Your young men will see visions . . .”


Who is to say an apparition will not sneak up on an old man at a vulnerable moment.

2008, June 22, Monday

Jon coasted the car to a stop beside the non-existent curb. For a few seconds he stared down at the dashboard dials and warning lights, which communicated nothing he needed to know. He swung his weary gaze up to look at the memory-trigger he had come here to see yet once again.

But it was not there! It was massive! It must be there! He blinked his eyes many times, but he still saw an incongruous something else.

After two deep inhales and exhales, he rubbed his cataract-repaired eyes, a bad habit. As always, it would take his eyes a minute or more to return to form and for his eyelids to blink away the thick fluid filming his sight. “Don’t rub your eyes,” the young eye doctor had warned him five years ago. He blinked and blinked again. And blinked several times more. He had forgotten to put in eye drops this morning to replace the tears stolen by his psoriasis, a disease of his family. No treatment was known for the floaters which also obscured his vision.

His eyes would not report the reality he knew was before him. In his confusion his foot came off the brake pedal. The car lurched ahead three feet before he slammed down on the pedal, startling a man crossing the street twenty feet in front of him. The young man did not look at Jon. Maybe he thought Jon was telling him to go use the crosswalk and not jaywalk. Jon recognized him as the the latest manager of the county historical society, so new he was still wearing a coat and tie to work. Both of them were embarrassed, one for his awkward youth, the other for his absent-minded old age.

Jon could see this reality, even see that the young man was today wearing jeans with his sport coat and tie. The jeans were worn. A strange bifurcation, Jon thought, but befitting the young man’s adjustment to his role and to northeastern Minnesota. He knew the young man was reality; it was too mundane a sight not to be. He lifted his eyes to look beyond the young man. Jon’s eyes still lied; the apparition remained.

Jon powered open all four windows and turned off the engine. The cold fact of Lake Superior air might clear his eyes and settle his anxiety.

The reality Jon was supposed to see seventy-five feet before him was the front end of a Yellowstone mallet, one of the largest steam engines ever built. Now a relic, a museum display, it had hauled unrecorded millions of tons of iron ore from the iron range mines to the nearby iron ore docks. Then in the 1950’s arrived the diesel engines, which were safer, cleaner, and less . . . less something. What the diesel engines were less of Jon could never articulate, despite his many visits here seeking for the exact words. The diesels were not less romantic. Jon did not think in those terms. Not less nostalgic. Well, yes, they were that, but something else as well. Something in the mallets was absent from the diesels. The massiveness, the stink and dirtiness, the image of a conqueror, the maleness, John Wayne at all his worst and best—that’s what the diesels lacked. The diesels were more technical, more civilized, too modern when the arrived in a region still trying to recover from the recent Second World War. “Maybe that was our problem in the 50’s,” Jon told the vision. “The U.S. rushed itself right into modernity without pausing for a good deep breath and recovery.”

Jon turned and looked to his left. The tourist season was beginning to bloom for another year. Yes, he saw that reality: families admiring a relic of an earlier era, a small steam engine, now a century and a quarter old—cute, almost twee, as if the designers were as focused on aesthetics as on function, and perhaps they had been. But the mallet had an aesthetic too, the polar opposite of twee. Jon swung his eyes back to the apparition where the front of the mallet should be.

What his brain saw was an image of his father in his early seventies, a large man sitting in a large soft chair in the corner of the living room of the old house with light streaming in on him from two corner windows, like a blessing from on high. The man’s meat-hook hands were resting on his knees. Meat hooks, but deft meat hooks, even at that age. The sound of the children outside Jon’s car had melded into the sound of his father’s grandchildren sitting on his lap, hanging on his arms, playing at his feet. The man loved his grandchildren, who in their turn were drawn to his peaceful mass, his warmth, his contentment.

Contentment had never found Jon. He was the last of five children, eleven years younger than the next oldest child—a caboose, in the railroad lexicon of the town. “Jon’s name should have been Encore,” a favorite joke of his father’s, “because he wasn’t on the program at all.”

Jon lit a cigarette. How would smoking matter any more for him? Jon hadn’t smoked in high school. He hadn’t even drunk in high school, two rites of male passage in the town back then and still were, as far as Jon could tell. Jon believed he had also failed tests of maleness with his father, but the man had never told him that he had. It was Viet Nam that hooked him on nicotine. Cigarettes were everywhere over there, a sign of bonding among men/boys fearing/sneering at the death that could sneak out of the jungle. Agent Orange did not get Jon. He had never suffered post traumatic stress. He understood why others did. Jon avoided Viet Nam vets because he could not share in their tales of PTSD, almost another failed test. He could sympathize, but he had no personal story to share. Jon’s Viet Nam had been a business of business, the Quartermaster Corps. He could not call it “Nam” with the familiar ease of his fellow vets. He never used the drugs freely available. The Viet Cong never fired a bullet in his direction. It was the American tobacco industry with its stealth attack on vulnerable young men who were now taking him down.

Jon’s father had spent most of his adult life amidst the steam of the roundhouse working on the mallets and the many smaller steam engines, but it was the mallets he loved. His large body and enormous hands were a perfect match for the long heavy wrenches. He came home smelling of cinders and hot oil. He did not come home to relax; he was more relaxed in the roundhouse. He came home to enjoy his family. When the diesel had driven out all the steam, he was laid-off from his now nonexistent job. He found work as a mechanic for an auto dealer, working mostly on the large trucks brought in for repair. He transferred easily from the roundhouse to the mechanics shop, one manly world to another. He came home smelling of exhaust and grease. When the large trucks also became diesels, he retired.

Jon studied his vision. It made sense, in its own other-worldly way. Was the vision preparing Jon for the afterlife? The front of the mallet did in fact almost have the form of a large man sitting in a large chair. It was fitting that his father would morph into one of the engines he loved. Children were every climbing on the front of the mallet as his grandchildren had crawled into his lap.

And now that Jon understood his vision for what it was, to his regret, the vision dissolved into reality: seven children on and in front of the engine, shouting their delight. A little girl with skinny legs and soft blond hair reminded Jon of his own daughter, her grandfather’s “favorite,” which the man whispered to all of his grandchildren as a “secret.” Two fathers in plaid shorts and polo shirts were staring at the mallet; they were edgy, no doubt eager for their golf game. Another man took firm hold of a railing above the cowcatcher and tried to shake the engine. He dusted off his hands and walked to the other men, who were laughing at him. Did the three men recognize that the dead relic was from a harder era, a time when men together applied muscle and mechanical insight to a large physical task? Jon wanted to go tell them, but that would make him another daft old man who pestered tourists with his antique truth, a codger who scared away children, who made mothers clutch their toddlers, and who embarrassed men, both for him and for themselves—why, they would not know.

We are the transition men, we of this generation,” Jon told no one. “Our sweaty feet are bound to the earth by labor, our uncalloused hands on the computer keyboard. My father’s head was in steam; mine is in the iCloud . . . and smoke.”

©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017