Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, February 17, 2018

cram_halfIt was the Roaring Twenties, and life was full of promise for John Griffith. Griffith loved to travel, and he dreamed of visiting faraway lands with exotic names, far from his Midwestern home.

Before he could pursue his dreams, however, the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. Like so many others, John Griffith and his family packed up their few possessions and headed east in search of work.

Griffith found a job in Missouri, controlling one of the huge railroad bridges that spanned the Mississippi River. Day after day he sat in the control room and worked the enormous gears that raised the bridge, allowing barges and ships to pass below. Each passing vessel was a bitter reminder of the travel he had given up and the dreams he had lost.

One day in 1937, John Griffith brought his 8-year-old son, Greg, to work with him. Greg delighted in the enormous cogs in the gearbox that raised and lowered the bridge. He thought his father must be the most powerful man in the world to control such a bridge.

The morning passed quickly. At noon, Griffith elevated the bridge to allow scheduled ships to pass through. He and his son were free until 1 p.m., when the bridge had to be lowered for the Memphis Express passenger train to cross the river.

Father and son scooped up their lunch sacks, edged across the narrow catwalk, and settled onto the observation deck that jutted over the Mississippi River. They dangled their legs and watched the great passing ships, imagining where they might be headed.

Griffith was jerked out of his reverie by the shrill whistle of an oncoming train. Glancing at his watch, he was alarmed to read 1:07 p.m. – scarcely enough time to race to the control room and lower the bridge.

Instructing his son to stay in place, Griffith ran up the catwalk and climbed the steel ladder to the control room. He scanned the river for nearby ships, then glanced beneath the bridge for obstacles.

To his horror, Griffith saw that his son had slipped off the catwalk into the gearbox. His leg was lodged between the teeth of two giant cogs and was bleeding profusely. The child could not break free.

John Griffith wanted to run down to the gearbox with a rope, pull his son to safety, then climb back to the control room and press the heavy lever to lower the bridge for the oncoming train.

But he knew his desperate plan was hopeless. The train was bearing down at tremendous speed, and his son was too far below to be reached in time. Griffith was faced with an impossible choice: save his son and watch as 400 train passengers were hurled to certain death in the river below, or lower the drawbridge so the train could cross, but crush his son’s small body.

The decision was excruciating, but he knew what he must do. Griffith buried his face in his left arm and pressed down hard on the lever. The grinding of the bridge drowned the cries of his son. Seconds later, the Memphis Express thundered across the bridge, its occupants unaware that their safety had been secured at the cost of a man’s only son.

John Griffith looked through the windows of the train as it sped past. Businessmen perused newspapers. Ladies chatted as they sipped tea. A conductor was checking his watch. A child was eating ice cream.

No one looked his way. Griffith wanted to scream, "What’s the matter with you people? Don’t you care? Don’t you know I’ve sacrificed my son for you?"

But no one noticed him, and no one seemed to care as the train disappeared into the horizon.

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This true story is an echo of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, except that Jesus’ death was not an accident. God intentionally gave up his Son for us.

Do we care?

Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.