Fiction by F. T. Rea
August 16, 1966:
Roscoe Swift sat alone in a day car slowly rattling its way into
Central Station. The solitary sailor had spent the last hour turning the
glossy pages of Playboy and contemplating infinity. As the train lurched he glanced out of the window at Tuesday morning, Chicago style.
Roscoe had sequestered himself from the marathon poker game in another
car. The further the train had gotten from Main Street Station in
Richmond the more the call for wild cards and split pots had grown.
Finally it had driven him from the table. His resolute grandfather had
schooled him to avoid such frilly variations on the already-perfect game
“Gimmicks like that were invented to keep suckers in the game,” was the old man’s admonition.
On the way to boot camp, volunteering to be a sucker seemed like a bad
idea. This was hardly the day Roscoe wanted to invite the jinx that
might be set loose by disrespecting absolutes.
In the magazine’s lengthy interview section LSD pioneer Timothy Leary
ruminated on his chemically enlarged view of the so-called Youth
Movement. Professor Leary called the baby boomers, “The wisest and
holiest generation that the human race has yet seen.”
The subculture forming around psychedelic drugs in that time was opening
new dimensions of risk for 19-year-old daredevils. Roscoe wondered if
he would ever do acid. His friend Bake had tripped and lived to tell
There was a fresh dimension to the conflict in Vietnam that month. The
Cold War’s hottest spot was being infused with its first batch of
draftees; some 65,000 were being sent into the fray. Until this point it
had been the Defense Department’s policy to use volunteers only for
On the home-front quakes in the culture were also abundant: A
25-year-old former Eagle Scout, Charles Whitman, climbed a tower on the
University of Texas campus and shot 46 people, at random, killing 16;
comedian/first amendment martyr Lenny Bruce was found dead -- overdosed
and fat belly up -- on his bathroom floor; news of songwriter/musician
John Lennon’s playful crack about his band -- “We’re more popular than
Jesus Christ now” -- inflamed the devoutly humorless; and reigning
Heavyweight Champ, Muhammad Ali, bent all sorts of folks out of shape
with his widely reported quip -- “I ain't got nothing against them Viet
Since leaving Virginia the morning before, Roscoe had traveled -- via
the Chesapeake and Ohio line -- through parts of West Virginia, Ohio,
and Indiana, on his way to Illinois.
Taking leave from the airbrushed charms of a model billed as Diane
Chandler, who was September’s Playmate of the Month, his mind
kaleidoscoped to an image of another smiling pretty girl, Julie, his
Then, for a second, Roscoe could feel the sound of Julie's
As a preamble to Roscoe’s departure for basic training he and Julie had
spent the weekend in Virginia Beach, trying their best to savor the
bittersweet taste of war-torn romance, black and white movie style. As
luck would have it, the stately Cavalier Hotel’s central air
conditioning system went on the blink the Friday they arrived.
Since the hotel’s windows couldn't be opened that meant the sea breeze
was unavailable for relief from the heat wave. Nonetheless, they stayed
on, because the hotel itself, a stylish relic of the Roaring ‘20s, meant
something. After two years of catch-as-catch-can back-seat romance,
this was where they had chosen to spend their first whole night
That evening they stretched out on the bed and sipped chilled champagne.
With the hotel-supplied fan blowing on them at full blast, suddenly, a
good-sized chunk of the ceiling fell onto a chair across the room.
Roscoe reported the strange problem to the front desk, “I hate to sound like Chicken Little, but perhaps you have a safer room?”
Then Julie suggested a stroll on the beach to cool off. Walking barefoot
in the surf, neither of them had much to say. An hour later Julie and
Roscoe were back at the hotel. With a little snooping around the pair
discovered the door to the Cavalier’s indoor pool was unlocked. As it
was well past the posted time for the pool to be open and the lights
were off in the chlorine-smelling room, they reasoned the facility was
at their disposal for a little skinny-dipping.
Roscoe set the magazine aside and smiled, thinking of the adage about how Richmond girls are always wilder at the Beach.
Stepping off the train, Roscoe was two hours from another train ride.
This one, aboard a local commuter, would finish the job of transporting
him from Richmond’s Fan District -- with its turn-of-the-century
townhouses -- to a stark world of colorless buildings and punishing
paved grinders: Great Lakes Naval Training Center was his destination.
In the last month Roscoe had listened to plenty of supposedly useful
yarns of what to expect at boot camp. Concerning Chicago, he could
recite facts about the White Sox, the Cubs and the Bears; he had seen
the movie about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the big fire; he thought Bo
Diddley was from Chicago. One thing was certain, Seaman Recruit Swift
knew he was further from home than he’d ever been.
Outside the train station on the sidewalk, “They’re Coming to Take Me
Away” -- a novelty tune on the summer's Top 40 chart -- blared
appropriately from the radio of a double-parked Pontiac GTO.
After laughing at the ironic coincidence of the music, Roscoe, Zach,
Rusty, and Cliff - comrades-at-arms in the same Navy Reserve unit in
Richmond for four months of weekly meetings - considered their options
for killing the time between trains, and they spoke of the ordeal ahead
“That’s it, man.” Rusty explained. “The Navy figures everybody eats
Jell-O, so that’s where they slip you the dose of saltpeter.”
“Get serious, that’s got to be bullshit,” said Zach. “The old salts tell you that to jerk you around.”
“OK, Zach, you can have all
my Jell-O,” Rusty offered.
“Not even a breeze; what do y’all make of the Windy City?” asked Cliff. “It’s just as damn hot up here as it was in Richmond.”
A couple of blocks from the station the team of eastern time-zoners,
outfitted in their summer whites, stopped on a busy corner to scan the
hazy urban landscape. Finding a worthwhile sightseeing adventure was at
the top of their agenda.
Answering the call, a rumpled character slowly approached the quartet
from across the street. Moving with a purpose, he was a journeyman wino
who knew a soft touch when he could focus on it.
In a vaguely European accent the street-wise operator badgered the four
out of a cigarette, a light, two more cigarettes for later, then a
contribution of spare change. When the foul-smelling panhandler demanded
“folding money” Roscoe turned from the scene and walked away. His pals
followed his lead. Then the crew broke into a sprint to escape the sound
of the greedy beggar’s shouts.
Rusty, the fastest afoot, darted into a subway entrance with the others
at his heels. Cliff was laughing so hard he slipped on the steps and
As Roscoe descended the stairway into the netherworld beneath the city,
he was reminded of H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine” and observed, “I guess
this must be where the Morlocks of the Midway would live; if there are
Zach smiled. No one laughed.
The squad agreed that since they were already there, and only Rusty had
ever seen a subway, a little reconnoitering was in order. Thus they
bought tokens, planning only to look around, not to ride. Roscoe, the
last to go through the turnstile, wandered off on his own to inspect the
mysterious tracks that disappeared into darkness.
Standing close to the platform’s edge, Roscoe wondered how tightly the
trains fit into the channel. As he listened to his friends’ soft accents
ricocheting off the hard surfaces of the deserted subway stop, he
recalled a trip by train in 1955’s summer with his grandfather. Roscoe
smiled as he thought of his lifelong fascination with trains. Unlike
most of his traveling companions, he was glad the airline strike had
forced them to make the journey by rail.
Walking aimlessly along the platform, as he reminisced, Roscoe noticed a
distant silhouette furtively approaching the edge. It appeared to him
to be a small woman. She was less than a hundred yards down the tracks.
He watched her sit down carefully on the platform. She didn't move like a
young woman. Seconds later she slid off, disappearing into the dark pit
Although Roscoe was intrigued, he felt no sense of alarm. Not yet.
Rosacoe didn’t wonder if it was a common practice for the natives to
jump onto the subway tracks. He simply continued to walk toward the
scene, slowly taking it in, as if it were a movie. When Zach caught up
with him Roscoe pointed to where the enigmatic figure had been.
Roscoe shrugged, “What do you make of it?”
"Let's see where she went," Zach said.
To investigate the two walked closer. Eventually they saw a gray lump on
the subway tracks. It hardly looked like a person. Then they heard what
was surely the sound of an approaching train coming out of the tunnel’s
As Roscoe shouted at the woman to get up, Zach took off in the direction
of the sound of the train. The scene took on a high-contrast, film noir
look when the tunnel was suddenly lit up by the train’s light.
Running toward the train, the two desperate sailors waved their arms
frantically to get someone’s attention. As they sprinted past the woman
on the tracks she remained clenched into a tight ball, ready to take the
The subway's brakes began to screech horrifically, splitting seconds into shards.
The woman didn't move.
Metal strained against metal as the train’s momentum continued to carry it forth.
Roscoe's senses were stretched to new limits. Tiny details, angles of
light and bits of sound, became magnified. All seemed caught in a spell
of slow motion and exaggerated intensity.
The subway train slid to a full stop about ten feet short of creating a grisly finish.
Roscoe and Zach sprang from the platform and gathered the trembling
woman from the tracks. They carefully passed her up to Rusty and Cliff,
who stood three feet above. Passengers emptied from the train.
Adrenaline surged through Roscoe’s limbs as he climbed back onto the
platform. Brushing off his uniform, he strained to listen to the
conversation between the train's driver and the strange person who had
just been a lump on the subway track.
The gray woman, who appeared to be middle-aged, spewed, "Thank you,"
over and over again. She explained her presence on the tracks to having,
Shortly later the subway driver acted as if he believed her useful
explanation. Zach pulled him aside to say that we had seen the woman
jump, not fall, from the platform. Roscoe began to protest to the
buzzing mob’s deaf ears, but he stopped abruptly when he detected a
feminine voice describing what sounded like a similar incident. He
panned the congregation until he found the speaker. She was about his
Filing her fingernails with an emery board -- eyes fixed on her work --
she told how another person, a man, had been killed at that same stop
last week: “The lady is entitled to die if she wants to. You know she’ll
just do it again.”
As she looked up to inspect her audience, such as it was, Roscoe caught
Miss Perfect Fingernails’ eye. He shook his head to say, “No!”
The impatient girl looked away and gestured toward the desperate woman
who surely had expected to be conning St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that
morning, instead of a subway driver. “Now we’re
late for our
appointments. For what?”
Roscoe watched the forsaken lady -- snatched from the Grim Reaper’s
clutches -- vanish into the ether of the moment’s cheerless confusion.
Shortly thereafter the train was gone, too.
“Well, I don’t know about you boys,” said Roscoe. “But I’ve had enough of Chicago sights for today.”
On their way back to daylight Roscoe listened to his longtime friend
Zach tell the other two, who were relatively new friends, a story about
Bake: To win a bet, Bake, a consummate daredevil, had recently jumped
from Richmond’s Huguenot Bridge into the Kanawha Canal.
“Sure sounds like this Bake is a piece of work,” said Cliff. “You said
he’s going to RPI this fall. What’s he doing about the draft?”
“This is a guy who believes in spontaneity like it’s sacred,” said Zach.
“Roscoe, can you imagine Bake in any branch of military service, draft
or no draft?”
“If he can hack being told what to do at art school, I’ll be surprised.” observed Roscoe.
“Hey, man, I’m not so sure any of us belong
in the service,” Rusty volunteered.”
“I hear you.” Cliff concurred.
Upon rejoining the others from their Virginia contingent at Central
Station, the four sightseers found a legion of additional boot
camp-bound sailors from all over the country. For the men assembled, a
two-year active-duty hitch in the Navy Reserve was preferable to rolling
the dice on what the busy Selective Service system might dish out.
Rusty and Zack eagerly rehashed the morning’s bizarre adventure: “One of
them told me there’s been three suicides in Chicago’s subways this
summer,” reported Zach. “Could it be the heat?”
“I still had no idea what they were doing when I saw these two fools
hopping off the platform, right in front of that train,” Rusty chuckled.
“Hey, I couldn’t see squat on the tracks.”
“She’s probably standing on the roof of a skyscraper, right now” Zach
theorized. “And, I’m sorry, but I’ll let some other hero break her
Aboard the train from Chicago to Great Lakes Roscoe sat by the window
considering the unseen dimensions of his new role -- a GI sworn to stand
between what is dear to America and its enemies. Only days before, as
he walked on the beach with Julie, he had felt so sure of being prepared
for the task.
Yet as he sat there, with miles of unfamiliar scenery streaming by,
Roscoe felt waves of trepidation washing over his easy confidence. On
top of that, he wished he had gotten a little bit of sleep during the
With their destination only minutes away the four Subway Swashbucklers
opted to get in a few hands of stud poker; to accommodate Roscoe, wild
cards weren’t suggested.
Sitting on an ace in the hole, with a queen and ten up, Roscoe called
Zach’s fifteen-cent-bet. There were no pairs showing and the bettor had
just drawn a jack to his queen.
Cliff mentioned that the Treasury Department had announced it would no
longer print two-dollar bills. “And, I heard boot camp pay comes in the
form of -- what else? -- two-dollar bills.”
“Where’d you hear that?” Zach challenged. “I bet it’s bullshit.”
“Maybe we’re going to get the last of the deuces,” said Rusty. “And, I’ll take any of them you don’t want.”
Roscoe’s mind wasn’t on payday or the poker game. He was daydreaming
about Julie smiling on the beach, with her teal-colored eyes glistening
and her sun-streaked hair livened by a gust of wind.
Roscoe grappled with his thoughts, trying to pull them together --
memory, urges, and anticipation all marching to the steady beat provided
by the tracks. It occurred to him there was something more than mere
distance between his seat on that train and what had been his life in
“If time has borders, between one age and the next, it might be thicker
at the border,” Roscoe announced to no one in particular.
Rusty, the dealer, batted Roscoe’s oblique remark away, “So, are you calling Zach’s bet, or what?”
Expressionless, Roscoe stared at his fourth card, a queen. He pulled out
a cigarette. Nodding toward Zach’s hand -- a pair of jacks, showing --
Roscoe flipped his up-cards over, face down. “OK, even if saving the
Queen of the Subway from certain death doesn’t count for shit, anymore,
there are certain standards that still don’t change. Not for me.”
Rusty shrugged, “Meaning?”
“So, this disposable hero won’t pay a cent for a fifth card to fill an
inside straight,” said Roscoe, lighting his cigarette. “First hand, or
last, it’s still a sucker’s bet. And, I’ll sit the next hand out.”
“Whatever you say, man,” Rusty laughed. “But we’ve probably got time for just one more hand. Sure you want to quit now?”
Roscoe took a big drag of his filter-tipped Kool. He drank in the moving
picture of Illinois that was streaming past his window. The railroad
ties were clicking monotonously. He thought about how movies depict
motion by running a series of still pictures through a projector.
However, with the memory picture of Julie on the beach he’d just
conjured up, it wasn’t frozen like a still. Nor was it in full motion.
The image moved ever so slightly, capturing what amounted to a single
After receiving their last cards Cliff and Rusty folded, too. Zach
smiled broadly and raked in the pot. Cliff gathered the cards and began
to shuffle; preparing to deal the next hand.
“You in, Swift?” inquired the dealer. “The game is seven-card stud. The ante is still a quarter.”
“This time let’s make it 50 cents,” suggested Rusty, sliding two quarters into the center of the makeshift card table.
“Last hand? I’m in,” said Zach.
Roscoe blew a perfect smoke ring, which he studied as it began to float
out of shape. He promised himself that no matter what happened to him,
he would never forget that smoke ring.
He smiled, “OK. Deal me in.”
* * *