Once Upon A Time: The Railroad Handcar

Once upon a time there was a railroad. It stretched off into the distance, with the telegraph wires running alongside. Off to the side was a great mesa, like a limestone stack of pancakes.

Along the railroad comes a handcar. It is pumped by a single man, who is pumping for all he is worth. In a moment you see the reason, as a line of smoke appears behind him.

If the man abandons his railroad handcar, the train will crash into it. Other people will die. But if he stays with the handcar, he will die. And the train is catching him.

What would you do?

The man isn’t out there with his handcar emptyhanded. He has a bedroll, a lot of water, food, and cookpans. Everything you’d need to work out along the rail line. He even has a shovel and railroad ties and a sledgehammer. That’s why he was out there, to make repairs to the line. The man didn’t think there were any trains for four days. But they changed the schedule on him.

As the man pumps, he thinks about how heavy his handcar is. He needs to dump some of the things.  Then inspiration hits him.  If he dumps the things on the track, the engineer will look out his window, see the handcar, and hit the brakes.

So the man starts dumping things over the side, still pumping with one hand.  He dumps his sleeping roll, his pots and pans, everything, all back on the track.

As the train approaches, the man considers abandoning his handcar.  But even if the engineer hits the brakes, the handcar may not be far enough.  The safest thing for the passengers would be for the man to keep pumping.  But if the train hits him, he will die.

What would you do?

The engineer hits the bedroll, and then the pots and pans.  They clatter and he looks out the side.  He sees the handcar and yells to hit the brakes.

The man pumping looks back.  He knows that the brakes have been hit, but it won’t stop in time.  The train is going to hit the handcar.

What would you do?

The man jumps, rolling out of the way, as the train runs into the handcar and flips it off the track.  In the front of the train is a wedge shaped piece of metal called a cattle catcher that prevents the train from being derailed.

When the man gets up and boards the train, he is hailed as a hero.


Once Upon A Time: The Ice Castle.

The main gatehouse of Harlech Castle. The step...
The main gatehouse of Harlech Castle. The steps were originally a drawbridge. As well as this formidably defended entrance, the castle also had a fortified dock so that it could be supplied by sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was an ice castle. It had great slabs of ice, within which there were trapped predators from another age, cut from the ice mountains and dragged to the castle to put fear into any who would invade.
The castle sat at the edge of the great Norse wastes, so the blocks never melted. If the sun shone its fiercest, the top layer of the blocks would become moist, freezing all the harder with the frost of night. A town had grown up around the castle, and the villagers of the castle were trained from birth to defend the castle with their lives. The castle was not just a defensive building, it was a sacred space.
In part because of the dedication of the villagers, the castle had never been taken. It had exchanged hands from inheritance, and from all the political and royal intrigues. But it had never been taken in an armed combat.
Now, as the villagers awoke, they knew that the world’s greatest emperor was sending his greatest army against the ice castle. It made no sense politically, because the castle did not defend rich lands beyond. The wastes around the castle were barely able to support the few villages that scraped their living from the soil. But it was something that the emperor wanted to do to prove he was better than any of the other emperors who had come before. He would be the one who destroyed the ice castle.
So the great army approached the ice castle. For an army of this size, great supply chains were necessary, bringing up carts of meat, wood, and grain from areas far distant. To feed an army this size was an undertaking in its own right. The emperor, even in his greatness, could not afford to siege the castle. He must take it by force, and quickly, or exhaust his finances and his military power.
To do what none had done before, the emperor had assembled great military engineers. They had no maps of the inside of the castle, because none of the villagers could be bribed and died before they told the secrets. But they had many maps of the outside and felt confident that it was possible to break. The ice could be shattered by sufficient power, but the power had to be concentrated in a single part of the wall.
A great ram was built, long enough that fifty men were necessary to move it. To move the ram, they built a great cart and covered it over with a roof to protect the men. It was this great military machine, pulled by dozens of oxen, that the villagers beheld below them. It was as yet far off on the plain, but coming slowly across the plain.
The villagers met together. They were prepared for fire, for many had tried that. There were great stores of water within the castle, and they could put out fires of any kind. But never had they faced such a weapon. At length, they came up with a desperate plan.
In ones and twos, the defenders of the castle left the castle. Within any great force, there are many who do not know each other. A great army is made up of many packs of men. So few notice when a man here and there goes missing. They think he must have gone off with another group. In this way the defenders of the castle became part of the attacking army. Their success was such that when it came time to man the great ram, with its metal spike for piercing the castle, fully half of the men were those from the defending side. The labor of the ram was heavy and unrelenting, so all the defenders had to do was not protest as much as their fellows to be chosen.
As the ram swung back and forth, half of the men heaved backward even as the other half was heaving forward. After a day of battering, the wall barely had a scratch.
The emperor was upset, and called his engineers. They reassured him and went out to inspect the ram. They failed to inspect the men running the ram and could only show the emperor the calculations that showed the castle should crumble.
For twelve days and nights the ram swung. On every shift the defenders made up half of the crew. And for twelve days and nights nothing happened. At the end of twelve days the emperor abandoned the ram and left in disgust. He left the engineers’ heads on pikes, and moved his armies off to more fruitful lands. Over time the villagers cut the ram into pieces and used it for firewood and to repair their homes.

Once Upon A Time: Florence Dances.

English Elizabethan clown Will Kempe dancing a...
English Elizabethan clown Will Kempe dancing a jig from Norwich to London in 1600 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a crevice in a rock. Florence crouched inside that crevice to watch the May dancers. At this time there weren’t any electronics, but the drum and the flute gave beautiful music, and the dancers swirled and stomped with a great passion.
Florence wished with all his heart that he could dance with them, but he had been born with a club foot. His twisted left leg gave him a stumbling gait and made it impossible for him to do the smooth twists and turns of the dancers. So at the end of every May day dance Florence crept away, back to his parents’ farm.
At this time most people lived on the same farm all their lives. Florence had lived with his parents, and would inherit the farm when they died. He could work in the fields, balancing on his good foot and hopping as he needed to move forward. Of all the deformities, he could have had, Florence was lucky it was only a foot.
On this day the lord of the fiefdom had decreed that a new family move into the village. So it was with great interest that Florence watched a cart move along the dirt road into the village. It was with even greater interest that he noticed the young woman sitting at the back of the cart had a club foot.
Even though Florence wanted to talk to the young daughter, Sandra, he did not. The only times one could speak to another person would be at church or at festivals like May day. So Florence redoubled his efforts to learn how to dance. Every day he practiced at the May pole, trying to master the smooth steps of the dancers. Sometimes he had to practice near dark as the work of the fields took all his time. But he practiced none the less.
One day as he practiced Florence heard a cough. Sandra, carrying firewood, was watching him. “Why do you not hop the dances?” was all she asked. As he watched, Sandra did the May Pole dance hopping on one foot. “Is it allowed?” he asked. “It was in my village, for my father was the drummer,” replied Sandra.
Together they practiced the May Pole dances. Sandra and Florence quickly fell in love, but Sandra twisted the ankle of her club foot and needed a staff to get around for a time. In sympathy, Florence carried a staff of his own during the dance with her. They built the staff into the dance as well.
On the next May day, Florence and Sandra danced. At first Florence thought the villagers would laugh, but the only sound he heard was crying. He looked over and saw his mother weeping into a handkerchief. “I never thought to see you dance,” was all she could say.
The other villagers lined up to learn the steps and the hops of Florence and Sandra. When they were married, Florence and Sandra Morris taught all the villages around their new May dance. And so Morris dancing, which continues to this day, was born.

Once Upon A Time: The Otters.

North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis...
North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis (per Schreber, 1777. More commonly used, but allegedly incorrect latin name: Lutra canadensis). I took the photo in San Francisco Zoo on August 29, 2005. Français : Loutre de rivière, Lontra canadensis. Image prise au zoo de San Fransisco le 29 Août 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was an otter named Francis who lived at the edge of the Oskanobawaki swamp. Every morning he would slide out of his mud hole into the water and wash his face. Then he would play with his eighty-six cousins all through the swamp, until it was time for the gathering at the great tree.
If you could part the low hanging branches of the great tree, you would see the water so thick with dark heads you might think you could walk across them like dry land. But not one person every saw the otter gathering, where the otter elder would come out and give them wisdom.
“Play is worship,” he’d always say, and it was a he, although the next in line for his post was a female otter. “We must honor the fish and creatures we eat by dancing for their spirits. Fight only those who must be fought, never amongst each other. Live each day as if it were your last.”
The assembled otters would splash paddle in agreement, and the great gathering would break up. They only happened once a moon.
When Francis slid under the great branches he felt this gathering was different. The elder was agitated, and could hardly wait to begin.
“One of the furless ones is slaughtering our people,” said the elder. “He is sending us off to be coats. We need to act.”
The elder gave them all instructions.
That next morning Jeb and his brother Tucker, both furless ones, took their swamp boat out looking for otters. The city man was paying them two hundred a head, so both boys were making a bit of money for once. Jeb felt kind of bad about the otters, but Tucker told him to shut his fool mouth. Nobody cared what he had to say.
The swamp boat slowed down around otter alley, a stream area where they all had their mud holes. Like they had done before, Jeb dangled down a chunk of candy bar in the water, while Tucker readied his rifle. Jeb didn’t know if the otters liked candy bars, or if they were just curious. It didn’t really matter in either case, ‘cause they were soon dead. Jeb philosophically munched the rest of the candy bar while he flicked the chunk back and forth in the water.
Where are they?” Tucker asked. Usually you could see otters playing in the distance, and it was just a matter of time before they all approached.
“Somebody’s come through here and taken ‘em all!” Tucker shouted. “I told you we should have come with a net!” He swung at Jeb’s head, and Jeb was a little too slow. Tucker’s fingers stung his ear.
Tucker was swearing up a blue streak as he tried to start the engine. “We gotta get to another alley before they’re all gone. And this time, we just keep shooting until I run outta bullets.”
Jeb nodded. He wished he had another candy bar. But the chunk wasn’t too badly soaked. He considered whether he could eat it, but decided Tucker would get even angrier.
Tucker kept heaving on the engine, but it wouldn’t take. He cussed and cussed. If swear words could start engines, then Tucker and Jeb would have ended up on the moon. But instead they just drifted a little. Finally Tucker got down into the water and fished around at the propeller. “What the..?” He pulled up handful after handful of swamp grass wrapped around the propeller. “The thing is tied in place with grass.” Tucker was hauling on the grass when he felt the first brush on his leg. “Jeb, there’s something in the water with me. It’s near my leg. Hand me the rifle really slow-like.”
As Jeb reached out the rifle, Tucker was hauled under the water. It wasn’t just that he sank, or that he disappeared. Jeb could see him thrashing under the water, and being hauled away from the boat at a very respectable speed. When Jeb lost sight of Tucker, he listened. But Tucker never came up for air.
Jeb considered his options. The most dang fool thing he could do would be to stand up in the boat and point the rifle at the water. Anything strong enough to pull Tucker like that was strong enough to tip the boat over and send him into the water. Once he was in the water, there wasn’t much chance he’d come out. So Jeb sat there, one hand on the rifle, the other one holding the side of the boat.
As Jeb looked out at the swamp, he saw someone watching him. Or something. An old otter, all white muzzled, was watching him. Jeb’s fingers itched, but he had just enough sense to think it through. Maybe that otter was the papy of his clan. And maybe the otter clan had figured out what he and Tucker had been doing. And maybe, just maybe, they’d worked together to foul up the boat and take Tucker off.
Jeb hadn’t ever been much of a thinker. But he figured maybe he could take out the papy, and the rest wouldn’t stick together. He shifted the rifle, and felt the whole boat surge. It was like the boat wasn’t really in the water anymore, but held up by something underneath it.
Despite himself, Jeb started trembling. “I give, I give.” He called out to the papy otter. Then he threw the rifle into the swamp and put his hands up. The papy otter’s head disappeared. A few minutes later, Jeb felt the boat drifting free. When he started the engine it started right up. Jeb broke several speed records getting out of there.
Every time some city slickers come down to the swamp thinking about fencing stolen otter fur, Jeb is the first thing they run into. He’ll talk them out of it sometimes, and sometimes he’ll just sell them his boat. Sell them his boat, because he doesn’t rent out boats that don’t come back. About a day or so after, he’ll get in his canoe and paddle out to where the boat is stuck fast with swamp grass. Only when Jeb gets in the boat it drifts free in a couple minutes. Then Jeb will dump buckets of the fish he’s brought into the water and the otters will have a party.
When Jeb dies he’s going to give any money he’s got to get a warden out patrolling the swamp. After all, those poor swamp creatures can’t be expected to defend themselves. Or can they?

Once Upon A Time: The Soldier

A crawling soldier
A crawling soldier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a soldier. He wore a ragged uniform, and he staggered across the desolate landscape littered with shrapnel and corpses.
The soldier had been knocked unconscious by an explosion and struck his head, so it was no wonder that his unit had moved on without him. But he wondered at the silence on the battlefield. How could they have advanced so fast he couldn’t even hear them anymore?
As with any soldier, the soldier moved forward when in doubt. He slid down into the next trench, and suddenly faced an enemy soldier. Gripping empty air, the soldier faced his enemy. Both of them seemed to have left their guns behind them. Both seemed to have head wounds that stained their hair and faces.
Without his gun, the soldier reached for his knife. It too, was missing. He saw the other soldier searching his pockets and then the ground for some sort of weapon. One of them would die this day, somewhere behind the lines of battle.
The soldiers looked all around for a weapon. Seeing nothing, the soldier scrabbled around in the mud beneath his feet. As he saw his enemy do likewise, he hurled a handful of mud at him to distract him. His enemy took the hit squarely in the face and responded with mud of his own. Quickly the two men were pelting each other with mud and laughing. Yes, laughing because their enemy looked so foolish covered with mud.
When they were finished, both men looked at one another. They were panting and exhausted, covered from head to toe in mud. Suddenly it didn’t matter which side they had been on.
The soldier reached out his hand in greeting and said his name. His enemy replied. Both exchanged looks. Neither knew where they were, on which side of the battle lines. The soldier mimicked handcuffs and pointed back and forth between the two of them. “Yes,” said his enemy, “we’ll be each other’s prisoners.”
As the two men advanced toward where they thought the lines should be, they both began to hear the explosions of the front lines. A convoy came by, and it was clear that the soldier’s enemy was winning. He put out his hands to his new friend and together they walked into the headquarters to process him as a prisoner.
After the war, the soldier sought to leave his defeated country and move to his enemy’s country for work. To his surprise, his application was accepted. He had been sponsored by a businessman in the enemy country.
When they greeted each other off the boat, the soldier was only partially surprised to see his enemy. Both of them looked different than they had. The soldier looked poor and his enemy looked wealthy.
It wasn’t until years later and the soldier had learned his new language that he was able to ask: “Why did you sponsor me?” “Because,” said his now longtime friend, “I knew I could trust you with my life.”

One Upon A Time: The Trader

Gourds Français : Cucurbitacées: potirons, gou...
Gourds Français : Cucurbitacées: potirons, gourdes, patissons, etc. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a trader. He worked the spice route, years after Marco Polo. On his travels he met bandits, sandstorms, and all manner of peculiar folk.
One day he was traveling a desolate area when he met an old woman with a basket of dried gourds.

“What are those gourds?”
“They are dreaming gourds,” she replied, and named a price far in excess of anything he would pay.
“I could buy a carpet for that price!” said the man.
“Try a piece,” said the old woman.
The trader took a tiny piece upon his tongue and instantly he was transported to a jungle world full of water and sound. He dismounted his horse to jump in the clear, cool water. But someone was slapping his face. A moment later the trader was back in the desert with the old woman.
“I’ll pay your price,” said the trader. “But I want all the gourds.”
“I will give you all but two for that price,” said the old woman.
The trader took the gourds and returned to his home country. The gourds, sold in tiny pieces, made him rich beyond measure. But eventually the gourds ran out. Suspecting he was hoarding more gourds, other powerful people threatened the trader. One royal family decided he would produce more gourds or die trying.
So the trader set out again on the spice route. He traveled for two years, back and forth, looking for the old woman. His wealth did him little good out in the wastes, and he nearly died several times.
At long last the trader found the old woman and asked to buy more gourds. She showed him that she only had the two left. In despair, he collapsed.
“Eat one,” said the old woman. The trader had never had more than a tiny piece. Together he and the old woman each ate an entire gourd. What happens next is up to your dreams and theirs.

Once Upon A Time: Suzie The Giraffe

English: Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), Mel...
English: Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), Melbourne Zoo, Australia. Français : Girafe, Zoo de Melbourne (Australie). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time there was a giraffe named Suzie who lived on a ranch.

She wasn’t born on a ranch, she was born in the Melbourne zoo, in a pen next to some very loud koalas. But when she was two years old, the Melbourne zoo had decided to ship her to the United States where she was going to be part of an arranged marriage at the San Diego zoo. Enroute her plane had run into trouble. Suzie had been left when the pilot panicked and jumped out of the plane, but on its descent the plane had tipped sideways and Suzie had slid out of the open door in her packing crate and fallen down into a farm.

If she had landed on soil or rock, she would have easily died, but her box punched straight through the barn roof and went down into two stories of loose packed hay. So Suzie’s box had been broken, but she had simply waited for the farmer to come out into the barn and see what in the heck had caused all that ruckus. What he found was a giraffe, eating his hay.

The farmer had no need of a giraffe, but he figured his brother on the ranch might get a kick out of owning a giraffe. Neither one of them knew enough to contact the local news, which had run a three second video of the plane crash site the night before but the farmer had missed it because he’d been out milking. So they just figured the giraffe was theirs to look after.
Suzie trimmed the tree all along the farmer’s yard, and particularly like the green shoots high up. She wandered about with the cattle on the ranch, but never really got the hang of grass. The cows pushed her away, and she felt pretty lonely out on the open fields by herself. Then food got scarce.

The rains didn’t come and the rancher didn’t have the money to fee his herd grain. When that summer the grass went brown and eaten down to the stubs, Suzie showed the cows how to get the leaves from the trees to keep from starving. After that, they accepted her and followed her everywhere. So if you’re driving in backwoods Australia and see a giraffe leading a herd of cows, don’t be too surprised.

Moral: When we don’t fit in, it may be because we’ve got a better way of doing things .