Stranger on a Train
Christopher Caldwell's near-miss with destiny
Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
A few weeks ago the Times Literary Supplement ran a photograph of the grisliest act of violence in Italy since World War II—Italy’s equivalent of our own September 11 attacks. In 1980 a shadowy group of homegrown terrorists planted a time bomb in the waiting room of the Bologna Central station. When it went off at 10:25 a.m., the roof collapsed on bystanders. The blast cut through people standing on the platform and blew apart much of a nearby train. Eighty-five dead, hundreds wounded. The TLS photo was, I assume, taken from inside that train after the dead and wounded were carried out. It shows one seat ripped from a wall by the force of the blast and a mush of gore and glass everywhere else. The caption reads: “Bologna Central station, August 2, 1980.” For me, the date conjures up a teenage summer, and not in any vague way. I know exactly where I was and what I was doing that Saturday morning when the bomb went off: I was on a train approaching Bologna Central station.
Bologna Central station, August 2, 1980
“Bumming around” was the verb everyone used for what I was doing in Europe that summer. (“Your dad tells me you’re gonna bum around on a Eurail Pass,” a neighbor would say.) I would occasionally sleep in an overnight train to save youth-hostel money, and no longer remember where my train was coming from that morning. Probably Florence but it could have been Ferrara.
The train squeaked to an unexplained stop alongside a highway with woods behind it. Nothing odd about that. Italy in 1980 was a place where, as Tom Waits sang in a different context, no one speaks English and everything’s broken. But when the train didn’t move for an hour or so, I figured I would hitchhike. “To hell with this,” I said to the other passengers in my compartment, confident they wouldn’t understand me. I dropped my duffel out the open window onto the track and climbed down after it.
The driver who picked me up was a Mormon—that was the first thing he told me. He had been converted by a missionary. It was in hopes of practicing his English that he had stopped for me in the first place. That’s the kind of kid I was at age 18. You could tell I was an American at 500 yards’ distance going 70 miles an hour.
“Our train station blows,” he said. I was tempted to commiserate (“You should see ours!”), but he flicked his fingers away from the steering wheel and said, “Pooh!” to indicate an explosion.
I assumed this was another part of that infinity of facts about European history that I didn’t know but ought to. “When?” I asked, expecting a date from Mussolini’s regime or the wars of Italian unification.
“This morning. I show.” He took us over a bridge. We could look down the rail line to where people were milling about on the tracks. Then he drove me on to a youth hostel, I forget where. Probably Bologna but it could have been Ferrara.
Every now and then, when I read about the Bologna attack in a magazine or a book, I consider how odd it is that I was so close to it. But years go by when I don’t think about that at all. In fact, had it not been for the fluke of meeting an English-speaker, I might, to this day, have remained ignorant that any train station blew up that summer in Italy at all. I thought of this last winter when I read in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five of the 16-year-old German conscript who guards the hero, Billy Pilgrim, an imprisoned U.S. Army private: “He, Werner Gluck, was tall and weak like Billy, might have been a younger brother of his. They were, in fact, distant cousins, something they never found out.”
I bring up this episode not because it made me wonder but because it didn’t. The only thing it makes me wonder now is what we’re looking for when we embark on life. For all my talk about “bumming around,” I did not think I was engaging in tourism that summer in Italy. I had a young man’s adamantine conviction that I was on a quest for my destiny. But how petty, provincial, and dogmatic my idea of destiny was. It involved alcohol, chasing girls, and dreams of being a writer, pretty much in that order. I had a small-minded check-off list of art museums, good local drinks, and shrines to The Sun Also Rises.
In the middle of this youthful bout of solipsism-masquerading-as-curiosity, I walked straight into the cockpit of history—and, when I discovered the cockpit of history did not serve beer, walked incuriously back out. I have still never really been to Bologna, even though only a couple minutes separate me from having had my name engraved on the wall of its train station forever.
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