THE TRAIN RIDE
It was a very cold day in the village where papa lives. His big house in the Ukraine stands all alone next to a huge dark forest. It reminded him of the 100-acre woods at his house by the lake in New Jersey. It was like a forest in Siberia that he had read about in a book. It told of hungry wolves and bears which roam around looking for someone to eat.
A cruel wind howled through the trees. Lucky for everyone it was daytime; otherwise it would have been really scary indeed. Only the bravest person would have been peering through their window into the forest with the strongest flashlight they could find.
Today the dark clouds scurried by without even stopping for a cup of tea. They had very important business to do after all. In fact they would not have stopped even if the Queen of England had invited them in for tea. You see these gloomy messengers promised with every passing minute, to drop their baggage of icy snow on unsuspecting victims. This was serious business without a doubt. Already the ground was covered with their previously dropped snow and it had taken hours and hours to clear away.
No, this was definitely not a day to be outside, unless you bundled up into your very favorite and warmest winter coat. It would have to be your biggest coat possible and it would need to have a hood. The kind of hood with cords that you could pull tight and close it up all around your face until all that was left showing was your nose. This was the kind of day where moms cuddled up to kids next to a warm cozy fire crackling in the fireplace. They would give you hot chocolate to drink with tons of marshmallows and let you choose your favoritest book for her to read. Then she would go through the pages slowly and meaningfully, with loads of expression the way only moms can do. You would listen intently, although you knew the book back to front, and all the while you would be bug-eyed looking at the yellow and red dancing flames on the logs.
But today, papa was warmly dressed to brave the cold and howling wind to leave for the big city of Kiev. It sure was cold outside but he would be kept warm with excitement. Tonight he was going to travel for the first time by himself on the train to the majestic mountains of Western Ukraine. So he hurriedly pulled on his boots and tied them tight. He put on his warmest sweater and his big leather coat. He fished for his gloves deep down in the pockets of his jacket and snuggly fitted them on his hands. Papa said goodbye to grandma, opened the door and headed out into the blistery cold to a waiting car which would take him to the train station two hours away.
In the distance he saw a big gray building; it was the Kiev train station. The big round clock struck 7pm. It was an old-fashioned clock that if you did not know Roman numerals it would have been hard to know the time. Fortunately, you could count the gongs. One… two… three… until it stopped at seven. In just one hour the train would pull out of the station and head into the dark for the Western town of Ivao-Fronkievsk. This town used to belong to Poland, but when the Germans were fighting the Polish army they took it by force and gave it to the Ukranians. So now it was Ukrainian with buildings that looked Polish.
Papa quickly unloaded his case from the car and briskly walked into the big gray building, where people were scurrying in every direction. Some were standing, looking up at the information board and then looking at their watches. Others were obviously late and were running and weaving in and out of the crowd racing to catch a leaving train. “Oh my,” said papa, he did not know where to go. There were so many trains on the information board and everything was written in Russian. Papa could not even ask anyone which one was his train because he could not speak the language.
He reached into the inside of his coat pocket and brought out his train ticket. “Oh no,” said papa, this was all in Russian too. There was no way to be able to read any of the information. Maybe some of the numbers on the ticket and the information board would match to give a clue as to which train was his. There was a 043 at the top left of the ticket and it was followed by what looked like the date and then by a number 16K. On the second line it looked like the amount of the ticket so he did not have to worry about that number. When papa looked up at the information board and saw a 043 he said, “This must be my train number and the time matches too.” There was a Russian word with a number 5 next to it. “That must be the platform where my train is,” thought papa. Passing through the bustling crowd papa made his way to platform number 5. Brrr, the cold wind came barreling through the doors as people pushed their way to the waiting trains, so papa hunched up to keep the cold away.
On the dimly lit platform the huge blue and yellow cars stood motionless. Blue and yellow are the national colors of Ukraine. They represent the blue sky and the yellow wheat fields below. Someone has said Ukraine has the 4th richest black soil in the world. During WW II the Germans loaded hundreds of trains with this soil and sent it back to Germany.
There was a conductor dressed in his uniform that made him look like he was a soldier from the Second World War. Papa showed him his ticket and the man pointed in the direction towards the end of the train. That must be car number 16K which was on his ticket. Each car had a large black and white number hanging in the first window and it had its own conductor who stood like a tin soldiers at the entrance. Papa’s car had a lady conductor who was also dressed in what looked like an old fashioned army uniform. When she looked over the ticket she pointed to another number on the piece of paper, it was the number 24, and said something unintelligible in Russian and pointed up to the grimy metal steps leading into the car. Papa lifted his case, grabbed hold of the metal rail and took four steps up to board the big, old, ominous train.
Right before he turned to walk down the narrow corridor to his compartment he saw a furnace with red hot coals burning away. Wow, he had never seen a fire on a train before. There was even a man who walked from car to car with a long steel poker; his job was to keep the fires burning all night. Above this furnace was a huge water boiler. Then papa understood this is how they keep these antique cars warm. The fire heats water which circulates throughout the car in copper pipes.
Looking up at each compartment Papa found the one which had the number 24 on the door. This number actually indicated which bed was his. He had the twenty fourth bed on this car. In this small compact room there were four bunks or shelves at the Russians call the beds. “Oh, no!” number 24 was the top bunk. Now if Papa was only 10 years old he would have thought this was the coolest thing to have the top bunk. But at 58, he was not so sure he wanted to climb up and be stuck there all night.
He put his case on the top left bed and waited to see who else would be in his compartment. It did not take too long for him to find out. First, there was this young man with a case and a shoulder bag. Peeking out of the shoulder bag was the head of a small dog. Papa thought of his two favorite words again, “Oh, no! That dog is going to keep me awake all night.” No sooner had he thought that when a lady came into the compartment. Again he exclaimed, “Oh, no!” Now Papa would have to sleep in his jeans all night because there’s a girl in the room. Then another man came in, he looked up and put his case on the other top bunk. Of all the thoughts one could think of at that very awkward moment, papa had only one, “I hope I don’t snore tonight.”
Without a whistle or a warning the train begins to move exactly on the second of eight o clock. By this time papa found out all three of his companions spoke some broken English. He asked the lady and the man with the dog if they would like to exchange their lower bunk for a cool upper one. They both laughed and said, “Neit!” This in Russian means “No thanks.” The conductor with her black hat and shiny brim was standing at the door taking the tickets and offering a cup of tea for 25c. No one took her up on her offer and she passed quickly to the next compartment. Papa went in search of the bathroom so he could brush his teeth. The bathroom was at the other end of the car, farthest away from the furnace and boiler. Once in the toilet with the door securely locked papa looked around at this completely metal toilet and wash basin. It was sooo gross you did not feel like touching anything for fear of getting some kind of bug. Looking down the toilet there was no water, all you could see was the ground and the tracks whizzing by and the noise from the train was really loud. Brushing your teeth and going to the toilet was a challenge all of its own. Thankfully you did not have to stay in there too long.
Once he was safely back in the compartment it was time to roll out the mattress and make his bed. Each bunk has a thin uncomfortable mattress rolled up with a pillow in the middle. The mattress is probably filled with old clothes because it is so lumpy. There is also a sealed plastic bag with two sheets, a pillow case, a wash cloth and towel that comes with your mattress. The sheets are striped just like prison sheets. They were probably washed in corn starch since they were rough and not soft at all. At the top of the compartment in a luggage storage area there were four blankets stashed away for whoever wanted to use one. But there was no need to have those itchy blankets on you, because the heat from the copper pipes carrying hot water made the room feel like 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.
It was now 10:28pm and papa stretched out in his jeans and t-shirt on his bunk. He was thinking to himself, “Would I actually fall asleep quickly or not.” But the magic ‘clickty clack’ of metal wheels on metal tracks and the sometimes violent but mostly gentle rocking from side to side of the lumbering train did their trick. This combination of sound and movement worked like a mug of hot milk and honey on a cold wintery night. Soon papa’s thoughts turned into dreams and no doubt his snoring was like the sound of sawing wood, which added to the cacophony that can only be heard on the old Russian train.