TAKING THE NIGHT TRAIN
I decided to hitch a ride to the train station in Oswiecim that night, and so I stood in the drizzle at the side of the road by the bus stop - just in case. A car stopped, and I asked the young driver if he could take me to the train station. He didn't understand, so I was reduced to, "choo choo choo choo Katowice." Success. I climbed in just as Ray Charles came on the radio singing "Hit the Road, Jack." And don't you come back no more.
The station was only a few minutes away, but I'm a nervous traveller, always afraid I'll miss the last connection or leave my passport behind. I let the ticket agent short-change me by 2 Zlotys. They weren't worth fighting over. She looked me straight in the eye as she pushed the change through the opening in the booth.
I knew the ticket taker in the train; he had given me directions when I arrived, and he sat down to talk. His English was understandable, and he wanted to tell me about his life and about how difficult things were in Poland. Wages were a joke because inflation is so high. He could barely scrape by on what he made working for the railroad. His teeth were jagged and discolored, and they looked as if they must be painful. We talked until the next station, when he excused himself so he could check on the new passengers.
In Katowice, I changed to the night express making the Krakow to Berlin run. I shared a sleeper with a Polish man who had worked as a construction contractor in Kuwait until the invasion. Now he had business in Berlin. We were both tired and so we settled into our bunks. But as so often happens when one has taken in too much, I couldn't sleep, even with the reassuring kk-kk--kk-kk of the rails beneath me. As I dozed, I imagined what the collapse of the Reich might have looked like: German soldiers and civilians in carts and on foot frantically trying to escape the Red Army closing in behind them. Gone was the myth of the superman, no more arrogance, no more spit-shined boots, only mud, hunger, and fear, a scene that stretched out to the horizon on all sides. And I? I was watching this from a parallel track, from the safety of the train and the distance of the present future.
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