It was late August, 1982, I was sitting on a dry, earthen bank, facing a row of concrete buildings that constituted the entirety of the Centralia railway station. Located approximately half way down the coast of Washington State, Centralia was a small, nondescript city, chiefly made up of taverns and feed stores, a place about as dull and obvious as its name.
Keeping one eye on the station, I was minding the tracks to the south, where my older brother Helmut was attempting to force himself into the narrow opening of an idle transport car. “Rusted tight on the inside...” he gasped, cursing under his breath, his broad frame not making it an easy task, muscling his shoulder against the stubborn sliding door, one foot inside the carriage, the other dangling over the tracks below.
I suddenly heard a banging sound, coming from the building at the northernmost end of the line of cars. Rising quickly to my feet, I squinted into the bright afternoon sun. Lying on the loading platform was a sack, the sort they transported mail in. It hadn't been there a moment earlier. “Helmit – Hel-mit!” I called out, as loudly as I dared. “Someone's in the station! Hurry!”
Helmut grunted fiercely. With one mighty effort the car door lurched to the left a precious few inches, just enough for him to bully through into the darkness. A moment later, I saw his hand sticking out, urging me across the tracks. I didn't hesitate, the thought of being caught by a railroad employee putting fear in my heart.
“She's empty – I bet this one hasn't been used in years – get a look at those spider webs – enough to knit a sweater!” he joked, when I was safely inside. His eyes seemed to glow in the black. “Nobody spotted you, I hope.” I shook my head, sure I'd avoided detection. Saying a silent prayer, I felt the leather case strapped about me, my thoughts on the two dozen rolls of film I'd shot over the past two weeks, already anticipating getting it into the darkroom I'd rigged in the upstairs bathroom back home in Pittsburgh. Following Helmut's lead, I crept back into the shadowy interior of the metal car, feeling cobwebs against the nape of my neck. As we settled down, only inches from one another, Helmut chuckled softly, pulling a small packet of rolling papers from his shirt pocket. He began to build himself a cigarette, proceeding with uncanny ease, instinct, not vision, being his guide. I'd experienced the same routine countless times since we'd made our way into that first rail car, back in Seattle, some fifteen days earlier, an afternoon which now seemed a lifetime ago.
Helmut Vogel was a restless man, just as he'd been a restless boy. Not once in his forty-two years do I remember him staying still for more than a few moments at a time. Growing up, I'd often feel his large hands about my collar, yanking me away from a favorite comic book or daydream, forcing me to accompany him on some new misadventure, my heart heavy and conflicted, for I knew we'd soon to be up to no good, but I also knew it was bound to be the most exciting half hour of my week. I'd never dare such things alone, but Helmut was fearless. I'd more than once seen him stand up to a man a good ten years his senior. I really had no choice but to play his silent and abiding sidekick.
Nothing had really changed, I reflected, smiling, catching Helmut’s intense stare in the light of his homemade cigarette, knowing he was about to explain how he was “...close to, if not the very best damn rail rider in these Goddamn entire United States of America, Totty – and don't you forget it.”
We were on the last ride home. Free ride, anyway. When we got back to Seattle we'd be striding up to the ticket office, like everyone else, showing our return vouchers for Pittsburgh. As far as mother and father knew, we'd been visiting Helmut's old school chum, Harley, and his wife and kids, down in Portland. But that only lasted a day before Helmut's restless spirit brought us to the rails again, taking us down the coast, to Sacramento and points south. He’d finally agreed to turn around when we'd reached the town of Martinez, birthplace of the great Joe Dimaggio, a man more enshrined in my mind for having slept with Marilyn Monroe than for his batting average.
“Totty,” Helmut had remarked that afternoon, rolling a smoke, his eyes half shut, sitting in the cemetery overlooking the Southern Pacific depot. “Life ain't much if you don't make something of it, it sure ain't. You can go when they say go and stop when they say stop and all you'll end up with is a little house in Cuyahoga. A man's gotta keep his heels warm if he's looking to get anywhere in this damn crazy universe.” He said this, as he often did when he got preachy, with an air of affected certainty, as if he were in a school play, dispensing the single most important bit of advice in the world.
I grinned, nodding quietly, as I always did, thinking how much other thirty two year-old men were accomplishing, forging real careers and starting families. I knew Helmut was wrong. He never seemed to notice how hard it had been for mother to raise the two of us and keep her own life together, all through the worst of father's dark days. Mother's heels were anything but cold, but Helmut would never understand this.
Still, as strange as it sounds, I understood him too, I even felt as he did, though I knew it was shortsighted. To both of us, father was a pole lodged deep in the dirt, a sign to nowhere, going nowhere. I knew Helmut feared this his own fate, feared it more than anything, and that's why he was determined to keep moving, thinking he could somehow avoid his sorry inheritance. “The lord gave us feet for a reason, Totty, not just for stretching our socks. You remember that, remember it good,” he added, blowing smoke my way.
I smiled sheepishly, nodding my less-than-heartfelt agreement, idly tracing my finger along the name etched into the headstone beneath me. “I will, I will,” I assured, thinking, that after forty two years of running his life in circles, my brother must have known his own feet pretty well, to say nothing of his tail.
©2008 Jeremy W. Eaton