck a train. She doesn't really want to admit to you that her boy friend might do such a thing, but she's desperate to keep him from it."

"I see. No wonder she's frightened. I suppose it's the train pulled by the turbine engine that they might wreck."

"None other."

I was about to suggest stopping them immediately when Speed said,

"If they do wreck a train, it'll discredit their unions, even if the union officers can show they didn't have anything to do with it."

That was true, of course. The unions often lose because most of the measures they can take are perceived as mean and nasty by the general public, whose sympathy they soon lose. If management can paint the union as a dangerous organization with criminal tendencies, the union has no chance.

It was hard to read Speed. How deep did his smiling cynicism go? Would he stand by, with that same smile, and let the men wreck a train?

Our discussion then turned to the means that the men might use. If they cut or removed a rail, the signals would go red, and the train would stop. That was the most likely action. Then there would be a fight if anyone tried to repair the track. Traffic would be stopped, and the men wouldn't even have to strike and forfeit their pay. Of course, we could bring Biggar back down from Portland and get the track repaired, but they could remove a rail somewhere else. We didn't begin to have enough men to patrol the whole line.

We had just settled down into a standard discussion of move and counter-move when Speed smiled again in that unnerving way and said,

"Captain, those guys might be too pissed off to do the rational thing."

When you give up the assumption that people will act rationally, it becomes very difficult to predict what they'll do. Our only clue, really, was the present behavior of the men. They were out there, every morning, in front of the Eugene station with their signs. Some of the signs were large wooden ones, and they waved them at the engine cab, almost hitting it. According to Cindy, they sometimes picked up handfuls of ballast and flung them against the cab. So far, they hadn't broken the windows. Speed concluded,

"Whatever they do, I bet they'll do it right there in front of the station. It'd take planning to organize something somewhere else, but we've already defeated the organized groups. This is a little rump group that acts on impulse."

The next morning at breakfast, Cindy said,

"Axel left last night at ten to meet with some of the men. I think he thinks they're going too far."

That, of course, was intended as a warning to me. Cindy apparently didn't know what Speed had told me, but she wanted me to be ready for the worst. After we finished breakfast, Speed and I went to the station. We pretended to be checking the passenger schedule, but we had timed our visit to coincide with the passing of the turbine engine.

There were some fifty people on the platform waiting for a passenger train to Portland, and we mingled with them. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the dozen or so men, Axel among them, waiting with their signs. They were talking casually, and Axel said something that made them laugh. The men certainly didn't look nearly as dangerous as they had in our previous encounters. There were probably some among them who had seen me in my role as general, but I wasn't at all concerned about being recognized.

A little before ten, an official came out of the station to warn us of the speed of the new engine, urging us to keep well back. Everyone already knew about the new engines, and, judging from the talk on the platform, they were a prime subject for conversation.

When the turbine engine appeared around the bend and entered the long straight approach to the station, Speed and I seemed to be the only ones watching Axel and his friends, some fifty yards distant. I could see their faces just clearly enough to see the transformation as the engine approached. Even Axel looked ready to kill. Indeed, with his hair almost white-yellow and his extraordinary blue eyes blazing, he suddenly looked very dangerous indeed.

As the engine passed, one of the men took his large wooden sign and smashed it against the cab. It wasn't high enough to break the windows, but, at that speed, the sign splintered into small fragments. The man was left holding a small stick in his hand, the very picture of frustration. I looked at Speed, but he only nodded and said,

"That's life in the big city."

Since we were in a small college town, his remark made virtually no sense. Indeed, it reminded me that many of the things he said made little sense on the surface. On the other hand, I was sure that they were somehow connected with thoughts which were largely hidden but which did make sense. I had originally wanted someone with a wholly independent view who could look at the world with irony and arrive at novel solutions to problems. I now had what I wanted, but I was reminded of the ancient curse, "May you have everything you have ever dreamed of."

When we got back to the hotel, we told Cindy what had happened. She seemed concerned, but still hesitant to describe that concern in detail. Pleading an errand, I left her with Speed.

It occurred to me that Cindy was almost as much out of phase as Speed. She was a wonderfully good girl, kind, loyal, and brave. I trusted her, really, more than I did Sidonie. But good girls weren't supposed to go to bed with any man who turns up. I knew she did it partly out of generosity, but girls were supposed to be generous in other directions. On the other hand, where Speed's moral deviation rendered him unreliable in that dimension, Cindy simply had a different kind of morality, one that could be entirely relied on.

At dinner, Speed informed me that Cindy was having Axel over to spend the whole night, and that he, Father Speed, was to come by about nine with a bottle of whiskey. He remarked that Sidonie was also joining them, and he then paused, seemingly a little embarrassed. Speed wasn't usually embarrassed, and it turned out that he was afraid that I would also want to join the party. I reassured him by saying,

"I'm having enough trouble being a priest without trying to be a whiskey priest. I'll leave that to you."

The next morning, Sidonie didn't want to get up, and I went down to breakfast with Speed. There was no sign of Cindy Lee, or, for that matter, of Axel. Speed was in a ribald mood, but I led the conversation in other directions before he could indulge himself.

I suppose that we each separately supposed that we would watch the train come through. In the event, we sat in the hotel lobby for a while, still without seeing the others, and left about nine thirty. When we approached the station, Speed said,

"There's a little rise on the other side of the track that gives a good view of the whole approach to the station and well beyond."

I let Speed lead me past the station, with its platform again filled with people waiting for the Portland train. I had no desire to mix in with them on a permanent basis, and, while we might be a little conspicuous on the little rise he indicated, it wasn't unusual for people to come out just to see the new engine. Indeed, we had hardly taken up our position when a father came up with his young son and stood near us.

The men were there with their signs, some hundred or more yards beyond the station. They were, in fact, a little further away than the day before, and were positioned just where the line began to curve to the right.

It did seem that they had their hats pulled down and their collars turned up to an unusual degree, but, then, it was a cold day. Even with my black, more or less priestly, overcoat, I felt the wind which riffled through the grass and weeds surrounding us.

I didn't see Axel among the men, and, when I mentioned it to Speed, he replied,

"You won't see Axel for a while. His pants are locked in our room."

Before I could ask why, Speed explained,

"Cindy was afraid he might do something that would get him into trouble this morning. So I gave him lots to drink and she gave him lots of love. Then, just to make sure, she snaffled his pants out to me after he went to sleep."

"That may work for now, but what about tomorrow?"

"She'll have to think of something else."

Some five minutes before the train was due, the little group of men unfurled a banner and stretched it across the track, anchoring it with stakes on both sides. In giant red letters was the word, "STOP." I was frankly alarmed, as was the man beside me, and even his young son. Speed shrugged and said,

"It's going to take a lot more than canvas to stop a locomotive."

Some of the men were behind the banner, but the signals just past the station were green over green. If they really wanted to stop the train, they could have made the signal red by stretching a wire across the tracks. They would have known that no engineer would go past a red signal.

In a way, my main fear was somewhat reduced when I noticed the signal. I had been afraid that the men would stop the train and beat up the engineer and fireman. I now felt pretty sure that the engineer would rip on through.

When we heard the engine whistle its way into Eugene, I wondered again at the banner. Evidently the idea was to appeal to the engineer to stop without going so far as to tamper with the signalling system. That seemed naive.

When the engine came into view, heeling to a curve at sixty five, the engineer must have seen the large banner. He had a good half mile to go, and could have stopped. It quickly became apparent that, if anything, he was picking up speed. I could hardly blame him. Apart from keeping to his schedule, why stop to argue with a group of hostile dissidents?

The engine whooshed by us with that odd noise that I was beginning to like. The banner was still in front of it, but the men who planted it had disappeared. As I was watching the engine break through it, all hell broke loose.

It later turned out that a de-railer had been fixed to the left hand rail just beyond the banner. A de-railer is a steel device which is bolted to a rail and forces the wheel of a car or engine up over the rail and down on the other side. It's commonly used on main line sidings to de-rail any breakaway cars before they can get to the main and foul it. Since it doesn't complete the circuit between the rails, it doesn't itself trigger a red signal.

In the present case, the turbine engine jolted upward and shot off the right-curving tracks to the left. Then, it simply disappeared through the wall of a brick warehouse, almost as if it had never existed. That part happened before the noise, that of an odd hollow thunk, reached us.

The following train didn't quickly disappear. Someone might conceivably have thought that it would follow the engine, but the sudden deceleration was sufficient to jack- knife the cars immediately following the engine. They then formed a huge road-block which caused the rest of the cars to be thrust off the track at great speed. A few came toward us, slamming violently into the rise at our feet and rolling almost up to us. The father yanked his son violently away, and Speed and I jumped back, as it turned out unnecessarily.

While this was going on, there was an ominous rumble, growing to a crescendo, coming from across the way. Most of the cars had gone that way and had ripped through the station, completely demolishing it. Even the roof dropped into the chaos. The noise continued as more and more cars came hurtling up. I could hear the boy screaming right behind me only when the crashing died down.

It was then that I remembered that the platform had been crowded with people. At that moment, there was no sign of them whatever. I cannot remember whether I said anything to Speed. I do remember that he stood there speechless, looking utterly lost.

The aftermath of such a train wreck is unlike anything anyone would ordinarily experience in the course of a lifetime. It cannot be usefully described.

I can say only that some of us did try to find survivors and help them. In such a case it's mostly quite hopeless. Everything is so god-damned heavy that it takes a crane to free anyone.

Amazingly quickly, there materialized some people who were intent on robbing the dead. That's not so hard. A wallet can be slipped out of a pocket without lifting a steel girder with the weight of tons on it. Wearily, Speed and I shooed away a few of these degenerates. We were finally acting as priests might have been expected to act.

It wasn't long before virtually the whole town arrived, including the police and the ambulance people. Having found no one we could save, Speed and I headed back to the hotel.

On the way back, we met Cindy and Axel, the latter in his underpants. I didn't then know about the de-railer, but I was sure that the dissidents had wrecked the train. When I explained about the people on the platform, Axel ran wildly in that direction. Cindy started to follow, but Speed caught her. It took us only a few minutes to convince her that she would only be in the way. I said,

"Anyway, you kept Axel out of it."

If I hadn't been in such a deranged state myself, I wouldn't have said anything so tactless. Cindy collapsed in tears, and we had to half carry her back to the hotel.

The police found the de-railer, still clamped on to the rail, very quickly. The news was all over town within a few hours. That did nothing to console Cindy, although I didn't think that it surprised her so very much. However, it wasn't until that evening that the really awful thought struck her. In a state in which I had never seen her, she asked me, not Sidonie or Speed, whether I thought that Axel, if not detained, might have kept the other men from wrecking the train.

Unfortunately, it wasn't an idea that could be dismissed out of hand. It was hard to think of Axel as a wilfull murderer of innocents, and he was the sort of man that others might have followed. If he had insisted that they not wreck the train, they might not have.

One difficulty consisted in the fact that I could exhonerate Cindy only by claiming that Axel wouldn't have tried to dissuade the men, and was therefore as much a murderer as they. I instead set out to convince her that there was never any basis for any sort of "what if" speculation. I was only marginally successful, but hoped that my arguments were just good enough to allow her natural powers of self-restoration to go to work.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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