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Personal semantics


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I've always loved the frills of language. I've rarely met a noun or verb that didn't need a modifier or three or four. Alliteration, rhyme, simile, metaphor and great swags of hyperbole have long been my friends in the intoxicating game of words. Being especially prone to exaggeration and excess, I recently called my life a train wreck.

O, my prophetic soul: I'll never use those two words together lightly again. My life may have been in disarray, but until 7:49 a.m. on Thursday, May 13, it was not a train wreck.

At 7:22 a.m., the Piedmont pulled out of Durham en route to Charlotte, where I was to review the ballet. I was cranky because the long-promised midday service to and from Charlotte still wasn't in place. Once again, I was up and at 'em earlier than I would prefer. But the Piedmont is a sweet train, so I settled back with The News & Observer once we crossed the Eno River.

Coming out of Hillsborough, the train picked up speed on that long straight ridge paralleling U.S. Highway 70. All was well with the click and sway as we flashed through the country. I live near tracks and take the train a lot, so the back of my mind is always processing train sounds. Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar one, accompanied by a jolt. Removing my reading glasses, I looked out in time to see we were approaching Mebane. Usually the train goes flying through there, but it seemed to be slowing. The second jolt was much harder—the emergency brake kicking in. It was followed immediately by the unspeakable impact of four train cars plowing an obstruction at 70 mph. I slammed into the seat in front of me, head, knees, wrists, elbows, absorbing the diverted energy. The fourth jolt—the derailment—threw me to the floor.

The only part that worked at that moment was my whimper. I couldn't understand why everything looked sideways. Once I realized I was in the aisle, my mind commanded my body to rise. Nothing happened. I was like a prizefighter on the mat, down for the count. A bleeding conductor ran above me, shouting "Everyone stay where you are." I could do that. He ran back, stepping on me. He stopped to help, but by this time I'd been able to turn my head. The man behind me, wide-eyed in shock, was bleeding from the mouth, his teeth on the carpet. "Help that man," I said, thinking that blood is so much redder than any adjective, its sheen like mercury.

When the cry of "fire!" sounded, a kind man helped me rise and stumble off the train through a jumble of dislodged seats and injured passengers. Others leaped from the window exit. Outside, the crumpled engine was going up in smoke, the obstructing truck now divided on either side of the tracks. Men with guns were already doing triage, lifting the wounded onto stretchers.

Now that's a train wreck. Me? I'm just a mess.


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