Angels and Demons

holcomb railroad tracksThe railroad tracks felt like they divided us from the rest of the world.  Running north-south along the eastern edge of town, they were the border between our tiny town and No Man’s Land.  Even one step beyond those tracks and you were no longer in Holcomb.  The Doan’s, who lived not even 500 yards beyond the tracks toward highway 251, seemed like foreigners to me. 

A few times a day, freight trains would roll from their stop at the intermodal hub in Rochelle carrying who knows what up north to farms and factories.  The trains rolled along behind the grain elevator that spewed out corn dust that would cover our house across the street and create a living hell for anyone with asthma. 

There were no crossing arms or lights because everyone was used to the trains.  They were as much a part of our small-town existence as the tiny post office and the sea of corn and soy beans that came up to the other side of the unmarked road that ran alongside the tracks.  Life was simple and there was no sense of urgency as folks walked from one end of town to the other.  Only the old and infirm bothered with cars to get around unless you were crossing the tracks and going out of town. 

It wasn’t necessarily a friendly town.  You wouldn’t find folks sitting on their front porch drinking sweat tea and waving at neighbors strolling by, but most everyone knew each other and would lend a helping hand when needed. 

There was no need for a crossing arm or lights and bells at the three crossings because, even though nobody could tell you what time the two or three trains would roll by each day, their schedule was as much a part of our circadian rhythms as going to bed and waking up.  It wasn’t even that people felt the need to be careful of the trains because there wasn’t really anything to be careful of.  There was no way that anyone would be in the path of one of these trains because such things just didn’t happen.  Except for when it did.

Sandy Stumpf was heading to work via the middle crossing that was next to Doris and Charlie Vogel’s red and white house.  Perhaps she was focused on what she had to do at work and perhaps she wasn’t completely awake yet, but although she noticed the train near the crossing and that the train was moving, she thought the train had already passed and was moving in the other direction.  Unfortunately, she was wrong. 

As a 10 year old boy, I was three miles south in a classroom in Kings when the driver’s side of Sandy Stumpf’s car was crushed by the reversing train.  The train dragged her car off of the road and deposited it in the Vogel’s back yard near the basketball court that they erected for the town’s youth.  Miraculously, Sandy wasn’t fatally injured, but she was pinned inside her car by the crushed driver’s side door leaving her mostly immobile.  More than the pain of being hit, the fear and panic of being trapped overwhelmed her. 

My grandfather, Jim Hilliard, had been chief of our modest volunteer fire department, but was since retired when he saw what had happened and went to Sandy’s aid.  My grandpa had an uncanny knack for finding the scene of the accident as it was ironically him who found his best friend’s truck in a ditch near a country road after his friend had suffered a fatal heart attack.

Sandy needed to be extricated from her car, so there was nothing in that sense that my grandpa could do.  As they waited for emergency vehicles and as the paramedics sawed into her car to get her out, my grandpa knelt next to her and held her hand through the process.  He couldn’t physically get her out and back on her feet, but he provided support and encouragement in a way that gave her the strength to get through her potentially tragic ordeal.  When Sandy was finally free of her car and received the treatment she needed and in the days to follow, both Sandy and other townsfolk called Grandpa Jim a guardian angel.  Many said, “If I ever have an emergency, I want Jim Hilliard to be there with me.”

Sandy would outlive my grandpa by a number of years as he died about two years later at the age of 57.  Many gathered at his funeral and remembered his strong spirit as another angel was taken home.  It wasn’t many years later after his funeral that Sandy would also find herself in a casket – the victim of murder by poisoning at the hand of her husband.  She wasn’t his first wife that had mysteriously turned up dead.  Such is life in a small town where angels and demons play on the same field and eat of what has been reaped from the same soil, but it is the angels that give us strength, even long after they have returned to that hallowed ground.

One Response to “Angels and Demons”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    Thus Lincoln’s timeless appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”

    As you have so persuasively emphasized, with many a sermon, could be that we all have parts “good” and “bad” within.

    Query why the blend turns out differently for some, like the husband (in name only) who through some tortured dimension of mind and soul deemed it within his power to end Sandy’s life.

    Demonic? Seems derived from an evil source, but that begs the question … regarding that which is evil.

    Evil? An unnervingly more potent word than “bad”, yet ineffable.

    Seems the opposite of angelic.

    As you intimate, best to focus on the “good” — and celebrate the angels among us — than try to pin down the “bad”.

    Thank you, as always, for providing another real world glimpse into these grey areas that we embrace as the mystery of life.


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