Even then, folks didn't think of Cleveland in the same breath as New York, Boston, or San Francisco, but to Samuel's mind it was the best option at hand, and one to which he could afford the bus fare out of pocket. The beginning of his second life accorded appropriately with his mood. It was rainy, the bus was leaky, and his fellow passengers were smelly vagabonds. Samuel had not yet reached the point where he considered himself one with his fellow passengers. In reality, he had quit his past life resolutely, declining options to return given to him by numerous parties. Still, he felt buoyed above his fellow travellers by the comfort and status of his old life. He did not literally expect anyone to offer him deference, but Samuel still carried himself as a privileged child might. It takes more than a personal decision to rid oneself of privilege. Oftentimes, the objective cruelty of the outside world is required.
The bus bumped along, and the rain fell incessantly, a small drip falling directly onto Samuel's knee, no matter how he squirmed in his attempted sleep. After seventy two and one half hours, Samuel was deposited on Euclid avenue in the middle of the night. It wasn't raining, but the air stank of a recent bout of it, and the gutters ran heavy. He was able to find a room without too much difficulty. It overlooked the river if you squinted hard enough, but Samuel didn't care. His bag as a substitute for the paltry pillow on the hotel bed, he fell to the sagging mattress and passed out.
When he woke, the city was alive with activity. It was close to midday, and though Cleveland was hardly the Big Apple, the amount of folks walking about, and cars honking and spewing smoke on the street when Samuel lifted up the blinds was still hard to believe for a farm boy like Samuel. It was in the face of this perceived hubbub that the country boy was forced to reckon with the first and most obvious flaw in his reckless plan to leave home in search of military glory. He had not the first idea how to volunteer for the royal army, and the crowds of people below him did nothing to encourage his already flagging sense of purpose. The young man force himself to get up and splash cold water on his face. His room provided a sink, but the bathroom was public. He scratched at his teeth with his nails and examined himself in the mirror. He looked like an eighteen year old boy, but his farm upbringing was to his advantage. He was more tan, and more lean than most boys his age, and looked (truthfully) as if he would have no problem doing a day's labor. His round, steel glasses rested on his nose unflatteringly to his mind, but there was little that could be done about that.
In a rookie move, Samuel left his bag on the hotel bed, locked the door behind him, and headed down the street to use what was left of the day to his advantage. He wasn't certain where to begin, but it was to be his lucky day. Not seven blocks away, he ran into an army recruiter. The officer, believing Samuel wanted to join the army, was very forthcoming and willing to talk. Once the truth came out, he was less so.
"Why would you want to do a fool thing like that?"
"They'll need all the help they can get."
"So will we."
"You're trading in on your own country on that evidence?"
"Sir, I'm not doing anything of the sort. I just want to do my part to fight Hitler. I've had a premonition that it's what I have to do."
"Hurry to die, are you?"
"Polite, aren't you?"
"You're serious about this?"
"I can put you in contact with somebody, but I can't make any guarantees."
The man's change of heart came as a surprise to Samuel.
"Meet me back here at 1500 hours."
Samuel walked on air all the way back to his hotel room, and even had a difficult time putting the key in the lock when he returned, so shaky were his hands in his excitement. His excitement quickly abated once he saw his room. It was just as he had left it, with one small exception: his bag was no longer on his bed. In fact, his bag was nowhere to be found. He sprinted down the hotel stairs, taking three or four at a time until he stood at the front desk, panting.
"My bag is gone," he said breathlessly to the old woman at the desk.
"I'll call the constable."
The woman emitted a rasping, shaking set of breaths that could only have been her version of laughing. She slapped the counter gently.
"You're an earnest one."
"I don't understand."
"Well I'll make it real easy for you. There's no constable, and you should read better."
The old woman pointed to a sign tacked to the wall above the cutout in the wall that allowed her to converse with customers. The skin on her elbow swung pendulously, but Samuel tore his eyes from her paper-thin skin to read the sign. It read, simply: Hotel Assumes No Responsibility for Lost Items.
"It's not lost. It was stolen."
"Oh, he's a nitpicker. We don't recognize any distinction there. Best of luck to you."
She turned to go.
"My whole life was in that bag."
She paused for an almost imperceptible moment, but no she did not turn around. Her hardened sense of justice could only be melted so far. This lad needed to learn to keep his wits about him, or he'd never make it. Let him learn his lesson this time.
Samuel returned to his room and sat on the sagging mattress. At this time, as he did at so many other times in his life, he wanted to speak to Eddard Morley. He thought of writing to him on the bus, but had changed his mind. Samuel was yet to admit it to himself, but he was afraid that Eddard might disapprove of his actions. He feared such an outcome. For all his show of independence and fate, Samuel still feared the reproval of the old vagabond. Samuel's personal history bore out the correctness of the old man on a number of occasions, and he couldn't bare to be told that his life epiphany which had caused him to leave everything behind, including the woman he loved and his family, was fraudulent or rash in some way. It was too late now. The deed had been done and could not be undone as easily as admitting it had been wrong. So, Samuel thought of Eddard as the sound of slamming car doors, shouting hot dog vendors, and general noise came in from the window. At least, he thought, he would not be late to his meeting with the man from the royal army, because the building directly across from his room was topped by a massive clock that chimed every half hour.
Samuel was early to his meeting and the recruiter, who introduced himself this time as Sergeant Corden in accordance with his name on his uniform, seemed pleased with Samuel's timeliness.
"Deborah should be here shortly."
"A nurse, son. Medical exam. You pass that, then you can talk to a Sergeant who's gathering volunteers."
"What's the exam for?"
"You hard of hearing? It's a medical exam."
"Shouldn't they take anyone they can get?"
"You're really inspiring confidence there, boy. I'll run that up the flagpole and see what my superiors think of cutting out our medical clearances. The short answer is no. A soldier unfit to fight is a danger more to his comrades than to himself. That's why."
The sergeant had some paperwork to do, and Samuel found himself alone again. If there was one thing his life up until this point had prepared him for, it was being alone. Although he much preferred being alone in the south wood to the city, he could handle it. He found himself in another hotel lobby, one that was average, but by that metric still far superior to the one in which he was staying. He sat on a divan close to the center of the room and looked about. There were a few men sitting in chairs drinking coffee, a short line to speak to the desk clerk who, smiling and gracious appeared more as a desk clerk should than the old woman with the pendulous arm skin. A young couple argued while a baby cried on his mother's hip. Some chocolate was smeared across the baby's face, and the high pitched ringing of a phone was incessant.
Samuel sat with his hands in his lap, staring at his brown boots until a hand rested on his shoulder. He looked up to see a woman in a nurse's uniform, a shapely girl with a gap tooth looking down on him.
"Sergeant Corden described you. You the one I'm looking for?"
"You aren't English."
"Observant enough. Up with you. They let me do this in a room on the first floor. Let's go."
She lead him to a small room to which she produced a key from her bosom. She instructed him to take off his shirt and sit on the bed.
"I didn't mean to be rude," Samuel said. "I was only surprised."
"It's extra money," she said plainly. "Sergeant Murray pays us American girls well. They don't want to have to bring their own over for this. Cough."
She stood up and pulled a card from her back pocket, holding it up at her shoulder level.
"Over by the desk. Now take off your glasses."
"A pissing contest. Jesus, kid. Take off your glasses."
Samuel did as he was told. She asked him to recite what was on the bottom line of the card she held. He was of course, unable to do so with any accuracy.
"You can put 'em back on hon."
"Nothing. You're blind as a bat."
"So does that change what posting I might get?"
"No posting. You failed."
"I don't understand."
"Not much to understand really. We're looking for pilots. Pilots have to see. Those are the rules. Go home, kid. Make babies. You'll be happier for it."
Samuel grabbed the nurse by the shoulder.
"Please, you don't understand."
She removed his hand from her shoulder with a look of utter revulsion.
"I'm not the one who needs to come to an understanding here."
With that, she was gone, and Samuel was alone in a hotel room, the clothes on his back the only thing to his name, his plan dashed within a day, feeling increasingly foolish with every passing moment. He couldn't let it go so easily.
He returned to the lobby and waited for the sergeant to show himself again. It took hours, and Samuel's stomach was growling, the sun setting outside, but eventually he showed himself again. Samuel accosted him and began speaking at once.
"Slow down, kid. What do you want? I set up the exam for you, which is more than I should have done."
"I need to see the sergeant in person, to explain my situation. I need to make him understand."
"Deborah will talk to him for you. In due time. Don't rush it."
"She said I failed, but-"
"You failed? Well then what are you talking about?"
"I need to talk to the sergeant."
"You need to go home. Listen, I've got a dinner. I've got to go. Good luck, kid."
Samuel was left to face a hard truth: he had rushed from home without planning enough, and the worst had happened. It did not change his intuition that he had been meant to leave, was being called away by the war, but he had badly misfired. In his lowest moment, that evening as the kind desk clerk informed him he would have to leave the lobby, and he began to walk the streets of Cleveland by night, he thought of Amelia. His mind traveled back to the first time in the car, the rain on the windshield, how they had argued, but he had never felt so alive. He thought of his party, which now seemed eons in the past, searching for her in the crowd of people from the vantage point of the loft. He hadn't been able to locate her. He had tried, but he never saw her in the crowd, never found her, locked eyes, promised. Then it had all come crashing down in fire. It seemed so long ago he had laid in the field and seen the fireworks and the ash of the old barn, crumbling slowly beneath the brightly lit explosions. It had not been so long, but everything had changed.
Defeated and exhausted, Samuel only just made it back to his room. He collapsed on the bed for the second consecutive night and fell into a deep sleep filled with troubling dreams.
Things did not get better for Samuel in the morning, as he was booted from his room by the angry old woman for failing to pay up for another day. It was all the same, as it would have been a waste of precious little money he had left that had not been in his stolen bag. Nothing else to do, Samuel walked the streets aimlessly, thoughtlessly moving downhill as it was easier on his legs. Eventually, he found himself at water level with the Cuyahoga, throwing railroad rocks into the dark water. He came across a bar, and though it was morning time, he went inside. It was dark, and Samuel supposed, dark as the river was, even if there had been windows, the place would have been dreary. It suited his mood just fine. He sat at the bar and told the man who tended it to make his choice for him.
"My own brew," the bartender said proudly. "Calling it beech leaf brew. See the engraving on the glass there."
Samuel nodded, and nearly every part of his exhausted body wanted him to end the interaction right there, but his old self was still in there. The youth who read Thoreau with such voracity, and who thought of himself as a naturalist, couldn't let it go.
"Ought to call it chestnut brew."
"Not much of a ring to it."
"Well that's what this leaf favors," Samuel said, indicating the engraving. "Good though. Much thanks."
"What's the difference between a chestnut leaf and a beech leaf?"
"Not a lot, other than coming from different trees."
Samuel hadn't meant anything by it, but it was clear that he had offended the bartender, who had been kind enough to share his home brew. He turned his back on Samuel and polished some glasses with undue gusto.
A man approached the bar and sat down next to Samuel. He was older, but hard looking, deeply cut lines in his face, and wore an out of fashion slouch hat back on his crown. He was chewing on a cigar that looked as if it hadn't been lit in the past century, and had a white beard that covered all but his eyes, mouth, and nostrils.
"Mind if I sit?"
"Plenty of room."
It was an odd question to be sure, but considering the exchange with the bartender, understandable in context. And Samuel was feeling down, vulnerable, mostly just waiting for someone to spill his guts to. This man had evidently volunteered himself.
"If I have any religion, it rests in trees."
"That's a hell of a thing for a young man to say. Lot of years left for you to find religion."
"I told you, I've already found it. Call it religion if you like, I don't know what to call it."
"Not a lot of men who can tell the difference between a beech and a chestnut leaf. Look damn near the same."
"Pretty easy to tell when they're on the tree."
At this the man laughed, taking his cigar stub out of his mouth to release the air from his belly. He patted Samuel on the back, though the young man hadn't intended a joke. It seemed that no one in this city could tell when he was joking.
"True enough. Do you mind, boy if I ask you a question?"
"You a bit down this morning?"
"What gave it away?"
"Looking for a change?"
"I'm not going to work on any railroad if that's what you're aiming at."
"Oh no," he said. "Far from that. But it seems to me like I've run into you for a reason. You see, I'm looking for someone like you. Hard at times like these. Most men are preparing for the war, least those who haven't deluded themselves into thinking there won't be one."
"War doesn't want me. I've got bad eyes."
"You ought to be thankful for that. That's not the suitor you should be aiming for. Your glasses fix you up?"
"Not well enough for fighting."
"Lot of things can happen in fighting, but I reckon you can see just fine when you're composed."
"What're you on about? Of course I can."
"Well enough to distinguish beech from chestnut anyhow."
"I'm nearly done with my beer."
"Another on me to hear me out."
The old man called the bartender over and ordered the beer.
"Name's Morgan," he said. "Alistair Morgan. I work for the National Parks Service and we're worried about the war."
"Join the club. I don't suppose most people have the parks at the top of their worries list when it comes to Hitler."
"Right you are, but that doesn't make it less of my job. I've a sense of duty. I won't be a soldier. I'm too old, but we're about to face a crisis. A lack of warm bodies, and I've been sent out to try and solve it. Now, you can't fight Hitler, but we'll take you. You'll still be doing good."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Be a fire lookout. It's a young man's job, and our young men are about to be lost to a different cause. Fires don't stop because we're at war. Job still needs filling. And it seems to me that I've run into just the man for the job. You have an appreciation for nature, you're young, and as far as I can tell, have got nothing else going on."
"You're very observant, Mr. Morgan. What's the pay?"
"Bad, but the views are good."
It was Samuel's turn to laugh.
"I imagine there's a lot of time for a man to reflect."
"More than you probably want."
"I've got a lot to reflect on."
"More than you probably want."
"So where's an opening?"
"Interested already? Am I so good a salesman?"
"Like you said, I've not got much going on, and that was an understatement. I'd not get too many ideas about your skills as a salesman."
"Southern Appalachians. Shuckstack lookout is currently being filled by a part timer."
"I don't know where that is."
"North Carolina, son. Beautiful country."
"You really think we're going to join the war?"
"You've got your own war to worry about now. Uniform is pretty lax though."