Here’s a completed short story I just finished polishing up. It’s a variation of a story once told to me by the construction foreman I worked for in the summer of 2002, in Laramie, Wyoming. His name was Paul and was one of three brothers who managed a construction company for their father (the company was simply called: Three Sons). They lived outside of Laramie, in a small, nestled valley town called Elk Mountain.
Paul was building a house that summer. His own house and invited those of us on his Laramie road crew to help him if we should want. He worked on his house on Saturdays and Sundays. We would have to pay for our own transport out there, work all day, and not get paid. Needless to say, not many from my crew took up the opportunity. But, I liked Paul and was curious about how one builds a house.
I joined him probably 4-5 times. We always took a lunch break and were fed really delicious food (wow, that sentence sounds like it’s right out of a Korean English textbook!). We were always invited to stay for dinner. I often took him up on this offer as his wife cooked a tremendous dinner.
I remember sitting there, outside, near the barbeque pit in the dead of summer, and relaxing after the meal. During this time, when those of us remaining would find ourselves succumbing to the fatigues of the day, Paul would often tell a story.
Often great stories. Anecdotes. Probably mostly untrue, but perhaps now and then there was a little bit of real merit to them. Hearing those stories always made me feel it was worth the effort–to drive the hour out to his place, tire my already tired muscles, and help him build. The payment was in storytelling. A peculiar payment that was never asked for, but one which was always received with welcome ears.
Here then is a loose re-telling of one of Paul’s tales. A story about an old man in a very small, nearly forgotten Wyoming town.
A Brief Tale of Something Incredible
By Brian M. Van Hise
This is an incredible tale, one that was passed along to me from my father, who heard it first from his father. Not quite a tall tale, though it might seem one at first. Its explanation is quite simple actually, an explanation that makes you smack your forehead and nod, like when you figure out how a magician made your signed card reappear at the top of the deck so effortlessly. But, it sure seems incredible up until that moment, that moment when the veil is lifted and the explanation is given.
An incredible tale. We humans sure do like these kinds of things don’t we? Well, let me pass the tale of my grandfather onto you then. Let me take the family party anecdote and broadcast it now unto the world in the simpleness that this black ink on white, speckled paper can provide.
In early February 1953, a long time ago, there was a man named Crookshank working for the Union Pacific railways in Hanna, Wyoming. Small town. Carbon County. Right along State Highway 72. Maybe you know it. He worked as a signalman in a small signal box a few miles outside of town. Of course, back then, coal was still being mined for the railways. Just a short year before those trains switched over to oil-powered locomotives. So there was a little something on its way out of Hanna, that’s for sure.
There was a blizzard in February 1953, in that little pocket of south-eastern Wyoming. Most residents will tell you that heavy snow and a sharp, biting wind is common every year and that only outta-towners call it a blizzard, or those news folks over in Cheyenne who stand there in their suits on TV and point to green screens with billowy cloud cartoons snowing over the region. Well, it happens that there was indeed a blizzard in Carbon County in 1953, one that slowed those trains down an awful lot.
Crookshank had been on duty for 14 hours already. A double shift because his relief couldn’t make it in. Not that Crookshank minded. Sometimes it was actually a bit warmer in the control booth than it was in his own house three miles off. And besides, why should he want to trek through those three miles in such screaming wind and sideways blowing snow? Only a madman would do that. Crookshank was no madman.
So, he toughed it out, dipping into the supply of canned beans, frozen bread, and soup that were stored in the booth for such occasions. The propane tanks for the small gas range were always full. One could probably sit out an entire Wyoming winter in that little shack if one were so inclined.
Crookshank looked out the window to his pickup truck—its bed heavy now with that wet shit piling on top of it. He was in no hurry at all. No sir.
His transit manifest was on the flower-patterned tabletop next to him. The pattern design was hard to see these days. Most of the flowers had slowly faded off and even the cheap adhesive holding it to the table had started to peel back in places. But, Crookshank had been with the railways long enough to remember what the pattern had once looked like. Fresh and clean.
He looked out the small window, such a small window and what a huge world behind it. The window wasn’t facing East nor West, so as not to make for blinding sunlight as the sun rose and fell. Instead, the shack window faced rolling hills of sage, hills that acted like a canvas in the approaching evening hours, when the sun would fall and paint its last colors of the day on the land. A canvas that took to a fresh white-washing every winter.
Crookshank held a half-empty mug of coffee in his hand and stared out that window. The falling snow danced in front of him. It came down light. So light. But, he knew that if he only opened that door and took a step, the snow under his feet would feel like heavy bricks.
Even in such conditions, the trains still moved on regular schedules. It was a Tuesday, so an easy day. Only 3 trains were scheduled to coast by him, slowing down of course for the town, before zooming off again. Just to stretch his legs, he would often step outside about 5 minutes before the next train was set to arrive, so he could watch it make its break in the distance and come speeding towards him. He’d record the time, make sure the train number matched his transit sheet, and do a quick count of the cars as they rolled past. Probably wave too if he saw any familiar faces—or even wave if he didn’t. After all, that’s how you made new familiar faces.
But the last scheduled train didn’t come that day. It wasn’t five minutes late. It wasn’t ten minutes late. Not even an hour.
It just didn’t come.
Crookshank, a dedicated man of the railroad going on 16 years now, double and triple checked his paperwork, found everything in order, and began to follow the protocol for a missing train. First, he had to gather his things and prepare for an hour-long trek outside to make sure the junction box two miles away hadn’t been tampered with, sending the train in the wrong direction. It was hard to do this, but one spring the Hamstead boys had figured it out as part of their senior prank and managed to change the mechanics in the box and send a poor freighter train nearly 30 miles in the wrong direction before that one was cleared up.
Crookshank slipped on his snow boots and put on his coat and cap. He took a step outside and winced a bit at that frosty air. He tucked his head down and began to walk next to the tracks, looking up only often enough to keep his bearings straight. Bricks, just like he’d imagined. The snow crunched down beneath his steps like heavy bricks. Fortunately, the wind was at his back and as he walked he could see that magical ballet of snowflakes parading in front of him before blowing even further back where they were lost among the swirl of thousands of other tiny dancers.
It took only a minute before he reached a point where he could turn around and find that his signal box had vanished in the distance. Looking down at his feet, he gave the track a light kick. The track was now his only guide back to shelter. He squatted down and put his gloved hand over the iron rail and held it tightly.
After a moment, Crookshank hoisted himself back up onto his feet and carried on.
He crunched through the snow for a good 20 minutes when something sudden and rather incredible caught his eye.
He’d seen incredible things before, that’s for sure. Have no doubt about that. In 1953, Crookshank was already a man well into his fifties, giving him at least a certain authority on making claims of incredible witness. Just two years earlier he’d seen a dog with two tails. A small baby lab had been born with two tails at Mrs. Marsh’s house not ten minutes away by car. And before that even, when he was a teenager, his first girlfriend had told him about a ghost she saw on her way home from school one day. All right, well, he didn’t see the ghost himself, but Susan Traylor was certainly no liar, so how could you explain it otherwise?
But, what Crookshank saw there, in the snow, on that cold winter morning in Hanna was something to take the cake for sure.
Not more than 60 feet away from him, where that blanket of snow made it just visible to clearly define what he was looking at, was an elephant.
A goddamn elephant.
Standing there in the snow on the outskirts of town. It was staring at him. It’s body was huge! Like a massive wall made of perfectly-laid gray bricks. He thought if the elephant were standing on the tracks and a train were barreling down on it, it would be strong enough to derail the train. He had never seen such a huge beast! The elephant didn’t move as Crookshank stared into its glassy, marble eyes. Was the elephant just as surprised to see a man standing there? Was the elephant thinking it was in its natural environment and this man was the incredible oddity?
Crookshank had never seen a real elephant before. Only in the National Geographics that George Cotter brought in from time to time, when reading material in the booth was scarce. Crookshank never thought much about elephants, but he had to in that moment. Yes, in that moment there was no better thing to occupy one’s mind with than how a goddamn elephant wound up standing in a Wyoming blizzard.
There was no sound save for the constant drone of the wind. Somewhere nearby he could hear what sounded like an tin can bouncing along the road behind him. Other than that, just pure emptiness. A white sky, white ground, tunneling wind, and the elephant.
Somewhere to his right he could hear an old branch, undoubtedly weighed down with snow, crack, snap, and break free from the tree it had clung to for so long. But neither Crookshank nor the elephant batted an eye. They kept their gaze on each other, standing there across the tracks from one another. A surreal moment if there ever was one.
I’ve lost my mind, Crookshank thought. Nothing makes sense now. I don’t need to check the junction box. I just need to get back to town. Not the booth. To town. To Coppers. I need a drink. I need all the drinks Frank Copper can give me on loan cuz it’s not payday until the end of next week.
Crookshank looked away from the elephant and turned around. Keeping his head down, he started to walk back from where he had come. He walked for about a minute, stopped, and turned to look behind him.
The elephant was gone. Lost in the snow most likely. He wondered how something so big, so mountain-like, could just disappear behind small flurries of snow.
The rest of the story is simple really. He made it back to the bar, told everyone he thought he’d lost his mind, and swore to quit the railroad seeing how his mental capacities were unfit to carry on. He was just about to promise he would check himself in to the state hospital over there in Evanston, and get himself a proper “check up from the neck up”, when, three hours later, the explanation for the elephant became clear.
Jim Harkin, who managed the hardware shop next to Coppers, tapped his boots on the doorstep as he entered the bar, bearing a smile from ear to ear. Loose snowflakes crumbled off his shoulders and disappeared before they could hit the squeaky, uneven wooden floor.
“The most amazing thing has happened!” He called out.
Do you want to hear it?
Or does it really matter? How did the magician make that signed card pop back to the top of the deck when you were sure it was in the middle only moments earlier? How does the sun paint those lovely hillsides everyday as it retires itself for a few hours? How do those small, innocent snowflakes fall in such randomness, and manage to conceal the mighty body of full-grown elephant?
The explanations are there. The magician is doing a double-lift, diffused sky radiation creates the amber glow on the mountain-side, and the snowflakes attach themselves en masse to create their screen behind which hiding anything might be possible.
And the elephant?
Well, Harkin was able to explain that one and keep Crookshank from thinking he’d really lost his mind.
The elephant was simple.
A train had derailed a few miles east. Reports were already coming in quickly about cars overturned and lots of smoke. Heavy plumes that even those silly snowflakes couldn’t quite hide.
That missing train was en route to Salt Lake City, where a circus was set to perform the following week. It had just wrapped up its last performance in Cheyenne, the previous night, to much acclaim. A circus train. In the end it wasn’t anything magical nor any kind of illusion, but certainly something incredible, wouldn’t you say? A dinner party anecdote that gets a smile when passed down to others through the years. A family tall tale that offers an inside joke to the expression “elephant in the room”.
Was Crookshank crazy? Did his “cheese slide off his cracker” as my grandfather used to say of him in those early memories I have?
Of course not. The veil had been lifted.
In the end it was simply a circus train and its cargo consisted of many things. Staging rigs, portable lighting, collapsible awnings, and large iron rings through which a variety of exotic animals were trained to leap through.
Cages and tight ropes.
Banners and popcorn machines.
Rolls of unused paper tickets.
And at least one elephant.