I wish I could say something to distinguish Flowery Branch from thousands of little towns of a few hundred inhabitants all over our land in the early forties. But I cannot. It is not even in the middle of an S-turn in the Southern railway; the track is straight for five or six miles to the north, and to the south there is gentle curve to the southwest that does not slow a train.
The main street parallels the railroad, and along the street the usual feed store, hardware store, drug store were scattered. Most of the people lived within two blocks of the railroad.
A ratty local stopped there daily to take on and put off express, but most travellers rode the bus. A local freight fussed with cars in the siding from time to time, but most freights roared through, as did the several limited passenger trains. Nine miles from Gainsville, their nearest stop, gave the southbounds time to come up to full cruising speed before they had covered those five straight miles from the north.
Bob’s parents came to John Echols’ law office in the summer of 1944. They wanted to probate their son’s will; he had been missing in action for well over a year. Out of true prudence—or else on a hunch—John urged them to wait a while longer. That was his part in the story, and why he knew it.
Bob had his airplane hit by AA fire over occupied France; he had been able to get out and parachute to where a rural French family took him in almost as he touched the earth that dark clear night. Some days later they introduced him to members of the local underground.
Some background of Bob’s proved to be a big help in sorting and editing information the underground was sending to the Allies via several routes. Fortuitously, this got recognized, and he was ordered to stay; no attempt was made to spirit him out.
After some months Intelligence thought they learned that Bob’s operation was in danger, or maybe his skills were no longer imperative, so they spirited him out to rejoin our armies. (We did not muff everything in those days.)
His superiors were highly pleased with what he had accomplished. After debriefing in Washington, they were ready to give him leave, announce he was still alive, and let him go home to the welcome towns give their heroes.
They would fly him home, give him priority to bump almost anyone off our overloaded wartime airlines. He declined, explaining that they could fly him only to the Atlanta airport. Then he would have to get a taxi and a bus, and it would be noon tomorrow before he got home to Flowery Branch. Could they possibly stop the Southerner in the morning, and let him off?
The chime of a steam whistle did not excite the town shortly after nine that bright October morning. That, or a diesel horn, regularly sounded as everyone was getting to work and starting the day if Number 47 was on time. A minute later people started acting uneasy and nervous, and this intensified during the next minute. Something was strange. The familiar sequence of sounds, that everyone had unconsciously come to expect, was different.
Somewhere north of the depot someone shouted, “The Southerner is stopping!” and the cry was taken up in the next block, “The Southerner is stopping!” It had never happened before! People on the street stopped and turned to watch; people came out of stores to see what was going on. Everybody was looking. Everybody in town was looking. The engineer crossed his cab to the left side, climbed down, walked back to join the rest of the train crew, at the vestibule a porter had opened. Conductor, porters, attendents, engineer, all lined up at Bob’s vestibule. And then came Bob, long given up as lost, pressed new uniform, bright clean ribbons and theater bars. Nobody failed to see him as he stepped down, saluted the crew as they piped him off with cheers and applause, and the fireman blew a long blast on the whistle. Everybody saw him.
John Echols was a storyteller. It never improved one of his stories to ask for details he had omitted. He instictively (or by hard work and guile) tersely set up his scene, then delivered the sentence that made it a story.
Storytellers carefully select what they tell, and what they leave out. Sometimes elements of several lesser stories get rolled into one. Mr. John told me this story some thirty years ago (forty as I today reword a sentence here and there), and when I set out to write it down I found I had the story with almost no background details. I did not know Bob’s name, neither given nor family. Any of several towns between Gainesville and Atlanta would have served for Flowery Branch. Steam or diesel, either could have pulled the Southerner during World War II. The Time Table said for the Southerner, “Streamlined Diesel Electric,” but I rode it time and again behind one of those beautiful green Pacifics. Railroads used whatever motive power they could assemble in those busy days.
It had to be steam that morning. A Diesel horn says bluntly, “Clear the tracks,” but a steam passenger whistle says, “Please, please, clear the tracks, then turn ’round and watch this wonderful vehicle with all the machinery on the outside.” Who will dispute that a steam chime was needed that day?
If this story did not happen about like I set it down, it should have.