Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Train Wreck

I went to see my Aunt Martha in December last year. I didn’t know it would be our last Christmas with her. I asked her about Christmas and her childhood memories.
“Daddy was real good to all the neighbors at Christmas,” she said, “He would go out and buy groceries for families if they didn’t have any money. He would even buy Christmas gifts for the kids and we didn’t even have no Christmas gifts. He was real good to us and mama unless he was drinkin’ and he was bad to drink around Christmas.”
I never got to meet my grandfather, Charlie Coker, but I have recorded countless stories about him. Some of the stories are sad. I think Christmas was especially difficult for my grandfather. It brought back an unpleasant memory.
My dad was only seven years old, and walking down the tracks near his home in Rockmart on a warm and overcast December day in 1935, he heard a train in the distance and caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a man lying across the tracks. His father had passed out in the path of an oncoming train.
Charlie, my grandfather, was five feet and ten inches tall, just like his father. He weighed one hundred forty pounds and it was all muscle. He wore a straw hat when he was out in the fields, and he wore a nice hat with a brim when he went to town. With the money he made at Georgia Power and the cash he made on the side, Charlie was one of the first young men in Rockmart to have a brand new car. In his teens, he was known for his good looks and for wearing stylish clothes. Before he had a car, they say he always had the fanciest buggy in town.
“Charlie was the best carpenter there ever was.” Said his nephew, Sammie King. “Anytime anybody needed anything built, they went and got Charlie. He could build you a barn, a house, a fence or anything. He was a first class brick mason and he’d work with rocks and concrete. He used to work with Georgia Power, back when they was building them substations and he’d pour the concrete pads for them. He was generous too. Uncle Charlie would give you the shirt off his back. He’d give everything he had to other people.”
 As soon as my dad realized Charlie was still alive, he ran to where he had seen a couple of men cutting down a tree a hundred yards back. “My daddy’s on the tracks and there’s a train coming.” His heart was pounding and he couldn’t get his breath but the men understood  and ran to meet him. They helped my dad pull my grandfather off the tracks just before the train came.
Nine years earlier, almost to the day, before my daddy was born, Charlie was thirty six years old and at that same place, on the same tracks. On Friday, December 23, 1926, Charlie stepped off the Southern Train and into the depot in Rockmart. It was and he was coming in from Covington, Georgia where he was working for Georgia Power. He was home for Christmas. There was a lot of commotion in the depot and people were saying something about a train wreck. From where Charlie got off the train it was only a few hundred yards to the sight of the accident.
At about that same time, some neighbors told my grandmother, Della, that there had been a train wreck in Rockmart. Was Charlie on that train? It was pouring down rain and she was expecting him at any moment. Martha, the youngest of two girls, was 18 months old. Ed was three and a half. Tom was five, Charles was eight, Mable was eleven and JP was thirteen.
“Where’s daddy?” asked Charles.
“I’m sure his train is just running late.” Said Della.
“Can I go see the wreck?” asked JP
“No,” said Della, “Y’all just need to ask the good Lord to be with them”
They waited for Charlie by the fire in the living room.
The Royal Palm had stopped on the side track to wait for the Ponce De Leon to pass. The Ponce Deleon took the wrong track running forty miles an hour. When the trains collided, the tender box detached and went rolling down the embankment. Cries for help were mostly coming from the dining car and Charlie worked well into the night helping to free people from the tangled steel. Seventeen people perished that night.
Della paced the floor all night. Surely she would get word soon. Charlie finally got home just before sunrise. He didn’t say a word.
The next day, they heard that a little girl who had been taken to the hospital in Cedartown didn’t make it. Charlie was devastated by the tragedy and he was forever a changed man. Charlie didn’t like to talk about that night. That morning He just went out to check on the animals. The rain had stopped and it was a cloudy Christmas Eve.
A sad country song was written about the scene. It was called The Wreck of The Royal Palm. One verse may help you to understand what Charlie may have been dealing with for all those years.

It was an awful sight
Beneath the pouring rain
The dead and dying lying there
Beneath that mighty train
No tongue can ever tell
No pen will ever write
No one will ever know but those who saw
The horrors of that night
The Wreck of The Royal Palm. Written by American songwriter, the Reverend Andrew (Blind Andy) Jenkins

Charlie began to stir when his son and the two men pulled him from the track. Still dazed, he looked and the train and smiled as it passed. Daddy looked at the train and then looked at his daddy. “What on earth was he thinking?” He wondered. Daddy waited there with him for an hour. Charlie finally got up and began staggering home. He looked at some rusting debris at the bottom of the embankment.
Following the train wreck, my grandfather would spend the next twenty Christmas Eves taking food to neighbors and gifts for some of the children. He seldom spoke of that awful night. My dad inherited some of my grandfather’s quaint old sayings and pleasant ways. Although I never met Charlie, I am sure I heard him speaking through my dad when we would ask him what he wanted for Christmas.
“I just want everybody to be happy and well.” He would always say.
85 years have passed since that night. The old song is hard to find. Almost all of the witnesses are gone. Aunt Martha passed away in February of this year.