Realising it was hopeless trying to get more sleep, with the prospect of updates on the breakdown from Ada every twenty minutes, I headed to the dining car. “Breakfast, ma’am? Sit right here.” The waiter indicated the one remaining seat in a four-person booth. I sat next to a late-middle-aged woman in a colourful woollen cardi. Opposite me, an oldish African American guy wearing round glasses and a black baseball cap with the words “Vietnam War Veteran” emblazoned across the front. Next to him, a young guy my age, going to Montana. “Beautiful place. That’s God’s country,” pronounced the war vet. “I liked it better when they didn’t have a speed limit though.”
I asked Montana Man why he didn’t fly there. He said he’d never been on a train before and wanted to see what it was like. I was impressed. When I tried out a train for the first time, it was the 35-minute trip from Edale to Sheffield. He had another 25-hour train ride coming after the 17-hour one to Chicago. “I got a 25-hour flight once, when I went to Vietnam,” commented his neighbour. “How long were you there?” asked the woman. “A year. I was in the army four years, but in Vietnam for one.” “One year too long,” the woman said. “Oh yes. You know, what I say to everyone now is, there’s only one good thing about war”, he said, looking at us over his spectacles. “Once you bin in a war, afterwards, every day feels like Christmas.”
He told us about having post-traumatic stress. “It didn’t come out when I was working, because I kep’ myself busy – I was teaching microbiology at the medical school. But when I retired, that’s when I felt it. I was crying a lot, shaking. I can’t go walking in the woods without taking my gun with me. I tell anyone who’s been in a war, go get yourself tested for PDS. They give you $3000 a month, you’re classified as disabled. You get yourself down the VA and they look after you real good. Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. I reckon, most people who’ve been in a war, they’ve got it. It changes you. You go there for just a year, it changes you.” He looked at the young guy next to him. “Imagine if you was in Afghanistan for a year, young guys like you, they’d different when they come back. And you” – looking at me – “even young women are going now, fighting alongside the men.” He raised his eyebrows.
“There’s only two types of people – them wi’ the Devil in them, and them wi’ God in them. You see it. One time, we found a man strung up on some barbed wire, all his insides hanging out, and our commander said “just kill him.” Well, he weren’t gon’ do me no harm. I ain’t never killed someone who was wounded. But some o’ the guys, they’d shoot anyone, and feel nothing.”
As I sat back down at my seat after breakfast, Ada made another announcement, saying the mechanics were working hard to get us going again. The Boston woman across the aisle from me said to her sister, in a satisfied voice, “We already said our prayers, didn’t we. We just gotta let Him do his work.” “Mm-hmm,” her sister concurred. “I ain’t complaining – He’s probably protecting us from something bad up ahead. He’s probably saved our lives. So I ain’t complaining. I just wish we could get goin’ again soon.” The train started moving. “See? I told you!”