Time molds vivid memories from one’s past into
the building blocks of one’s writing…
The events of our lives can range from ‘almost overlooked’ to ‘life altering’. As a writer, I have found that either end of the ‘event spectrum’ may provide good story fodder. Today’s memory reflection covers all the bases. And, in the words of Dragnet, “Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent;” then, messengers of death do not need to be protected.
In June 1972, a poor college student was I — GI Bill, three jobs, armed with a rail pass — spending a summer in Europe, ostensibly to study European retail businesses; sure, let’s lie to ourselves. This was the time of Europe on $5.00 A Day; when you would meet people to travel with as you went from place to place.
Our story begins in Vienna, Austria. I was spending the day taking in sights I had missed on previous trips, just wanting to be alone for a while; to regroup my thoughts. Things would not be such, because, just before I planned to stop for some lunch, along comes a young woman about my age; she’s walking along the same path in the park. We walked side-by-side for at least ten minutes before she spoke. Small talk, get acquainted talk. Eventually she asks, “Take the train to Paris with me;” nothing more than a need for someone to travel with.
And so the next day we took the train to Paris. We ride sitting next to each other in a Second Class car that filled with people and a mixture of smoke, the sweet aroma of cheap wine, and for a, thankfully, short time, the inhuman stench of some type of soft cheese only two other tourist riding in the compartment could stomach. Once a drunk tried to cop a feel by faking sleep, rolling against her, and inching his hand toward her breast. “&%#^*&&” was all I had to say to get the guy to exit the compartment; universal language. She smiled and rested her head on my shoulder, and silently watched the landscape slip past the window.
The train rocked and lolled her to sleep. As I closed my own eyes, I thought of the three Russian merchant seamen, drunk and weaving from side to side as they plodded along the path by the river. It was now twilight on the day we had met; we are walking in a park, having earlier shared a meal at Griechenbeisl. They see her; ignoring the fact she was walking with me in the soft lamplight. I watched them see her. Their reaction was predictive. They veered at an angle to intercept her, while talking amongst themselves. She moved closer to me and her breathing rhythm faltered as she sensed their presence grow closer.
When the three were close enough to be heard, the smaller one made the first crude comment. One did not have to know Russian to understand the desire in the sailor’s language. She told them in blatant French to leave her alone.
To this day I am not sure if it was her outspokenness, or the fact that a woman can curse at you in French and be so sensual; regardless, the Russians became bolder. Now, two of them made gestures with their hands as they spoke in slurred Russian. No doubt had she spoken in English, the sailors would have probably cursed at their bad luck; this was not some local prostitute to take from the man. I told the third sailor, the one that hung back, and gestured with my hands as if my stomach was much larger, that my wife was pregnant. The sailor speaks to his companions, and thankfully they gave pause to the situation, mumble some incoherent utterances, and back away.
When the Russians were out of earshot, she looked at me, took my hand and laughed at the thought of being pregnant.
As we parted at the train station in Paris, she kissed me and recommended that when I left La Ville-Lumière, I should take the train north out of the city. I said I would think about it. Other than the incident in the park, it was the only time I sensed her hesitate when she spoke to me; it was an almost imperceptible hesitation, but hesitation nonetheless. She kissed me once again and said I would enjoy the ride north through the French countryside. Again I sensed something; it was as if my going north was of some, albeit impersonal, importance to her.
From the Main Hall I watched as she moved towards the exit. I thought of her closeness in the train car, the smell of her hair, the softness of her kiss… she had a very disconcerting smile. Odd, I felt nothing for her. I knew that I would remember her, but I felt as if she wanted to leave no memory; years later I can no longer describe her physically, no longer remember her name, just what had transpired between us.
Paris was expensive. A room at a pension near the Place de la Bastille. I lived on cucumber and tomato sandwiches. I bought fresh bread each morning from across the street, and the vegetables from the small grocer a block away. I visited the Louvre. Walked the Champs-Élysées. Got lost returning to the pension. Rode the Metro. Went up the Eiffel Tower. Saw the River Seine.
When I had seen enough of Paris, I went to the train station and, on the advice of the girl, I planned to head north. I was thinking of her as I walked to the rail car I had reserved a seat in. Somewhere close to the car a feeling of dread enveloped me. At the car’s steps, I instinctively knew not to board the train. Instead I took a train to Italy. It was in Italy I saw the newspaper article. The train I did not board was hit by another train in a tunnel. The car I would have been riding in was crushed; everyone had died. I realized I should have left her the moment I met her in Austria, and should not have allowed her to bring me to Paris. The sailors in the park…the whole episode was eerie to say the least.
On June 16, 1972, approximately 60 miles north of Paris, a collapse within the mile-long Vierzy Tunnel caused the crash of two passenger trains. A six-car passenger train from Paris to Laon struck a pile of debris and derailed within the tunnel. Minutes later the Laon-bound train was struck by a three-car Paris-bound passenger train. 108 were killed and 111 injured in the incident.
Think about your ‘building blocks’; we can not write without them.