Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
Lilacs in the Dooryard
The routine: Right after Christmas we would make our way to Wal-Mart at the edge of town, use gift cards to stock up on food, CDs, and other junk and head back to the Ramsey’s place.
The date: 29 December 2000
The key players: Glen (Ramsey), Ty, and me.
It was the three of us, and two others, who made the trip to Wal-Mart that year. We found someone to buy us liquor to keep warm for the trek, suited up, and walked the one and a half miles in the snow.
The money was communal, except for a “Best of John Lennon” CD—that we played into the ground over the next few weeks, especially “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” with its appropriate timing—that I forced on everyone.
The Ramseys’ house sat on top of a hill at the end of Wiley Street. Three railroad lines crossed each other in grids 500 feet outside their front door, and then veered off in different directions over the top of Mansfield Street. Their house was one of those places teenagers went to do essentially whatever they wanted: smoke pot, get drunk, take any cocktail of pills and harder substances, and so forth. The parents, Charlie and Debbie, were loving, but they were also alcoholics with addictions of their own that came and went over the years. Staying at their house almost guaranteed a restless night. A fight would break out and a neigh- bor would call the cops, and people were always awake, it seemed, at different times.
The Ramseys didn’t have much money then, none of our families did, really. But, come Christmas, we ate, drank, and smoked like kings, thanks to our annual Wal-Mart trip. None of us had a license—none of us had a car—so the fastest way to the strip mall was to walk east along the train tracks outside the Ramseys’ front door.
A cargo train leaves the station at midnight traveling 300 miles at an average of 40 miles an hour. How long before it reaches its destination?
The three of us walked the train tracks on our way back, stoned or drunk, 15 or 16, our breath visible in front of us, our muscles tight from the cold, the soles of our shoes slipping off the steel.
Near the Ramsey house we spotted a cable, thick as a human thigh, that ran along the length of the rails. Wouldn’t it be great to see a train run it over, we thought. So we hoisted it, stiff with winter, over the metal, dragging it back and forth across the rails, puffs of condensation in front our faces as we laughed, sure this would cause some damage but sure it wouldn’t.
“This is gonna mess that train up,” someone said.
Half of all train collisions occur within five miles of the victim’s home.
Once back at the Ramsey house none of us thought about the cable around the tracks. We went about our business, awash in the glow of cheap beer, excess food, and new albums. We never really thought about the trains. The sound of their whistles had become common background noise.
It was three days before New Years, two days before New Years Eve. Of course we were going to get wild. And we did, singing along to Lennon the entire night, the snow falling outside, the temperatures dropping.
“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
I think about what it means to be from the wrong side of the tracks: two places within a place, antithesis of one another, barriers between people, a clear delineation between status.
There is a secluded hill that sits on the opposite side of Mansfield Street. In the springtime I used to sit and read on the quiet patch of grass and feel the breeze. Across the street I’d watch the trains roll by all day long, waving at conductors as they passed.
I think about sitting on that hill literally across the tracks from the Ramsey house, how peaceful it was, how isolated and silent. I think about the house across the way, how full of turmoil, how loud, but how full of community it was.
Mansfield Street is part of US Route 30, built in 1913, also known as Lincoln Highway, also known as the first transcontinental highway across the United States, coast to coast, marking what would soon be the end of the passenger train.
Lincoln and the train are connected. After Lincoln’s death, his body rode from DC to Springfield in 1865 on a train, two symbols of freedom bound to one another: Lincoln after death and the locomotive in its teenage years. Lincoln’s funeral train passed just 10 miles from where the Ramsey house stands today.
Whitman wrote the now famous poem about Lincoln, about his death and about the funeral train.
When Lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
The elegy, moving from the ache of loss to acceptance, whatever that may be. The pain of loss is recursive, even after acceptance. It runs around and around, returning every spring, stuck on the same track.
The phone rang and my mother answered. Holding the corded wall- phone, long enough to stretch twenty feet, she walked through the living room and called me downstairs. It was Ty. The police came to his house and questioned him. He admitted everything. If they came to me, say nothing. What was the sense of both of us getting in trouble?
As unstable as the place was, the Ramsey house was a place of solace, too. Charlie and Debbie took in anyone who needed a place to go, no questions asked. Debbie listened to our stories, both good and bad, an open ear, for many the only one. Charlie gave us positions in the house, to maintain order. After he found out I wrote, he labeled me the scribe of the house. The scribe took notes, real or imagined, of the days’ oc- currences, the eyes and ears of the goings on, of which there were many. It was a position mostly in title only. It often resulted in things like me writing notes above the toilet reminding people to hold the handle down when they flushed, but what Charlie and Debbie did was give us a sense of belonging when many didn’t have one. And so we felt like family to one another.
We were sleeping off a hangover just a block away when it happened. It was 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, the day before New Years Eve. The city was quiet outside, blanketed in a fine layer of powdery snow, mostly undisturbed on the holiday weekend. We had slept through the noise.
Glen's older brother ran into the bedroom, kicking the wooden door open so hard it slammed against the wall behind it.
"Get up," Jason yelled, shaking Ty, asleep on the couch. "Get up," he yelled again. "A train derailed."
Ty rolled over and swatted Jason away.
"Shut the fuck up, dude."
“I’m serious,” Jason said, his voice hitting a tiny screech, as it often did when he was excited.
Ty opened his eyes and jumped off the couch.
We were all awake now, sitting up, groggy, processing the moment. We looked at each other.
The two of them went back and forth, belief and disbelief.
“You’re fucking with me.”
And I with my comrades there in the night.
In June of 2014, Charlie Ramsey (Glen’s father) died of cardiac arrest at the age of 64. Their house had been raided for drugs twice in the previous year. Both times they were caught selling heroin. He and Glen, father and son, faced years in prison, were forced to move. They left town. I hadn’t spoken to them in several years. The last time I went to their house, it was a sad, dark place, changed either over time or through the lens of adult eyes. When I look up the story of the arrest, I read posts from people on the police department’s website about removing scum from the city, and my heart aches.
Now I think of transience, of the state of the locomotive, the very symbol of progress, of moving forward, of permanence, metal over metal, fading away ever so slightly. The train in America is not the presence it once was, now mostly utility. And yet there is a lingering romanticism, there exists nostalgia for the days of passenger cars, a revival of sorts. Romance is: the writer’s residence on an Amtrak train; revival is: talks of high-speed rails being installed from city to city.
The Norfolk Southern line, heading west at 8:30 a.m. December 30, 2000, jackknifed and sent 15 grain-cars, carrying mostly corn, careening off the tracks, two of which dropped 20 feet off the Mansfield Street bridge, landing on the snow-covered road below. Luckily, no one was injured.
“A Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.”
Ty told everyone he could, without discretion. As trains dangled off the bridge two blocks away, he went to a friend’s house yelling how we wrapped a cable around the tracks the night before.
Zack’s mother had been driving down Mansfield Street that morning. And, according to Zack, his mother had been very near that bridge. She was nearly hit by one of those falling train cars.
Maybe his mother had driven under that bridge, maybe. But I didn’t want to believe it. He was one for the dramatic, after all, always exaggerating, always getting in fights, making noise. Was it really that close to the time of the crash? What was she doing driving through town before the plow trucks, at 8:00 in the morning on a Saturday?
But I read news stories now and see that there was a car at the stop light just before the bridge. And it goes without saying that a train traveling at 30 miles an hour, or even significantly less due to weather and the fact it is traveling through a city, would no doubt destroy a vehicle and any one inside, especially if the train came from above.
“And so this is Xmas. I hope you have fun.”
Once in the living room, I sat on the hard daybed where my mother slept. The two men towered over me. I was stiff as the mattress as they explained who they were, using the term “FBI of the Railroad.”
As ridiculous as that sounds to me now, it worked to strike fear in me then. The only thing that kept me from breaking down at that moment was my false teenage bravado. If they were here, I thought, they had some evidence, but I wasn’t arrested. If I had known better, I would have said nothing. But two “R” FBI agents and my mother staring at me in the poorly lit living room was enough to make me crack.
“I suppose you know why we’re here,” one of the men said.
I did, and if it hadn’t been for Ty’s phone call twenty minutes earlier, I would have confessed everything on the spot.
Still, I said almost immediately, “Look, I don’t know how someone could derail a train.”
“Well, it’s easier than you think,” one of them said. Was it? Maybe it was. What did I know about trains?
They questioned me for a little while longer. Ty was in the back of my head the entire time.
As the men left they stopped on the porch to take molds of my bike tires with some equipment. Send them to the lab, they said. Why would I be dragging my bike along the hard, snowy ground next to the train tracks? I turned and walked back in the house without watching them, scared but somewhat confident.
Even after Ty confessed, nothing came of the incident after that day. The official report is that sub-zero temperatures and the weight of the train caused the rail to fracture and break. It took the clean up crew less than 24 hours before the tracks were stable enough to have trains moving through once again. About 50 percent of rail accidents are caused by fault in the tracks, a tiny fracture. Nothing more, nothing less. Almost zero accidents are caused by vandalism.
I lived with the guilt of thinking we caused the accident for years. But, as crazy as it may sound, I know now we didn’t cause it. I never thought about the details before, always afraid to admit it to myself. I’ve been reviewing them lately and I see that more trains had passed in the ten or so hours it had been since we walked the rails, one of them carry- ing loaded tanks of hazardous material. They couldn’t have passed over the tracks and left the cable intact. More importantly I looked at the direction of the train and notice the direction it was traveling. I see that it was facing the wrong way, north instead of west. It has worked out to a crazy coincidence and the two gentlemen from the Railroad FBI must have seen that long ago.
Norfolk Southern claims they do not keep data on derailments because most of the time trains run as expected, without incident. The Federal Railroad Administration keeps track of deaths and injuries, however. In the year 2000, the same year the train landed in the middle of the snowy Mansfield Street, 425 people were killed by trains and 1,219 were injured out of 3,500 incidents.
But the chances of dying by train are about 1 in 420,000. That number drops significantly if you are an actual passenger on the train, which is partially because nobody rides trains anymore. You have a greater chance of dying from a lighting strike (1 in 136,000).
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring
Matthew Gallant received his MFA in nonfiction from The University of Memphis, where he was an editor for The Pinch. He has work previously published in The McNeese Review, at Essay Daily, and in other journals. He was recently named a finalist for the Normal School essay prize.
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