Bundleman (Part 3 of 4)
Patrick’s trip was uneventful as the train moved toward its destination. The ticket he purchased gave the train workers the ability to keep him on the right tracks. In Pittsburgh he became lost for a brief time until a station worker directed him to his southbound train. He tried sleeping for a time but was afraid he would miss his destination as he slept. The train gently swayed back and forth as it traveled over the metal tracks along the Ohio River. The gentle rocking and rhythmic sounds of the steel wheels was a lullaby to the tired man. Try as he might to stay awake, sleep kept overtaking his body, embracing him as he dreamed of home, not the home he’d left behind, but indeed a new one.
The bump of a bad rail would occasionally awaken him and he would think of the bottle he carried. How he wished he had a way to warm his coffee. Hot coffee and the last few pieces of dry hard cheese would perhaps keep him awake.
Town after town passed in the night as the train made its way down the river valley. Patrick was somewhere in a dream when a hand touched his shoulder and he awoke with a jerk. “Mr. This is your stop.” It took a moment for Patrick to realize what the tall conductor had said to him. But as he looked out the window he could see the sign on the front of the depot. In big black letters it read PARLORTON. He was home. He had never been there before, but he was home.
Quickly, he gathered his bundle sack and rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he stepped down from the train onto the platform. The early morning air was heavy with the cold fog from the river nearby. He knew the town still slept and he would have to wait until later to find his destination.
As he sat on the wooden bench he thought about the fate that had brought him to this place so far from home. It began on the eastern front of Italy in the fall of 1915. The war had been going on for a few years when he was called to enter the Army. In a bloody battle along the Isonzo River, Patrick was captured by German soldiers and sent to a prison camp in southern Hungary. His time in the prisoner of war camp was very difficult. Food quality was poor and the condition the prisoners were kept in was trying, especially in the cold winter. He had lost track of the months that he had been prisoner before learning America had joined into the war in Europe. A few months later the first American POW’s were brought to the camp. One of them was a young lieutenant named William Maceluton. He had been badly wounded in the chest by shell fragments and the poor medical treatment from his captures had not helped his recovery.
Patrick quickly took a liking to the red haired young man-perhaps because his son’s hair was a similar color in the sunlight. He hoped someday his son would grow into a good man like William. It had been two years since he had seen his son and wife because of the war.
The two spoke different languages, but with time each began to better understand their new friend. Patrick told of his home and the mountains where his family grew grapes for a small winery. William told Patrick of the farm he owned near a river called Ohio. William had a postcard he carried to remind him of that green place far away. Patrick had only his memories of his family in the hills of Italy to share.
In this forgotten place of the war the two men became good friends. They made time pass by telling each other about family and homes left behind. Because of the language barrier they did not always understand, yet they still enjoyed the sharing of their stories.
One morning, William began coughing up blood and his temperature rose very high. The camp doctor offered very little help to the red-haired lieutenant. Prisoner’s heath was not an important concern to their capturers. Patrick did all he could to help, but both men realized William’s pneumonia was getting worse and he could not be treated in these terrible conditions.
It was near Christmas when William died in his friend’s arms. But before he died he gave Patrick the old postcard and a handwritten will giving the faraway farm to his friend. He also gave him a short letter addressed to his parents in hopes that someday they might receive it. After he died they took William’s body and buried it in a grave with other soldiers as the snow fell quietly on this forgotten place. Patrick was devastated by the loss of his friend and longed to go home to his family.
In late 1918, the Red Cross came to the camp and word spread that the war would soon be over and the prisoners could soon return home. Patrick still remembered the day the gates opened and he started the long difficult trek through lands devastated by the war. As he grew closer to home, he realized it was hard to recognize landmarks as he had always known. The war had destroyed the land and many of the homes in the once beautiful hills. Inside, he began to feel a sense of the horror as he topped the last little rise above his home. The burnt destruction he had witnessed since leaving the prison camp extended to the home and family he had left behind. There was only one wall of his home still standing; fire and battle had destroyed all else. Then, he found the worst thing imaginable a man can find-the graves of his family. The ground was still mounded and the two earthen graves were identified by two pieces of boards with inscribed names. Rachele Buntanelly on one and Pietro Buntanelly on the other. He had survived the war, but his family had not.
He laid down upon the earthen mounds and mourned his loss. No pain could describe the emptiness felt inside the small man as he longed to join his family. But death did not come and after a time he realized he would survive this pain also. He looked through what was left of his home and found the gold watch given to him by his father, a small porcelain cup that his wife drank her tea from each morning, and lastly, he found the small marionette figure that he had carved for his son the Christmas before he left for the war. He remembered how that simple toy had brought so much joy to his son that morning long ago.
He covered the earthen mounds with stones to help protect them from the coming rains. Then he carved two wooden crosses that bore the names of his family and placed them at the head of the graves. As he placed his few family possessions inside his coat pockets he remembered the papers and postcard given to him by someone else he had lost. William had described the farm and his home as a wonderful place full of life, but far away. Patrick now knew he must leave and perhaps find a new life in America. As he started to leave, he looked in the burned house and saw the glass bottle with a few coffee beans inside lying near the fireplace. He picked it up and placed it into his pocket and began his journey to America. And now, after many months of travel, he sat on a bench in a train station-a station in a town he had never seen, but knew well from stories told by a lost friend.