By Alfred L. Horowitz
Howard felt exhilarated, for he had just finished a successful morning business meeting in Tryon, North Carolina. He and his wife lived in California, but had only moved there one year ago from Asheville, North Carolina, which is about 30 miles north of Tryon. Howard had often commuted to Tryon for business purposes when he lived in Asheville, and was familiar with both towns.
He entered his favorite lunch restaurant in Tryon and ordered the same sandwich he had eaten many times in the past. His obsession with details, a consequence of his profession as an accountant, ignited his usual confrontation with the cashier when he insisted on crossing out his credit card number on the receipt. “You have already been paid when you ran this card,” he would say, “You don’t need to jeopardize the card’s security by possessing its number.”
Howard exited the restaurant and stood for a few minutes on the sidewalk. He gazed across the busy four-lane commercial highway that ran through the center of town. On the other side of the road was an embankment that he always loved to visit when he had business in Tryon. On the embankment were railroad tracks. Howard was a train enthusiast. He grew up in the 40’s and 50’s when traveling by train was common in the United States. He had an American Flyer electric train his parents had given him when he was eight-years old. What was it about trains that fascinated him? In part, it was their beauty. The tracks were beautiful too. Parallel rails with ties evenly spaced, raised above the surrounding ground by the track bed. And the tracks were fate itself. Howard had often stood at train stations looking down the tracks towards their destiny miles away. The train must precisely follow the tracks. He loved this precision.
When Howard climbed up the embankment, he saw the tracks as he remembered them: one long track, the main line stretching indefinitely in both directions parallel to the road, and a short spur which turned off of the main track for a distance of about 100 yards. Howard bemoaned the fact that his visits to these tracks never seemed to coincide with a passing train. The tracks were rusty, which is often seen in rural areas, and does not affect the performance of the train. The spur arose from the main line by means of a switch track, or simply “switch”. Switches allow trains to proceed in either of two directions: straight ahead or curving off to the right or left, and were operated by railroad workers, who determined which way the train would go.
Howard looked lovingly at this ubiquitous piece of industrial machinery. He prided himself in being able to tell which position the switch was in: straight ahead or curving onto the
spur. He could do this by looking at the movable rails on the switch mechanism. He saw that it was set for the main line, which made sense, since most trains would probably be speeding through the town of Tryon and would have no railroad business requiring the use of the spur.
Attached to the side of the switch was a four-foot-long metal lever that operated the switch. Howard eyed this device trying to imagine what it would be like to be a train man working on this railroad and controlling the trains with switches. He looked in both directions along the main track. No trains were coming. Yes, he would see if he could operate the switch! Of course, he would reset it right away. He had never done anything like this before, and right now, he was thrilled at the prospect. He approached the rusty lever and grasped it with both hands. It was rough and scratched his skin. He pulled in the one direction that seemed correct with respect to his perception of the switch, and surprisingly, the lever moved without much force. As the lever moved, so did the rails of the switch, and he could see that the switch was now set for a train to exit onto the spur. He had done it just as if he were a real train man! He stood there absorbing this experience for several minutes.
All right. The fantasy is over, he thought. Time to re-enter the real world. “Let’s reset the switch before a train comes!” He once again firmly held the switch lever and pulled opposite to the direction that set the switch for the spur. This time, however, the lever did not move easily. In fact, no matter how hard and in what direction he pulled, it did not budge. It was stuck in the position he had placed it, and the switch remained set for the spur. Howard felt a sickening wave
of panic flood his body. If a train came, the engineer would not be expecting the switch to be thrown for the spur. He would not have enough time to stop the train and would crash into the bumper at the end of the short spur. There would be injuries and possible loss of life, not to mention damage to the railroad. Howard knew that it was absolutely imperative that he reset that switch for the main line.
Now he sweated profusely, and not just from the moist summer heat of Tryon. He felt dizzy, sick and out of control. How did his morning feelings of wellbeing come to this? He had to do something. If he told the truth to the railroad authorities, and if there were a derailment, he would be held responsible for committing a felony. If he told the truth, and even if the authorities believed him and were able to prevent an accident, he would likely be charged with some sort of crime for his actions. If he did nothing, and there was a train crash, nobody would catch him, but he would feel guilty for the rest of his life. He had to come up with an idea before the next train arrived.
Howard then thought of going to the railroad authorities and simply telling them that as a railfan, he was looking at this switch and noticed that it may be incorrectly set. So, he would just be letting someone know, who may be in a position to prevent an accident from occurring, if indeed the switch needed to be adjusted. That is what he would do. But how would one contact the railroad authorities? Howard found a phonebook in a local store. He knew the railroad that served this area and figured that the tracks with his switch must belong to it. He found a main toll-free number and called from a local phone booth. However, no matter whom he asked to be connected with, all he could get was an answering machine. How could he leave a message that a train may crash?
Howard jumped into his car and headed north to Asheville. He remembered that there was a train yard on the outskirts of the town. Surely there would be an administrative office there. He only hoped that he could get there before a train came barreling down the track towards his switch. After some deliberation, he turned on the car radio and tuned into a local news station hoping he would not hear, “This just in: there was a major train derailment in Tryon today ….”. In fact, he did not. When he got to the train yard at Asheville, he had to climb over a fence with a sign on it saying “Railroad Personnel Only”. There was indeed an administrative office, but it was closed with no one in sight. He was now a trespasser on railroad property.
Howard arrived at his hotel in a dejected state. He knew that this may turn out to be one of the worst days of his life. As he passed the front desk, he saw a TV playing in the lounge. Sports news. No mention of a train accident. Howard returned home to California the next day.
Five years later, Howard returned to Western North Carolina for the first time since his last traumatic visit. Time had somewhat healed the wounds of his misdeed involving that switch track, and in fact, he was never made aware of any railroad mishap in this area. He pretty much forgot about it until he found himself driving along the highway in the town of Tryon after conducting his morning business. He stopped and walked up the same embankment site that he had last visited. But where were the railroad tracks? The graded land for a track bed was still there, but the tracks themselves were gone.
He crossed the street and entered a small hardware store. “Can I help you?” asked an older man wearing an apron.
“Yes, I’m curious. Didn’t there used to be tracks on that embankment across the road?”
“Oh yes. The railroad finally took ‘em down a couple years ago.”
“Really? How come?”
“Well, it took them long enough to do it, but they eventually had to on account of that horrible accident.”
Howard stared at the man in disbelief. “W-what accident?”
“Just horrible”, the man exclaimed. “Some fool set the switch for that short spur. A tank train then come speedin’ down the main line, and by the time the engineer could see that the switch was thrown to the spur, it was too late. The locomotive smashed into the track end, killed the
engineer, and derailed some o’them tanks with poisonous fumes escapin’ from ‘em. Several people on the ground were also badly injured. Just awful. At first they thought it was a railroad employee who done it, but after investigation, they realized that no employee woulda been that dumb. They figured it was just some prankster. Don’t know how the man could live with hisself. Never caught him.”
Howard felt cold and clammy as he gaped at the man telling him what he had dreaded to hear for the past five years. His voice cracked, “Were you here when it happened?”
“Sure was, standin’ right there where you are now, helpin’ a customer. Sounded like the world was comin’ to an end. The whole town heard it. Yup, remember it like yesterday, even though it was twenty-five years ago.”
“Twenty-five year….”, Howard slowly mumbled as warmth began to return to his being.
“Yes sir. O’course the railroad immediately abandoned the route. No train ever went down that track again after the accident. Kind of missed hearin’ them come by. That’s why I say, it sure took ‘em a while to get them tracks removed- a good twenty-three years with no trains passin ‘ by. You know, if you’re interested in trains, we sell a lot of H-O stuff. Lionel also. Like to see some of it?”
Loved your short story. I heard about it from Karla and I am so happy she sent me the link. Loved the twist at the end.