The Tower

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Chapter 6

Before I could really say anything (I was tongue-tied, so it might have actually been a while) there was a knock at the bedroom door. It started creaking open before either of us could answer, like it always did, and Mom poked her face through the opening.

She tried to put on a brave, almost cheerful, face, but it lasted only a few seconds before she burst into tears and ran up to me, hugging me as tight as she could manage. Her tears were all it took for Jenny to start crying and lean over to hug me from the other side. I felt grateful and guilty all at once.

"I've always told that I would love you no matter what." She held my face cupped in her hands. "If you're going to be a climber, then I will be proud of you as a climber. But you be the best climber there is." She looked me in the eyes, fighting back more tears. "I raised you to always do your best, and to never quit. And that is what I expect from you now."

"Yes, Ma'am"

"I love you, Rock." She pushed me back after I told her I loved her too. "I'm going to give you some privacy so you can say goodbye to your wife." She kept a strong, stoic face as she left the room.

"Should I walk you to the station?" Jenny stood and took my hands in hers.

"I think it's better if we say goodbye here. Probably reporters at the station, and I don't think you're really ready for an interview."

We mumbled that we loved each other and I told her everything was OK, and that I would do my best to get to the top and that we would raise our baby in the city, but it was mostly lies. I did love her, but everything was not ok. I didn't think I stood a chance of reaching the top of the tower, and I still didn't even know if that was what I wanted.

I packed the extra clothes into the bag that Jenny had prepared for me, kissed Mom and Jenny, and walked to the train station. Mom and Jenny stayed on the porch, crying and waving. Other neighbors were standing outside, watching me go by. A few of them shouted out things like good luck, but I think most of them just looked at me and thought 'Dead man walking'.

This was my first trip on a train. Given the limited number of cars in our town, and the fact that not just me, but anyone driving me would need clearance for each of the checkpoints along the way, traveling by rail was pretty much the only option. With the trains, you only had to clear 2 checkpoints - one when you got on and one when you got off. I wasn’t sure how many checkpoints there were on the roads between here and Chicago, but I had ridden along on a trip to Fort Atkinson once, and there had been three stops along the way.

The soldiers at the gate checked my clearance papers and showed me to the platform. I found it a bit funny that there was such security for the passenger cars, but grain elevators were loading automatically all the time, and nobody ever checked us when we unloaded steers or loaded milk. Even if a criminal were to somehow make his way onto the train, there were always a handful of armed soldiers riding.

This was one of the last stops on the train route before heading in to Chicago. I wondered if there would be any other climbers on the train, or if it would be just me and the soldiers.

The train had four sets of four seats with a table in the middle on the left side, and four sets of two on the right. Seated directly in front of the door was a soldier who hopped up and stood at the door as it opened.

“Show me your ticket.” There was no seat number on the ticket, but the soldier looked at it and directed me to the nearest set of four seats, two of which were occupied. “Bag.” Jenny had packed some sandwiches in the bag for the trip, but I wasn’t really hungry, so I handed it over. I found it odd that the middle two sets of seats were kept empty while the table I was being seated at and the far table were both pretty much full, but I wasn’t about to question the soldier’s directions. I grabbed the packet that the captain had delivered the night before from the front pocket and handed the bag over.

Seated in front of me was a young officer with a medical corps patch on his arm. He didn’t seem as gung-ho as the soldier who had seated me and smiled as I sat down.

“How’s it going?” He smiled and extended his hand for me to shake. “Eric Spencer.”

“Richard.” I took his hand. He had a firm grasp and looked me in the eyes as he shook.

“Pleased to meet you, Richard. This is Charlie.” He gestured to the boy sitting next to me. “He’s a climber, like you.” I wasn’t sure if the medic thought that that was supposed to make me feel a sudden kinship with the boy, who seemed indifferent to me. He didn’t look that eager to shake hands, so I just nodded.

Eric was a friendly person. He had sandy hair that was a bit long for a soldier, but I imagined that the medical corps had different rules about things like that. He looked at me so intensely for a moment that it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. His blue eyes stared, unblinking.

“Is something wrong?” I tried to be as polite as I could.

“Nah,” he said simply. “You’re the fifth climber I’ve met. You’re a bit older than the others.”

I looked at Charlie for help. But he had turned his face to look out the window and left me to deal with Eric alone.

Your turn, his back seemed to tell me.

“He doesn’t talk much.” Eric didn’t seem irritated by Charlie’s lack of conversation. It seemed like he was used to talking at people. “He got on in Minnesota. Couldn’t get a job at the weapons factory in Lindstrom, so he joined the climb. What’s your story?”

Charlie had the window, and I wasn’t going to stare at the soldier across the aisle, so I resigned myself to talking to Eric. After a few minutes, I realized that he wasn’t actually that big of a talker, just starved for company. He’d gotten on the train in Montana over 30 hours ago. After a full day with only the silent soldiers who switched out at stops every so often for company, he got Charlie, who was not interested in talking, and the prisoners, who were not allowed.

The soldiers sat facing each other along the right side. Sometimes they would talk amongst themselves, but they didn’t engage those of us on the left. Even Eric’s occasional attempts at conversation went unanswered. The two closest to the doors had a deck of cards that they would take out between stops, but they always had them put away well before each station, and were standing at attention as the doors opened.

Just after we had crossed into Illinois, one of the soldiers offered me a bottle of water. I thanked him, and accepted it. It was a bit of a curiosity to me. I had heard that in the city people paid for water in bottles, but couldn’t believe it. I mean, you can pump the stuff out of the ground.

“I’d like a bottle of water.” It was the first time I’d heard any talking from the far set of seats. I soon found out why.

“How would you like a bottle of Ass-whipping?” The soldier sitting at the far end put down his magazine and stood up. “I told you to shut your mouths.” He looked over at the soldier handing the three of us at our bottles and smiled. “Toss me one.”

Catching the bottle in his left hand, he held it above the table and squeezed until it burst, spraying himself and the three unfortunate men sitting there.

“There’s your water.” He laughed angrily. “Now I don’t want to hear another word until we get to Chicago!” As he sat back down, he looked over at our end of the car. “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to pee.” He rolled his eyes and returned to his magazine.

“Convict climbers.” Eric whispered as if he were sharing a big secret.

I wasn’t really prepared for the big city. I had heard stories growing up about what the world was like when there was electricity everywhere. How it was just as bright at night as it was during the daytime, and the streets were always packed with cars. I expected the city to be lavish and extravagant, but the level at which these people seemed to take everything for granted and waste what they had, while those of us not lucky enough to be citizens went without, was appalling.

As the train pulled in to Chicago, I noticed a number of men standing on the platform, each holding name placards. These were, no doubt, to be our guides over the next two days of preparations. After searching for a few minutes, I finally found my placard, being held by a skinny man in a grey suit.

Actually, to say he was skinny would be an understatement. It wasn’t just a small waist and narrow face. This man appeared to be almost completely devoid of muscle. I marveled that his shriveled arms could even hold up my placard.

The soldiers gave me my bag and wished me luck, and I was escorted to my guide.

“Mr. Haversham, I presume.” He was so tall and skinny, and the way he leaned forward and peered at me over his glasses, I half expected him to say his name was Ichabod Crane. “I am Jeremy Guttenberg, and I have the distinct honor of being your guide during the welcoming.”

There was definite sarcasm in his voice, and his eyes did a long, slow, roll as he said ‘distinct honor’. I wasn’t sure if that was directed toward me, or just the event, but I was pretty sure I didn’t like him. I couldn’t believe that this was the same man who had sent me the welcome packet.

He walked with a quick awkward gait. If anybody back home walked like that, people would wonder if he’d gotten a cob lost while wiping country-style. It wasn’t hard to keep up with him, but as we came out of the hallway into the main hall of union station, I couldn’t bring my feet to keep up.

The majesty of this one great room was unimaginable. This was easily 5 times bigger than any dairy barn I had ever been in. The marble floors shone so brightly that the Corinthian columns and vaulted skylight, at least a hundred feet high if it was an inch, were reflected below. In the archways above, Long Flowing banners bore the message, “Welcome Climbers.”

On both sides of the hall, spectators had lined up to see this year’s climbers. There was some clapping, and a lot of picture taking, sometimes with cameras built into phones so small that they would fit into your pocket. I had seen soldiers with these before, but had always assumed they were military technology.

Mr. Guttenberg was unimpressed. He turned my attention to the large clock in the center of the hall.

“Look at the time,” He urged in his strange nasal voice. I wondered, at first, if all city people spoke like that, but a quick shifting of attention showed that this was not the case. “Do you want to be late?”

I wasn’t too concerned about the time. I figured this was going to be a one way trip, so I should take in all the sights I could along the way. It seemed I was not alone in this, as the other climbers had also stopped to look around. While my guide seemed in a rush to get where we were going, some of the other climbers’ guides were explaining the architecture, or pointing out interesting features in the room.

I wondered how I had ended up with such an unfriendly guide, but I assumed it was because I had signed up so late. It was obvious that he didn’t enjoy being a guide. My joining at the last moment had probably pulled him away from some other job that he enjoyed.

As we gathered together and started heading for the door, I saw the convict climbers that had ridden with us on the train being led by a group of soldiers out of the station. They had merged with a group from another train, and were all linked together by a thin chain that ran from each convict’s handcuffs to a belt on the convict in front of him.

“I thought the convicts who signed up for the climb all got pardons.” We watched them march by, single-file. “Why are they still chained up?”

My guide, Guttenberg, didn’t bother responding, but one of the other guides who had heard the question explained it to me.

“Convicts who sign up for the tower have their original sentences commuted, but are officially given a death sentence in its place. That sentence is automatically pardoned on the day of the climb once they begin the walk to the tower. Because they are death-row inmates until the climb actually begins, they are still kept in high security. As such, they don’t enjoy the status of regular climbers or get access to things like sponsors, but each of them climbs the tower as a free man, with no criminal history on his record. Most of them don’t really hope to reach the top, but it’s a way for them to die an honorable death and clear their family name at the same time.” Satisfied that he had answered my question fully, he looked around the group to see if anybody else had questions. There were none, and Guttenberg seemed annoyed by the entire process.

“Let’s keep moving, everybody.”

Mr. Guttenberg pressed forward, telling me our car was waiting. When we left the station, what was waiting for us beside the curb seemed as big as a bus. We climbed into the limousine along with 3 other pairs of climbers and guides.

“How far is it to the hotel?” the young man sitting next to me asked his guide, who seemed a lot more friendly than Guttenberg.

“About ten minutes,” his guide pointed out the window. “It’s just over there.”

“Why didn’t we just walk?” I couldn’t believe the amount of laziness. Back home we would pretty much walk everywhere, unless the destination was more than a mile or we were hauling goods. Here was a car full of young men who were supposed to be in prime physical condition, but they were driving us to a hotel like celebrities when it seemed that walking would have been faster.

“We’re climbers, not walkers.” The climber sitting across from me smiled sardonically. He was young. He looked more like a boy than a man, but he seemed less bewildered by the wonders of the city and the tower than the rest of us. “Kris Donner.” He smiled and offered his hand.

Charlie, who had been so sullen and quiet during the train ride, suddenly became very animated. He pressed his face to the glass of the window, craning to look upward. Backing up so that everyone could see, he pointed.

“Jesus, would you look at that!” And there it was, right in front of us. The tower. It was a giant, black, monster of a building. And while all of the other buildings nearby faded somewhat softly into the haze of the evening, the tower seemed to carve itself out of the darkness into existence. The black glass shone white with lights from inside, while the upper floors were reaching for the last colors of sunset.

As the limousine wound its way to the hotel, we were all transfixed by the tower. I found it hard to believe that we lived in a world where men could build something so majestic, but couldn’t build hospitals in the countryside, or supply enough electricity to run them even if they did.

“I never expected it to be so beautiful.” The young man next to me stared in awe. “I’m Drew, by the way. Just got in from Tennessee.” He seemed the likable sort. He was a bit younger than me, but it seemed like I was a bit older than most climbers. I was definitely the oldest in the car, probably older than a few of the guides.

“Richard. Wisconsin,” I said as he shook my hand. “It is a beautiful building. Are they still putting up the ladders? I can only see them on one side.”

“The ladders are only on the west side,” Guttenberg said simply.

“Oh, I guess I just kind of thought they’d be all the way around it.”

“West side is the only side that goes all the way up,” Kris said matter-of-factly, “And even then only the middle section.” Unlike me, he obviously knew a lot about the tower and what was in store for us. I was beginning to wonder what I was doing here, a simple 28 year old farmhand trying to compete with a bunch of eighteen year olds, some of whom had obviously been preparing for a long time.

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