"Whistle Stop"

By David Perlmutter
Jan 14, 2020 · 1,739 words · 7 minutes

WHISTLE STOP                                                                                                                   1728 words

 By David Perlmutter                                                   


     From THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, September 15, 2024:

        WINNIPEG (CP): While it might surprise some people to know it, there was a time when Union Station, the grand edifice at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway in our fair city, was an actual working depot for trains, and not the cheap place to rent rooms in when you needed space for your events it has sadly become in the 21st century. Those people would have had a taste of what that era must have been like had they happened to be there yesterday, when the CRA Express stopped to refuel for the next leg of its cross-Canada voyage, and the highly unique passengers were able to circulate amongst the somewhat shocked crowd of on-lookers freely and without the kind of prejudice they have often encountered in the United States as of late. This reporter- whom, it is no secret to know, is an admirer of the art of animation- was particularly grateful to witness an actual appearance of these figures in his home town.

     For it should be known that CRA stands for Cartoon Republican Army, that often misunderstood organization that has been somewhat mislabelled as a “terrorist” organization by the American government. And the members, the train’s passengers, were bona fide animated cartoon characters straight from the screens of the various electronic televisual appliances we peruse on a regular basis.

    To say nothing of the train itself.

   It was extremely retrograde in its exterior design, resembling one of the old-fashioned “rattlers” made famous by the media of the previous century. A compact, steel-girded engine with a genuine cow-catcher at the front, several spacious boxcars (without any freight) and a number of passenger carrying vehicles, including a working restaurant and quite a few spaciously appointed Pullman berths, that would astonish those who are more familiar with the unglamorous, lengthy monstrosities that regularly and unpleasantly interrupt our commutes every day by coming unscheduled and at inopportune times down the tracks from the North End depot. There was even a caboose at the end!

  Yet it had the appearance of a two-dimensional drawing of a train, rather than a genuine three-dimensional train of our world. This was all fine, considering its occupants gave off much the same appearance: solidly three-dimensional to some vantage points, but less so at others. And, despite the retrograde appearance, it was a modern construction in terms of its locomotion. Instead of steam produced by coal, this machine was constructed on the same diesel-burning framework as any other machine now travelling the rails.

 I got a better picture of the how and the why of this peculiar enterprise when I was introduced to the engineer and driving force behind the excursion, Colonel Sheldon Lee, who is the head of the CRA’s strategic weapons and tactics division, and he gave me a sense of what was going on.

“Given the type of work you do,” he said- referring to my previous reportage on the heated conflict between humans and animated characters within the United States-“you have some idea of what we’ve been up against the last little while.”

“Certainly,” I agreed.

“Well, then. I don’t have to explain to you about how hard they’ve been going against us in Washington. Especially since that blankety-blank Trump got elected to another term. He wouldn’t have been so lucky if we were able to vote.”

“Because you’re Democrats. Right?” I asked.

“Largely. There are some who are further left, and some even are on the right, believe it or not. But that’s neither here nor there. You came about the train, and I need to tell you about it.”

“Go ahead.”

“We needed to have some inexpensive way to promote our cause. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this kind of stuff costs a lot of money, doesn’t it? Not if you do it in a cost-conscious way.” He put his hand on the engine as he said this, and, miraculously, he wasn’t burned by the large amount of heat it gave off. “To begin with, where we come from, we can make anything a reality, can’t we?”

I nodded in agreement.

“So, if the weird bunch of us that came out of where we came from can be drawn into life, why not do the same thing to a train? It would cost us a lot less to draw it into life than manufacture a real one. That convinced my superiors when I presented the idea to them. We’ve been doing too much trying to be like you, and making stuff the way you would. Why not concentrate on what we can do on our own terms? So I went ahead and took some old drawings of trains from some old models, and traced over them onto paper, and we had a working train. No matter that it had no depth to it, like you always say is our biggest drawback. It’s still real- just like you and I are. We believe in it because it’s presented to us as real- suspension of disbelief and all that. The real problem is trying to get people who don’t believe we’re real to start doing so, and you know who they are.”

“But why would you use a train to promote your cause?” I asked.

“That’s what they asked me about when I had the idea,” he said, confidently, “and I’ll give you the same justifications I did them. In the first place, you can cover more ground on a train than you can with an airplane. With an airplane, you just fly over the land from one place or another and you’re there. With a train, you actually interact with the people and the land. The land makes you work to get where you’re going on a train. It’s astonishing when you think about how much manpower was used to create railroad lines, and the geographical difficulties the people building those lines encountered. Here in Canada in particular, as we saw with our own eyes.

“Another thing is that we honor our heritage this way. At least, in the case of one of the great movers and shakers in our business in particular. Walt Disney himself was crazy about trains. Nearly as much as he was about bringing people like us to life. He had the staff of his studio construct a model train for his house, and he helped build the thing with his own hands. Then, when he constructed Disneyland, he had another model railroad built that circles the whole place. That’s how much he believed in trains and what they can do to make people think you know what you’re doing.

“But it’s mostly that we needed to get our message across by the convenient means of whistle stops like these. The majority of the CRA members are people like me, who were second-string supporting characters on our shows that casual viewers never really gave more than a moment’s notice to, if they did at all. Yes, the stars are involved, especially those from TV, where I’m out of, but there’s a lot more of us than there are of them. And we, unlike them, can circulate more easily amongst you. So that’s mostly who’s with me on this trip, and we’re the ones trying to convince you that we’re real people with real lives and not the glossy fakes the politicians would have you believe we are.”

“Okay,” I interjected. “But why Canada and not the United States? Isn’t it there that you need to convince the people more?”

“Because we can’t afford that kind of risk there, especially not now,” he said, with less jauntiness than before. “You know what a train with CRA people all over it would be to the American military? A moving target, and an easy one at that. Besides: do you know how much of a patchwork quilt the American railroad system is, and always has been? Private interests butting up against each other and getting in each other’s business all the time. It’s been like that ever since the first railroads were built in America in the 1870s. Even if we were able to find one railroad that supported us, it would butt into the lines of another one that hated us. And, if the Feds were able to catch us while the two railroads dickered about whether to let us go ahead or not, it’d be all over for us in a heartbeat.

“Now, you guys dealt with the railroad situation in a smart way. Your government underwrote the construction of the lines and reserved the best spots on the line for itself. Your railroads are constructed logically, with stops in both big and small places all across the line, and places like these that show how you respected the passengers on trains back when there were more of them. Also, right now your people in Ottawa show our cause more respect than they ever will in Washington. That hasn’t always been the case, especially when you had a hard right government a few years ago. But right now they understand, and they understood when we said we wanted to make a cross-Canada Vancouver-to-Halifax run, like the trains did in the old days. They said go ahead: it’d be good publicity for both you and us. And it has been.  The best part of it all is that the Americans can’t touch us while we’re here, otherwise Canada will tell on them to the UN. So, as long as we don’t do anything illegal here, we’re safe.”

He was interrupted by one of his associates, who told him it was time to leave. So he turned up the collar of his red jacket and prepared to depart.

“Sorry we can’t hang out here longer- this is a nice place,” he said. “But we’re wanted in Ottawa. The Prime Minister awaits to fete us in style. Which me and most of the crowd aren’t used to, so I really gotta install the ol’ protocol into ‘em. You understand.”

I did. And I watched, awestruck, as the train, animated in more ways than one, made its run out of Union Station, as dramatically as it had entered the place.

Part of me, sadly, wished I could have boarded the machine and gone with them. 


This story originally appeared in Medium. com (2019).

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David Perlmutter

David Perlmutter writes history, criticism and speculative fiction when he can find the time to do so.