My ex father-in-law, Clayton Hooker, was somewhat of an imposing man, very outspoken, but very down to earth.
Clayton was from Kentucky…not white fenced, rolling hills, horse farm Kentucky, mind you. Clayton was from Harlan County, Kentucky…backwoods, coal mining, “you’ll never leave Harlan alive” Kentucky.
He died in his sleep one afternoon, alone on his couch. I knew he’d been sick, but no one knew he’d been that sick. It was such a shock. It just didn’t feel like his time.
I remember the day we laid him to rest back home in Harlan. I sat behind his grieving daughters, and I could hear him speaking in my head. I wondered if it was because he always seemed to be speaking when I was around him, but then my brother-in-law leaned over and said, “Man! It’s strange! I can hear him speaking.”
That should have been a clue that he hadn’t really left us yet.
As we drove to the cemetery, we travelled along beside one of the trains hauling coal from the mines. It seemed as sad and burdened as we were. The road in that valley stretched on so far.
Oncoming drivers pulled over out of respect. People don’t do that in Indianapolis. Everyone seems too busy here.
My ex-wife, Debbie, had the task of going through her father’s possessions. Clayton was a permanent fixture at the local flea markets, and he’d shown me a few of his proud finds from time to time. I remember how uneducated I was about the value of certain things. He asked me once, “You mean you don’t know more about diamonds than that?”
After cleaning out her fathers things, Debbie came home with a plastic, battery operated toy train set Clayton had found at a flea market. It was still in the box and seemed in good condition, so Clayton was understandably disappointed to find it didn’t work. He had wanted to give it to my son, Ben. He set it aside to be fixed, but he never got the chance.
Home in Our Loft
At the time, our little family of three was living in a loft apartment that had 16 foot ceilings.
There was a ledge along the loft. I took a couple of straight pieces of track, lined them up along the ledge, and placed all the cars there on the track.
I remembered Clayton whenever I’d look up at it and would think about how sad it was that he was never able to give it to Ben. I wonder now if that train reminded Clayton of those Harlan County coal trains.
One day I decided to try to fix it. I put new batteries in both the engine and the wireless remote control…nothing. I scraped the battery terminals…nothing. Nothing I tried seemed to work.
Then it dawned on me; I would bypass the electronics and wire the motor directly to the batteries. I’d install a push button switch to turn it off and on. I switched the train off and went out to Radio Shack to get the parts. I didn’t want to jury rig the thing, but I wanted it to work.
A Chilling Homecoming
I will never forget the three of us walking through the front door that day. There was a loud noise, a train noise. It’s odd when you’re walking into a situation that isn’t right. You know it’s wrong, and it’s creepy, but you don’t know why.
I looked up on the ledge and there was the train. It was switched on and, smoke was coming out of its smoke stack. (I didn’t even know it blew smoke.) It had hit the metal railing and couldn’t go farther but not for a lack of effort; it was just chugging away.
I slowly climbed the steps. I was shaken. I knew I’d turned the thing off before we left, and I knew it wasn’t working. I picked up the engine. It was switched on. I turned it off.
“Okay,” I thought, “it’s a loose connection, or maybe it needed to warm up. I’ll turn it back on, and it will start working again.”
I switched it back on. It did not come back on. I messed with it some more…nothing.
The End of the Line
I thought to myself, “Clayton, you fixed it.”
I decided not to modify the train. Fact is, I was actually afraid of that toy after that.
I put it back in the box. I don’t know what became of it after that.
I like to think that Clayton was thinking of his grandson, and wanted us to know he was still around.
What is it about ghosts and trains?