The railroad ran beside the house and barn, out on the north side of the small town. It was the era of steam engines. The southbound trains always stopped there and the engine disconnected and went downtown to refill the boilers and coal tender. Then the engine reclaimed its cars and moved off.
It was the time of WWII and all the trains were loaded with troops and military equipment.
The boy had been watching these trains for months. This day he sat by the barn with his Red Rider BB gun across his lap and stared at a tank on a flat car. He had heard the adults saying that the war seemed to be lasting forever. That seemed to suggest that eventually, he was going to need to go to war. If that were the case then it would make sense for him to know more about things like tanks.
He knew that the engine wouldn’t return for at least another half-hour. Plenty of time to explore that tank. So, he propped his bb gun against the barn, scampered up the grading to the flat-car and clambered up to the tank. He was making his way up to the top of the tank when a man said, “Well my young friend, what are you doing on that tank?” The boy could tell he was a sergeant by the stripes on the sleeves of his uniform.
The boy explained his logic and the sergeant scratched his head, sat the boy down beside the tank and squatted next to him. “I understand you wanting to be ready to join the army when the time comes, but that is a long way off yet and the tanks of today won’t be like the tanks then. So, you probably are not going to learn much that will be of use to you by examining this tank. I’ll make a deal with you. If you promise not to get on any trains from now on, I’ll give you my chocolate bar.”
Now candy was a rarity in those times as sugar and chocolate were simply not available to the public. So, the sergeant’s offer sounded like a deal to the boy, so he promised. The sergeant took him back to the side of the barn, gave him the candy and walked down the track to one of the troop cars. Shortly afterward the engine returned and the boy saw the sergeant waving as the train pulled away.
The sergeant is, of course, dead by now, if not by war then by old age. He probably never thought much about the boy as he lived out his life. He never knew what a profound impact that he had on the boy.
From that day on for the rest of my youth, I gave up the dream of being a cowboy like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or the Lone Ranger. I just wanted to be an army sergeant, saving small boys from themselves and passing out chocolate bars.