Some things are imbedded in our memory that we wish were not there. We try to push them into the background but they don’t stay there. Among the great tragedies of war are the indelible memories of carnage and the subsequent destructive effects they have on soldiers and their families. Children sometimes see terrible and occasionally tragic acts of violence in their own homes that leave them scarred for life.
I have lived a sheltered life in many ways. Domestic life in my family as I was growing up was peaceful. Both our parents loved my older brother Nolen Robert and me unconditionally. Life on the farm was not easy, but it was wholesome. My goal to become a teacher, set in my early years of high school, wound up sparing me military service in Vietnam. Before I finished school, that war had torn the country apart and I was happy to have missed it.
But early in my career as a teacher in the Midwest, I witnessed a tragedy in the short moments after a terrible accident involving a train and a large delivery truck. In the short cold days of winter, driving after dark through a small town along a highway that paralleled a railroad track, something unusual was going on that caught my eye.
Driving slowly, in the heart of the little town, I saw a small fire near the railroad track maybe twenty feet from a streetlight. Then I saw someone jump out of a car on a cross street and run toward the fire.
Out of a desire to see if I could help, or out of curiosity, I pulled over quickly and ran toward the crossing. The man who had gotten out of his car moments before was running along the track past the small fire and I began to run after him. Something terrible had happened.
Pieces of the delivery truck were scattered along the track. I heard no sound of the train. The man running ahead of me stopped at a large object beside the track. As I approached, I saw the crumpled cab of the delivery truck. There were no signs of truck tires or chassis. Nearby I could see the remains of the light-colored cargo box of the truck. Still, while I could not see or hear a train, clearly a train had just demolished the delivery truck.
Within seconds I approached the crumpled cab of the truck, with the man just ahead of me standing silently on one side of the cab looking into it as I walked up to the other side. I was not prepared for what I was about to see in the dim light of the downtown.
The driver’s crumpled body lay before us. He appeared to be in his forties, slender, with dark hair. His body was pretty much rolled into a ball. The heel of his right work boot, with the toe pointed away, rested in front of this face. His head had been crushed and much of his brain lay on his forehead.
The man on the other side of the cab and I did not speak. We stood for a moment in silent respect and walked back toward the crossing.
In the days before cell phones, no sirens, police, or fire trucks had arrived. At that moment no one else was visible to us in the little town, where people were still inside their warm homes on a cold night. Apparently, the sound of the train smashing the delivery truck did not make enough noise to rouse local residents.
That tragic night in that small town preceded tragedies that would in a few years strike my family. Over the years when something reminds me of the effects of tragedy on my family, I remember the man killed by the train in that small Midwestern town nearly a half-century earlier.
I wonder if that delivery truck driver was a husband and father. He was certainly a son, maybe a brother, a nephew, and a cousin. I wonder how his sudden death affected his family.
I wonder who the other man was that night who rushed to the scene. I wonder if he knew the driver personally. I wish I had asked him, but the time seemed to call for silence. We both apparently felt that way.
For many years after that tragic night, trains passing through railroad crossings sent chills up my back and the back of my neck. Sometimes this still happens, and that crumpled driver in the truck cab comes sadly back to mind.
Ever since, whenever crossing a train track, I look longer in both directions than I did before that accident. As I write this, those chills again come up my back and neck.
Some things we wish we could forget. Somehow we want to erase them from memory, but we cannot.
Memories become a part of who we are. We learn, cope, and move on.