PHOENIX — Among the boys I ran with in Fresno, train derailment was a popular topic. We could waste whole afternoons debating technique. Some kids claimed they could make a freight train jump the tracks with the proper placement of a single quarter. Others went in for more elaborate schemes, involving crowbars and rocks and the like.
It was all talk, of course, boy talk. In similar fashion, we could debate the velocity and kick of high-powered rifles we in fact would never fire, or the gear-shifting procedures for diesel rigs we would never drive, or combat strategies that would carry us through skirmishes that, thankfully, we never were called upon to fight.
I've never found anything especially harmful in this. Almost all little boys like to play army and imagine hellacious disasters. Later, as they grow older, most will put away these childish things and tackle more mature pursuits, such as watching football, jawing about taxes, making money--the stuff of stand-up Americans. Not all, though, not all. And this fact, as much as any, is what brings us now to the Arizona desert.
What was my initial reaction when I heard that a passenger train bound for Los Angeles had been derailed in the dead of night, and that the culprit or culprits had left behind a single-spaced manifesto complaining of Waco and Randy Weaver and "state police" and the rest? It was this:
Boys, boys, boys.
The note was signed "Sons of Gestapo," which authorities have cautioned may or may not be a ruse. Either way, it's a safe bet that the missive was composed by someone whose knowledge of the Nazi regime begins and ends with whatever can be learned watching "Hogan's Heroes." This would be in keeping with our times, which have come to be dominated by arrested development cases--boys who became men but somehow neglected to put away their toys, who somehow never grew tired of playing army.
I am talking here about Oklahoma City, and about the tubby ranks of camouflaged militia that have captured so much attention in its aftermath. I am talking about the Unabomber, and his prep school preachments on the evils of progress. I am talking about radio show "personalities" who promote gunplay, of lecture circuit survivalists extolling life "off the grid." And I am talking, too, I suppose, of those who play the game from the other end, the police chiefs who thrill at dispatching armored cars down city streets, the stealthy sharpshooters who miss the fugitive and kill the wife, the over-the-top narcs who fashion themselves, in their own lexicon, "cowboys."
Unfortunately, for those caught in the cross-fire, the games these boys play can be something quite the opposite of fun. Mitchell Bates might have explained this, but the 41-year-old porter did not survive the wreck of the Sunset Limited. So Herb Travenio will tell it. The retired postal worker was headed home to San Diego with his wife. They had taken a short vacation in Georgia. She was asleep. He was awake, restless.
He remembered, sitting here hours later in a Holiday Inn, his feet scratched and swollen, his hip aching, how the train engine at first had squealed. Then the coach pitched sideways. "What the hell is this?" Travenio recalled asking himself as he flew from his berth. There was a loud, jarring crash, followed by blackness and a strange quiet, broken only by the hiss of an air hose. Then came the wailing of babies and the screams of their mothers.
And now, digesting a Salvation Army dinner, Travenio contemplated the note that other passengers had discovered, pinned carefully under a small rock at trackside in the remote desert ravine. It had suggested in the now familiar boilerplate that this was the work of patriots, out to avenge the excesses of a runaway government.
"Patriots," he said, all but spitting the word. "What kind of patriots could they be? We were just people out seeing the country, having a little fun, bothering nobody." He rolled up a shirt sleeve, revealing a bullet scar across his right bicep. "Korean War," he said.
"I was a Marine," he said, "not an idiot. When the war was over, it was over. There are so many of these groups out there today--all these little toy soldier groups, all mad about something. 'Patriots.' Who knows which one did it?"
And sure enough, in the newspaper the next morning, Travenio could read how the militia men were blaming the derailment on neo-Nazis, while the Anti-Defamation League insisted it looked like a militia job. And the far right talk show hosts were suggesting a government frame job, designed to promote more anti-terrorist laws. And the Feds were flying in reinforcements. And so on. To which the poor man might as well have responded: Boys, boys, boys.