Jack Bruckman climbed into the cabin of his Locomotive. He felt a little bit sad. Although he was now old enough to be retired, he just loved his job. It was a family thing. His grandfather Hermann Bruckman came to the States at the beginning of the 20th century from Germany with the family and helped to build the railway. He was even sadder as it was many years ago that grandfather Hermann drew his last breath and he was now laying at peace in the local cemetery. Grandad Hermann told him a lot about the early days.
“You know Jack, when I arrived in the States there was no railway like today. The main cities were connected and there were even stations in the smaller towns, but the folks had to wait until the train arrived; there was no regular service for the small towns. Just take a look at the local River and see the iron bridge connecting the two sides. I helped to build that bridge and if it wasn’t for that bridge I would never had met your grandma.”
And then Hermann would tell him the story of their meeting.
“There I was, a young man in my prime, but just about speaking enough of the language to order a beer. They organised a canteen at the camp where we workers were staying. We came from all over the world. The locals did not like us, they said we were taking the work away from them, but that just wasn’t true. There was enough work for everyone, but the Americans had their farms and professions like being doctors and lawyers. They just left us emigrants to get on with the handwork at that time.
So where was I? (granddad tended to drift off the subject now and again). Ah yes, the canteen, well there was a very pretty young lady helping to serve out the food and drink at midday. She was the prettiest little thing I had every seen and she always had a smile for us men. I had the feeling she had a special smile for me, so I took my courage in my hands one day. There was a dance at the local town at the time and I asked.
“Miss, my name is Hermann Bruckmann and I was wondering, if you haven’t got anything else to do on Saturday evening, if you would accompany me to the dance.”
“Well, I will have to think that over. I sure don’t have anything going, and if my dad says it’s ok, I would be pleased to come with you. I will tell you tomorrow.” She told me her name was Amy Rogers.
Well you can imagine Jack how a young man like me was just happy to know she was willing and it seemed her dad said yes, as the next day she told me everything was fine and I could meet her in town. She didn’t tell me that she had kept it from Pa Rogers about me being one of the emigrants. That wasn’t too bad, but her three brothers were at the dance as well. Cutting a long story short, we had a little fight. No-one really won the fight. There were three of them against me but I held my man. We all had our cuts and bruises, but it seems the brothers found I was a good fighting man and I was invited to dinner the next Sunday after a week. I sure was a bit nervous, but it was a good family. They had a farm and knew what hard work meant. The Rogers family were known as being an honest upright family in the area and the father of the family even worked on the railroad himself as one of the American pioneers in the business. So that was how your grandpa met his wife and your grandmother, bless her departed soul, was the most wonderful woman I ever met.
“I remember grandma” said Jack “She used to make the best apple pie I have ever eaten” and that was how Jack got to know a bit of family history. Jack’s father was the first locomotive driver in the family and Jack followed in his father’s footsteps.
Although he was now approaching retirement, he still had a week before his last day’s work. The railroad had aged with time, and a lot was being rebuilt. The old iron bridge was being replaced by a new bridge had already been built further down the river. Next week it was going to be used for the first time. No longer in iron, but in the modern concrete with a designer form that won some sort of architect’s competition. It was not that Jack did not appreciate the modern buildings, but he just hung onto the old iron bridge. Soon the train was filled with its passengers travelling to the next largest town. It was a two hour journey, but that did not bother Jack. All being well, he would be at his destination by lunch time and after lunch speeding back home in the locomotive again.
He loved this route. After an hour he would be approaching the old iron bridge, the one that his grandfather’s hands helped to build. As he neared, the bridge, mist descended upon the railway from the river. This was nothing out of the ordinary. It was autumn and the cold nights were a cause for the heavy morning mists. Visibility was almost down to zero but he knew the way. Every rivet and wooden plank was etched in his mind. Suddenly he was surprised; he saw a red signal light on the tracks just before entering the bridge. He pulled the breaks on the train, but felt a bit uncertain. In his complete life as locomotive driver this had never happened. He then saw a figure approaching, walking along the tracks. It was still misty but the figure was swinging an old petroleum lamp in his hand.
As he got nearer Jack stuck his head out of the window.
“Is something wrong” he asked
The figure turned towards Jack, although Jack only roughly saw him through the distance. It was the figure of a young man.
“The bridge has a problem. You have to wait here. It’s not safe” said a voice from the distance.
“I don’t understand” answered Jack “it was ok yesterday. What’s the exact problem?”.
The man in the distance spoke.
“Seems that over the many years the bridge has been used, the rivets had got a bit loose and some of the railway tracks are not so certain any more. You can’t drive any further than this point.”
Now Jack had to make a decision. He had never had or even seen a signal in this place before and this man that was giving him the news seemed to be a bit strange. Jack climbed down from the cabin of the locomotive to have a look himself.
“I wouldn’t walk too far out onto the bridge” said the voice “it is not safe any more”, but Jack decided to have a look for himself. The people in the carriages were getting a bit restless and the car attendant, Joe, was already standing at the entrance to the train looking in Jack’s direction with a look as if to say “What’s going on.”
Jack called back to Joe “seems that there is a problem with the bridge – I will have a quick look.”
So Jack walked down the lines towards the bridge. Everything seemed to be fine; he then got to the beginnings of the track over the river and noticed that underfoot the wooden planks were a bit shaky. He put his foot out for the next step and realised that his foot was hanging in the air. Suddenly he felt a tight grip on his shoulders and was pulled back. He turned round but saw no-one there. One thing was obvious the old bridge had seen its last train and was no longer able to take another train and whoever or whatever had gripped him had saved him from falling into the river.
Jack hurried back to the train and spoke to the car attendant, Joe.
“It seems the bridge is broken there is no connection to the other side. A few more yards and the train would have been at the bottom of the river. I have that man a lot to thank for.”
“What man Jack?” answered Joe.
“Didn’t you see him? He came out of the mist waving one of those old paraffin lamps and made me stop the train. He told me there was a problem with the bridge.”
“I thought you were talking to yourself Jack, I didn’t see anyone. I saw you went onto the bridge, but if you say it has collapsed, then it looks like you have saved our lives.”
Then something came to Jack’s mind.
“Well something saved my life as I would have walked on had it not been for someone who pulled me back. We have another problem. The 11.15 train will soon be arriving at the bridge from the other side. We will have to send a report”.
Jack and Joe made their way to the radio set that all trains have in case of emergency.
“Hello central” said Joe. “We have a problem. The old iron bridge has collapsed and someone will have to stop the 11.15 train as it will be driving over soon. Perhaps you can operate the red signal sign to stop it.”
“Ok Jack”, came the answer “but we don’t know what you mean by the red signal. We have not had one of those in the last fifty years. They were all replaced by radio. We will radio the 11.15 to let them know.”
Gradually the mist was disappearing and vision was getting better. Jack now saw what had happened. The tracks on the middle of the bridge had disappeared into the river below. Indeed as Jack was looking two made their way downwards meeting the river with a splash at the bottom. It was then that Jack saw the 11.15 approaching the bridge and was hoping that Central managed to warn them in time. Indeed, with only a few feet to spare the 11.15 came to a halt, all breaks screeching which could be heard for miles around.
Bus transport was organised for the passengers of the trains on both sides of the river and they were transported further down the river to the traffic bridge, Joe joined them in the bus and he was applauded and received with congratulations, after all he was the hero of the day and had saved everyone’s life.
Joe, the car attendant was sitting next to Jack.
“So tell me Jack, who had you seen at that bridge. Admittedly the sight was bad because of the mist, but whoever it was managed to save us all.”
“I don’t know who it was” said Jack “everything seemed to happen so fast. It was a young man that appeared out of the mist and he told me not to drive any further. I think it was him that saved my life by pulling me back just as I wanted to take a step further on the bridge.”
The bus was now pulling away from the bridge and Jack looked back. He could have sworn he saw his grandfather standing in a group of other men dressed similarly in the old railway uniforms all waving as they pulled away but Jack decided to keep that for himself.
A week later the new railway bridge was opened to the public and as a special treat Jack was allowed to sit in the locomotive which was pulling the new train. It was Jack’s last ride in the driver’s cabin of a train, but he decided it was good to end his working life in this way.
A week later he visited his grandfather’s grave. His wife asked him why he said “Thank you grandpa” at the grave, but he pretended he did not hear her.
Pictures to Words: Reflections Week 6: The Bridge