Thursday, May 27, 2021

There were many things we worried about when Dad worked on the railroad

There were derailments.  There were the freak head-on collisions, one of which claimed a friend and coworker of my dad when I was only a baby.  There were, of course, gasoline trucks.  Those were the bogeyman for every railroad crewman and his family.  There were freak accidents in the railroad yard.  Those are, after all, mammoth machines and pieces of equipment all around you when you're in a yard setting.  I don't know if you ever stood in front of a train engine, right in front of it, staring it down, but they're terrifying to see up close. 

A friend and former colleague from Nigeria I knew in my Protestant days once told me something that in hindsight made perfect sense.  He asked if I could guess what blew him away more than anything else when he first came to America.  I told him I couldn't begin to guess.  He said our trains.  He had never seen anything so monstrous or spectacular as our railroads and their engines.  They are big.  

Because of that, there was always a chance for injury or death on the railroad. True, it wasn't like it was in the days of steam.  Those steam engines were very, very risky to work on.  While many romanticize the glory days of steam, and even some old timers looked back with fondness on the old iron horses, my dad was never one who did.  He couldn't let the door hit the steam era in the behind fast enough.  

Noisy, hot, freezing, miserable, dangerous.  He was a fireman for all but the last few years of steam, and that meant straddling two separate wobbling machines barreling 70 mph down the tracks, seeing the railroad ties soaring by underneath, while shoveling about 100 tons of coal into a blast furnace a thousand degrees minimum, even if it was freezing outside.  Good riddance was Dad's opinion.  As soon as he could ditch the coveralls and hat he did, and went to polos with sunglasses and jeans. 

But then Dad always saw the railroad as a job, and nothing more. In the 1960s and 1970s, model railroading reigned as one of the biggest hobbies in America.  I knew several kids who had model railroad sets.  I met several over the years who had quite elaborate displays, including our high school chemistry teacher (who was always a bit smitten about  Dad's job).  When people would ask why he never had a big railroad layout in his house, he would respond that when people have model office buildings, law offices or factories in their homes, he'll have a model railroad in his.  It was a job.  A sometimes dangerous job, a good paying job with excellent retirement that Mom would not have made it this far without, but a job nonetheless.

All of this is to say that with all that working on the railroad was, the good, the bad, the scary and the dangerous, the one thing we never thought to worry about was a mass shooting at one of the railroad yards.  Why?  For the same reason we never worried about mass shootings in schools.  They didn't happen but rarely, if at all.  It just wasn't a thing.  

Despite gun laws being looser in many ways than today, and most people I grew up with having guns all over the place, it never dawned on us to worry that someone would get a gun and walk in and just start shooting because they just walked in an started shooting. Yes, you had the odd mass killing.  A few times there were mass shootings.  But they were rare.  They weren't something that happened every week, much less every day.

Even if you account for the news media hyping things, you must admit these things happen more, and in ways, that simply hadn't happened until a few decades ago.  Even if guns - and yes that include semi-automatics - were available, it just wasn't a thing.

If we care about human life, we would look at the disease, not the symptom or the tool.  If there was an accident on the railroad of any type, they would immediately check things out to see why and what was the root cause of the tragedy.  It's what they did.  So far, we've dodged looking at the root cause of our ever mutating culture of violence by focusing ever and only on guns, Guns, GUNS!  

Even if all of our solutions would barely shave off a fraction of the deaths in our country, we're content with that instead of asking the hard questions, like where did we as a society go wrong.  Which strongly suggests our concern about victims of gun violence is less about the human life involved and more about going after things that have been around for much longer than the problem we're using to go after them. 

For me, while I pray for the victims and the loved ones who they leave behind, I'm prepared to face the tough questions about the nation and world we've built and are responsible for.  To refuse to go there and obsess only about something that is a mere tool and clearly not the cause of the problem must, at some point, be an affront to God.  After all, we're to be about loving our neighbor, not exploiting him to ramrod our pet agendas and axes to grind. 


  1. To tweak a CS Lewis quote: "We celebrate a culture of nihilism, then are shocked to find nihilistic acts in our midst."

    1. Or I think the wise man once said, we have sewn the wind, and we are about to reap the whirlwind.

  2. Oh, but mass shootings DID happen, in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

    In Israel.

    It was as nothing for the PLO or some fellow traveler to obtain an AK-47 with a couple extra magazines, hand it to some willing "martyr", and send him to shoot up a school, tour bus, synagogue, wedding, or what have you. They only cost about 50 bucks.

    But then, Golda Meir decided that letting those Israelis who passed suitable background checks (regardless of Christian, Jew, or Muslim) check out sidearms from government armories in order to stand guard over schools, tour buses and tourist sites, and other such soft, target rich environments. And that's when the PLO and their fellow travelers switched over to car bombs and suicide vests, which are far more expensive, and far more dangerous to terrorist leadership.

    1. Yank that I am, I was thinking on America. I realize that such violence is not new - per se. Though I saw an article some years ago that the 'just kill because you're pissed' is something new. Even the terrorist mass killings could be linked to an ideology or political agenda. But the modern 'I had a bad day - so I shot up an office' seems rather novel in the long, sad history of the world. In America, it began somewhat in the late 70s, then kicked into high gear by the 80s (the McDonalds shooting being what put it on the map). From there it moved into the schools by the late 80s and early 90s, and since the 00s has become a fixture. I'm sure I'm not the first to be amazed at our modern era's capacity for trying something new, seeing the disastrous results, and then simply ignoring the disastrous results and moving on with what hasn't worked.


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