The Wedding Invitation and Brothers-in-Law

When I married my husband, he had four brothers. Seven years later he was down to three. This is what I remember about the day Tony died and the time that followed.

It was early April and it was chilly and gray, but I don’t think it had snowed. I was at my friend’s house down the road when I saw a company truck pull in my driveway. I didn’t think too much of it because my husband sometimes drove the company truck home; I just told my friend that was my signal to get going.

In a few minutes, though, the truck went past her house again and it was NOT my husband at the wheel. That didn’t seem right. I hurried the kids into the car and went to investigate.

At the time we had a wood burning stove. When I entered the house, my husband was loading it. He did not turn to greet me as he usually would. That was odd. I asked him where his personal truck was, and he said that “they” brought him home. I told him I had seen the company truck and asked him again about his.

Because he would not turn around, I imagined all sorts of things. You don’t have to be a railroad wife for long before hearing the horror stories about injuries. The worst I could imagine was that my husband had been hurt and he wouldn’t turn around because he was afraid I would freak when I saw. I was thirty; I probably would have. Not knowing was worse, though, so I went to him and turned him around.

“Ron,” I said. “Where is your truck?”

NOTHING could have prepared me for his response, which was, “Tony got hit by a train today.”

Most people think of railroad work as riding the trains, but there is really a lot more to it than that. My husband works in the track department, which maintains the tracks on which the trains run. He had been working on a production gang with his oldest brother, Tony.

As you can imagine, I was sort of in shock. My first question was, ” Is he all right?”

My husband’s response:”Oh, he’s quite dead.”

We were kneeling in front of the stove. With his announcement, my husband turned back to the stove.

Stupidly, I started with, “….Your truck….?”

His response: “They didn’t think I should drive.”

No duh!

At that point, my husband couldn’t talk about what had happened. I asked him what I could do for him, and he asked me to find his father who had a bad habit of moving around to avoid his debtors. I set to work and finally, with the cooperation of a Florida sheriff and a Georgia sheriff, I found out where he was. The Georgia sheriff delivered the news.

I don’t remember if I told the kids anything or not. They were five and six. I might have told them that Daddy needed them to be good. They always seemed to sense that, anyway.

About an hour later, Tony’s wife called our house. She had just received the news of his death, and she knew that my husband was with the gang. She wanted to know if Tony had suffered. My husband thought it was quick. She wanted to know if he was in heaven. Tears ran down my husband’s cheeks, although his voice never changed. Tony had called himself an agnostic. My husband told his widow that no one knew what Tony was thinking in his last moments except God, so by the grace of God he was.

My father-in-law called from Georgia and told us he would be at our house the next day. So did the brother-in-law from California. I don’t remember if the two local brothers called or not. They must have. Or maybe Ron called them. He didn’t talk, though, and I didn’t either. I just watched him and worried.

Tony died on a Monday. Ron did not sleep until Thursday night.

On Tuesday, because I knew he had not slept, I called our pastor, who came over. As they talked, I saw a tear run down my husband’s cheek. A single tear. My husband told our pastor that he should have been able to do something. After all, he was there. If only he had blown the horn on his machine….

We had somehow gotten hold of these little powder blue circle stickers. That day, Ron had taken some in to work, maybe for Tony’s oldest son Jay, who had just turned three. Tony had wanted some of the stickers on his hard hat to mark it, and Ron gave him some, which Tony very carefully stuck on. Did he know, somehow?

My sister-in-law wanted Ron to go with her to make Tony’s arrangements. I wasn’t very happy about that because I knew he had not slept and he still wasn’t talking, but he went. I had to take him to get his truck.

The wife of the California brother-in-law called. She wanted to know if Ron had cried yet. She said she kept at her husband until he did, and she thought I should do the same.

Her husband wasn’t there.

The funeral was on Thursday, the first viewing on Wednesday. My sister-in-law, Tony’s widow, wanted to see him. The funeral director was reluctant and said he would not open the casket unless someone would stand with her. My brothers-in-law, as always, looked to Ron. He turned green. The casket did not get opened.

The supervisor of the gang on which my husband and his brother were working showed up Wednesday night. By that time, I had found out some of what happened.

My brother-in-law was the foreman on this particular gang; my husband was running a piece of equipment. You know how tracks are often double, side-by-side? Well, they were lining (straightening) the track, and the piece of equipment that was supposed to do that had a malfunction, so my brother-in-law was on the side of the equipment between the two tracks, watching what the machine was doing. You aren’t supposed to be on the side between the tracks, but he had a job to do and he was trying to get it done. Then a train went by on the other track. Most people don’t know that two trains passing creates a sort of vacuum.

Somehow, that train caught Tony’s sweatshirt and threw him. Fortunately, my husband was NOT running the piece of equipment on which his brother was riding. He saw the operator run by his machine, though, and he knew that something had happened.

I don’t know where my brother-in-law landed; I have never asked, and it doesn’t matter. I do know that his red sweatshirt, just like the one my husband wears, was up over his head. Or where his head should have been. I assume it was there, but there was a lot of damage.

When my husband went up to see what had happened, that is what he saw. The place where his brother’s head should have been. Where he was, it was raining. He stood in the rain and stared at his brother’s body. I think he said somebody covered it finally. Then “crazy” Ralph took my husband away to sit in a truck. I probably met Ralph at the funeral, but I don’t remember. He is now a supervisor in the territory just south of my husband’s. If I ever do meet him, I am going to thank him for what he did so long ago.

No wonder my husband couldn’t talk.

At the viewing, I asked the supervisor why he hadn’t taken my husband away from the scene more quickly, and he responded that nobody ever died on one of his gangs before.

OK. I can see that, I guess. But the death was my husband’s brother! Wouldn’t a normal, feeling person have removed him from the scene.

Thank God for Ralph.

We lived through the funeral. Tony’s widow had his sons, Jay and Lee, with her. At the time they were three and three months. She was twenty-three. She didn’t want any other children at the funeral, so we didn’t take ours. I have always felt sort of bad about that because our kids liked their Uncle Tony. But it was what his widow wanted.

In the receiving line, one of the other railroad wives came up to me with tears in her eyes and said it should have been one of us. My mouth dropped open, and I asked her why. She said, well, Tony’s widow was so young, and there was the new baby….

I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. It shouldn’thave happened to anyone! Would we or our children have missed our husbands less?

After the funeral and the subsequent wrangle with the railroad for a settlement, Tony’s widow, quite understandably, had some difficulty adjusting. Someone, I don’t remember for sure who, suggested that she break contact with Tony’s family. And she did.

Sort of harsh, but I could sort of understand it. What my sister-in-law thought she was going to have as a life and what she got were vastly different. She had to do whatever was necessary to cope.

Why do I bring all of this up now?

Well, a couple of months ago, we had a message from Tony’s widow on our answering machine. She said that her oldest son, Jay, was getting married and wanted to invite my husband. I don’t know how she got our phone number. She left a call-back number, though, and my husband called back and talked to his brother’s baby, Lee. He gave Lee our address, but he said he wasn’t holding his breath. He had wondered, he said, how the boys turned out. Did they look like his brother?

My husband is a very deep man. I never knew he wondered that. He never talked about it. But it doesn’t surprise me.

Today we got the wedding invitation. The wedding is August thirteenth. It was addressed to my husband and “guest”. It came from Jay, who maybe doesn’t know he has an aunt and cousins. He does not know he has a baby cousin who is named after his dad.

I am glad we got the invitation, but sort of wary, too. After no contact for so long, why now? Does Jay just want to see where he came from?

My husband and I have talked about what to give as a wedding present, and we have an idea. We have a family picture: his grandma and grandpa, his dad and all of his brothers. I doubt he has ever seen it.

As he starts his own family, would that kind of knowledge give him hope? Would it connect him to the dad he barely remembers? I think as you start your own family, connections of that sort become more important.

The picture, at least, would at least be a start.


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