Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Fighter

      "All right!" Marv yelled.  "You're supposed to be such a fighter!  Let's see if you're up to your reputation."  Marvin Scott was a body builder, a railroad brakeman who pumped iron.  He was big, about 6' 4", and he carried bottles of vitamin supplements in his travel bag.  The man he was yelling at, Fred Radburn, was a switchman.  He was smaller, but mean.  He'd been in jail many times for brawling.  They stood glaring at one another, and their confrontation was beginning to draw onlookers.

      Jake Langdon had seen the fight developing.  With twenty years senority as a car foreman, he knew all the men involved.  He watched from one of the high portals of the Roundhouse as trainmen came from around the railroad yard.  An idling diesel droned beside him.  Outside the mens voices erupted again.  Somebody had grabbed Fred by the elbow.  The violence of his reaction riled everybody.  Men in coveralls struggled, their boots tearing up the cinder roadbed.  A hot sun glared off steel rails branching into the distance.

      Most of these men were too old for this.  Fred overpowered them and broke loose.  "Listen!" he yelled, "When I fight, I mean business.  This hulk wants a fight, and I intend to give it to him.  Anybody else interested?"  Sweating and a little cross eyed, he surveyed the group of potential contenders.  Nobody moved.

     Jake saw an opportunity as he walked up behind the others in the stand off.  "There isn't going to be any fight," he said.  His tone of voice was a little shaky for such a big man.  This sort of thing brought back too much trouble from his own past.  But he stepped over a pair of rails into the middle of it.

      Marv wasn't so sure anymore that he wanted to risk having an eye gouged or getting a knee in the groin.  Fred was in earnest and intent on getting him to back down, which he was now ready to do, if he could find a face-saving way out.  They stood, eyes locked.  Fred was breathing heavily.  Marv stood with feet wide apart and fists clenched at his sides before an open-doored boxcar.

      Jake had done a favor a few months ago for Marv, some welding on his camper pickup.  He thought he might be able to reason with him.  "The engineer can't leave town without a brakeman, Marv," he said.

      Marv was either ignoring him or too intent on his adversary to respond.

      "Go back to your Sunday School lessons, Jake," growled Radburn.

      Nobody laughed.

      Marv glanced at Jake.  Jake gave him look intended to convey just how dangerous Fred was right now.

      Blackbirds crowed from the cattail slough along the tracks.  A switch engine moving a cut of boxcars smoked in the west end of the yard, then the crash of couplers coming together echoed against the adjacent hillsides.

      "Stafford's waiting for his train orders," Jake said.  He reached for the yellow papers folded into the pocket of Marv's overalls.  Marv caught his wrist as Jake removed the orders.

      Jake didn't resist, and Marv took the orders out of his hand.  Jake said, "If Stafford turns you in, it'll be your job."

      Marv was still watching Radburn who now just smirked at him.

      "Not so eager to fight anymore?"  Radburn queried.

      "Maybe not," Marv answered.  He turned away cautiously and headed down the tracks toward the Roundhouse.

      A switchman lit a cigarette as he headed back to his work.  Carmen in yellow hard hats returned to the Roundhouse.  A few men waited at the yard office for a report from men who were headed in their direction.

      "Come on Fred," said one of the switchmen.  Radburn joined the group and left.

      Jake went back to his welding.  Lord, have mercy!

      A week or so later Fred needed some fast repairs on a lumber flat car with air-pressure problems.  He came into the Roundhouse and hollered, "Hey, Fat Boy.  How's about sending your car toads out to fix the brakes on this hunk of junk?"  He was pointing at a number on the trainsheet.

      Jake flinched at the reference to his weight, but he got the work done in time to get the lumber flat into Fred's train.  Switchmen are the roughest guys on the railroad.  The brakemen and engineers have time to sit and talk for hours on the engines.  They learn to be sociable.  Switchmen work year round out in the weather.  It's harder to be friendly when you're making up trains in dust storms and blizzards.

      It was several months before Jake had any futher dealings with Fred Radburn.  But unfinsihed business has a way of bringing people together again, especially in a small town.  Jake ran into Fred one Friday evening in a parking lot where he had stopped to pick up some fishing lures for his son.  Fred was apparently headed for the tavern next door to the tackle shop.

      "How you doing, Fred?"  Jake caught him off guard.

      When he recognized him, Fred greeted Jake with the sarcasm he had come to expect from Fred.  "Hey, Sunday School; how you doing, man?"


      "You going to the Tav, Jake?  I'll buy you a beer."  Fred noticed Jake was a little cool to him, and since nobody was looking, he figured he could afford to drop the sarcasm.  "Sorry, I forgot you don't drink."

      Jake considered the offer.  He wanted to have a conversation with Fred, but he knew he would end up having to leave before the party was over, so to speak.  Either way he was going to offend Radburn.

      "Thanks anyway, Fred," he offered.  "My wife has dinner waiting at home."

      That was the end of Radburn's hospitality.  He reacted like he'd been whipped.  "Too righteous to sit 'n bull with me, Jake?"

      Jake swallowed the anger that surged up in his chest.  "No, Fred," he said softly, "I just have a family to take care of at home."  Fred was backing him up against a parked car.

      "A good Christian family!"  Radburn said sarcastically.

      "A Christian family," Jake replied.

      "Christian families give me a pain, Jake.  My old man was so sanctified, he went to church three times a week.  He was always humped over his Bible.  He wouldn't even talk to the neighbors because they threw a couple of beer bottles over the fence once."

      "Maybe the neighbors wouldn't talk to him, Fred."

      "Why would they want to?  All he said was 'the Lord this,' and 'the Lord that.'  The first cuss word anybody said, you'd think they had walked up and spit on him.  He was righteous, Jake.  Just like you."

      "I'm not particularly righteous, Fred, just forgiven. My wife used to wait half the night for me to come home from the tavern."  Radburn looked at him suspiciously at this remark.  Jake added, "The grace of God is more like a handout for transients than a paywindow.  Didn't your dad ever talk about... ."

      "My dad and I didn't talk much, Jake.  He was too busy, mostly with church."

      "Your're crowding me at little here, Fred.  I'd like to get better acquainted, but why don't you come over for dinner sometime.  I think you would enjoy a home cooked meal more than that tavern chile.  Right now I have to go to the tackle shop."

      Fred backed off.  "I'll let you know, Sunday School," he said.  Thanks for the invitation anyway.  Sorry about being pushy."

      Fred went back to his car.  Maybe he would come for dinner, maybe not, but as Jake crossed the parking lot he noticed that Fred got in his car and drove away instead of going into the tavern.

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