Ghosts Of America
By Shaun Kilgore
Copyright © 2012 Shaun Kilgore
Published by Founders House Publishing, LLC
All Rights Reserved.
I remember the sound of the planes in the skies. I can still hear the distant rush of monstrous jet engines hurtling the sleek steel bodies above the clouds, ferrying people from one point to another across the great expanse of the United States – and the world beyond. The commercial airliners have been grounded for nearly thirty years now. The big blue canvas of the sky free from the streaks of exhaust fumes that made me stare up in wonder and the massive cabins rusting away amidst the weeds between empty hangars and vacant terminals.
I flew on an airplane twice. The first time was when I was nine-years-old. It had been a short flight out of Chicago over to Baltimore with a change of aircraft in Detroit. I was up and down again before I knew what was happening. I was sorely disappointed. My mother tried to explain how it worked, but I didn't want to hear. I only wanted to soar in the sky – and never come down again. I had my own dreams. I wanted to be a pilot. Of course, that didn't work out. The second flight happened when I was twenty-six. It was 2015 and I was living in Chicago and working as a website designer for a small start-up company that I had formed with my partner (and fiancé) Jessica Hamilton. I flew out of O'Hare airport and across the country to Los Angeles, feeling as giddy as that long-gone nine-year-old as I watched the landscape rush by far below. Jess had asked me to attend a blogging expo in order to talk with some potential clients about building a powerful web presence through social networking. I didn't hesitate. I didn't care what she wanted me to do. I had the chance to fly and I took it. It was the last time I ever did.
It's all gone now. They are just bits of memories that I sift through from time to time though it happens a lot on Sunday mornings. I can remember a time when I would have been watching a football game on television. (Yes, honest to goodness TV!) Jess and I used to have barbeques on Sunday and invite Bill and Amy so we could all gather in front of that enormous glowing screen and watch our beloved Bears play their hearts out.
How long has it been since they pulled the final plug? Probably twenty years ago now. About the time David and the other boys in our neighborhood took the trains south to fight in Texas. I remember sitting in the living room watching the spotty footage from one of the small affiliates still left in operation. We stared on as the fighting with General Juarez's army took a turn for the worse out in the abandoned suburbs of Houston (It was the last of the Texan cities to fall under independent Texan control.) I remember clutching Jess's hand as we watched David's division falter and collapse under the retired general's superior tactics. The old U.S. army just didn't have the resources left to quell yet another upheaval in the South. While Texas got its precious independence, our son's body was delivered back to us in an unadorned pinewood box like so many other identical boxes by those same trains.
It's become so hard to keep track of all the body blows the country has taken over the last several decades. So much has been lost – even squandered – while we came to terms with reality. It's easy to cast blame, to seek out some face to pin the pain I've suffered, that my family has suffered, upon. Especially, when all that is left are the phantoms of long-dead politicians haunting the crumbling halls of Washington government.
I put down the pen, letting the journal drape across my lap. "Come on in. Door's open," I said. My voice was weaker than it used to be. I'm getting too damned old.
The door creaked open and Seth Clark walked in carrying a canvas bag heaped with corn and other produce from the farmers' markets in Greely Park.
"Mr. Harris, I've brought you these from Mister Ross's stalls. He says he owes you for helping him get his solar water heater working again."
I nodded absently. "Yes, well, tell him I said thanks for the veggies. And that I'm glad the heater's working again."
"Will do." Seth paused in the doorway. "Mr. Harris?"
I looked up from the journal in my lap. "Yes, what is it Seth?"
"Do you remember when you talked to us at the school? Uh, you know, about the ways things used to be?"
I suppressed a weary sigh. "Yes, I do remember. I'd be hard pressed to forget, Seth."
There was something about the way Seth stood there, a look on his face maybe. "What do you want to know?"
Seth smiled broadly. I've seen the sparkle a hundred times.
I couldn't blame him. Those under forty-years-old have no clue how things used to be before the wars, the unrest, the destruction of the damned global economy. Gives whole new meaning to the term 'old timer,' though I couldn't believe it myself. I was definitely an old timer now. That world was long gone and all we had now were the pieces to pick up.
"Could you tell me about the innerweb?"
I snorted, not managing to hold back my amusement. The jargon was already getting messed up. I wonder what it will be like in another generation or two.
"It was called the Internet, son. Though I suppose a lot of us called it the 'web.' It stood for the World Wide Web. It was a way that we could communicate and share information with everyone all across the planet. It was a revolutionary piece of technology. It profoundly changed the world - at least for a time."
"Until the blackouts, the depression, and all that other stuff," said Seth.
"Yeah, and all that other stuff. There came a time, once we got bogged down in all the fighting and started running low on energy, when the internet and broadcast television were too expensive to keep running. We had to make some pretty harsh decisions. The world had to in order to hold together."
Seth nodded. "Mr. Harris I..."
The high keening sound of a train whistle cut off his words.
"Looks like the train is arriving from Springfield."
"I'm sorry. I've got to get back, Mr. Harris. Maybe we can talk more about the old times later?"
"Yes, later," I said.
The wail of the whistle sounded again and I could hear the hiss of steam being released. The old-fashioned steam engine was still going strong. It had proven to be a vital mode of transportation. I thank whatever unknown politician had the sense enough to get the refurbishment of the rails in our region underway. As supplies of oil became deeply constricted and the hemorrhaging U.S. economy finally succumbed, the need to keep some long distance travel in place suddenly took on a starker significance. We were trying to keep the country together. In large part it was too little too late. The damage of inaction was already done.
I knew I was stirring up a lot of ghosts with my writing and now talking with Seth; it was almost more than I could handle. So I decided to leave the house.
I wasn't an invalid or something. I was really in pretty decent condition for my age. Chalk it up to being athletic and active in my youth. I moved down the sidewalk at a fairly brisk pace, passing the rusting hulks of car frames, the skeletons of the past. They were gutted out and most of the materials were being put to other uses. Here and there I could see the swirling shapes of windmills jutting up from behind the houses in my neighborhood. Half of them I helped rig up myself. Now, John Hershel was doing the work and maintaining them too. Some of the people were using the mills to generate trickle charges for some modest electrical needs, or to juice up salvaged car batteries.
My little walk took me downtown to the train station. I figured I would get a look at the refurbished locomotive; maybe see if anybody was getting off in our little burg. The station itself was a newer building. It had been put up about twenty years ago. At this hour of the day a whole bunch of people were out doing the daily tasks of a much quieter--and slower--life. It was a busy little community. The people actually saw each other every day.
Ambling along, I kept my pace fast enough to discourage people from starting up a conversation with me. I wasn't in much of a talking mood now. A wave here and short 'how's it going' there and that was it. Rounding the corner I entered main area of the station. The train was still emitting plumes of steam. It was amazing to see it, even now. Who would have thought about salvaging an old steam engine from a railroad museum? I'd heard about other areas keeping some of their diesel trains running by rigging up some locally brewed biodiesel or using whatever they could that would work in the engines. People were used to trying all sorts of things to keep long distance transport up. What cars weren't rusting away along the streets weren't used unless there was an emergency or by folks who used trucks to haul produce or other goods to market.
Standing there along the tracks, I waved to the conductor. I actually knew the man. James Pinckney was probably ten years younger than I. I had met him during the town along the line were having open meetings about future use of the railroad. James had been a big advocate of transitioning back to rail for passenger use and for moving merchandise formerly carried by the big rigs.
"How was the trip down, Jimmy?"
Pulling his hat off his head, Pinckney blew out a ragged breath. His face was covered in sweat. "Fair enough, I suppose. The old furnace gets damned hot though. I actually had coal to burn this time. The boys in Davenport managed to get a big shipment of the stuff out of the mines and loaded. Operations there may be slower, but we've certainly got more time now that we've stopped being in such a damned hurry."
"Yep. Oh, hey, have they got the line open to Springfield?"
Pinckney nodded. "Yes sir, we actually brought a passenger down from the capital. Name's Grover, I think. Uh, Mitchell or maybe Michael?"
"You know what this Grover is all about?" I asked.
"Naw, not sure. I think he some kind of businessman, at least by the look of him." Pinckney started inspecting the wheels of the engine. Armed with an oilcan he lubed the various parts. He turned back to me. "Just remembered, Bob. That Grover dude has a guard or cop or something with him. He's carrying a gun. Hell, he may have had a badge on him too. You'll have to see for yourself." Glancing down the line of passenger cars, Pinckney pointed at a small crowd that was made up of the town's leadership. They surrounded a tall man with a wide grin, waving his hands animatedly at the mayor and the rest of the town council. At his side there was bearded man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, his face etched in a frown. "There he is over there, Bob."
"Alright, thank you Jimmy."
"Have a good one," he replied.
I walked down the brick platform, taking my time while the newcomers seemed to roll out a spiel of sorts, the kind of pontificating that belong to the old politicians. The man--Grover--had the look. When I was close enough I started listening.
"Yes, friends, it is true. I've spoken with the governor himself. A convention has been called, a right proper one involving delegates from all of the remaining states in flying the old stars and stripes. That's the honest to God truth."
William Johns, the mayor smiled brightly. "It's good news to hear, I'll tell you that much. Probably the best news I've heard in a long time. You remember that Thomas guy? He came through trying to get recruits to join an army to head down to Texas and take it back. Damned fool, he was. My question, Mr. Grover, is what exactly you are doing in our little town. We're hardly worth the attention of an important man like yourself."
"That's a good question, Mayor Johns. I think the best way to put it is that I'm here to spread some hope, try to get the people to remember a little thing called 'American exceptionalism.' We've take a hard hit, but we're not down for the count."
Raymond Miller, the sheriff, raised his hand. "So you stopped here to give us a pep talk?"
I'd heard enough so I butted in. "I'd say he's just spreading a bunch a nonsense, dreams better left dead. The U.S. had a good run, but you and both know that that world's long gone, Mister Grover."