Four and a Half Hours at 55 Miles Per Hour
The worst accident in the history of my state was the senseless death of 74 people when a tanker (loaded with gasoline) tried to beat the train, right at the mid-point in between the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez, Mexico, but horribly failed. The tanker driver wanted to shave a couple of seconds from his trip, but ended up cutting 75 lives short, since I’m including his own life. I really don’t want to lump him with his innocent victims but history and plain mathematics do that, and not I.
The train had a bar at the front where some of the first class passengers used to spend their time. All the people that were at the bar died from the initial explosion (about 25). Another 47 victims were from the first class car that was right next to the bar. Most of those died from the abrupt stoppage, the devastating explosion and the flames after it, and the last two were a couple of elderly passengers in second-class who died from stoppage injuries. I used to take that same train run every week, always a first-class passenger who never sat at my seat since I used to be one of the most constant and best customers at that bar.
For two years I took that train, except that very day, and only because a friend, by negligence, made me miss it, so…I should have been one of those poor victims at the bar. All of them wonderful people. Some of them were my friends (mostly American-Maquila executives)—the Maquilas are American assembly plants in Mexico—some of them acquaintances, and some whom I’d never met. I’m almost certain they had taken the train that day for the first time in their lives, since we always used to have some first-timers on every run.
I used to, as I said before, take that train weekly, on the dot to see my girlfriend Laura (later my wife, and now my ex-wife, but the wonderfully-dutiful Mother of my Children) in Chihuahua. On the way back, I would meet all these people that worked in Chihuahua, but lived in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, who were on their way back home for the weekend. We never sat at our assigned seats, since we would be at the bar, playing poker, joking, drinking and eating: in other words, having an excellent time drinking beer and whiskey and shooting the breeze, with a train engineer as a designated driver, for four and a half hours at 55 miles per hour.
Thursdays were my free days, and that’s why I always took that same run. I would leave on Wednesday evening, and Laura would be waiting for me at the station. Then Laura and I would spend all Thursday together (enjoying every second of it, as young lovers do), and she would wave goodbye when I took the morning train on Fridays, on my way back.
I had done this for over 730 days and, like I said before, at least 14 people in the bar were regulars, plus the train workers that I used to know so well and liked so much. Seven of them, two American men, three American women, and a Mexican married couple, were the group that comprised our “gang.” The five Americans, at that time I was a Mexican citizen living in Mexico, had asked me (five months before) to take them to the Sierra of Chihuahua since they wanted to go badly, but were afraid to go alone. I gladly accepted. We went, stayed three days, had a wonderful time, and they even nominated me as the best tourist guide in the world. The others were the bar workers, all honest-hard-working people and by then my good buddies. For the rest that I knew, they were mostly businessmen from both El Paso and Juarez that would go to Chihuahua every month or so, and so we had met on and off throughout those two years.
I had been taking that train for so long that for a couple of weeks after the accident many people thought I was dead, so afterwards my friends would take me out to lunch, dinner, or just a drink, so that I would tell them how I happened to miss the train. Plus, the almost eerie fact that I still had the ticket for a trip I never took. Once more, the hottest topic of those conversations always was: how did I happen to miss the train?
So, I’ll tell you too, just like I told it countless times. My best friend, Jesus Enriquez, borrowed my car to do a couple of errands with the promise to come back and take me to the train station. This way he could drop me off and pick me up when I came back, something we had done before several times. However, this time he didn’t make it back on time. He alleged that a traffic cop stopped him, making him late. The fact is that he came back too late, but we took off for the station anyway (the station was about 15 minutes from my apartment).
The train was to leave at 5:00 p.m., and he arrived at my apartment at 4:50 p.m. I burnt rubber, broke most traffic rules, and pushed the poor 1972 Datsun to the limit, so we, somehow, made it while the train was still at the station, but just about ready to leave. I have to explain that this was a…Mexican train, so…sometimes…it would take off a little late, not always on time.
When I ran into the station, I already had my ticket with me (I always bought my ticket on the way back for the following week.) I heard the train make that familiar steamed-pressured sound that I so loved since it signaled the beginning of another journey. Its wheels started that initial slow move. Once inside the station, I was finally able to see the train, which was moving slowly, so I kept running towards it (I was young and in shape, so I could still make it easily), but the customs officer grabbed my bag and stopped me. As you know, Juarez is a border town, so there used to be a customs checkpoint that you had to go through before you took the train.
I let go of the bag and told the custom officer, “Keep it! I just need to get on that train. I already have a ticket.”
At this time, the train was already moving slowly away from the station, but I was 19 and in love, so I could have still made it. But another officer, who was on the other side, in between the checkpoint and the train, put his arm around my waist and stopped me cold.
He was alleging that I couldn’t take off and leave a bag behind. “Maybe you have something illegal in it!” he yelled.
I got away from his hold and tried to run for the train, but the first officer, still holding my bag, came to his aid and grabbed my arm, pulling me down forcefully.
Both of them pinned me on the ground, and I saw the train slowly leave the station as the customs officers sweaty faces towered over me, and, somehow all of this was in a kind of slow motion, as if in a movie. I took one last look at the train, still in that same slow-motion velocity, but already, little by little, coming back toward a reality-based speed. I then closed my eyes and leaned back on the cold station floor as I nodded my head in disgust.
“Let’s open this bag,” the first officer said, now completely breaking the slow motion feel as he was standing up, towering over me, while the other one, still on top of me, was looking at me angrily.
“Stupid! Idiot!” I told my friend many times while I was getting to the car. I had told him to wait, just in case I didn’t make it.
To be honest with you, I told him some other very varied bad words that I don’t want to print here. I was very young, so you can imagine the array of unthinkable, horrid, and insulting vituperations that came out of my bloody mouth. Yes, the border guards worked me over a little bit. Not too much, but a little, since I made them sweat, or shall we say, work. My friend, who was waiting inside my car as I had instructed him, just looked at me with a blank stare.
“I’m sorry.” That’s all he blurted out as he was getting out of the car, leaving me the driver’s seat.
He went around the car to get into the passenger seat, but I reached across and pushed the button down, locking him out.
At this time I wasn’t just angry, I was fuming, since I almost made it to the train only to miss it by a hair. So I yelled at him, “You walk!”
I sped up and left him there, in the middle of the train station’s parking lot, with a blank, lost, and sad stare on his face.
The accident was all over the news. Actually, that’s all the news was about. The entire populations of Chihuahua and Juarez were flabbergasted with the sad news of so many deaths and so much pain and suffering. I watched, heard, and read everything that was aired, said, and printed about it, and still couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe that it had happened, and I also couldn’t believe that I hadn’t made it to the train on time, that I wasn’t there where I was supposed to be as it was customary for the past two years! I had tried so hard to make it to that train, but despite all efforts, the train left without me, and that was a blessing.
We were disgusted and appalled at the careless-dead driver, but also deeply touched, especially with the news of the man that died while trying to save as many people as possible (he entered the flaming car too many times to get people out, but couldn’t get himself out the last time he tried.) That hero made us all feel human and selfish at the same time. You could feel the tension in the air, the empathy for the victims, and the hatred for the man that caused that catastrophe. That man was so lucky to have died in the same accident he caused.
I spent the following day looking for my once lackadaisical, but now superhero friend all over Juarez so that I could thank him for the same reason that I had insulted him the day before when I sent him home on foot. It was late afternoon when I finally found him, and we got so drunk that I don’t even remember where the binge ended, although I remember that I was continually apologizing for what I had said and done to him, over, and over, and over as drunken people usually do. This time I was congratulating him for actually having failed me and being so late in returning my car. Those two customs officers and my friend saved my life! As I said before, all my friends and family knew that I used to take that train, so all of them had already counted me as gone for some time.
Sadly, as autumn leaves make us notice them with their beautiful changing color—just to then fall down and suddenly become a nuisance, only garbage over the pavement, to be taken by the wind or by the garbage collectors—they always end up turning to just distant remembrances that disappear from our memories, and so did that accident and its powerful story. It faded away for most people, as most happenings do with time, no matter how horrendous, and no matter how big the impact. We always forget, and that, sadly, is part of our human condition.
Nevertheless, when that dreadful accident was still fresh in people’s memories, my story was compelling and almost not believed by many the too many times I told it and retold it. I couldn’t even tell you the very high number of excited listeners that held my ticket in awe. However, time has passed and the accident was no longer in people’s minds, especially those people whose lives it didn’t touch directly. Those people whose only connection was the time in front of the television and the five minutes it took them to read a newspaper article. To those people it has become a fable, something quaint, distant, and almost nonexistent, like those yearly autumn leaves., But not for me!
As far as I’m concerned, that accident hasn’t lost its power since I still remember my dear old friends. Their faces have somehow faded, I have to admit that, since I’m only human and fallible. Even though their laughs and the good times I had with them are still wandering in my mind, deep inside my heart. That tragic voyage, which was to be our last trip together, ended up being only theirs. I failed them, and somehow that gave me life. I had never been introverted, shy, or cowardly in my life, but from then on I lived, and have lived, without fear of anything, because I have been living on borrowed time. I was supposed to be dead, with my friends, the ones who were probably worried for me since I never showed up. I failed them just to succeed, like my wonderful friend Jesus, who started this rift in the natural order of things, but not them. They were dutifully there, just to…horribly perish without me.
I want to think that they are in some kind of limbo where all the innocent victims of this world’s atrocities are, and that my dearly departed friends are still on that train bar having a good time for all eternity. But not only that, also that…someday, when it is my time, I will join them there. And at that momentous occasion, when we’re finally back together, we’ll laugh, we’ll play poker, and drink, but above all, I will finally, once more, have an attentive audience, hanging on my every word as I tell the story of how I couldn’t make it to the train, and then they will understand that I really tried, but was doomed to fail them, so that I could keep on living, but not for lack of effort.
Such is life. I’m still alive, but I will always remember and cherish every single one of those 104 wonderful times we spent four and a half hours at that train’s bar: celebrating life, celebrating youth, celebrating friendship, while honoring Bacchus, with a train engineer as our designated driver, at 55 miles per hour.
About the Author
Filmmaker Cesar Alejandro has written and produced 22 feature films, twelve of which he directed. Cesar has a Master of Arts from the University of Texas at El Paso. He is a Professor of Film at New Mexico State University. He began his career as a professional actor in theater in New York where he was a member of Spanish Rep and INTAR from 1986 to 1990. He moved to film and produced fifteen action films in Spanish for the U.S. Hispanic and Mexican markets, which were later sold to Univision, Telemundo, and Azteca America, and then started producing films in English, including Fatal Lottery, Without Limit, and Border Wars. (In 1998, he produced and directed Down for the Barrio, his first drama in 35mm for theatrical release, and then Juarez: Stages of Fear about the killing of women and men in Juarez, Mexico.: In 2010, he wrote, directed, and produced his own play El Poeta y El Compositor at LATEA.