The Tattooed Station Master
mayhem subsided when the train began climbing the Himalayan Mountains. Thomas
enjoyed the freedom of his view through the window, letting his arm dangle over
the windowsill and savoring the breeze that pushed the hair off his forehead.
The train stopped in an endless parade of stops, and at every station, the
General's deputy, a young uniformed apprentice, stepped out to talk to every
stationmaster. From what he could tell watching him, he was a natural. The
deputy had what it took to shoot the breeze with all personality types and
still appear to be having fun. Smiling and with the gift of the gab, he had
excellent rapport with each stationmaster he met. He was a good choice as the
General's mouthpiece and PR man.
with the journey hardly underway, Thomas was already uncomfortable. A
dominating aspect in steerage was the dazed, vacant staring he got from
passengers. With his back against the very corner of the car, he felt as though
he was on display for all the Burmese who had never seen a foreigner before.
But more than this, the rock-hard wooden seats seriously lacking any ingredient
of feng sui cause him the most grief. Finding a comfortable position was
impossible. Trying to convince himself that this was a sacrifice so he could
get an inside glimpse of the inner sanctum of a difficult-to-access country in
the third world and find the sacred stone that had been hidden in this country
waiting for an identical twin to discover, Thomas feared he was actually
participating in a domestic black op with a General who had befriended him. He
popped another betel nut and moved uncomfortably on the wooden seat, unable to
alleviate the pain in his ass.
each stop, kids swarmed the cars scavenging for food passengers have left
behind, no matter how small. Aggressive, loud, and high on betel juice, they
were the opposite of meek.
after a few hours along the milk run, the train stopped and a stationmaster
entered the car to inspect and to ask for tickets. His forearms were completely
tattooed with black markings and symbols, as was his chest that Thomas could
see under his open shirt. When he saw the bags of coal, he pointed at them
demanding an answer. The General explained about the coal but the stationmaster
exercised his seniority over the General and shook his head, not accepting the
line the General fed him. When the General spoke again, the stationmaster
raised his voice, gesturing at the hidden booty under the seats. His anger
showed. That was when Sergeant Betel Nut spoke up, offering another explanation
to quell the standoff, but this time the stationmaster reacted angrily by
raising his voice another octave and jumping on top of the bags that obstructed
the aisle. He took his pad and paper and jotted down notes, showing a fair dose
of courage and causing the General to sink low in his seat and remain quiet.
Clearly, the shipment of coal was illegal.
this point all the passengers in the car fell silent. Then, just as the
stationmaster was finishing his tirade, the General had his most classic
moment. Clear as day in his booming voice, the General's two-word comment
caused almost everyone in the boxcar to laugh. The tension, which had been so
thick only a second before, dissipated in an instant. For an intense moment the
tattooed stationmaster didn't stand down but it was clear that whatever he said
now, nothing could be done. Any authority he thought he had was nothing in the
face of the General and his uniformed posse. Realizing he was facing a larger
and more powerful adversary, he bowed down and left the train. The boys beamed
at their Lord and Master, who had the power and backbone to overcome and defeat
this pencil-neck administrator so they could complete their task.
Soon the boys were back in a
frenzy, preparing to unload their stolen plunder. Now in the flush of night the
betel-chewing fraternity of young men, Thomas included, hit their frenzied
peak. There was an unmistakable bluster of testosterone-fuelled Burmese
soldiers spitting betel juice as they swaggered over the bags of coal. Laughter
heightened to a feverish pitch, there was an element of maudlin that revealed
cracks of immaturity. With teeth stained as red as theirs, Thomas thought of
helping them with the bags, but the hysterical moments in the ebb and flow of
semi-rational men-boys made him think twice about putting himself in harm's
That being said, with no
lights in steerage and with it way after dark, it was Thomas who held candles
as his teammates piled the bags up by the door so they could push the coal out
quickly and undetected at the next step. Holding up two candles in the
pitch-dark so they could see was the least he could do for the boys and the
General to accomplish their illegal operation and be paid their rightful share.
They were the sons of military commanders in a country run by the military and
where law didn't really exist, at least to this roaming tribe of soldiers. At
that moment he felt safe and secure knowing the General had his back. The irony
wasn't lost on him that he was safer breaking the law being an accomplice in
the coal heist than to not be, in this land where the military was the
Besides, standing there with the candles in
his hands sure beat sitting on the wooden seat.
train station they approached was on the Irrawaddy River, a strategic location
because it was the only place where the railway crossed the river in the north.
With separatist insurgencies still armed and active in the area, the Than
Regime protected this bridge as if gold. It was the outer boundary of Burma
proper over 1000km from Rangoon before crossing into the unsettled and hostile
north. With such agitation in play, the long-stretching bridge was heavily
guarded with lookout towers on both sides of the river, pillboxes poised on
both flanks of the bridge.
at Moguaung train station, a great fury of unloading commenced despite the fact
that the other half the car was trying to sleep. Being part of the team, Thomas
remained on candle duty. The General stepped off the train with his deputy and
disappeared into a darkened café adjoining the station, as a flurry of movement
in the dark loaded the unaccounted-for bags of coal off the train on the other
side of the tracks. Standing there with candles in his hands giving his team
members the light they needed to get the job done, the military presence was
palpable in Moguaung. Sergeant Betel Nut in his element, they didn't have the
same amount of time at this stop as they did when they first loaded the bags,
so the voices were louder and the commands crisper. Very quickly the bags piled
up right outside the entrance of the compartment but it didn't seem to matter;
they just wanted the bags off the car regardless of how neat the pile was.
few minutes later, the General appeared just under his window where Thomas saw
the General take out a large wad of bills and give a fair slice of the profit
to his uniformed deputy. With the bags now out of the car, Sergeant Betel Nut
lit a cigarette and talked briefly to the General, who handed his sergeant an
even bigger wad of bills. When they separated, the General retired quietly to
his seat, literally merging into the darkness.
just as the train was about to depart, a large man with a drunken gait walked
out of the café where the General had been and yelled out with authority
towards the General's seat. Because he was hunched down and now incognito, the
General didn't answer. The uniformed deputy appeared beside him and said
something to the drunken man to quell his anger but it was met with another
ejaculation of words. He stubbornly pressed for a reply but was met with the
same silence. The deputy then said the right thing that caused the drunken man
to turn his attention away from the General altogether and accept a cigarette
from the deputy. Being right there, it had all the makings of something ugly.
The General had chosen his uniformed deputy well.
the passengers had closed their windows so the night air of the Himalayas made
the steerage compartment as cold as a refridgerator as the train climbed
farther north. Despite the severe pain of his ass from sitting, Thomas dozed
off. When he awoke he was frozen to the bone, with his neighbor fully sprawled
on his shoulder and legs asleep. They arrived at the end of the line at the wee
hours of the morning.