Train wreck

Laurel, Maryland, 1922
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID npcc.06782.

A friend of a friend came completely unglued on Twitter last night.  Among the dozens of Tweets were a “colorful” Tweet suggesting something he would rather be doing, others that contained not a single word you would want to say in front of a five year old, and at least two or three that my ninth grade health teacher would have classified as “a cry for help.”  When, in amazement, he Tweeted this morning that he hadn’t lost any followers in spite of his “rants,” another person, with remarkable honesty, Tweeted back, “You just made us curious!”  “Yes,” I thought as I read that comment, “everybody loves a train wreck.”

Which is a ridiculous expression, really.  Nobody loves a train wreck.  Car wrecks, yes.  We all slow down for them, craning our necks to figure out what really happened, looking for vehicles damaged beyond recognition and counting the firetrucks and police cars on the scene.  Train wrecks are rare and horrifying and perhaps interesting at a distance, but the required distance is greater than most of us can manage.

When I was a pastor in southeast Virginia, there was a train wreck on the Norfolk Southern line one night – two freight trains had a head on collision more than five miles from our house.  The locked wheels of the locomotives screamed against the rails as momentum carried them hopelessly forward, intense and inharmonious and impossible to ignore.  Brian and I were completely awake for several seconds before the dreadful explosion of sound that announced the crash.  The sounds told their story clearly – there was nothing else that would have sounded just like that.  In the morning, we were incredulous – how could the wreck be so far away?  As loud as it had been, we had been certain it had been within town limits.  How frightening must it have been for our friends who lived just down the road from the crash site?  What had it sounded like for them?

It took more than 24 hours to clear the tracks between Newsoms and Franklin.  The line serviced a paper plant in Franklin, so there was strong incentive to move fast.  Can you imagine a car wreck bad enough to block a road for 24 hours?  Cars are easy to clean up after – trains not so much.  The proper equipment is not widely available, and the debris is massive.  Especially the engines, which do not break into little bits just because they’ve been rendered immobile.  The tracks may have been clear by the second morning after the wreck — but the engines sat by the side of the track for months.

After awhile, the engines became part of the landscape.  It was a shock when they were finally gone.  “How did they do it?” I wondered.  What had seen impossibly immobile just days before had disappeared.  I had been certain that they would sit there in perpetuity, a monument to how devastating an accumulation of small mistakes can be when the stakes are high.  I was not sure how I felt about their removal – but I knew that those of us who were in the county that night could likely pick out the place along the rails where it happened for years afterwards, even without the physical reminder.

I was once a train wreck too, long enough ago that the landscape doesn’t readily reveal the story, but those who were there, who know where to look, might turn up a bit of charred or twisted debris under the trees along the tracks.

There were none killed that night, and only two badly injured, but many were haunted long afterwards.  I hope for a better outcome – or one at least as good – for the Man of Many Tweets on a Drunk and Lonely Night.

Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.

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