There was a noise many folks mistook for the whistle at the prison and then an incredibly large explosion and then it was quiet. Just the sound of the wind rustling through the corn. You’d think that people would start screaming and crying out right away, but that’s not so. You need a moment to wait for your brain to accept that what has happened has actually happened.
Even then, it doesn’t seem quite real. And, if you aren’t in the middle of it, if you just hear about it, something so terrible, like two trains slamming into each other in the middle of a corn field, bodies and body parts tossed in with tattered luggage, it’s even harder to say, “Yes, this terrible thing happened here.”
The Monday after the flood, for instance, while people were still waiting to be rescued, while folks were just reentering homes to see how much they’d lost, while the police still blocked off roads, while the dead still remained uncounted, even while we were still shaken from the water that had just receded from our yard, we got in the car and went to look.
We smelled the putrid water. We walked to its edge and cried at the thought of the streets beneath it.
And we felt it, finally, in our bones, that this terrible thing had really happened and that we had seen it.
So, I understand why so many Nashvillians–as many as 50,000 in a city that, in 1918, had just over 100,000 residents–came out to see the aftermath of the great train wreck. How could you really know it unless you actually saw it? And how could you grieve it if you didn’t know it?
These are the ghosts that upset people, though. Many times I’ve heard from people who have been walking down the Richland Creek Greenway or standing there at the site of the wreck, reading the signs or gazing up at the track, trying to imagine what it must have been like, and they will catch out of the corner of their eye, a great crowd of specters approaching.
“How could they come to gawk?” I’m asked.
But when we go there, looking for ghosts, hoping to hear the century-old echoes of the dying, are we not also gawking?
Are we somehow less ghoulish?