The three young Americans got on at Hergiswil, Switzerland, which is where the Lucerne train connects with the train from Engelberg and transportation from Mt. Titlis. The three had obviously just come from there because the girl was wearing a new yellow T-shirt with "Titlis" printed across the front and "3020 M, 10,000 Feet" just underneath.
They settled across the aisle from us. She was thin and cute, in spite of a great mop of frizzled blonde hair that looked like a home perm gone bad. One of the boys might have been related to her, but there was a look about him like a house where there's no one home. A definite "out-to-lunch" aura.
The second boy, who would have been nondescript except that he had only one eyebrow that went all the way across his forehead, took a Walkman from his backpack, clamped the earphones to his head and turned it on . . . loud.
There is a tendency to take the misconduct of one's fellow nationals as a personal affront. Some people think that less-than-perfect conduct tends to make all the rest of us look bad in front of foreigners.
A Silent Prayer
From the moment I'd noticed the three, a small voice--way down inside--had started praying, "Lord, let them be English or Germans, or maybe even French."
Then the girl put a stick of gum into her mouth, looked at me, smiled and said, "Hey, hey, whadaya say?"
They were ours.
I muttered a "Fine, thank you," or some other innocuous answer, but she had already looked away and was keeping time to her friend's music by tapping on her armrest.
After a couple of minutes, hoping to call the young man's attention to the fact that everyone at our end of the car was also having to listen to the "music," I leaned toward him.
"Sounds like Chubby Checkers? Is it?"
"Huh?" he said.
"I said it sounds like Chubby Checkers." The girl shook her head. "Naw, he's not into the classics."
"Lord, lord," my wife Joyce murmured.
"It won't work," I said. "He's not listening." She didn't hear me.
My wife is an audiometrist. She tests and evaluates hearing for students in the Los Angeles city school system. After about 15 minutes she felt compelled to say something, so she leaned over and tapped the young man on the knee.
He pulled the earphones away from his head for a moment and looked at her.
"If you continue . . . . " she began. But he shook his head, indicating he couldn't hear, and leaned toward her. She raised her voice and began again. "If you continue to play your music that loud, you're going to damage your cochlea!"
"What?" he asked louder, turning off the Walkman.
"You're going to damage your cochlea!" Joyce almost shouted into the sudden silence.
For some reason this struck "Frizzles" and "Out-to-Lunch" as hilarious. A few other people on our end of the railway car were also tittering. "Earphones" just nodded, smiling.
"What I'm saying," my wife went on, now almost desperately, "is you're going to ruin your inner ear, your hearing."
A look of comprehension lit Earphones' face. "Right," he said. "Thanks." He took the earphones away from his ears, leaving them hanging around his neck. He then flicked the Walkman back on. The music was back, softer for him, louder for the rest of us. I wondered if Joyce's saving his hearing was going to cost us ours.
"Buddy," I said. "Maybe if you'd just turn it down?"
"Can't," he answered. "Knob's busted."
The fourth car of the Lucerne Schnellzug arrived in the station to the accompaniment of Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols.
We parted company in the Lucerne railway station.
Because of the heavy vehicular traffic around the station the Swiss have built an underpass that takes travelers under major thoroughfares. An escalator at the far end of this underpass takes you back to the surface.
At the base of the escalator we saw the young people again. They had been a little boisterous before, but now they were all relatively quiet as they waited patiently for a very old, very fat woman to get on the escalator. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the woman was quite apprehensive about stepping onto the moving steel tread, but to use the adjacent stairs would have been impossible for her.
All of us were a bit anxious as the woman made little rocking motions, trying to time her move onto the escalator steps. Finally, she took the chance.
For a moment everything seemed all right, then she began to teeter. Her groaning scream was almost matched by the yelled warnings of the young people as they tried to catch her, failed and then scurried onto the moving staircase to lift, attempt to carry and then partially drag the now bleeding and thoroughly terrified woman to safety.
She had apparently sustained some cuts. One, over her left eye, was bleeding severely. And the more she dabbed at it with the end of her scarf, the more it bled.
The woman kept apologizing to the young people for the mess she was making of them as they tried to help her. But surprisingly enough, the trio seemed to be making light of it, as if that really didn't matter at all, that her condition was the only issue.
Frizzles applied direct pressure to the wound, finally cradling the old woman's head against her own chest to get the bleeding stopped. The boys gathered the woman's belongings and then the three of them virtually carried her up the steps to the street level.
We watched as Out-to-Lunch hailed a cab and then argued with the driver in what sounded like pigeon-German. The driver wouldn't let the woman into his cab, but he did call for help on his radio, which was probably a better idea.
Nice Clean Ambulance
A few minutes later an ambulance arrived. There was a dispute. The woman pleaded that she was too much of a mess to ride in the nice clean ambulance, but the young people would have none of it. They settled the argument by helping her in. The boys placed her possessions next to her; the attendant followed her in and started to close the door.
"Vait!" the woman hollered. "You goot people, bitte . Goot people. Tank you." She looked like she wanted to say more, but the attendant closed the door and the ambulance drove away. We never saw her again.
Beyond the underground mall and the escalator there's a bridge that crosses the point where the River Reuss empties into the lake. On the other side of the bridge is Old Lucerne, the part of the city where the restaurants are and where the tourists go to get the true feeling of Swiss history.
Up past the restaurants there's a point where steps lead directly from the cobblestoned street into the river.
On earlier trips Joyce and I had gone to that spot to sit on a bench and watch the swans patrol the river's edge and the day turn into evening.
The three young people were there ahead of us, sitting on the steps, talking and laughing and washing items of clothing in the waters of the Reuss. There was another couple, a middle-aged man and his wife, occupying the bench Joyce and I had used on previous visits. They moved over to make room for us.
Watching the Three
For a few minutes we watched the three at the water's edge and the lights coming on across the river, behind the white and gold Jesuit-run church.
The man and the woman were talking to each other in low tones, then the man leaned forward and addressed me.
"I was just commenting to my wife," the man said, "on the nerve of these young people these days. They come all the way across the ocean to one of the oldest, most noble cities in the world and wash their clothes in our river."
Joyce controlled herself quite well when she answered the man. "Sir," she said, "a short time ago these young people helped an old lady . . . I think she was a Swiss, who'd fallen on an escalator. I think they're trying to wash her blood out of their clothing before it sets."
The woman looked down as her husband nodded, then loaded and tamped his pipe. They both stood.
"Impressions can be deceiving, ja ?" he said. He and his wife said good evening, then turned and said " Wiedersehen " to the young people at the water's edge. They all nodded and the man and his wife walked away.
We sat and watched the evening coming on for a few more minutes. The white church was picking up the pink of the twilight sky. Then we, too, stood and began to walk away.
"Lady," Frizzles called out.
When we stopped, she said, "You don't have to apologize for us."
"You can say that again," Joyce said.
As we turned to leave, the girl stopped us. "I'm Tracy. This is Paul and this here is my brother Toddy."
We introduced ourselves. Toddy grinned and held up his thumb.
"See ya," they said.
We didn't see them again, though. We thought we heard their Walkman a time or two in our travels across Europe, but we never saw them again.
When we do think of them, perhaps reminded by someone's too-loud radio, we don't think of Tracy and Paul and Toddy. We remember them simply as Frizzles, Earphones and Out-to-Lunch.
But somewhere in Lucerne is an old woman, maybe with a small scar over her eyebrow, who probably remembers them as "those nice young foreigners . . . the goot people."