Train Watch

Train Watch

By Roger Heid


This episode started on a Saturday morning, about 1:30 am, in late fall of 1979. I was stationed in West Germany, assigned to an MP unit in the Stuttgart area. The Cold War was raging on, full steam. The nasty ring of the bedside telephone woke me up; my wife started to stir as well.

About the only party that would want to reach us, at such an hour, would be one of my relatives; it could only be my Uncle Sam.

“Hello?!?  This is Sergeant Heid speaking.”

“This is Major Desmond. Sergeant Heid, report to your unit immediately, with full gear.”

“Yes, Sir! I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.”

“That’s fine. See you then.”

I had no idea who Major Desmond was. This was not a good thing, at all.

The remark I made to my wife is not suitable for print. We had other plans lined up for that weekend. Fortunately, the Major did not say that this was not an exercise. But, then again, he might have forgotten to do so. Besides that, I knew darn well it was dangerous when I signed that infamous dotted line. I needed to do what I was ordered to do, regardless, like it or not.

While getting dressed, my wife had started to mess around in the kitchen. Before she even had a chance to turn on the coffee pot, I kissed her good bye, impressing on her that I had no way knowing when I would be back.

On the way to my unit, I did not exactly break the sound barrier, but I must have come close to it. I noticed some flashing blue lights behind me, but a good press on the pedal, waking up the 300 some horse powers of my Olds 98, caused those lights to fade away into the rear horizon. This was the wrong time for a speeding ticket.

Once I arrived at my unit, one thing struck me to be very strange. There were hardly any lights on; nobody was scurrying around in the hallway. In the orderly room, there was only my CO, and a stranger by the name of Major Desmond, plus two members of my unit and three MPs I had never met before. This meant the whole affair was not one of those dreaded general alerts. This made me even more suspicious and apprehensive.

In the arms room, we were issued a lot more than expected, including 2ea M-60 machine guns with lots of life ammo. Each of us also had to lug a case of C-Rations. Now I started to smell skunk, something fierce. Maybe I should not have signed that dotted line, after all. Oh well, too late now.

Outside, there was a Deuce and a Half (2 1/2 ton Army Truck) waiting for us. In parting, the Major told us we would be briefed at our destination and that I was in charge. Thanks for the compliment! The truck hauled us to the Airfield; a chopper took us to our destination, somewhere in the boonies, a distance east from Stuttgart.

At our drop zone, we were linked with four more MPs, all armed to their teeth, like us. Another truck hauled us to a spot, deep in the woods, somewhere in Frankonia, not too far from the Polish border, I reckoned. Some officer, a beret perched on his shaven head, led us to the edge of the woods. In the meantime, I had tried to get used to the latent possibility I might never see my wife again.

From the edge of the woods, a steep path led us down to a single railroad track. The beret on the shaven head, a Lieutenant Colonel, mentioned that a train would arrive shortly. He called us to attention and gave us a thorough briefing. The quintessence of the briefing was to not let anyone or anything come even close to the train. Shoot to kill, if you have to. I was hoping and praying that this earlier phone call was just a bad dream, and that I would wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee, and then prepare for the cook-out with friends my wife and I had planned on. No dice! It was just wishful thinking.

The sun was trying to come up and break through the dense morning fog when the train finally arrived. A persistent drizzle made the cold morning air even more uncomfortable. A situation like this can be rather demoralizing. I needed to remind myself that I was in charge, therefore responsible to maintain the morale of my troops. In a situation like this, it is best to keep them busy and interested. In spite of the tension in the air, guarding this train promised to be a very boring job; the cold temperature would not help it any, on top of it.

The train consisted of several heavy-duty flat cars, a couple of boxcars and some diesel engine. Under the circumstances, I did not give a darn what it was and if I ever rode in it. The loads on the flatcars were hidden under layers of canvas. We had been told not to mess with anything, to not to touch anything, to just leave everything alone.

In the meantime, some more troops had appeared out of nowhere. I was told they belonged to the train and its cargo. Some pensive looking captain approached me. The stern look in his face was like that of a rattle snake, ready to bite. I tried to stare back at him very coldly, in return.

“Sergeant, you were briefed. You know what you have to do.”

“Yes, Sir! Uh, I’m just curious. Just what are we guarding? What is under the canvas?”

“Never mind that, Sergeant! If we are forced to use it, you will know. By the way, be advised that this train may have to move at any given notice. Have your men conduct themselves accordingly. Also, you must not light up a campfire. You need to eat cold rations.”

Night fell; the guard duty rotation roster went into effect. I told my troops that, whoever enjoys a sleeping period, shall not pitch their pup tents; they shall not sleep under a train car; they shall not slip inside the sleeping bag and zip up. Instead, just cover yourself with the open sleeping bag. You may have to move your position with only about 30 seconds notice. Their faces reflected utter joy and enthusiasm. Naw! I’m just kidding. But they understood.

Then I had a hankering for a cup of hot coffee. Along the line, I had learned a few little tricks of the trade. There was the rain gear parka, and there was a small can of peanut butter which was part of some of the C-ration packs. Kneeling down, the rain parka draped over me, I put a match to the peanut butter. Yes, this type of peanut butter would actually burn with a bluish hot flame. The parka would hide the flame from curious eyes. Three or four saved can lids would be assembled to form ‘stove walls’ for the canteen cup placed on top. Minutes later, I had my coffee; so did a few more troops.

Under these field conditions, you quickly learn to appreciate everything you have; nothing is wasted. There is a use for very single item contained in a C-ration pack. There is a plastic pouch containing things like matches, toilet paper, chewing gum, tooth picks, instant coffee, milk powder and sugar. The inside of this pouch is sterilized and can be used as a temporary wound cover.

It is amazing how one’s outlook and perception change from the norm, under these conditions. The instant coffee tastes very delicious; even the stale crackers are a gift from heaven. The salty beef patties are an outright feast. The ground meat with the soggy noodles in bland gravy is fit for a King.

Then come the long hours of intensely watching the train and the surroundings. You really can’t see that much, so you absorb every little sound you hear. You keep your trigger finger outside the trigger guard. The slightest twitch could unleash a burst of useless fire giving away your position for no reason. That’s bad.

Then, about 30 minutes into your watch, you check the time; but only 6 minutes have passed. An hour later, you check again, only to find out that 20 minutes have passed. Just lovely. The train just sat there, not caring the least about my sentiments. It reminded me of a huge dragon, calmly waiting to attack. In a way, I envied the train. Quite apparently, it had no feelings, whatsoever.

Then the cold starts creeping into your body. As this gets worse, you start to resent your existence. Uh oh! What was that noise? Where did it come from? Now you have to be very careful not to start seeing things that didn’t exist. Suddenly, you don’t feel so cold, anymore. I think the adrenalin does that. There it was again. It sounded like someone stepping on a dry branch on the ground. If this would turn out to be one of my guys trying to look for a place to take dump, I swore, I would kill him.

The noise came closer to my position. I had a battery operated flood light with a remote control switch. I had placed it several feet to my right. I leaned over and pointed it in the direction from where the noise seemed to be coming from. After I had resumed my position, I put on my sunglasses and turned on the switch, ready to make an instant decision as to what would be next. (* The sunshades help to keep your eyes’ night vision ability.)

The next action was me throwing a rock toward a deer which kindly took off in a hurry. I turned the light off and took a deep breath. Fortunately, nobody got trigger happy, thank the Lord. My assistant gunner had woken up, and he assisted me to relocate our position. Now, there were only 10 minutes left of the watch period, but it seemed to take another hour for those minutes to go by. After I saw to the changing of the guards, it was my turn to crash out for two hours.

What seemed like 10 minutes later, my assistant gunner shook me awake. He had hot coffee ready for me. I wanted to kiss him for that, but I duly refrained. He told me that all was well and that the train was still there, un-tampered with. That was definitely music to my ears.

Then the humdrum of another watch started. By now, you know all about it. I got colder and colder as the minutes trickled by. I tried to think of the pleasant things in life, but the prevailing conditions yanked my thoughts back into reality. That stupid train just kept sitting there, not giving a hoot about anything. I seriously started to hate trains, something I never thought to be possible. But I could not help myself wishing that this train would simply take off and fall over a cliff somewhere. But no, it just kept sitting there.

My next sleeping period was way too short. Upon resumption of my next watch period, I solaced myself by knowing that it would pass, no matter how I or the train felt about it. I started to nurture the thought that this train was actually nothing but an innocent pile of steel, wood, plastic and whatever else, and that I should not harbor any unkind feelings toward it. It also could not help the nature of the load it carried, whatever it was. I did not want to think about this, anyway.

Shortly before the end of my watch, I heard the slamming of some doors and some lights came on. A voice from a loudspeaker announced stand down and for the MPs to assemble at the drop point. This was a complete symphony to my ears.  Moments later, the ‘dragon’ came to life and simply disappeared in the night mist. A chopper carried us back to the Airfield. Around 6 am, I was back in my apartment, where I immediately indulged in a long hot shower. Now I felt human again, less tired than what I had expected to be.

My wife had heard me coming. By the time I came out of the shower, she had ‘real’ coffee ready for me.

“Well, Dear, how was it?”

“It was nothing, Honey, just another exercise.”

I never found out what this was all about and what the train carried. Maybe I am better off not to know, I think.

You noticed there are no pictures accompanying this story. There simply aren’t any, period.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>