Light at the End of the Tunnel
by John J. Clayton
Because it matters so much whether the train comes through the tunnel when the children are still inside, in another sense it doesn’t matter at all: either way, nobody’s life will be the same.
Certainly not mine.
The Hoosac Tunnel, four and a half miles through the Berkshires, East to West.
Either six sets of parents-seven including the counselor’s-mourn their lost children the rest of their lives, and brothers mourn brothers and friends mourn friends-or else they’re made aware how close they were to mourning. And so, how close they are, how close we all are. I think about my brother. I think about the brother who grew up . . . or brother lost. And I think about the future mates of those children, and the children of those children. And suppose a great-great grandchild will find,or might have found, a way to extract hydrogen cheaply or to cure childhood leukemia, and suppose a child who would have died from leukemia will live to make great music, or would have lived to make great music-a Mozart.
So either way the same: no one can forget the fragility of a child’s life, lost or not lost, nor the way moments reverberate.
Or maybe it’s not true the parents can’t forget. Imagine that the train stops outside the tunnel, held up by the State Police. The light is from the State Police car that has driven into the tunnel. The children are safe. And now it’s fifteen years later and the original terror has dwindled into laughter over an anecdote. Everyone safe, essentially nothing happened. And some parents do forget, forget the original terror. The call from the camp. They complain, oh, that their grown children have moved away; they feel insulted by a son-in-law. They worry about their stock portfolios.
Or else the children were there in the tunnel when the train roared through, and in terror pressed up against the wall, and one, then another, was sucked into the train as if the tunnel were the tube of a giant vacuum cleaner, and others were suffocated by carbon monoxide from the diesel exhaust. And what about parents whose children barely survived? Oh, they say, oh, now I see what life is.
I think of that tunnel often. My brother Joel, twelve years old, was one of the six children, four girls, two boys, in the group from camp.
"Who wants to go take a look at the Hoosac Tunnel?"
There were two counselors. The older one, who’d thought it up, had heard about the tunnel, not far from camp. Until they brought the railroad through the Rockies, the Hoosac was the longest tunnel in America, four and a half miles eastern to western ends. What an adventure-walking over four and a half miles in the dark while sunlight withdraws to a pinprick you can see for almost a mile, and maybe ghosts appear. I don’t think the young man knew the mileage, and I don’t think he’d heard about the ghosts-he was from New York City. Tim, the counselor, he’s like the pied piper who led the town’s children into the mountain, seducing them to follow. But Tim seduced them out of curiosity, a sense of fun, not revenge (in the original story, the townspeople wouldn’t pay the piper for getting rid of their rats, and the piper called their children under the mountain).
I see them straggling out of the beat-up camp van down the bracken-thick trail and along the tracks, the kids hot and sweaty and half wondering what they’re doing there and half excited, and the counselor, Tim, embarrassed: he’s got them there, but why? Just to look at a hole? He hasn’t planned to go through, but now it seems an adventure, and he’s brought along a flashlight. And of course trains don’t use these tracks anymore, do they? And then one of the kids walks in and yells to raise echoes. So the young man tells the younger counselor: "Why don’t you drive the van over the mountain and meet us at the western entrance? You’ll find it. Just ask. I think it’s in North Adams." Maybe he has a map, but if he does, wouldn’t he see how absurd the distance for six kids in the dark? The van drives off; now the young man is stuck. "All right. Come on guys, let’s do it." The children follow; he leads the way with a flashlight.
Early in the nineteenth century a project was approved by the Massachusetts legislature to open the west to Boston by creating a railroad tunnel through Hoosac Mountain in the Berkshires. Work began in 1851, and after delays and false starts, was finished long after the Civil War in 1874. A great feat of nineteenth century engineering, it involved drilling and blasting first through hard rock, then wet schist-the men called it oatmeal. The tunneling from east and the tunneling from west met beautifully, with only 9/16 of an inch error. But there were other errors. Out of eight or nine hundred men who worked on the tunnel, one hundred ninety six died-died from rock slides, from asphyxiation, and from explosions of nitroglycerine, used commercially for the first time. It’s their ghosts said to haunt the tunnel.