Some of the train cars had been here so long their wheels had rusted stiff. Here on Old Track 29, was where unclaimed and discarded boxcars went to die. Benjamin Samskowski always got the Glenn Miller tune stuck in his head when he was here, but up here in the Catskills of New York, they were a long way from Chattanooga.
It was hard to believe that with such large amounts of merchandise at stake, that anyone would abandon such a vast array of assets, but the truth was it happened all the time. People died, companies went bankrupt, things got lost in the shuffle, and just like the tens of thousands of storage facilities and containers that dotted America, these ones just happened to have bogies fastened to their bottoms.
It was time for the once a year, spring cleaning auction, by which the railroad management got rid of all the excess stuff that had made its way to their facility, and remained unclaimed. They would sell what they could, dispose of the rest and then either enter the cars back into service, or scrap them for metal. Either way, this was the proverbial end of the line.
Ben was coming up on his 25th anniversary working for the Railroad Company, ironically named, at least in his mind, BFF. They certainly weren’t “best friends forever”, as the name had actually came from the founders Bueno, Frost and Forrester back in the 1930s. They weren’t horrible employers, by any means, but always seemed to skate by with just the bare minimum required to stave off revolt. Sure they’d probably give him a $100 watch and a gift certificate to take his grandkids to Chucky Cheese, but that was hardly a reward for 25 years of impeccable attendance and undying loyalty. He had given them the best years of his life, and would never get them back.
But the perks were never why he joined in the first place; It was his unequivocal love of trains. It all started when he was just a kid and his parents had bought him an S scale Santa Fe set for Christmas. That and the upstate New York hillsides which were littered with thousands of miles of tracks, that in his youthful mind’s eye connected him to anywhere in the world, much like books did in vast libraries.
Most of the cars turned out to be empty. It was merely a statistical thing. Chinese companies, buying Japanese ones who then sold them to the highest bidder. Also with all the foreign investment, it was often easier for these multi-billion conglomerates to simply discard these assets, rather than pay for costly storage, inventory and maintenance upkeep. The same thing happened in the shipping industry. But on rare occasion, the findings would provide a treasure trove. Once, even, back in 1969, Samuel Bronson had found a full-on corpse among a pile of old tractor parts. Most likely an elderly hobo, who had died from a combination of old age and late night chills. Isolated out here in the train “boneyard”, as the locals called it, it was easy to see how that sort of thing could’ve gone overlooked for an entire snowy winter with blizzard-like conditions.
Ben loved this part of the job. It appealed to his sense of adventure which had lured him to life of trains in the first place. He wasn’t allowed to indulge in the yearly activity for the entire first decade if his workmanship with BFF, but as older servicemen retired or died, he became next in the line of succession. It wasn’t like they could keep anything they came across, as it all was still Company property, but you really never knew what you would find, and that was exciting.
After a day or tagging seemingly useless inventory of discarded parts labeled in foreign languages, and pieces of machinery that were probably extremely specific to archaic industries, the luster of finding anything interesting began to wear off. Ben only had 2 cars left in his long line of 53, so the odds of him finding anything of interest, were forever against him. But then in car number 52, behind a mountain of old palettes and boxes of old merchandise marked “Herpolsheimer’s” he found it.
An old wooden desk, with years of slick-downed surfaces touched by human fingerprints, looked like something Herman Melville might have written “Moby Dick” on. It was wrapped in a thin layer of plastic that had yellowed, and thinned out, over its time stuck in the purgatory of train cars. But wedged into the far corner of its third level of shelving was a photograph, which had November 1978 inscribed on the back of it. On the front of the polaroid was a man dressed in all brown, leaning up against an old Pontiac Bonneville. Ben had definitely seen the man somewhere before. He wasn’t quite celebrity status, but the face was unforgettable. He couldn’t place exactly where, but the image of the man’s visage had been ingrained in his psyche at an early age. He looked maybe ten years older, in the photo, and definitely had a few more wrinkles and grey hairs, but it was definitely the same guy.
Ben racked his brain trying to place it, the way one might try to remember the name of a movie star, or the lyrics to an old song, from your developmental years. But it wouldn’t come to him. Although Ben was glad he was alone for the find, he kind of wished he had someone else to bounce the image off of, who might recognize the man. Oh well, he was keeping it. He had made up his mind, and it certainly had more value than some shitty half-plastic watch. He placed the photo into the inside of his Dickies navy work jacket, taking care first to blow the dust off and trying not to scratch its delicate surface.
Next came the task of unwrapping the desk. It would still need to be inventoried and prepped for the auction, regardless, and this boring task also fell under Ben’s purview. He slowly unraveled the tarnished plastic, wishing for once he had followed the OSHA suggestions of wearing a filtered mask under such conditions. God knows how many roach eggs and rat feces had made their way into the thick layer of dust that blanketed everything. As Benjamin was working, a subtle jolt seemed to rock the car. Almost the feeling one might get when it was coupled or uncoupled. Ben called out, but no response came back. Weird enough, but probably just his imagination. The small bounce had caused the front desk drawer to settle askew off of the inlayed track, which was meant to keep it in place. Ben noticed a flurry of paperwork poking out of its mouth like the tendrils of a swamp creature trying to resurface. He put on a pair of nitrile gloves, not remembering the last time he had a tetanus shot, and slowly edged the drawer forward.
Again another nudge from an unseen coupling had jolted the car, but there was definitely no movement, and nothing but solitude and complete silence afterward. The weight of the drawers contents had shifted on their fulcrum, and the drawer and all its contents came crashing down onto the wooden baseboards of the boxcar’s floor. At first glance, it looked like more old useless paperwork. Ben had seen this a hundred times before. Old diagrams, schematics, inventories, and ghosts of business done in a former life. Now just outdated relics printed on actual physical paper, instead of digital hard drives, nonetheless. Ben picked it up and started turning the documents right-side-up to get a better look. The more he looked, the clearer a picture began to paint itself. These weren’t just any papers. They were very specific. Among them were passenger manifests, flight paths, military grad aerial maps, and blueprints for Boeing 727-51 aircraft. The ones with dates were mostly for the forth quarter of 1971, which special interest in late October and early November. There was even a placard printed with instructions for lowering the aft stairs of such an aircraft, varying types of parachute designs, and yes, even train schedules for the State of Washington.
A picture started to form in Benjamin’s head, but it was still bit foggy. There was definitely something familiar about all of this, but he still couldn’t quite place it. Nonetheless, this stuff was vintage gold. To hell with pawn shops, these kind of things would go great in his personal collection of transportation-industry memorabilia. Besides, the company would have no use for this stuff anyway. They would see this as some old man’s trash pile, all to be discarded in a dumpster, so Ben didn’t feel a single iota of guilt about keeping the stuff for himself. Then a thought crossed his mind. There was still one deep door fashioned in to the base of the desk. It was the kind that had an old keyhole lock, which traditionally were more for than aesthetics, than actual security. Besides Ben’s supervisors would never know that he had not found the desk in a condition with a broken lock, to begin with. He fished in his overalls and brought out a tarnished Leatherman; ironically his 10-year anniversary gift from the company.
He used the pocketknife implement of the multi-tool to gain leverage on the aging lock, and after anchoring it, shifted his weight to apply maximum pressure. The lock gave way with a loud snap, sending a piece of green oxidized brass shrapnel mere millimeters from his left eye. That would have sucked, he thought, but in the end, it was harmless. The door gave way with the weight of it’s contents and dropped forward, but something had lodged itself between it, and the bottom of the drawer above it, prohibiting it from opening all the way. Ben reached in and fished the rather large protruding object around, until it freed itself from encumbrance. Whatever it was, was fairly big with lots of pointy angular edges, and it was definitely metallic.
Ben edged the drawer forward, finally releasing its Crackerjack prize. It was a polaroid SX-70 instant camera, in damn great condition, and presumably the one used to take the photo. Ben turned it around a few times in his hands, admiring its alternating chrome and burnt orange surfaces, before blowing dusts out of its many hidden nooks and crannies He finally gently set it down on the desktop.
Ben slowly edged the large bottom desk drawer forward, and what he revealed next nearly made his heart turn180 degree somersaults inside of his rib cage. In a muddied, torn and weathered duffle bag, were stacks of twenty dollar bills, separated into bundles of one hundred bills each. Ben’s mouth dropped agape. They must have been old movie props, but if so that production designer deserved an Oscar, as these were meticulously detailed. He grabbed a stack and brought it close to his face. Underneath the small layer of filth, the money was still crisp and clean; He brought it closer still, and inhaled the unmistakable smell of minted currency… real currency. He didn’t know how much was there, but it seemed like a lot. In fact it was exactly 9,710 $20-dollar-bills minted between 1970 and 1971.
“What cha got, Samskowski?!” - booming voice echoed from the door jarred open on the far end of the boxcar. Ben had been giving quite the start and had instinctively. The pitted rubber band broke with his flinch sending errant bills back into the drawer with a flutter. Ben’s hulking supervisor, Mr. Samson, wobbled his large mass over to the desk to inspect Ben’s work. The girth of his biceps were like massive python’s ready to strike. He liked to roll his sleeves up over them, in some sort of Cock-of-the-walk frail masculinity. That and his crew cut, gave him the air of a geriatric drill sergeant.
Sam stood silent, waiting for the anvil to drop. He was, in all honesty, rendered speechless. Samson leaned over him inspecting, the contents with his eyes, but from his angle he was just far enough away, that the bills couldn’t be seen. He sifted his hands through the airplane brochures and old Northwest Orient paperwork, then his eyes averted to the polaroid camera.
“Cool camera”, was all he said at first. “But really just a bunch of junk. Make sure you get all this shit cleaned out and polish up this desk a little, will ya? And Samsko, make it quick, you still got one more boxcar left, and I’d like to go home in this lifetime, if you don’t mind.”
“Yes sir.”, Benjamin responded. Then as his boss reached the door and put one foot out as if to exit the train, Ben yelled back to him. “Mr. Samson?….”
The bulk of a man turned on his heel. “I was just wondering if I might be able to keep the content of this desk for myself. You know, for my own personal collection.”
“Sure kid.”, said the man. Just don’t come crying to me when you contract hepatitis from all that rat shit. And with that, Samson alighted the train car, along with any apprehension Benjamin had felt about invoking the “finders: keepers” rule.
As he rummaged up the bills in to the bag, being sure to hide them with the old manifests, paperwork, and the vintage camera, another polaroid freed itself from the stack. This one had the same man, but quite a bit younger. It had been taken at the entrance sign to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport of the same man, and the same Bonneville, and his shit eating ear-to-ear grim. Ben turned it over and all the inscription read was “D.B. COOPER” in quotations, and it had a hand-drawn, defiant smiley face beside it. It had been written in a shaky hand, in all caps with a felt-tip pen.
Finally the history of it all was triggered, and came flooding back to Ben. Sure, if he tried to buy a new car or a house, the FBI would probably eventually track the serial numbers, but scratch-offs and PBRs from his local Speedway should definitely go undetected.
Looked like he might have a pretty great retirement after all.