The Case of the Missing Locomotive I

The Case of the Missing Locomotive I

Overture

By Roger Heid

 

This rather odd story transpired in spring of 1957, starting about ten days after Easter. Toward the end of my blog ‘Christmas Memories’ I mentioned the existence of a distinct electric model railroad clique that made the not-haves look like second class citizens. The fact that I had received my Maerklin starter set on X-mas of 1955 had enabled me to join this exclusive and lofty group of students.

This ‘clique’ was detested and despised by a very large percentage of the student body. Underground rumors had it, that some members of the faculty had motioned something to the effect that steps needed to be taken to keep this clique from expanding and that the clique members’ cages needed to be rattled something fierce.

It so happened, that one of the more prominent members of our clique was given a new Maerklin locomotive by his rather wealthy parents. It was uncommon to receive a gift like this as an Easter present. This particular student was a master of the ‘Art of Pouting’. I can only imagine certain domestic scenes which must have convinced his poor parents not to force him to wait until Christmas.

On the first school day after Easter vacation, starting the next grade, this student, his name was Eugen, loudly informed us clique members of his good fortune.

“Guess what!! My folks gave me a Crocodile for Easter!” he shouted.

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A low life pariah non-member, Paul, happened to stand close by, being nosey, standing in the way.

“Gee, Eugen, how do you keep it? In the bathtub?”

Eugen turned to him, an impression of extreme pity and condescendence on his face. He decided to climb down from the top of Olympus and mercifully responded:

“Yup! And I have to feed it six life rabbits and six live chicken per day.”

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Radiating an intense wave of a mixture of astonishment, disgust and sadness, Paul executed a sharp about-face and strutted away. Actually, I felt sorry for Paul. Not having a model railroad was not his fault. I had lived those days.

We, the clique members, insisted that Eugen would bring the croco to school, the next day, so that we, the members, could examine it. The Crocodile was a fairly new model, expensive and unattainable for most of us. At least we would be able to hold one in our hands.

The following morning started out with Math.

*   *   *  *

Here I need to set the stage by elaborating on the Math teacher’s most prevalent characteristics. He was of nondescript age, more on the old side, possibly late forties. He was almost bald; his mouth was embellished by a gold tooth and a silver looking tooth, both in plain sight.

His sense of humor was both, hidden and hideous. The first time I saw him smile, I thought he was in great pain. When he climbed up some steps, it took him forever, and he pulled himself up on the hand rail. Maybe he was older than he looked.

His reactions to things were unpredictable, for the lack of a better word. One day, a small transistor radio was placed on top of the wall mounted PA speaker, softly playing a symphony. The symphony was busy weaving an Adagio molto con sappo, abruptly changing to Passacaglia  molto imbibo con vino leading to an Allegro massivo discanto infernale, finally winding up in a Concerto efforto di crescendo grandioso fortissimo con salvo artillerio et volcano errupto et earthquako di scalo richterio magnitudo nove. I noticed a couple of flies falling from the ceiling and a spider hurrying to her favorite hideaway.

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 After about the sixteenth bar of this musical delight, the teacher grabbed his newspaper, folded it, scurried to where the speaker was and leaped straight in the air. With his right hand, extended by the paper, he knocked the radio off the top of the speaker cabinet, caught it with his left hand, turned it off and buried it in one of his lab coat pockets. There was certainly nothing decrepit about his gymnastic performance.

“By all means, I do like classical music, but Igor Stravinsky is not one of my favorites. He must have been there when Jericho was overrun,” he muttered, a lethal grin spread all over his face.

On some different occasion, the evil doers of the class decided to launch chemical warfare. Small boxes of twelve could be had inexpensively in some novelty store. Stink Bombs of the real nasty kind!

After the third bomb was dropped, the box changed hands, being passed across the aisle. The teacher spotted this transaction. He leaped right on top of the nearest bench, jumped across two more benches, landed on the floor, grabbed the box and buried it in one of his lab coat pockets.

In the meantime, the stench in the class room had become prohibitive. In the rear of the room, a couple of windows were opened.

“Close the windows, now!” he shouted, dropping three more bombs. There were about 20 minutes left before the bell rang.

“I survived the trenches in WW I. This is nothing by comparison.” he announced, calmly dropping another bomb.

That’s when I saw him smile, for the second time. The first time around, I had learned that this pained grimace was actually a smile. He was seemingly amused. The small box containing the remaining bombs, well, you know where they went.

Over time, this teacher accumulated quite an assortment of paraphernalia he confiscated from the evil doers. Without fail, he would keep them until the end of a given school year. Then he returned them to the rightful owner. For some reason, he always knew who the rightful owner was.

*   *   *   *

Anyway, here was this morning, starting out with Math. The croco was passed to me. I placed it on the bench and lowered my face to bench level. Then I started to gawk. This was, by far, the most beautiful thing I ever did see. It looked even better than a couple of freshly fried pork chops, my favorite dish, you know. I was dreadfully aware of the fact that it would break my poor Mom’s bank, leave alone my piggy bank. Maybe sometime, in the distant future, I might be…….

A hand, attached to a white lab coat sleeve, gently lifted the croco off the bench. No, it did not get buried in a lab coat pocket. Instead, the teacher carried it to his desk, carefully cradling it in both hands, and set it down, very gently.

Then he proceeded to where Eugen sat.

“Give me the box.”

I swear, this man had radar eyes, far exceeding the specs of Superman’s eyes. The sad part was that poor Eugen would not see it again for almost a whole year.

*   *   *   *

The teacher was married and had two sons. A few days after the railroad requisition, the teacher recommended I should take Math tutoring lessons so I wouldn’t fall behind. Math was not one of my strong points. The teacher informed me that his older son would take care of me at their home, at no charge. This home was in an old red brick building. The rooms were huge and had high ceilings. This house was a well preserved relic from the Royal Imperial days.

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There I met the teacher’s wife, a soft spoken, mild mannered petite woman in her early fifties. She gave private piano lessons at home and pipe organ lessons in a big nearby church. I also met my tutor Wilhelm, a twentyish young man who looked like his old man may have looked, during WWI. Confronted by him, I immediately knew that nobody would win an argument with him, no way. When he smiled, it did not look like some severe gut ache; it looked facetious, almost dangerous.

In addition, I also met the younger son, Bruno. I had seen him many times before as he attended the same school I did. He had a different last name. There was never any fuss made regarding his true identity. He was maybe 3-4 years older than me, and he looked a lot like his mother.

The best way to describe him, in modern terms, is that he was a nerd, a pure form of it. No one could say he was a loaner, but no one knew anything about his off school activities. He pretty much kept to himself. We all knew he had taken 1st Price in some science project competition. Some said he re-invented the wheel; others claimed he had come with something even Einstein wouldn’t be able to grasp. That was just fine by me. More power to him. I was far more concerned about these wicked equations with two or more unknown factors.

The following week, right after the tutoring was finished, Bruno came into the room.

“My father told me you are interested in model railroads. Come with me. I’ll show you something.”

He led me to his room. If it wouldn’t be for the furniture and the curtains, you’d be able to hear an echo, about a week later. There was a raised platform about 1.5 times bigger than my own entire room. On it was a huge Maerklin layout hard to describe. The emphasis did not focus on ample landscaping, but on tracks and buildings. On one side, however, there was a hill and some greenery. It looked like it still needed some more work.

Unfortunately, I could not spend any more time. I had to catch a train home to prevent my Mom from blowing her ever loving gaskets. Bruno and I agreed that I would visit this coming Saturday, after school. My Mom would know about it, ahead of time. No, we did not have a phone.

On our way out, trekking through an endless hall way, I noticed a carton sitting on the floor in a corner. There I spotted Eugen’s Crocodile, along with other objects confiscated from the evil doers. If I could only convince the teacher to break his rule and return it.

Two Saturdays later, on our way to Bruno’s room, I noticed that the Crocodile was not there, anymore. Oh, well, it wasn’t my business.

I was later told, that on the Friday before, the teacher had received a registered letter from Eugen’s father’s lawyer. He was to return the croco by no later than the following Monday.

Anyway, while Bruno and I were engrossed in very complex railroad operations, the teacher came busting into the room, his face redder than the reddest tomato. His precious teeth were gleaming like I had never seen them gleam before.

“Brunoooo!!!!! Have you seen that Maerklin Crocodile? It’s gone!!!!

“Yes, Dad, I took it to the Railroad Club for a couple of weeks. You never give that stuff back before the end of the school year, anyway, and you know I won’t break it. If something should happen to it, Eugen can have one of mine.”

“Brunooooo!!!! Go get that locomotive, this instant.”

“Yes, Dad, right away.”

Bruno and I ran to the club house, only to find out that the Crocodile had gone to Switzerland, for the week end. A club member had taken it to a show in Zurich. He would bring it back on Monday.

It was then that I found out that this expanding model railroad club had hired Bruno as their technical advisor and development engineer, on a part time basis.

 

(To be continued)

 

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