The International Steam Pages

A Nocturnal Escapade (Former Jugoslavia 1982)

Robert Hall writes of an incident on a bash through the former Jugoslavia - it's a postscript to the tale linked below.

A brief, hopefully comic tale which is a sort of "addendum" to my piece "Ahead of the Four Horsemen" about a week's questing for surviving steam in 1982 in what was then Jugoslavia. A night-time steam run on the Karlovac -- Sisak branch line south of Zagreb toward the latter end of the "bash", is briefly told of there. This journey happened for me, under rather special circumstances precipitated by myself; which at the time of writing my piece, I glossed over -- feeling embarrassed about "full disclosure". As an effect of the passage of time with its healing properties, the humorous element has come to the fore for me: hope that this brief narrative may give readers a smile or two.

My companion on the trip, to whom I refer as G.; and I; were in Zagreb, the day before our ways were planned to part -- he to set out Britain-wards by rail, myself due to fly home from Belgrade a couple of days thence. We wished if possible, to sample the Karlovac -- Sisak line; whose fairly generous passenger service was worked by railmotors, except for one steam, notionally mixed, train in each direction daily: westbound, departing Sisak in the morning -- eastbound, running overnight. Memory fails me somewhat, here; but I suspect that the time-constraints were such that our only chance of doing Karlovac -- Sisak together, with steam, would be on the eastbound through-the-night train.

We were at Zagreb's main station mid-to-late afternoon: had tickets to buy there -- I assume, four decades and many lost memory-cells later, for the run south-west to Karlovac, for our overnight steam odyssey. G. -- a "take-charge" type -- ordained that in order to do our best to handle the daunting ticket-queues, we were each to pick a queue: the first to get to a ticket window, would "do the biz" and / or if that were me, call over the Serbo-Croat-speaking G. to the window, from his queue. With our being foreigners, and with the perceived general Jugoslav thing of making life as difficult as possible: he told me to have my passport ready, in case of bureaucratic problems arising. I forget the details; but I think it landed up that I was the first to attain the goal -- I tend rather easily in such situations, to panic and confusion, and in the attendant "fuss and flap" in this instance: my passport, which I had of course in my hand, got put down presumably on the window's "shelf", and after our leaving with our tickets -- forgotten about until a considerable time later.

Memory now dim; but there's an inkling that by the time the loss was discovered, going right back to the booking office and enquiring after my passport, was not possible; that could not be done until the following morning. Or perhaps we did go back there and enquire, but as at that moment no British passport was on hand, awaiting reclamation by its owner. At all events, our "medium-term" plan became to repair to the station the next morning, hoping then to regain possession of the missing item. G., a good many years my junior; and a highly bright guy, not one to suffer fools gladly, and with a robust sense of humour -- wasn't very sympathetic. He was more inclined to ridicule my absent-minded idiocy, and to wax eloquent on the great likelihood of my passport's never being seen again. He enlarged on Jugoslavia's being then, post-the death of Tito, in a somewhat unsettled condition (a very relative term indeed, alas) -- with western passports much in demand by various folk for their various kinds of skulduggery; and on the scenario of my having to go to Britain's consular representatives, and being met by them with scorn and contempt -- and in his wording. "sent back home in a diplomatic crate", and never in my life granted another British passport.

My personal tendencies -- more so then than now -- being, to take such stuff at face-value; with my feeling "I'll be off to (my own country's) Gulag, and I'll richly deserve it" -- led to my doing my utmost to obliterate brooding on such lines until the following morning, when best-or-worst would happen as it would: I purchased a fair-sized bottle of that part of the world's speciality, extra-strong fruit brandy (plum, or maybe some other item of nature's bounty -- one of many un-remembered details), and started to sup therefrom. G.'s analysis of the situation was that the best chance of avoiding the threat of my being apprehended "passportless" by authority, would be for us to "lose ourselves" by dint of, indeed, travelling on the Karlovac -- Sisak overnight steam mixed train. Accordingly, an early-evening main-line departure for Karlovac -- modern traction, whether electric or diesel, I forget: alighting there, to join the soon-to-depart mixed.

A recurring theme here, of memories being often vague and fragmentary -- these doings were half a lifetime ago; plus on this particular night, frequent libations of whatever-the-stuff-was, had me by the time we reached Karlovac, more than halfway on to another planet where lost-passport predicaments were of little or no moment; the process being continued through the mixed train's five-and-a-half-hour, for a hundred-odd kilometres, run to Sisak -- as related in "Ahead of...", these very ample timings devised to factor-in freight doings en route.

We had the customary motive power for the line's "mixeds": a class 51 2-6-2T -- this type seemed decidedly popular on Jugoslavia's not-highly-numerous steam duties as at summer 1982. A Hungarian design: rather antiquated in appearance, built in Hungary over some half-a-century, the last examples in 1959. We took seats in the foremost of the train's seven or eight four-wheel coaches. Elapsed decades since then; and alcohol ingested at the time; leave me only with meagre and blurred (nonetheless cherished) recollections of jolting through rural darkness, with from the locomotive, magnificent noise and volcanic displays of sparks; and long halts, allowed for in the scheduling, for the loco to cut off from the train and shunt the goods yards. G. explained my drunk-out-of-my brains-and-making-that-still-more-so state to amused / concerned fellow-passengers, telling of my misfortune and consequent drowning of sorrows / apprehensions: his words -- transcribed phonetically -- remain in memory: "On eezgloobeel pasosh" (he's lost his passport). G. got the loco crew's ready consent ("all Croats / Anglo-Croats together") for his own travelling on the footplate for part of the run: I would have shared in that bounty, except for my being in a condition such that it was agreed that I would be very likely to fall off the loco. While footplating, G. left me propped in a corner seat and trusted that the other passengers would see that no harm befell me.

Ultimate arrival at Sisak; and in first light, modernity once more -- diesel traction, I'm as good as certain -- back thence to Zagreb main station, and a repeat visit to, I seem to recall, more than one office there. G. was in full "crowing" mode, along "snowballs and their chances in hell" lines -- however, one railway office worker with whom we spoke, and who passed us on to colleagues, summoned up his likely very few words of languages not his own, and cheerily said to me, "passport -- nix problem !" And shortly thereafter, honest Jugoslav Railways staff kindly reunited my passport and myself. It's quite credible that G. was right, and I was unusually fortunate here. Be that as it may -- with the feeling often given rise to, that the misbegotten Jugoslav nation was an accursed place where few things, from the small and mundane to the giant-scale "intertribal", ever seemed to go right -- it is pleasant to be able to recount a story set in that country, with a (however trivial) happy ending.

G. and I then parted company, as per plan: he heading directly for home, myself -- again, as set down in "Ahead of..." -- en route for Belgrade via a tortuous itinerary largely south of the Zagreb -- Belgrade main line, journey taking a day and a half and an intervening night: effectively devoid of steam, but that was known in advance -- for this short spell, other quarries sought.

I hope that my portrayal of G. in this brief "sketch" does not paint him in an overly unfavourable light. He was then aged twenty, very young and callow: intellectually brilliant and rather "full of himself" and quick to scorn others -- I'd venture to say that the majority of mankind display, at that age, some fairly obnoxious traits. And it was certainly far from bright of me, to get separated from my passport in the way recounted: an act of cluelessness meriting a degree of ridicule. (He and I remained friends for long after our "Jugo-bash".) G. -- should you by any chance read this: no hard feelings at all on my part -- I just feel that this "caper" of ours, with its funny side and ultimately good outcome, could be a tale worth telling.

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Rob Dickinson