Sometimes he would lie in bed at night, and when he heard the sound of a train passing in the distance, he would roll on his side and whisper to himself, "Eisenbahn fahren..."
He was only dimly aware that the day had turned to evening, with the last few rays of sunshine barely visible in the western sky. From his small apartment on the ground floor it was difficult to know exactly when the sun went down, the price to pay for living on a crowded street so close to downtown Frankfurt. The clock confirmed his suspicions as the relentless tick-tock was replaced briefly by the five gongs marking the hour. The days had certainly grown shorter, though the first snows of winter had yet to fall, and the thermostat had yet to drop below the freezing mark, even at night. He put the book down, a fascinating tale by Puschkin about a Ukrainian trying to make it home after the revolution. It, like all his thousands of books, would invariably involve a train in one form or another.
Long past the age of playing with his models of trains, the old man was relegated to reading books about them, at least as long as his eyes would still allow it. The idea of climbing under a layout seemed so foreign now, so remote, since he could now only stand with the help of a cane. He groped for it next to the chair and was rising to his feet when the phone rang. That would be Kerstin, his granddaughter. Sure enough, a quick call to see how grandfather was doing this Sunday evening. Convinced he was not sprawled dead on the floor, he surmised, she left the conversation mercifully short.
With a slow, methodical gate the elderly man moved down the narrow hallway towards the kitchen. On both sides the walls were adorned with pictures of trains, some photographs, but most of them watercolors he himself had painted many years ago when, shortly after retirement, he had picked up the hobby. In the kitchen he placed the kettle on the stove to make himself some Chamomile tea. He hated it, he had convinced himself, and had only started drinking it for his own health, though now he had grown accustomed to its harsh flavor and wouldn't let a day pass without some. The quarter hour chimed as he was sipping it. He would have to go soon. His frail, trembling fingers dialed the number next to the phone, and the taxi was quickly ordered. Thirty minutes. Time enough to pack a sandwich for the trip. And certainly time to finish his cup of tea.
It was forty minutes later when the doorbell chimed. The rather unfriendly taxi driver merely turned from the door and returned to his taxi when the old man answered. His shoulders ached as he pulled the warm overcoat on. His scarf and hat he tucked under his arms, and with the cane at its post at his side, he switched off the light and stepped out into the street. A slight breeze had picked up, blowing the brown leaves along the walkway of the boulevard. To the old man's surprise the taxi driver got back out of the cab, came around to the other side, and opened the back door for him, though still as cold as the October breeze blowing up the sidewalk. Slowly and carefully the old man lowered himself into the back seat of the taxi, its diesel motor running with the unmistakable "klack-klack-klack" sound of a Mercedes in-line five.
They drove in silence through the rather empty streets of Frankfurt. The familiarity of the city was all but gone, the man realized. His fragile state had made longer trips out almost impossible. With his granddaughter bringing him groceries every Thursday, he had no reason to leave the sanctuary of his apartment. It was a blessing and a curse, all in one. Still, unmistakably, ahead he saw the tremendous facade of the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. "Hier, hier halten!" he called out. The taxi driver pulled to the curb. Again he came around to open the door for the old man. Only a hint of a smile crossed the driver's lips as the old man offered a very generous tip. The driver thanked him, hastily returned to the warmth of the cab, and disappeared quickly into the shimmer of red brake lights.
The old man looked across the street at the majesty of the station. He recalled how huge it had looked to him as a child, and how its crippled framework had reminded him of a huge skeleton when he returned here in 1946. As people scurried past him he realized the crosswalk had turned green. He hobbled across the street, his cane doing most of the work to keep him upright. Through the large doors he entered the center arm of the station. In some ways he felt like a kid again, anxious to run up the stairs and out onto the platforms to watch the steam trains pull in and out, and, if he was lucky, one of the new streamlined locomotives! Oh, he had spent countless hours after school admiring their beautiful lines. More often than not, he would arrive home with a blackened face and hair full of soot. Even so, he would invariably find himself on the platforms again the next day, and the next, and the next...
This day he wouldn't be scampering up the steps. In fact, he had to pause twice to catch his breath. When he finally arrived at the top of the stairs he could hear the station announcements echoing from the large hall ahead. He turned and entered the ticket office. The lines were short this evening, and one patron eve offered to let him go ahead. It surprised him, breaking his concentration. The attendant had already asked him three times where he was going. Funny, he hadn't though about it. "Wie bitte?" she asked again. Vienna, yes, Vienna, he could arrive by morning and enjoy some wonderful Austrian pastries, and didn't the Austrians make wonderful Chamomile tea, too? Yes, "Vienna," he finally said out loud. "Einfach. Erste Klasse." He grinned inside with glee. He had never been in first class before, he didn't know why not. But today was the day. As the printer whirred and began spitting out his ticket, he thought, what then? Maybe Rome, yes, perhaps Rome. Then Marseille, maybe he would go as far as Madrid, or Portugal. It would be a grand journey. He would open the compartment window and feel the climate get milder and milder, until the warm breezes of the Atlantic ocean blew into his compartment. He would eat in the restaurant car, ordering anything he felt like. Perhaps he would get a sleeper compartment for the next leg, one of those really fancy ones with running water and a refrigerator. The cashier's impatient request broke the daydream. He pulled a handful of blue DM notes and dropped them into the round tray. Then he took his ticket to Vienna and his change and headed towards the door to the main station hall. Behind him the cashier called the track number, but he was fairly certain that the train still left from the same platform, track four.
Walking into the big hall was like a homecoming. He gazed wide-eyed at the sleek ICE trains, their slender locomotives almost seeming to be alive. It was the first time he had seen one in person. As he walked slowly towards track four he admired the other passenger trains waiting in the station. The colors of the local train cars certainly had changed, with the monotonous silver color replaced by bright reds, greens, and blues. Track five sported a double-decker train, and he shuffled up to look inside. No
way he would be going up *those* steps, he mused.
The air had grown even cooler as he walked down the platform between tracks four and five. The express to Vienna would be coming along in about ten minutes. The old man walked out past the last platform light to the last set of benches and sat down, pulling his warm coat tight around his chest. He sat and watched the trains pulling up to the lighted platforms. ICE after ICE pulled in and out of the station. The clean interiors he could see as they drifted by were a far cry from the wooden benches and floors he endured as a child. Quite a change in fifty years, he thought. He watched a brightly lit train of French and German coaches behind a blue electric locomotive pull into the far side of the station. How many cars? twelve? fourteen? He leaned back on the bench and took in the sights and sounds as if it were the most beautiful ballet ever performed. A local diesel "Triebwagenzug" pulled out of the station and into the field of red and green signal lights. He watched its taillights grow dimmer and dimmer. A sleek diesel ICE obscured his view as it pulled into the station on the far side.
A strange, familiar sound caught his ear and he turned. In the darkness he saw the unmistakable plume of steam marking the approach of a steam engine. Sure enough, here it came, a BR38 with a quintet of green local coaches in tow. He watched in amazement as it trundled past him on track seven and into the glare of the station platform's gas lights. What a marvelous coincidence, he thought! He was even more amazed when a big BR18 and a long train of blue and gold coaches chuffed out of the station on track 12. That would be the Rheingold, headed towards Amsterdam. No sooner had she pulled clear of the station when, to his amazement, another antiquated train loomed out of the distance. It was a long train of German and Austrian cars being pushed into track four. Up front was a beautiful lady in red, a streamlined BR03. It rumbled and hissed as it crossed the maze of switches. She would be headed to Vienna, he reckoned. Yes, wasn't he headed there, too? He scooped up his backpack and walked briskly down the platform to see the engine. She was a beauty alright, and he could have gazed at her for hours. Still, the conductor was already giving him the eye and pointing to his watch. "Schon Gut", the man said, and hastened toward the first coach. "Wien?" he asked. "Jawohl!" came the friendly reply. He climbed aboard, and found the first compartment empty. The conductor checked his ticket and wished him "Gute Fahrt!" He tossed his backpack onto the baggage shelf and hurried to the window. In an instant his head was stuck far out, the red engine blowing soot and steam and sparks into the warm summer air, and with a surge of power and a hiss of steam the train slowly began to pull out of the station.
The cold October wind kept most everyone in the relative warmth of the hall, so it wasn't until nearly ten o'clock that evening that someone noticed the dark silhouette on the bench. The doctor who arrived a short while later with the police would remember two things for the rest of his life - the look of absolute contentment on the old man's face, frozen there for all eternity, and the first class, one way ticket to Vienna that he clutched in his hand. Unforgettable, for the ticket had already been punched, as if to show everyone that the old man had already started his journey after all...