Boys and trains. It's a Y-chromosome thing. One of the first songs I learned was "I'm a Train" by Albert Hammond. How we ever found this song, I have no idea. I have a very early memory – more of an image, really – of seeing a train on the B&O as I rode in our old brown Plymouth Satellite on Twinbrook Parkway. The image is all out of proportion, with the engines appearing as large as some of the two-and-three-story buildings around the tracks. I didn't know it at the time, but the engine on the lead was probably a dark blue B&O "F" unit on its last legs. It had that distinctive 1940's-vintage profile, streamlined and face-like. I remember making a spectacular scene, trying to get Mom to detour slightly and take that first right over the tracks and up to the dead end of Halpine Road, where the Twinbrook Metro would be built about ten years later.
I was really good at making spectacular scenes. Growing up, they were one of my preferred modes of communication. They weren't only for getting my way; I often used them simply to display emotion or convey information. I was a classic middle child, so I perceived (mistakenly, I'm sure) a serious lack of attention paid to whatever I had to say. Thus, the scene. Big scenes, little scenes, loud scenes, quiet scenes. I was a master artist, and came to rely heavily on my special medium. Oh, the "middle child" thing. I see now that I must have wasted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours and enough energy to light Cumberland for a year, trying to communicate via The Scene. And one of the side-effects of being a kid who was constantly creating scenes is none too savory, either. It laid the foundation for my becoming a master manipulator. So you don't agree with me, or don't want to do what I want? Well, watch me – through subtle manipulation of your cognitive and/or emotional "buttons" – align your thinking with mine, even if it is just to get me to shut up! (beam with mock pride)
Anyway, by the time we got trackside at the end of Halpine, the train was gone. A crushing childhood defeat, to be sure.
There were, of course, times when luck was on our side and we got to the dead-end before the trains had passed. Once or twice we even had the great fortune of being there for some switching activity. Back then, the whole "Met" (the Metropolitan Subdivision of the B&O's Baltimore to Cumberland mainline) was dotted with sidings, and there was one at Halpine. It was just long enough for one or two coal hoppers and most of it was elevated so the coal could be emptied from the rail cars, by way of the magic of gravity. A westbound train slowly approaches the switch and the brakeman jumps off. Then, after the train continues forward to the point where the cars to be cut off are just east of the switch, they stop so the brakeman can uncouple them, cutting the train in half. He sets the brakes on the rear end of the train as the front half pulls forward a few car-lengths, then he opens the switch to the siding. The train then backs very slowly into the siding, the brakeman cuts off a coal hopper or two, sets their brakes, waits for the train to pull forward onto the main, realigns the switch, directs the head end back together with the rest of the train, re-couples the two halves together, releases the brakes, makes his way back to the cab and off they go. It may not sound too intense, but to a ten-year old boy, it's endlessly entertaining.
This was the setting for "The Sighting," a story I shared with no one until my senior year in college. That's when, in a less-than-sober moment with my less-than-sober roommate and his less-than-sober girlfriend, I made the mistake of trying to convince someone other than myself of what I had seen. I wouldn't have believed me, either. We'd been drinking and telling each other outrageous stories, both real and made-up, for over a year, each trying to surpass the outrageousness of the last. Sometimes they were simple and quite believable. Gregg had once easily convinced me that his father, selling Amway door-to-door, had walked into a house containing 11 cats, and consequently had such a violent allergic reaction, that he left on a stretcher. Not true at all. Some of the stories were utterly ludicrous. I once told Gregg that when I had braces, I was able to pick up radio signals on summer nights but that the only transmissions that were strong enough to actually be heard were all from a couple of Christian missionary radio stations (AM, I assume) in Ghana, one outside the Western city of Enchi, and the other in Salaga on Lake Volta. The latter was all-English, all the time, but the former seemed to broadcast in a different language just about every other hour. They both played a syndicated weekly countdown of Billboard's top-forty Gospel songs, and it was by hearing this as I slept, week after week, that I managed to learn at least a dozen languages and countless songs of faith and devotion, not to mention all those little "behind the music" vignettes they'd play between songs. This was all true, but my cynical old roommate refused to believe a word of it.
So it should have come as no surprise when my recitation of "The Sighting" was received by Gregg and Karen with howls of laughter, and dismissed as pure fantasy without a second thought. After Gregg and I polished off a fifth of Captain Morgan's and Karen, who rarely drank, had consumed several trendy wine coolers, it was story time. It was only a couple of weeks until graduation and some combination of spring air, spiced rum and the sense that time was running out for our little game of storytelling one-upsmanship, told me that it was time to pull my trump card and tell them about The Sighting.
"It's January, 1978. I'm almost eleven. My little brother and Mom and I are in our still-relatively new Impala, heading to Rockville Pike – I don't remember what for. Every time – I mean EVERY time – we crossed the bridge over the train tracks, I'd perform this little convulsion of maneuvers, trying to get glimpses both left and right. If I did it just right, and we weren't going too fast, I could check the left for a headlight and the right for a headlight or a green light in the train signal that was near the bridge. If anything was coming, I'd beg and plead and make a scene, trying to get Mom to go up the road to the dead-end by the tracks. Where Twinbrook Metro is now.
"I don't believe it! gasped Gregg, only to be punched in the arm by Karen. After a brief wrestling match, order was restored, with Karen keeping a threatening fist near Gregg's face.
"All right," I continued, "I already know you're not going to believe it, so let's speed this up. Doesn't matter if you believe it; I know what I know."
"Yeah, like that time you shared a cab in San Juan with Pelé!" sneered Gregg, barely getting it all out before he suddenly found Karen's hand firmly over his mouth.
"I liked the one about the radio in his braces!" she giggled, struggling to keep her hand – now two hands, actually, on the mouth of her squirming boyfriend.
"Don't mess with that one. That one's true," I insisted. "And so is this one – I swear. Now, just gimme a minute. There's not much to it, but I have to give you the whole explanation. I can't just say, 'Elvis is alive and working on the B&O,' or you'll never believe--" I was interrupted again, this time by gales of alcohol-amplified laughter from my little audience.
"Elvis!! Working on the railroad!! All aboard – uh, thainkyouverymuhch," said my roommate, in his best Elvis voice, which wasn't very good at all, due to his inability to stop laughing.
"Shut up!" I spat. "I listened to your stupid half-hour BS about you and your brother meeting Jim Palmer. You gotta hear the whole thing."
"Hello? That story is true and not even that far-fetched. You're telling me you met Elvis! I think the mouth-radio story is more believable," Gregg volleyed.
"All right, boys. You never know." Karen was now switching into teacher mode. "Joe could have met Elvis, when he was eleven."
"I could not have met Elvis when he was eleven. That was like two decades before I was born." I seized the moment that it took my friends' inebriated minds to chew on that, and continued. "First of all, I didn't meet him. I just saw him. Like I said, there's not much to it. We pulled up to the dead-end by the tracks and this short freight train came up to the siding. This time, I think they were picking up a coal car that was already sitting there. So, the brakeman climbs down from the front of the engine, walks back along the train about three or four cars, and starts unhooking the cars, right across the tracks from where we were parked. When the dude comes back out from between the cars, he looks right at me. I mean, right at me. We're looking right at each other's faces. Mom's like, waving at the guy. I guess we'd always get waved at by the engineers. But this guy immediately looks down, and just sort of sneers at the ground."
"Like this?" asked Gregg, now doing his best Elvis lip.
SMACK, SHOVE, said Karen.
"Kind of, but he only did it for a second. Don't even bother – I can see 'That's it?!?' about to come out of both your mouths. No, that's not it. I recognized him. Not like, 'Hey – That's Elvis!' It was just this sense that I knew who he was, but hadn't realized it yet, and that he knew this, and was not at all cool with it. He was in greasy work pants and one of those dorky parkas everyone was wearing in the 70's – with the fake fur around the hood. That was pretty normal. But he didn't have those big, clunky work boots – he had dirty, dusty cowboy boots. They looked like snakeskin or something, but they were really cruddy looking." I put up a hand, stopping Gregg before he could speak. "No – not blue suede!
"But he had the walk. He absolutely did NOT carry himself like a train guy. He had that swagger, although he looked self-conscious about it, like he was trying really hard not to walk that way. And when he stood there, waiting for the train to pull forward so he could flip the switch, he had that "Elvis" stance. I'm sure if I'd seen this anywhere else I wouldn't have even noticed. But he was supposed to be a train brakeman. In that light, he looked ridiculous! I remember thinking how obvious it seemed and wondering if Mom was noticing. She didn't seem to be. My brother was just looking at the train itself.
"Plus, it took him forever to do everything, like he was just doing it on his own for the first time. He even waved to the engineer to pull forward, without coming out from the train far enough for them to see him. When he came back over to the side of the train near us to direct the engineer to back up to the rest of the train, I got a really good look at his face. He was covered in grime, scruffy, with grayish whiskers, and I think the sideburns were pretty much gone, but I KNOW it was him. There had been tons of pictures and film of him on the news a couple of nights later because all these crazy fans were standing at the gates of his mansion in the freezing cold, leaving flowers and stuff for his birthday, and I was even more sure.
"The kicker was when he turned to head back up to the front of the train. He looked at me again. I'm sure I must have had this gaping, wide-eyed, incredulous look on my face. I just stared back. In a flash, his glare turned to a mischievous grin, and he half-winked at me, flipped up his furry hood, as he would an oversized 70's collar (this looked really silly) and showed me a little Elvis hip-switch – just one, and not real big. It was just kind of a 'I know you know, and I know no one will EVER believe you, so what the hell…' type of gesture. I looked at Mom. She was looking at one of the train cars. She proceeded to point out that it was from Pennsylvania. I could not BELIEVE that she hadn't noticed, but she really was just not paying attention to him. The train lurched into forward motion and rumbled away.
Gregg held up the empty rum bottle. "Well, I never thought I'd say this, but I've gotta hand it to you, man. I believe." I eyed him with contempt. "I believe that that is the biggest load of bullshit I've ever heard, and I believe that if you really believe that Elvis faked his death in Memphis, and showed up on a train crew in Rockville 5 months later, than you need professional help. That's what I believe." Karen, now sound asleep with her head in Gregg's lap, said nothing.
I'll bet she believed me.