Big Two-Hearted Iowa River

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber and illusions, around the low hills and coruscated ground of the late Iowa autumn. The sky was the hard, hard gray sky, high overcast, of November in Iowa. This was the sky that said, You are alone now and the wind is about to blow for the next four months, and you don't want to be alone and in a tent, or alone on a gravel road walking, or alone standing on the sidewalk outside the bank, in this wind, for this wind does not care about you or anyone else.

Pat sat down on the bundle of canvas, leather and advanced polymers that comprise his weekend attire, all of that pitched out the door of the ancient, wind-whistling car of the Rock Island, the train that no longer exists. One hundred boys stood a few dozen yards away, each alone in his thoughts, wondering what brought them here.

A lone aircraft hurtled through the brutal flat sky and Pat heard the train clatter forward into time, without him, without anything really, because none of this is real, and none of it even probable. He listened, and heard them still, all of them, the men who had accompanied them, here, in the graven earth of north Iowa where quiet men speak of the abnormal autumn of corn too wet to pick, too expensive to dry, of picking it anyways, of standing in the line in the elevator, one after another of new-bought Deeres, standing in line to sell too-wet corn to brokers who said, "Sorry, that's 24% corn, that's a fifty-cent drying fee, each bushel."

The plane was an old one, all fabric and wood and steel inside, round engine thrumbling in the air, rolling into an inverted wingover, diving directly at Pat, alone on his kit, then squaring its wings once, rising precipitously with the stored energy of the dive and its big Wright radial motor, before returning to its eastward flight, away and away, leaving echoes of its presence. Lindbergh had wanted such a plane, for his trip across the ocean, a Bellanca it was, but that didn't work out (Lindbergh was asked to haul a sales manager as some sort of promotional stunt, all the way to Paris, and Lindbergh had said, "I don't think so, at all" and that was that. Two weeks after Lindbergh landed in Paris, that Bellanca landed in Berlin, a more extraordinary feat, but no one cared. It mattered how one did things, it really mattered, which Lindbergh knew, and the others did not, and that is why Lindbergh is remembered and Giuseppe Bellanca is not).

Pat sat alone. Conversations rang in his head, the conversations from the train, this old Rock Island line train, a train he never knew he would ride.

Jeter was there. Evy was there, in a Hart Schaffner & Marx three piece, a Churchill jammed in his mouth. Duke Slater was there. Kenny Ploen was there, Karras was there, Krause was there, Denny Green, Ray Nagel, elegant in a JFK way, Dr. Eddie Anderson, Cilek, Lawrence, and Podolak. Bump, exiled by Michigan, for god's sake. Larry Station, quiet. Harmon, and Harmon. Long, strangely unathletic, with eyes that saw everything. Dwight, pounding bone bruises into his seat-mate, one of the Hilgenbergs it looked like, the both of them laughing without reserve. Laaveg, and Devlin, Tippett, filling an entire lounge with a tender knee elevated, Hayes and Cook, Rogers and Hartlieb and Burmeister, Tavian, Bell and ... so many of them. Guys no one remembers: Frank Holmes, who destroyed Oregon State one perfect September day. All of them. Quietly talking while Pat Angerer and his team, boys who knew none of them, sat in the back wondering who, what, where any of this truly was. One of them, though, youthful again and proud, the ex-Marine and not actually an Iowan at all, knew everyone.

"Angerer, get up here," he said. The man spoke with a drawl. Iowans don't drawl but somehow he was one of them.

Angerer walked slowly, not a man who had ridden trains, balancing with both arms against the racketing noise of the train.

"Angerer," said Fry. "Listen here. Do you know where you are?"

"No sir."

"You are on the Iowa train, and it's the train you will ride the rest of your life. Do you know who these men are?"

"No sir."

"Do you have a clue as to who I am?"

"Of course."

"Well, I am not who you think I am, and we are not where you think we are. But you will. You will and we can't get off this train and this will be you. You as well."

Angerer stood, his brilliant, massive arms clasping the tarnished stainless of a rail car long since retired. He was surrounded by ghosts, but of course ghosts don't exist, and what matters is the present, the here and now, the noise of commerce and easy flirtations, various anesthetic pastimes. Oh, and chicks.

"We can't get off this train. But you can. You get to walk off this train. You get to step down on that ground and hear the wind in the river oaks, the disturbances of birds, unsettled, the rushing of the water over the river-snags. In the quiet, the morning doves."

Angerer liked to bowl with his buddies, wrestle on the rented-apartment rugs, knock shit out of freshmen at practice, listen to the roaring in the old stadiums of Ann Arbor, Columbus, Madison.

"We can't get off this train. That's a hell of a thing. Who do you suppose that is, over there?"

"I don't know."

"That's Bob Elliott, and he would have been your coach. Only the one thing he wanted, he lost, because he got cancer six months too soon. Do you understand what I'm telling you, son?"


Fry leaned over and whispered something to the man to his right, a guy built like any other undersized linebacker grown into a middle-aged man, quietly sitting next to the window, thinking about trains and buses from the past, and saying nothing. He chewed gum in an odd way, his jaw canted as though in a perpetual smirk. He had a young man's face, a face that had not been sanded bare by alcohol, embarrassment, divorce. Fry finished whispering and squeezed the man's shoulder once, and the man gave a series of quick nods, eyes bright.

"Well, it worked out all right. For everyone except Bobby. One job after another, out of town, his wife staying here, nothing going nowhere. Well, that's enough of that. Listen. You will be one of us and soon. You won't be getting off this train. You don't know what that means, but maybe something will warrant your attention. We all want to get off this train with you. But we can't."

The train, in rust-screeching protest, was then slowing and then at rest. Ferentz, rising now, while the forward cabin men all looked impassively at him, frozen in their irrelevance, because that is what time delivers, irrelevance, and he rolled his chin casually toward the the train car door. A conductor, a pot-bellied man in a white shirt and a blue wool uniform, stood there, his blue cap tilted back, stood there with his eyebrows raised. "We going, big guy?" he said.

Angerer had moved quickly and easily through the slowing train, looked for a moment at the conductor with the distended gut, and descended into the prairie twilight. The rest of the team disembarked, two cars back, he heard them back there, but he descended along on the formed steel steps, one hand sliding down the dirty steel rail, the night-air already filling his senses as he neared the last step. What was this, he thought. Who were those guys?

So now he sat, the noise of the train fading, a steel-against-steel clatter like the whispers of that girl you lost explaining everything to her friends in the dark, you hear it but hear nothing. Sun, going down fast in the upper midwest, November. No beer, no girls, no suck-ups, no reporters asking "How did you feel ...." Standing on the hard stone of the roadbed. Just wind, dirt, rock, and muscle.

He looked around. The landscape, recently burnt, and badly. Stillness. Well, things grow again.

Ferentz left the gaggle of boys and their chatter 100 feet back.

"What are we doing here, Coach?"

"You tell me, Captain."

Doyle plodded down the trackbed.

"Angerer," Doyle said. "What, you seen a ghost? Are you a captain of this team?"

"I don't know. This is a hell of a place to be, now."

The dust, smear and HID glow of another guy combining his livelihood against the wet corn as darkness fell distracted them all, over there, across the river. A diesel's throbbing roar will carry for miles or more, here.

"You're here," Doyle said, "because this is where you belong."

"I thought we were playing Minnesota," Angerer said. "Not rumbling around in the dark and freezing our butts and playing boy scouts on Tuesday night."

"You're here," Parker said, crutches carefully placed on the hardest ground he could find in the darkening light. "You're here because one day you're going to be on that train. And you won't be getting off."

Another figure emerged from the other side of the tracks. He hadn't seen this guy.

"No one gets off, in the end," a voice said. "Norm, there, this might be it, for Norm. He's played it out a long time."

Angerer had had enough. "Jesus, who the fuck are you?" he said to the shortish Lieut. j.g. in the A2 jacket, starched WWII khakis, and the lithe figure of yet another old timer who played college football at 170 pounds. These guys got on his nerves. Museum pieces, all of them, when you got down to it. "I'm listening to you because ...?"

"I'm the guy they do let off the train. Every once in a while. Usually there's no point."

"I give up on this scene."

"So I'm the guy they let off the train, from time to time. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I was an okay guy, maybe it's because they think guys like us should still play football and I should say hello."

"I'm not like you." Angerer snorted. "For christ's sake. Bunch of circus freaks."

The shortish Navy-clad dude in the old khakis drove a shoulder into Angerer (just underneath his ribs so as not to crush a couple) and lifted him into the air and down onto his back. The Navy dude jumped lightly back to his feet and just stood there. Maybe he was a wrestler, Angerer thought, they were crazy like this.

"You're the luckiest guy on that train, Pat. And you are like me. You are the luckiest guy on that train because you get to play this game, and at least one more. People like us don't curse, by the way."

Angerer lay on his pile of leather and plastic and nylon and the brand names and logos of a very important multinational sports equipment corporation. He'd just been knocked stupid by some guy who looked like a figure from an old movie, some sort of trainee pilot who had walked away from law school, politics, the NFL, everything, to fly crappy planes off boats. He started to gather himself and stand, wondering if wrestler-guy in the khakis would knock him down again. He sat back down.

"We're counting on you, Pat. And I tell you, this all will pass. And you will be on the train with us, leaving the next crew here, sun declining, temperature crashing, and you will wish, if you are not careful, you were 22 again. But none of us ever gets to be 22 again."

Ferentz, the undersized linebacker, took a straw of switchgrass from his mouth.

"We all done here?"

"Yes sir, we're all done," said the Navy guy. He turned back to see where O'Keefe and Parker were organizing the rest of them.

"Pat, you all done here?"

"I am done here, Coach."

"I think we're going to set up over there and wait for those guys from Minneapolis now."

"Here?" Angerer, distraught. "Here?"

"This is what it is all about, Pat. We're on our own and we make our own future."

"What about them," Angerer said, gesturing to the rising crowd of oversized boys, drifting idly over to the small group of coaches, Angerer, and the solitary ghost. He saw them, and thought of a grade school, seeing them now as a mass schoolchildren on the polished cement of the hallway floor, moving en masse down to the gym, lockers clanging shut as they passed. Strange. He shook his head. He never thought like that before.

"They're wondering what you're going to do," said the Navy guy.

Overhead the disappearing archaic round motor aircraft was no more than a muffled tapping in the distance. It turned out that it mattered very much how one did things. Night arrived like the future, an unknown like no other. Across the river, shouts, a second tractor pulling a wagon, corn pouring from the combine, so much sand through one more hourglass. Angerer finally stood, lifted himself off his pile of branded duffles, felt the chill of death and quickly shrugged it from his massive frame.

Parker laughed.

"What's so funny?" Angerer said.

"You get to play this one, and we all just have to watch."

The Big Two-Hearted Iowa River washed by, time and the vanity of boys notwithstanding.

"No one gives a shit about you anymore, Pat," said Parker. "You're one of us now. You don't know it but you are. So pay attention so you have something to remember."

Quietly 100 strong young men made camp. The farmboys and small-town boys did all of the work. They knew their knots, the difference between an axe and a maul, where a tent needed to be if it rained, how to get a fire going on just a couple of matches. A few of them knew what the rest of it meant, a few of them did pay attention. Night falls quickly in the dark of northern Iowa, beside the rails long since abandoned, in a world that treasures sensation and noise over meaning, and the relentless assault of a merciless sky, bringing the cold.

"You can be remembered, or not," said Ferentz. "But the sun's coming up tomorrow, with or without you. It would be better if we beat these guys, and everyone knows your name. I haven't enjoyed the last two weeks so very much."

Angerer heard nothing but the disappearing ka-chunk of the yellow Rock Island caboose, the sound blowing south and east in the wind, over him and away from him, leaving him with nothing now. He saw little beyond the silhouettes of the group as the collapsing dark muted shape and color. For a moment it was as though he were 10 again, alone in the woods for the first time. And then he understood and the understanding was like no other in his life and he embraced it, holding it close like fear and he narrowed his eyes and squinted into the dark. He was a man now and he knew this fear to be his companion.

The Navy guy walked into the river, the Big Two-Hearted Iowa River, where he slept and where he lived alone, and he was gone.


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