Brian, Duncan and David Duncombe, a San Francisco minister and veteran, sat together on the tracks. While David knelt and Duncan crouched, Brian sat flat on his butt, cross-legged. H clung to his plastic gallon jug of water.
“Here comes the train,” someone shouted. The group was now spread up and down the tracks to greet the train, which had just started from a dead stop inside the main gate, a distance of perhaps 200 yards from where we sat and stood. I leaned down to tease Brian about his impending arrest. “Well, here it goes. You’re about to lose you clean record.” Gabriel stood next to Brian, but off the tracks. Holley was closest to the highway, farthest from the fasters, the first to realize that the train was gaining speed as it moved. I heard the note of panic in Holley’s voice as she yelled, “Stop! Please stop the train. They’re not going to move!” But the train did not stop, and the realization that it would not raced down the tracks alongside the huge engine that was bearing down on us.
For a split second, I marveled at the ability of such a huge machine to stop with so little distance between it and us. And then I saw one of the two men standing there on the open railing at the front of the engine as it loomed larger and larger. He was shaking his head from side to side.
But my friend wasn’t dead. He was alive. He was alive, with his foot lying there severed from his leg, and the blood pouring from the stump. And Holley threw herself on him and, using her skirt, stopped the arterial bleeding. And he was breathing. His chest was heaving, and through a crack in his skull you could see his brain, and I screamed at the Marines and the cops, who only then arrived, and at God, and I screamed and watched his chest heaving, breathing, alive. He was conscious. Holley said, “Make a fist,” and slowly he made a fist. “Move your finger.” He moved it. and he knew, he knew though he no longer remembers. And he waited forever for the ambulance to arrive to take him to the surgeon who said he spoke right up until he went under the knife. He mumbled, “Did I lose my right leg? My left leg?” And he reached up and touched the hole in his head, and said, more in astonishment than in fear, “My God, I’m going to die.”
Photo by John Skerce
David Duncombe moved first, jumping clear. Then Duncan, propelled by an internal spring, hurled himself right onto the cowcatcher and seemed to capture the train in his arms, tearing a gash in his left leg. That left only Brian.
Brian about to be hit by the train, while I hold the banner. Photo by Andy Peri
He rose, slightly, from his cross-legged position to a half-crouch. He was leaning to the right, as if preparing to lurch from the tracks. I saw the expression on his face; it was the same puzzled look I had seen in the photo of Brian, the young soldier, contemplating the stacks of body bags before him.
And then I saw him lift his left arm, still holding his silly plastic water jug, as if to hold back that huge, speeding weapon. And I saw him go under, and I screamed and turned, and his body flailed around under the clattering train, which did not stop, and I heard the blood-curdling cry of the fourteen-year-old boy: “They’ve killed my dad! They’ve murdered my dad!” And the train continued to roll over him, flinging his body from side to side and bouncing it like a rag doll. His arms were stretched out over his head, and he rolled over and over, back and forth as the heavy steel wheels bounced him like a pinball, and I knew he was dead. And I saw Holley race to the side of the moving train, one hand to her face, the other outstretched in an impotent gesture to pull Brian from between the moving wheels. And the train kept moving, kept moving until was entirely beyond his now still body, through the gate leading to the port, and then, finally, it stopped. And I knew he was dead.
But he didn’t die. After the surgeons did their work, after they finished what the train had started by removing his other leg below the knee, after they reconnected his ear, cleaned the gaping, silver-dollar-sized wound in his skull, cleaned the dirt and stones from his brain and covered the open hole with his skin, he was alive.
Just 25 hours after the horror, I was standing by his bed in John Muir Hospital’s intensive care unit, listening to him tell me that he was now like all the legless children he had seen in Nicaragua. A few days later, he ate a small cup of raspberry sherbet and then asked for a vanilla shake.
I’ll tell you this: I saw that train smash into his frail, human body, and I knew it had killed him. And yet now, here he was, continuing a conversation that had gone on between us for ten years and more. Even for an old cynic like me, Brian’s existence made it very tempting to believe in God. With a capital G.
But something of me was also lost. Something that I cannot quite put my finger on, something that scares me. Was it the last vestige of innocence? Have I finally, at the age of 44, left naïve illusion behind? I think of that train engineer, and remember something Brian told me during our trip to Nicaragua. The veterans had traveled by military helicopter to the site of the downed Hasenfus airplane. As they flew at 200 mpg just above the treetops, Brian, looking down from the open door, had felt a sudden surge of power, a rush of omnipotence. By virtue of his powerful machine, he was again the warrior, he could kill and control all he surveyed. He felt it, and it scared him.
Photo by Andy Becker
Photo by Holley Rauen