Thursday, January 10, 2013

980th Year of the Second Millennium

My name is Jimmy Cooke, and 1980 was an especially bad year for me.  The Phillies won the World Series that year, but that’s pretty much the only thing that went right.  The second Star Wars movie opened, but John Lennon was killed, so even by pop culture standards, I had it rough.  I began tracing most of my problems to Jimmy Carter’s Proclamation 4771, a direct result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  The Vietnam War was over; I didn’t want to fight, didn’t think I needed to fight, and all of a sudden, because of the ridiculous Cold War and a country that meant absolutely nothing to me, the so-called Selective Service System was going to make me eligible for the draft?
It actually gets worse, a lot worse.  President Carter signed Proclamation 4771 on June 27th, but my bad year was already well underway.  My father’s railroad had its last run on March 31st, and I lost the title of International Master to snot-nosed fourteen-year-old Nigel Short.  But I’ll get back to that last one.
I turned twenty in 1980, still didn’t have a clear about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and was hitting the books in a college library when I heard the news about Proclamation 4771.  It was my buddy Harold who told me, Harold who still sported acne all across his face and barely looked old enough to attend senior prom, much less working on his senior thesis, which only Harold was bold enough to center on the particular merits of the first Star Trek film.  You might be able to work out that Harold himself was too old to worry about the draft himself, but immature enough to throw a white handkerchief in my face when he told me.  “Be prepared to use it,” he whispered helpfully.  Naturally I wanted to slug him, but considered it bad form to do such a thing in a library.  Harold knew all about my misfortunes that year.  He was a good enough friend that he could get away with not caring.
As I suggested earlier, I was never one for fighting.  Bullying, that was certainly something I had gotten used to, on the receiving end anyway.  It was only in college I finally escaped from that particularly odious behavior from classmates, and only because I mostly avoided everyone else, except for Harold, of course.  I was one of those “lover, not a fighter” types, except I wasn’t so good with the ladies, either.   I didn’t know about Proclamation 4771 in January, but I might as well have, because on the 24th of that month, I received the first bit of bad news of 1980: The Rock was ordered liquidated due to bankruptcy.
The Rock, otherwise known as the Rock Island Line, or more formally the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, was chartered in 1851, an extension of the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad Company, founded in 1847.  Abraham Lincoln actually defended the company against a lawsuit in 1857, some nine years before the company as posterity would know it finally came into being.  The Rock’s territory covered Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas, plus a few other points across the continental United States.   As the years advanced and transportation continued to modernize, the Rock struggled to keep up, though my father would always talk fondly of the Golden State, one of the finest first-class trains to ever travel on tracks.  By the time I was old enough to remember, I memorized the famed Chicago-to-Rock Island line, and somehow mastered the game of chess riding it.
I had two great loves, thanks to my father, the Rock was one of them, and chess was the other.  I couldn’t have had a better mentor for either one.  My father had served in Vietnam, and he always joked he took up the same two passions because they were the only things that helped him sleep at night, and I guess that was how, in time, I was able to play a game with such calm while in constant motion.  I’d watch the landscape pass by and calculate my next move without ever missing a beat.  My father said I found my rhythm on the rails.
By the time I was supposed to be developing into my own man, the world seemed to do its best to disrupt this personal sense of harmony.  I never actually played against Nigel Short, but I couldn’t escape the looming presence of that little bastard, either.  Every tournament I entered, nobody could talk about anything but the brilliant Nigel Short, the prodigy, the child game-master.  I never heard a word about him from my father, but that might have been because he had slowly slipped into the life of an alcoholic.  Perhaps I hadn’t noticed the transition for the same reason I stopped paying attention to him when I realized I could beat him, and that I wanted more out of my life than a measly living off a failing railroad.  I never even realized when I’d stopped loving the Rock, or how easy it was to take that last ride, to college, and leave my past behind, including my father.
When Harold told me about Proclamation 4771, I didn’t even think about my father’s Vietnam experience.  How could I?  I was terrified that I’d be sent to war myself. 
But I kept playing chess, no matter how many opponents spent more time in awe of Nigel Short, with most of my victories coming against these star-struck warriors babbling on and on about Nigel’s latest conquest.  How could I possibly prove myself if I couldn’t play a decent game myself?  My father had told me all about International Master.  Even when Harold told me about Proclamation 4771 and I still wondered what my major should be, I believed that was my destiny, even though by then, Nigel Short had made it meaningless.  How would there be any glory left over for poor Jimmy Cooke, now that Nigel Short had made it look so easy?
I almost quit playing chess in January, and then, just a few short weeks later, I learned the fate of the Rock.  I couldn’t believe it.  My first thought wasn’t even of my father, but of taking one last ride, but I was busy in my studies.  How could I possibly pull it off?  Then Harold appeared one day and told me about a trip he needed to take to Denver, and everything seemed to fall into place.  If only I’d known.  I should say now that I hate snow, that I now live quite comfortably in a climate where snow is, if not impossible, incredibly unlikely, even in the heart of winter.  Harold wanted to visit family, and even with that prompting I was insensible.  I hadn’t spoken with my father in months.  I didn’t even know he now lived in Colorado.
When we boarded the Rock on the 29th of March, I was still buried hip-deep in books, figuring that I could allay whatever deficit I might experience in my studies from taking this trip by taking my studies with me.  I may not have known what my future had in store for me, but I was determined to be prepared.  If only I’d known.  The snows began almost immediately.  At first, naturally, I didn’t notice.  Harold kept making comments, but I was used to ignoring him.  I was busy, distracted, and yes, insensible.  It was almost like basic training, and I was headed into a war zone, Proclamation 4771 dangling just in front of me.  But the snows continued, and the more it snowed, the more I realized what was happening.  It was snowing the first day, and I finally noticed on the second.  By the third I was inconsolable.  It finally hit me, that I was traveling the Rock for the final time ever.  I reached into my bag and pulled out a chess set, and prepared to play for the first time since learning of Nigel Short’s making International Master.  Harold was terrible, but I didn’t care.  I almost let him win.
Somehow we made it to Denver.  I’ll never be able to explain how, but I suspect Harold must have told him.  My father was waiting for us.  He had an inscrutable expression on his face, as if he were looking backward to all the days in his past, perhaps even a younger version of me, and all I could do was return it with a stupid grin on mine.  “Good to see you, kiddo,” he said at last.  I never saw him again.
We barely spoke.  I didn’t have anything to say, and neither did he.  We spent most of our time with Harold and his family, and all they were interested in was talking about the murder of Angelo Bruno, which had occurred earlier that month.  They were big into mob stories; my father and I still shared our apathy about that.  We’d heard plenty of tales in Chicago.  We knew about the great ones.  We made the trip back to college in a car Harold’s uncle had just given him, possibly the reason we’d gone to Denver in the first place.  My chess set remained in my bag this time, and I never even thought about it.  A few months later, Harold tells me about Proclamation 4771, and what I’ve really got on my mind is the news I’d recently received myself, that my father had died of a heart attack.
Of course, the United States didn’t become involved in the Afghan War, at least not directly, in 1980.  We were all still naïve enough to believe it didn’t concern us.  I wasn’t drafted, and never served a day in the armed forces.  I never played chess again, either, and after Harold graduated, lost contact with him.  I’d lost the title of International Master to Nigel Short, lost the Rock, and lost my father, and didn’t realize just how much my world had changed until years later, when I stopped to consider just how important that year had been.  Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in November, by the way, and I wasn’t sorry to see him go.  The United States hockey team defeated the Soviets at the Olympics, the “Miracle on Ice,” but I never knew any kind of divine intervention in 1980.  I kept fearing that my world was going to come to an end, first because of little things, then because of bigger things, and eventually everything started to blend together.  I didn’t want to lose my life in some foreign land, fighting for a cause I didn’t believe in.  Well, as it turned out, I lost it on a train ride to Denver, lost it after years of putting my father behind me, during my last opportunity to ever reconnect with him, to acknowledge and thank him for everything he’d done for me.  Eventually I moved on, figured out what I was studying, graduated, got a job, lost it to another liquidation, and now here I am today, once again trying to put the pieces of my shattered life together again.
I sure miss you, Dad.


  1. I like this. And not just because it has a character named Nigel.

    1. Most of the stories I posted in January was material I'd written for various writing activities, just clearing the archives. I'm glad this one found an audience.