Vista DomebyAdrian Leverkuhn©
Bleary-eyed and doing his best not to fall asleep, John Crossfield cast a weary gaze on the departure board above the ticket counter for the tenth time in about as many minutes, then, looking at his Hamilton wrist watch, he hoped against all reasonable expectation that today's train would be called on time. It was almost too much to hope for - not after having traveled halfway around the world over the last eight days - but exhaustion did strange things to a man. Hope and reason are strange bedfellows, not always incompatible but often at odds with one another.
A metallic screech, then the hoped for announcement: "Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen! Train number 18, the nine-forty California Zephyr will commence boarding in ten minutes for Stockton, Sacramento, Elko, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and points in between. Please check that you have your travel documents ready for the conductor at boarding gate two. Again, we will begin boarding train 18, the eastbound California Zephyr, in ten minutes. Would Captain Crossfield, Captain John Crossfield, please report to the boarding gate at this time."
Not surprised but more than a little annoyed at this breech of privacy, Crossfield snapped-to and walked across the station toward the gate, all the while ignoring those curious eyes that followed his progress, and he soon spotted two US Navy Shore Patrolmen standing just ahead of a crisply starched ensign Crossfield saw standing near the train's conductor. The ensign and patrolmen fired off sharp salutes as he approached, then the ensign handed Crossfield a packet containing, he assumed, his travel documents.
"Captain," the clean-shaven ensign said, "here are your final travel arrangements and papers. All the way to D.C., sir. Can we help you out to the platform?"
Crossfield returned the salute and looked at the man's name tag, and the telling lack of campaign ribbons. "No, ensign. Thanks. I've only got these," he said as he hefted a tan leather briefcase in his left hand and a small grip in his right.
"Didn't you just come in on the Clipper, sir?"
Crossfield nodded, looked at his watch again. "Ninety minutes ago."
"Cuttin' it kinda' close, sir, but I guess that's the drill."
Crossfield nodded at the ensign's cloying familiarity, yet felt once again more than a little annoyed. Perhaps he was just tired, or perhaps it was that post-war 'lack of immediacy' he'd heard so much about lately, but this ensign seemed almost insubordinate.
The conductor cleared his throat and shuffled a bit: "Uh, sir, I'll need to run you on out to the platform now, before the other passengers."
Crossfield nodded. "Need any of these?" he said, holding up the sheaf of just delivered tickets.
"No, sir, I reckon they're good, don't you?" the conductor asked as he pushed open the heavy oak door leading to the platform, and Crossfield followed the patrolmen and ensign through the door.
As the men approached the train, they stopped. "Well, have a good journey, Captain," the ensign said as he and the two patrolmen snapped-to again. Crossfield returned their salutes, then turned to follow the conductor out along the ramp beyond. He fought off the need to sleep as he walked until at last they burst out into sunshine, and he squinted into the humid mid-morning sun that blazed off gleaming stainless steel passenger cars that seemed to stretch out to infinity in either direction.
"Captain, you're in the Silver Planet, the observation car, Room A."
"A sleeper? In the observation car?"
"One of the new ones, yes sir. Technically, I think they call it a Drawing Room. Just a real big bedroom. Oh, the car has a dome, too."
"A dome? Really?"
Yessir. Call 'em Vista Domes. This one belongs to the Western Pacific, and it's brand spankin' new, too. Her third or fourth crossing, I think."
The conductor spoke with pride as he indicated the approaching car. "There's a hostess aboard now too, as well as sleeping car attendants, and they'll see to your needs as soon as we're underway." Puffed-up with more than a little self-important irony when he said "underway" to a Navy captain, the conductor stopped by the porter manning the observation car's boarding door, then asked Crossfield once again if he needed any help.
"No, thanks," Crossfield replied, his mind now fixed on the prospect of sleeping for the next year and a half.
"Well then, have a good trip, Captain." Crossfield nodded his appreciation and handed the man a crumpled dollar bill.
Crossfield turned to the porter, an old black man who looked older than Moses; oddly the porter wasn't wearing a Pullman Company uniform, but instead wore CB&Q livery. "Right this way, Cap'n," the porter said as he led the way up into the blissfully cool air conditioning. The car indeed smelled brand new; the teal blue carpet, the lighter blue and stainless walls, all positively gleamed. He smiled his appreciation and the old porter took note.
"No finer cars in the world, Cap'n, than these new Budd cars. This one's Western Pacific, too, not Pullman like some of the sleepers."
"Really? What happened to the Pullman Company?"
"Oh, still 'round, just changes, some sort of anti-trust nonsense. Not much difference these-a-days, anyways. No sir. Well, here we go, Cap'n. Room A. Lounge on back a ways, dining room two cars forward."
The door to his compartment was open and Crossfield walked in, smiling once again at the relative opulence of the compartment. Not much bigger than the captain's stateroom on a submarine, this room was, however, very well appointed - and that air conditioning! Oh! Bliss!
"Will you be taking your meals in the dining car, Cap'n?"
"You know, I've been awake for a couple of days. Only thing that sounds good right about now is some shut-eye..."
"I'll be around soon as we pull out, Cap'n, get that set right up for you. Let me hang that coat up now..."
Crossfield took off his jacket and handed it to the porter, sleepily slid his overstuffed briefcase into the little closet by the head, then poured himself onto the teal blue sofa, arranging the proffered pillow behind his head as he stretched out - only half awake at this point.
He felt a jolt some time later, and noted the train was pulling slowly away from the platform below, but Crossfield was asleep before the train had cleared the inner yards.
He remembered smelling food of some sort - when was it - late afternoon? Some time later raucous laughter woke him, but all sense of time was gone by then and he was soon asleep - again. Sometime in the depths of that first night, his bladder finally signaled 'red alert' and he stumbled into the head to do his business under blueish night lighting; only then did he look at his watch and see that it was well past four in the morning. His dry mouth tasted sour, his lips were cracked and peeling; running a quick DR plot in his mind he figured the train was crossing Nevada's high desert plateau as it closed on Salt Lake City, hence the dryness, and as suddenly as his mind had done the math he was desperately thirsty!
And he was still in uniform - but wait - his shoes were off. Feeling a jolt of dread he flipped on the overhead light, and his shoes were... nowhere to be seen!
"What the Hell!" He opened the closet and saw his briefcase - and his shoes - but they had been shined, and recently. He checked the briefcase: still locked. He dialed in the combination and opened it: the contents, folders marked 'Classified' and 'Top Secret', were undisturbed. He closed and locked the case, slid it back into the closet and pulled out his shoes. They were competently shined, but certainly not 'spit-shined', and he thought ahead to the shine stands in Washington's Union Station - and to the meetings beyond.
Then in a flash, it all came back in a rush: while stationed in Japan, evidence of advanced planning by Soviet nuclear researchers had come his way. He'd read Kennan's 'X article' in Foreign Affairs and understood that America's policy toward the Soviet Union would henceforth be one of "containing Soviet expansion", but countering strategic moves by a nuclear armed Soviet Union would be quite a different matter than blocking a conventionally armed force. On picking up bits and pieces of rumored Soviet progress on a nuclear weapon and putting the pieces together, he'd fired off a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations; unbeknownst to him this letter had wound up on Dean Acheson's desk, and thence from the Secretary of State's office to the Oval Office. He'd been breathlessly summoned for a face-to-face with Acheson almost two weeks ago, and his travel orders had been cut within hours. Now, after almost three years in Japan studying the effects of blast damage and radioactive fallout in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was after almost three years abroad finally headed stateside. This rail journey was the last leg...and he was tired, dog tired.
Crossfield sat down and looked at the backs of his hands; no rings adorned fingers, there was no wife, no children, his parents still lived on the family farm in northeast Pennsylvania - but he hadn't spoken to them since leaving for Japan, and that was that. There was no one, for all intents and purposes, in his life, and it had been that way - almost out of necessity - since his last year at Annapolis, in 1936. He'd chosen to study physics. Nuclear physics. And with that choice his life's course had been irrevocably set. He fought to reconcile his love for the farm he had grown up on with the directions his life had taken, but he always came up short.
Why, he wondered?
Well, it had always been a simple calculus. With rumors of a German nuclear effort coming to light in 1938, in time very nearly every military physicist in the U.S. had in due course been routed to either Los Alamos or Oak Ridge, and with that simple twist of fate Crossfield spent almost the entire war on a high plateau northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. By 1943 he was in charge of efforts to predict what effects nuclear detonations would have on the wings and various other control surfaces of the B-29 Super Fortress bombers slated to carry the proposed bombs.
Now, staring at his hands as this glistening train rushed through the night, he was as suddenly deep again in the smoldering aftermath of his life's work. His involvement in aerodynamic modeling lead to further immersion in the physical aftermath of the bombings, and as a result he'd been assigned to catalogue the physical devastation in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he'd measured both the seen and implicitly unseen physical destruction in every way he could conceive, but none of what he'd seen and recorded had made the slightest emotional impression until one rainy afternoon he'd run across a small Catholic convent north of Hiroshima where hundreds of survivors were being treated for radiation sickness. Cancers, what he assumed were cancerous lesions of unimaginable virulence, were running rampant through the survivors within the ancient stone courtyard he'd run across that afternoon, and it was soon apparent that as far as he could tell no one was researching any of the almost apocalyptic and totally unforeseen medical consequences of the blasts. The few surviving physicians and nurses, mainly Japanese but there were a few interned physicians in the mix that day, were completely overwhelmed, not least of all by their complete incomprehension of what what had happened. And that wasn't so surprising, was it? They had no idea what they were confronting medically, no one did.
Soon Crossfield was befriending who he could in that local, beleaguered medical community, and within weeks he was collecting as much medical data as he could lay his hands on. What kinds of medical problems arose, and at what distance from 'ground zero'? Mortality rates vs time vs distance from 'ground zero'? How long and at what strength was radiation measurable in crops and water supplies? And in various human tissues? No one had thought to measure these variables before because the effects of a nuclear detonation on a human population had simply been unpredictable before their use, yet to Crossfield the effects he witnessed in the months just after August 1945 seemed vital to a complete understanding of what had happened, and of more importance, what could be expected in future nuclear exchanges.
Still, to John Crossfield, the devastation and it's attendant human suffering had always reduced to a rather simple utilitarian calculus: what benefits accrued to the United States, and at what cost? It had always been as simple as that. His world was rendered in blacks and whites; he had little time for shades of gray.
At least until that first rainy afternoon in the copper-hued hills above Hiroshima. Everything was different after that, but he was slow to feel the changes in himself. Everything he'd assumed was right - mom, the flag and apple pie - had been inverted by what he learned that day, and in the weeks that followed.
His hands still shook when he dared think of the faces he'd seen that afternoon in the clouds. Sitting in planes and trains headed stateside after three years in Japan, after three years of demon-haunted nightmares filled with blinding flashes and melting flesh, he felt himself at an uneasy end to this part of his journey, and feeling grossly ill at ease with the world he once thought he'd understood so well. 'Something's wrong with this picture,' he heard himself say to himself time and time again. How could so much productive genius come to such an end? Was the power unleashed in August 1945 all that mankind really reduced to? Endless cycles of cultural-immolation?
He had no ideas how to account for the change in himself, really, but recently he had grown more concerned about his own place in this new order of the universe - as if in the aftermath of a blinding flash the emptiness of this new world had been - and was continually being - revealed. Yet all he felt now, as this train sped through the night, was the pressing need to run as fast as he humanly could from those burnt, scarred ghosts.
In his rumpled slacks and white dress blouse, he opened the door to his compartment and looked down the corridor. As suddenly, the porter's head popped out from his own curtained compartment: "Mornin', Cap'n. You feelin' hungry? You want I could fetch you a sandwich, or some coffee?"
Crossfield stared at the old fellow for a moment while he collected his thoughts, then nodded. "That'd be fine. Yes, thanks."
"There's no one in the dome this time of night. You want I should bring it to you up there?"
"I guess so. If it's not too much trouble."
"No trouble 'tal, Cap'n. You head on back 'til you come to a stairway, then head on up. There's lights on the overhead. I'll be up there in a few minutes."
Crossfield nodded. "Got it. Thanks." He turned and almost fell down two steps, then walked aft through a small lounge area, then back up two stairs into the observation lounge. All he saw was the gently curved end of the car, the windowed walls lined with plush, overstuffed chairs, but no stairway. A light flicked on somewhere and he turned to his left; he saw it now, saw the gently curved if very steep stairway that had to lead up into the night, to the night under the Vista Dome, and he clutched the stainless rail and made his way up into the darkness.
There was a girl, a young woman perhaps, at the forward end of the seating area, and she was bent over a clutch of papers and books, apparently studying and lost in thought. He slid into the aft-most seat on the right side of the car and bent nearer to the glass of the dome, and peered out into the inky blackness. There was no moon, but soon he could make out his old friend from Academy days: Orion, the hunter, high and deep in the southern sky. He smiled at the figure, and felt once again that infinite smallness that came upon him when he thought about his place in whatever order there might be to this God-forsaken universe.
The old porter arrived a few minutes later, carrying a triple decker club sandwich on a large silver tray, complete with cup, saucer, a small stainless steel pot of coffee and a pitcher of ice water. "Here ya go, Cap'n. Want some more light?"
"My God in Heaven, look at that water! You're a mind reader!"
"It's this high desert, Cap'n. Comin' up from sea level, gets me every time."
"Got that right," Crossfield said as he downed a glass of ice water. "Say, I didn't catch your name?"
"Polk, sir. Name's Polk. You want, I can turn down your bed now?"
"That'd be fine, Polk. Say, who's... what kind of uniform is that?"
"Up there? Yessir, that's somethin' new this year. Call them gals Zephyrettes. Kind of a hostess, but a nurse too, but mainly for the kids and old folks."
"A nurse? On a train? Well, I'll be...that's a first."
"Ain't that the truth. This old world's sure changin' fast, lots of firsts these days."
"Yes, I suppose it is. Sometimes I think too fast." Crossfield didn't know where that outburst had come from, but the honesty of the feeling caught him off-guard. Even the old man seemed unsure how to respond to the conviction his words carried.
"Well, I'll go tend to your room now, Cap'n. Sunrise in about an hour. Worth sittin' up for."
Crossfield attacked the sandwich, then returned to the ice water; his throat burned in the icy rush while he studied patterns in the condensation on the icy glass. The coffee was another matter. He had grown used to the strong navy brew, that potent cup found in any U.S. Navy facility anywhere in the world - and he loved it - but this stuff was hot, weak, and he soon pushed it aside. In due course he yawned, leaned back, and felt sleep coming on once again.
And as they always were, his ghosts were waiting for him.
Always waiting. Burning, withering, melting into odd, Dali-esque shapes...
Fingers pointing. Accusatory fingers, right out of Dickens.
He woke with a start, glimpsed rosy-fingered dawn in the sky ahead as he became aware of someone else, someone new, and that someone was standing over him.
And looking more than a bit concerned.
"Are you alright?" a young woman said, professional inquisitiveness plain on her face.
"What?" Crossfield whispered.
"I think you were having a bad dream."
Crossfield sat up abruptly, rubbed his eyes, shook dusty cobwebs from his dank, sleep-addled mind. He looked around, remembered the train, the sandwich. "Sorry. Hope I didn't disturb..."
"You were screaming. I think it's safe to say half the people on this train heard..."
"Oh, Jesus. Look. Really, I'm sorry..."
"I know it's none of my business, but who's Tetsuko?"
"Tetsuko? You were calling her name... over and over."
Crossfield looked at the brightening sky, then at the young woman. She was half sitting on the arm of the chair just ahead, her legs in the aisle and her arms crossed on the chair back, her small, sharp chin resting on her arms. There was concern in her eyes, of that he was sure, but there was something else. Almost mirth, like she was in on a joke being told at his expense.
"She's a nun," Crossfield finally said. "Was, anyway."
"Is this the one about..."
"She wasn't a joke." The question he saw in her eyes held him, and suddenly Crossfield noticed the woman was the "Zephyrette" - the nurse - Polk had pointed out. "She was... a nurse, I guess you might say."
"She - died. Gone... now... I..." And as suddenly Crossfield felt himself begin to cry, gently at first, then less so. He looked down and away, tried to hide...
But there was no hiding now. Whatever or wherever he'd been hiding...it really didn't matter now. The pain he had so successfully hidden away in the night was out in the open now, the dam had given way...