Zing! Off went the penny on its’ unpredictable flight into somewhere. Probably the woods.
Frank and I had found that, as often as not, the penny we put on the track would be flicked off with scorn by the passing wheels of the train. On those few lucky times, the steel wheel would mash it to the steel rail and the result would be a really flattened penny. Whenever that miracle occurred, if it was Frank’s penny, he would hold it up and loudly proclaim, “A penny for my grave!”
I asked him once what that was all about and he explained that he had heard they put a penny on each eye of dead people. Since a penny seemed too small to cover an eye, he figured these flattened pennies should do the job better. That was when we were kids.
Our house was off through the woods several hundred feet, but my brother Frank, who was a year younger than I, often came to the tracks with me. It was a quiet place and there were always a few good, shiny rocks to be found alongside the track. Rocks to add to my own collection.
Since we were so close in age, we were also close in spirit. It seemed that, as playmates, we liked a lot of the same things. We saw things a lot the same way. And, we both liked the feeling there along the tracks and between the tall forest on either side. If you looked off into the distance where the track went, the tall trees seemed to close right in until there seemed hardly anywhere way down there for the train to get through. Standing on the track, looking ahead or behind, it was the same. Straight for as far as the eye could see.
There were only four trains that came through each day. That meant it was a pretty safe place to play. The sound they made and the vibration on the track always gave us plenty of warning to get away from the tracks before a train came along. It also meant that we were offered few chances, if we had a penny, to try to smash one beneath the train wheels.
We grew up there. A year after Frank was out of high school, we both agreed to join the service. If we got drafted, we rationalized, there was no telling where we’d be sent. But, we thought that, by volunteering, we could spend the two years together. That’s not the way it turned out. They had rules against having two members of the same family in the same battalion or on the same ship. That put a wrinkle in our plans.
Then, we decided we should think more of doing what we each liked while in the military. Frank had become a ham radio operator and a nut for electronic gadgets. This was just when home computers were first being developed. It only figured he should sign up and go for becoming a radioman. Besides, that should be a safe field. Me, I liked figuring out how to build things. Eventually, I joined the Seabees. I wouldn't be on the front lines, either. We both expected an interesting tour of duty. It was agreed. We’d each do our two year stint, then meet back here and see what our lives held for us. The future looked promising.
The Construction Battalion went in first and built bridges, runways and living quarters for the first wave of military to arrive at new sites. That had well suited my need for building things.
Our two years were nearly up. Time had passed so fast. It wouldn’t be long before Frank and I would be back home. He wrote now and then to the folks and I had done the same. That way, any news either of us had could come back to the other from the letters Mom sent to each of us. Things had gone smoothly for us both on this first great leap away from home.
I had been in a few close scrapes, but nothing I hadn’t survived uninjured. The time had flown and, toward the end of the tour, I was beginning to put together some thoughts on what I would do with my life once this was behind me.
Since several major companies were by then using computers, Frank had decided to use the chance to get some schooling at the expense of Uncle Sam toward the eventual job in computer technology. Myself, I realized I would need to do some fancy financing, but I hoped to use my savings and start up a construction business after I returned home.
When I had only a scant two months to go and Frank expected to finish his two years in less than three weeks, the captain pulled me into his office. I was needed at home. Transportation was already arranged and I was to grab my duffel bag and be at the strip for a flight home within the hour.
Looking down the track to where the sound of an oncoming train grew louder by the second, I glanced back at the rail nearby. If I had learned anything when we were kids, it was how to balance a penny on those tracks. Mine gleamed where it lay on the steel. I waited. This time I held a pocket full of pennies, unlike when we had been kids. However, the trains still made few passes each day. I didn’t have the time to stay here for the next train.
What I needed now was my second flattened penny of the day.
The next day was to be Franks’ funeral. A freak ammunitions explosion had cut short the life of my younger brother. Instead of returning to a promising future, Frank had been brought home in a box with an escort.
Mom and Dad would never understand my actions. But, I knew what Frank would want.
And, it was up to me now to provide - pennies for his grave.
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