The Whistle-Stop Girl of Montana

The gentle swaying of the coach of the train was lulling me to sleep.  I had spent the night at Union Station in Chicago waiting for the early morning departure of the Great Northern, bound for Seattle.  It was a long lay-over and I was tired.  After watching the western suburbs of the Windy City I made the mistake of closing my eyes.  Soon I was dreaming of the Rocky Mountains and points west.  I was due in Juneau, Alaska in four days.  I and another student were hired as seasonal assistants to two geologists from the USGS and we were to continue collecting rock samples and mapping on the Juneau Icefield, picking up where we had left off and the end of the 1967 field season.

I had just turned nineteen.  It was early summer of 1968.

I sat alone; deep in thoughts of the glaciers, and then in a moment, lost in the fog of slumber.

When I awoke and pulled the shade up, I was nearly blinded by the glare of the wheat and corn of the prairie states.  I studied the endless acres and occasional farm-house.  A boy was sitting on a split-log fence watching the train speed past.  Behind him was a small barn and a small grain silo and behind that was his modest little house.  He wore bib overalls and looked to be about ten years old.  He held firmly to the wood rail and waved vigorously at the passengers that were looking at him.  I waved back and he seemed to look only at me.  Perhaps, I thought, I was the only passenger that bothered to wave back to him.  I’m sure he knew the timetables well and went to the fence just for a chance to wave…and be seen by so many strangers heading west.  I felt a pang of sorrow for the boy.  He was lonely, I was sure of it.  After all, where were his brothers and sisters?  I think he had no one but us.  I waved until he faded into the distance.

For some reason, I’ve been think of that little boy and wondered what happened to him in life.

At each town we stopped at, more people got on the train.  I recall my car being nearly filled.  I pulled out a copy of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and read.  Suddenly, I was aware of a boy coming through the sliding doors from the forward cars.  He came to my seat (I was in the front seat so I had more leg room) and stood looking at me.

“Hi, there,” I said.

“I have a message for you,” he replied.

I didn’t understand.  Was this some kind of game?

“Oh, really,” I said to him as I turned sideways in my seat to face him.  “What would that message be?”

“Two cars up,” he pointed in the direction he came from.  “There’s a girl, she wants you to come up and sit with her.”

I was stunned at first, then quickly became curious.

“Who is she?” I asked.

“She didn’t say, but she has a blue shirt on.”

He moved toward the sliding door and turned.  “She waiting for you.”  He was gone.

Just a game, I said to myself.  I returned to Steinbeck.  I read a chapter.  I closed the book and stared at the magazine rack in front of me.

I got up and made my way to the forward cars.  Two cars up…blue shirt, I kept whispering.

The moment I entered the second car I saw her.  She was sitting in the last row on the left.  She was about my age and was clutching a pillow.  By her feet was a small duffel bag.

She had a blue shirt on.

I ignored her and walked to the front of the car pretending to look for a new magazine.  I turned and went back along the aisle.  When I got to her seat I noticed she had moved to the center.  I slowed and looked at her.  She nodded her head toward the empty seat.  I sat down.  We introduced ourselves.  I confess, I forgot her name, so I’ll call her Ellen.

We joked about the boy with the message.  She said she noticed me when she boarded a few stops west of Chicago.  Seeing I was napping she went by me.  She said I looked “interesting”.

I looked out the window and saw that the sun was setting and darkness was falling on the northern Great Plains.

A tingle went down my spine and butterflies swarmed my stomach when she reached over and with confidence and gentleness, took my hand in hers.  I put my arm around her shoulder and as the sun slipped below the western horizon, we kissed.

She told me she was going home after spending a month in a church camp outside of Chicago.  Yes, she was going home.  I asked her where home was and she said the name of a Montana town that I never heard of.  Her family, she told me, had a ranch and they raised cattle.  Everyone around her owned an active ranch.  It was Montana cattle country.

I held onto her.  She did not want to be alone for this journey back home.  We nestled together on the three empty seats and made an effort to sleep.  After about fifteen minutes of shifting around to find the comfort zone, she raised her head.  Her eyes looked dewy in the dim light of the coach.  It was 11:45 PM.  Her lips were full and locks of her hair fell onto her forehead.  Her arm was around my waist.  She’d been busy thinking.

“Would you like to get a sleeper cabin?” she asked, her eyes were fixed on mine.

“Sure,” I said. “But I think the car is full.”

“I’m going to talk to the porter…I’ll work it out,” she whispered.  She slipped her sneakers on and went back toward the sleepers.

Suddenly, I was terrified of what might happen.  A year earlier, a priest said something to me in the Confessional that was clinging to me like Super Glue.  I won’t reveal details, but he said that more people were burning in the fires of hell FOR ALL ETERNITY for sins of flesh than any other transgression against God (combined, I’m sure).  I struggled with these thoughts as I matured and became more intimate with the opposite sex.  I was soon to be twenty, young and strong, but felt in my soul like a little errant altar boy. So I wrestled with desiring the sweetness of a woman and fearing the fires of hell.

I was morally conflicted.  Would I be strong tonight?  Yes, I told myself, Ellen just wants to be cuddled and I just wanted not to be seared on both sides in fires that would never diminish.  Never.

Ellen came back.  I held my breath.

“The porter said there was nothing he could do.”

I felt a jolt of frustration and anger while, at the very same instant, relieved that the choice I would have faced was taken away.

I pulled her toward me and we stretched back.  She had been carrying a light blanket, which I grabbed and pulled over the two of us while we slept.  But we didn’t fall asleep until I gave her a long, warm and gentle kiss on the top of her copper hair.

When we awoke, we were half-way across Montana.  Her stop was to be in the middle of the afternoon.  We had seven hours to talk, kiss and hold onto each other.  I went off to the food car and brought back snacks for us to munch on while the hours slipped by.

It was around noon when she looked up at me and said something that caught me totally off guard.

“Why don’t you get off with me and come to the ranch?  You can stay a few days and then my dad and I will drive you back to the station.”

“But I have to be in Juneau in two days,” I said, my mind racing and full of ideas.

“You can call them and tell them you’ll be a day late.”

“I…”

I looked out of the window and saw the wheat fields and gently rolling hills of Montana pass.  I thought about this offer.  Yes, I could call the USGS office in Juneau and say I was delayed a day or two.  I would go to her ranch, meet her family, share their meals and maybe even mend a barbed wire fence somewhere out on the south forty.  I would ride a horse.  They’d teach me how to twirl a lariat.  I would be asked to brand a few head of cattle (I’d politely decline).  I might buy cowboy boots.  Wear dirty jeans.  The family would surely give me an old Stetson.  Her brothers would like me.  Her sisters would flirt with me.  I’d sip ice-cold lemonade in the shade of a cotton-wood tree, hidden from the blinding glare and blazing afternoon heat in the Land of the Big Sky.  I’d breathe the dust and soil of the ranch country.

She tugged at my hand and asked what I was thinking about and would I consider her offer.

I didn’t know what to say.

Her station was beyond Billings.  We passed through there two hours earlier.  I began to have the butterflies in my gut once again.  I was a free young man.  I was free to make choices for my life.  The only thing that could stop me was myself.  Was I going to follow the expectations of my parents?

The conductor came through the car and called out the next dozen stops.  Ellen’s was the ninth one.

What was I going to do?  She clung to me and I to her.  She started to cry…just a little tear but it was real.  I think she felt she knew what my choice was going to be.  But I didn’t know what I was going to do.

We came slowly to the station where she would get off.  It was only a small platform, a small building and few pick up trucks.  It was a real whistle-stop.  A dusty road, straight as an arrow, went south.

She slowly took up her things.  We folded the blanket.  She held her pillow on her chest and both arms held it tight to her body.

I was nearly ready to say yes, let’s go, but I didn’t.  I stood on the platform and looked into Ellen’s blue eyes.  They were as blue and deep and open as the Montana sky.  She had wiped away the few tears and looked at me, our eyes steady.  She glanced around and said her dad would be along soon.  I heard bells and the short blasts from the engine.  I heard the “ALL ABOARD” from the conductor, who was looking at the only one who wasn’t on board, me.

I put my arms around her, the pillow separating our bodies.  I kissed her one final time and stepped back onto the stairs.  The train jerked to a slow start.  She turned her body to me as I became more and more distant.  I waved.  She blew me a kiss.  I watched her until there was nothing more to see, except the tiny red speck of one of the pick up trucks.  Soon, even that was lost among the prairie of the Big Sky country.

I went back to the empty seat.  It was my turn to let the tears fall down my cheeks.

[A note to Ellen:  Ellen, is your hair a little grey now?  Are you a grandmother?  I’ll bet you’re a really good one if you are.  Did you marry a nice man who treated you with love and respect?  Did you have a daughter?  Does she run a ranch?  A son? Did he survive the wars to come home to help your father.  I imagine your parents are buried now, in a plot under the shade of a cotton wood tree beside a white church.  If you are online and reading blogs, I want to say something to you.  I didn’t forget your name because you were not important to me.  I just got old.  I forget things.  Indeed, I loved you in a certain way that didn’t require years to germinate.    Even though we spent only about thirty hours together, they were our moments.  They were a tiny slice in the vast experiences of life.  One thing is certain: No one can mention Montana without your image coming to mind.  We will never cross paths again in this life, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know each other, would we?  Not unless I happen to see a pretty young woman with blue eyes and golden hair clutching a pillow on a platform, in a prairie, at a whistle-stop, on a hot summer afternoon…with a Big Sky overhead.]

Good-bye, Ellen…you’ll aways be Ellen to me.

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