A crowd of well-wishers filled the station platform. A band played. Women cried. Men made reassurances. The locomotive pulled noisily into the station so that civilian passengers could disembark and board the passenger cars.
An officer waved the band silent. "New recruits for the Sixty-Fourth New York Volunteers, say your goodbyes and prepare to board. You will join more volunteers in Owego and go on to New York City. God be with you all!" He pointed towards the back of the train, where coalcars and freight cars could be seen. The officer waved to the bandleader, and the band started playing an upbeat tune.
Nancy Black said, "It's been a pleasure gettin' ta know ya, George. Keep yerself safe, y'hear?"
George replied, "Thanks for having me, Mrs. Black." He turned to Mrs. Fallon. "Thank you for permitting me to call on your daughter, Ma'am. Please say my farewell to Mr. Fallon."
Mrs. Fallon said, "You are a fine brave boy. I hope you will be all right. Clarissa, no histrionics, please."
Clarissa sniffled, "Take care of yourself, George. I shall write you. Promise you will write me?"
George was on the spot. He couldn't very well refuse her with an audience standing there. "I will."
Sophia, Clarissa's younger sister, asked George, "When are you getting your uniform? We were hoping to see you in your blue uniform."
"I don't know, Sophia. I expect they'll give us uniforms soon." George turned to Reverend and Mrs. Wyeth. To Mrs. Wyeth he said, "I thank you for all your kindness."
Mrs. Wyeth said, "You have a good heart, George. Whatever terrible things you may go through, don't change that. I pray that God will protect you."
A uniformed sergeant from the back of the train shouted, "All right, men! All aboard! This way!"
Reverend Wyeth said, "You are doing God's work, George. We will be praying for you."
George said, "Thank you very much, Reverend. For everything."
Clarissa cleared her throat, then lifted her skirt slightly so George could see her bare ankle. She batted her eyelashes. Mrs. Fallon put a gloved hand on Clarissa's, pushing downwards. Never taking her eyes off George, Clarissa let go of the garment and winked.
"This way, men! Time to board the cars!" Corporals worked their way through the crowd, pushing straggling recruits to move towards the cars.
The band kept playing as the volunteers were jostled away from the crowd of civilians. The ladies waved handkerchiefs, when they weren't dabbing eyes and noses with them. Freight cars had been fitted with rough plank seating.
Before everyone had found a spot of his own, the train started moving with several mighty jerks. Most boys had been standing, and now many were now lying painfully atop others. Those young men not in a pileup watched through the open door. Some watched through the cracks as the train passed the waving and crying ladies, leaving them behind. The sound of the band faded away, to be replaced by the sound of the iron wheels clacking loudly over rail joints, establishing a regular rhythm. Whenever the tracks curved, the iron wheels squealed. The car creaked, too. Amidst all this, the young men got to know one another.
What's yer name, where ya from. Stuff like that. Where is the train taking us, what'll happen when we get there. Some bragging about their marksmanship, or their bravery, or their dedication to flag. Many wondered when they would receive uniforms and weapons, those being the only tangible of army life that most of them could then imagine. Some wondered how long it would be until they went into glorious battle.
Everyone was excited. This was a big adventure! They looked forward to being issued uniforms, weapons... they were anxious that the war not end before they could get into the fight.
George had never in his life been among so many young men. Although as far as he knew they were all older than him, he felt an immediate sense of belonging, of kinship with them. It was a new sensation, and he liked it.
Most of them were farmers. Many had joined to preserve the Union, or to make a free nation for all men. Some had joined for the bounty. Some freely admitted that they had joined because the draft had begun, and draftees were to be paid less than volunteers. George volunteered that he had joined to defeat slavery, observing a mixed reaction. He noted a fellow who reacted positively, and wondered if they might become great friends. The train's brakes squealed loudly as the train decelerated jerkily.
Owego. The recruits were ordered off that train, and were then marched to an eastbound train filled with more recruits, from Elmira. The car smelled of sawdust, fresh cut wood, grain, apples, and chickens when George first entered it. There were other men and boys already there, moving to the back half of the car to make room. The Ithaca recruits were ordered to fill the front half. Good-natured ribbing ensued as the two crowds met. A few of those other fellows had been appointed sergeants or corporals. Everybody in the car wore their civilian clothes except one veteran in sergeant stripes.
Again, fellows introduced themselves and got to know each other. George was approached by an eager young fellow who apparently wanted to get to know everybody.
"My name's John Taylor. I'm from West Elmira. You?"
"George VanArsdale. I'm from..." George briefly considered how to best answer this question; the laconic answer a man would give to indicate disinterest in continuing a line of discussion, or the longer one, as befitting new comrades in arms. "I'm not sure where I'm from. I was born in Ithaca, and I've lived in Ithaca for the past year, but I was raised all my life in Caton, so..."
"Caton, eh? Then you must know..." And Taylor pointed at another young man in the crowded car. Adam Van Houten.
"Um, no, I don't know him." George tried to position himself so Adam wouldn't see him, but apparently Taylor was unskilled at reading body language.
"Hey, Adam! This fellow is from Caton too. You must know him, right?"
Adam looked where Taylor was pointing and an evil grin came upon his face. "Well, well. Lookee there. Georgie! Long time no see." Adam made his way between the press of young men and towered over George. "Let me think, now. You'd be underage, I believe! You're only fifteen."
George's dislike for Adam, coupled with his respect for the truth, trumped his wisdom for a moment. "Sixteen. And you're only seventeen!"
Adam crowed, "And I have parents who signed their consent to my enlisting. Do you?" With that, Adam turned to scan the faces. He saw the one he wanted. "Hey, Sarge!"
The uniformed sergeant looked up. "What is it?"
"This fella here is underage. And he does not have parental consent."
The man stood up. "Is that so?"
* * *
Hiram looked up when someone entered the smithy. It was George. "That must be the shortest enlistment in history! Ha ha ha! What the hell happened?"
"Somebody I knew from Caton was on the train, and told'em I was underage. My enlistment paper was torn up and they sent me back on the first train."
"Ain't that a fine how do ya do! What rotten luck."
"I thought you didn't believe in luck."
"The Lord predestined that you'd have bad luck, is all. You questionin' my religious beliefs?" He snorted. "Methodists."
"May I have my job back? For a while, anyway."
"You gonna try to enlist again, are ya?"
"Heh. All right, I s'pose. The horses'll be glad ta see ya. Nancy, too."
* * *
© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.