The Cro-Magnon Croatian-American
Wilton Zukel was a good boy. His mother said so. His aunt said so. Even his staunch and stoic father, who rarely spoke words of encouragement or praise of any sort to anybody, said so. One of the three final statements the elder Zukel left for his son, words spoken from a hospital bed where Wilton's papa lay suffering with second and third degree burns upon seventy percent of his flesh.
"Wilton," he said. "Come closer." With only the right side of his face intact and unencumbered by bandages, Mr. Zukel's Croatian-accented English was nearly unintelligible. A tent of sheer linen sealed him off from the rest of the room, as his son stood with nose touching the outside, listening while watching his father's lips. An eyewitness to the dangers of railroading in the age of steam, the younger Zukel winced at the sight of his papa, a fireman ravaged by fire.
The fireman shovels coal into the firebox. Fire boils the water that produces steam to power the drive train that turns the locomotive's wheels, but when the rear axle breaks and wheels ride on wooden ties instead of steel rails, red-hot coals are bounced from an opened-door firebox. The fireman shoveling fresh coal into the box is peppered with fired coals shooting out from the firebox. They pelt his exposed skin. They find their way inside the bib of his overalls and set his clothing afire, and with continued forward motion of the locomotive, wind from its open cab fans the flames to an extent that no amount of rolling or smothering can suffocate them.
Mr. Zukel's mishap aboard the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive number 1649 took place on straight track of the flat prairie landscape across central Kansas, and therefore remained upright. Its engineer survived the accident with cuts, bruises and one broken forearm, but by the time he was able to assist Mr. Zukel it was nearly too late. Would have been better had he not bothered.
"Wilton, I know you are good boy." The dying father struggled merely to whisper through his unholy pain. "You will do for me these things."
"Take care of mama. Without me, she no good."
"Wilton, you no talk. You hear me."
"What is it, papa?"
"I hurt too bad, my son. End me."
Wilton Zukel recoiled, turned and looked away, trying to ignore his father's anguished gasps.
"Please, Wilton. Look at me."
He steeled himself, fought tears and again pressed his face to the tent. His father's eye was closed, the right side of his mouth turned upward, his head slowly nodding. "Reach in, my son. Be strong boy. You must do this."
Wilton Zukel was a good boy. He stifled his father's death throes, fingers of one hand plugging nose holes while the palm of his other hand sealed off the man's mouth.
Mrs. Zukel never saw her husband's melted form. The day of his funeral and burial was the first time she'd been anywhere besides the church and market, both within blocks of their house and easily within walking distance. This was the only world she'd known since arriving aboard ship at the New York City piers, riding by train to Kansas City, Missouri, and then by cable car to the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. She was sixteen, a Croatian bride brought to America in 1896 by her Croatian-born but Americanized husband. He and his father had arrived ten years before. Once established and financially secure, courtesy of railroading, the younger Zukel returned for his mama, his sister, and a wife of his choosing. Every father in their village welcomed the opportunity for his daughter to marry a man already established in America, and Zukel the younger, given many from which to choose, picked his bride from a family he believed to be of hardy stock.
She truly was helpless without him. Never learned any but the rudimentary words of her new country's language. Mr. Zukel sheltered her from everything and everyone outside their little conclave of Slavic-Croatian immigrants. She was there to cook and clean. She was there to breed, but Wilton's birth in 1897 would be their first and last. Turned out Mr. Zukel's chosen bride was hardy enough, but not fertile. He accepted the reality. No bitterness toward her. No medical investigations as to why they could not again conceive.
After Mr. Zukel's death, Mrs. Zukel's only remaining purpose was her son. She ran the household through the end of Wilton's high school education, and then, near the end of his service to the U.S. Navy during the Great War, 1918, she died peacefully in her home on Strawberry Hill.
Wilton was a good boy, but not a popular one. Upon reaching puberty and the blossoming of his mature features, Wilton's appearance made his classmates, especially girls, uneasy in his presence. They looked upon him as a beast, or at most a Prehistoric caveman. His cranium protruded forward and each ear encompassed one-fourth the entire side of his head. His ears would have covered more space had they not stuck out like wings prepared to flap. Within one year after reaching the age of puberty, black hair covered nearly every inch of his five-feet, nine-inch frame, and his chest, flanks, arms and legs were thick, wide and heavily muscled, with little if any contour from his rib cage to his hips. His eyes were the darkest of brown and difficult to see--recessed between meaty cheeks and deeply-inset sockets, and topped by bushy black brows.
Attending school became torture for Wilton. The boys ostracized him, the girls giggled. He became a withdrawn brooder. Had the females been smart, they would have drooled over the manly tool dangling between his legs. Had the boys been smart, they would have recruited his muscular and manly body for athletic endeavors. Signing up for the U.S. Navy soon after high school graduation dramatically altered Wilton's outlook. Drill instructors at the Great Lakes Naval Station boot camp instantly recognized the potential of his physique. They coaxed him into joining the football and boxing squads, and he excelled at both. Once assigned to a ship, his mates wanted Wilton with them on shore leaves. His fists were a valuable asset for back-alley brawls against smart-mouthed Marines, and along with his popularity came a resoundingly-instilled self-confidence. An attitude that said Here I am. If you don't like it, do something about it.
He followed in his father's footsteps. Put to use his experience of stoking boilers in the engine rooms of Navy ships into a career with the Santa Fe Railroad. From the roundhouses and maintenance sheds, Wilton began his climb toward locomotive engineer by working on them. Through his duties of repair, maintenance and overhaul, he learned the inner workings of the mighty steam engines, progressing to a position of fireman on the yard engines, and then engineer on the yard engines. Year by year, Wilton mastered each required step until management deemed him ready to join a road crew.
In 1926 he was assigned the position of fireman aboard unit 1677, and in 1929 he surpassed the highest level ever obtained by his father. Wilton Zukel became A1 Engineer of Santa Fe unit 1677, running local freight along the mainline from Kansas City to Newton, Kansas, and through it all he lived by himself in the house he inherited from his father. His home on Strawberry Hill.