Christmas 1902, Chris Gavaler

wwii history learned from passing trains

Doc Ardrey

Back in the early ’40s, American history wasn’t taught until fifth grade, but thanks to the railroad spur that ran along our school playground fence, we began to learn a haunting piece of it as kindergarteners, ready or not.  

On the other side of the chain-link fence bordering Washington School in Roselle, NJ, freight trains chugged through so seldom that we made the rail bed an extension of our playground. The big guys in higher grades showed us the way (don’t tell mom), routinely ducking under the fence to reach the forbidden soil. Only Bruzzie, the kindergarten jock with a runny nose, was big enough to hop from rail to rail and still keep his balance. Whenever a train passed, we stepped aside and exchanged waves with the engineer. Sometimes we’d put a penny on the rail for the train to squash. We didn’t pay much attention to the cargo.

Then one day a trainload of tanks, half-tracks, Jeeps, and anti-aircraft guns on open flatcars, plain as day, rumbled toward the Bayonne, New Jersey Naval Base twenty-one miles to the east. We couldn’t help but notice. Edwin bragged how the ordnance passing before us looked exactly like his war toys at home. His miniatures were made of diecast lead; plastics were still a thing of the future. None of the rest of us had any war toys – yet.

Next day, another two trains rumbled eastward, again laden with military goods, all in khaki and camo. Our parents said don’t worry; we’re just loaning equipment to Britain for their war effort (whatever that meant). Norman, who still wore knickers, noticed that the military trains were passing by more and more often. Slowly we began to realize what was going on.

On December 7 that year, we came to understand what war meant on a scary new level. (But Japan was all so far away, a mere sliver on the globe next to Miss Weingartner’s desk.) After the Christmas recess, Jerry bragged how Santa had brought him a new flatcar for his Lionel model train set. On it was an antiaircraft gun in perfect scale. 

As spring rolled around, we began to wonder how the empty cars got back to where they came from. Everett, who lived right next to the tracks on the other side, filled us in right away. The empties came through at 2:15 a.m., his wake-up call to get up and pee. According to his nosy big sister, that train helped cure Everett’s bed wetting,

As summer recess neared, passenger trains, never seen before on this rail line, also began to regularly pass eastward from Fort Dix, fifty-seven miles southwest.  Aboard were real people in khaki including dads, uncles, and big brothers. Very few answered our waves. Most seemed too distracted.

The exception was Armen’s Uncle Haig, who’d told his nephew that he’d be passing through at a certain day and time, just after school. We all made sure to be there. Haig did wave, smile and make a face. Armen tried not to cry as he waved back.

As our curiosity about the war increased, the all-knowing second graders explained what Europe was. Their classroom even had a wall map of Europe, much of it colored black and labeled “Axis,” they told us.

When we returned to school as first graders in September, we all could hop rail to rail except Stanley the Klutz. Even Dorothy could do it—in her Mary Janes!

The rail traffic grew busier day by day cutting into our playtime around the tracks. The main cause of the increase was trainloads of sullen men heading west, people who didn’t speak American. Guarding them from the platforms between the cars were American soldiers with real rifles, who warned us to stay away. Eugene threw a rock at the prisoners and yelled, “Filthy Kraut!” but it came out as a whistle because one of his front teeth was missing and the other was barely hanging on.  He got such a scolding from a guard that he never did that again. Neither did any of us.  

Lenny, whose grandpop lived in “Polland,” told us that the “Notzeys” moved their prisoners in cattle cars. None of us believed that grownups could be so cruel. First-grade vocabulary lists didn’t include the word “atrocity.”

In our second-grade classroom, sure enough the map of Europe with the black “Axis” area still hung open every day. Miss Rice never said a word about it except that it was somewhat out of date. Some of us able to read put two and two together by then and couldn’t help but compare the wall map with those we saw on the front pages of newspapers. In the Newark News, the black “Axis” area seemed to be shrinking in Europe day to day but spreading in the South Pacific.

One slushy February day, Armen was called to the office. Since he was the class brown-nose, we joked about what he must’ve done wrong. Then we saw him through the paned classroom windows, sobbing and slump-shouldered supported by his parents, shuffling toward the family Nash. Covering his face was the biggest, whitest handkerchief we’d ever seen. He was out for four days. On the first day, Miss Rice suggested a collection to send flowers. Then she sat with us in a circle on the floor to talk about loss, grief, and sacrifice, and mostly what to say to Armen on his first day back. 

The trains kept passing by — troops and war machinery going east, German prisoners headed west. The fifth graders (they knew EVERYthing) told us about the POW camps in Pennsylvania. We thought the POW lingo was cool, like “GI.” Know-it-all Rudy even put us wise to what SNAFU really stood for. Wink, wink.

By spring of second grade, the railroad was so busy that we rarely bothered to duck under the fence anymore. Besides, we all had plenty of Army toys. All our play in the woods was about war, complete with foxholes, makeshift forts, and broom-handle rifles. Bobby’s new birthday bike was painted genuine camouflage, exactly as he’d hoped.

Over time, the real war became an abstraction for this gang of seven-year-olds, an offstage event even for the few of us with dads or uncles overseas. War games became our reality, the passing ordnance mere game pieces in our make-believe minds. We dug our foxholes and argued endlessly over which was better: mortars or ack-ack guns, B-25s or B-29s, tanks or half-tracks, Corsairs or Avengers. It was Dungeons & Dragons forty years ahead of its time.    

Third grade and the beginning of fourth were much the same. We’d grown so accustomed to the trains that they lost their appeal. Then around Christmas, Wayne the Brain noticed that he was seeing fewer eastbound troop trains and more westbound POW trains. The troop trains stopped altogether well before May that year, when V-E Day was announced.

Everything changed in fifth grade. Trainloads of joyous returning GIs passed westward. We waved and cheered as our heroes hung out the windows and reached down their hands. When Stringbean Danny jumped really high, he could touch some of their fingertips. In response, the GIs stomped their feet in unison and tossed us campaign ribbons, brigade patches, German Marks, and shiny insignia intermingled with Chiclets and candy. It all showered down like confetti. Our moms sewed the ribbons and patches onto our flannel shirts—and sometimes our PJs. We began trading the exotic souvenirs like baseball cards. 

Heavy trainloads of war surplus soon followed, train after train after train of war machines looking so tired. Some trains stopped on a siding, creating irresistible opportunities for 10-year-olds to get into mischief.  It wasn’t long before every one of us had our own foxhole shovel, GI canteen, ammo belt, and helmet. Harry broke into a locked boxcar one Thursday afternoon, came out with a rifle and swore he saw live grenades inside.

That’s how we got our first taste of the criminal justice system. Days later, our parents received a letter summoning us all to the Union County courthouse at 4 p.m. the following Friday. I got the third degree from my folks and was certain everybody else felt the heat too. Donny, the police chief’s son, was especially quiet the next day.

In court on Friday, all eighteen of us sat trembling and speechless, surrounded by parents, trying to clear our minds of everything we’d ever read about Alcatraz, Sing Sing, and chain gangs pounding rocks under a merciless Alabama sun. Kenny bit his nails to the quick. Tough Bruzzie’s lower lip quivered like a bowl of cherry Jello jiggling on the lid of a washing machine running in SPIN with a very out-of-balance load.

Out walked a grim-faced man in a black robe, who seated himself and scowled down from behind a bench I swear towered ten feet above us. Hizzoner told us what the criminal code called for in cases of burglary and breaking and entering, and he kept talking about the federal crime of stealing from the government. He described life in the Fort Leavenworth military prison in excruciating detail. We swallowed hard, expecting the worst.

Then the judge softened his tone and passed around six graphic photos of maimings from explosives. Russell made a familiar urping sound and almost pitched his cookies. Finally, the judge explained how wounds from explosives could exact a lifelong sentence on us, much longer than any two-to-five at Fort Leavenworth. He said he’d let us off this time but would remember our names.

We rarely went near those military trains again. 

We didn’t have to, as it turned out. Army and Navy stores began to sprout up like April dandelions, glutted with the identical treasures we’d filched from the trains just weeks before. Jerry’s dad came back from a war surplus auction with two battered jeeps costing $15 apiece. We painted them electric blue with yellow lightning bolts and drove around back roads. At 11-years-old, that was more fun than robbing trains. Besides, under-age driving only carried a fine, not two-to-five in Leavenworth.  

Doc Ardrey enjoys writing more today than in his previous seventy years, dating back to sixth grade. His career credits total more than 5,000 published articles in global business and technical publications – plus ESQUIRE, NY TIMES and the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD. He gravitates toward edgy short stories and topical poems with quirky characters. His short stories have appeared in CONCEIT, FABULA ARGENTA, TROUT (a fish story), ULTIMATE WRITERS QUARTERLY and local anthologies. One story received a GLIMMER TRAIN honorable mention. He recently completed a novel about police brutality and systemic racism.