March 14 – It’s Thursday, around about 4:07 p.m. I ease the behemoth out of the Breslin driveway and onto Woodside Avenue. Rhoda’s dad watches from the street, much like he did when we pulled out of Berwyn a year ago.
Time, it’s relentless as an ocean and just as violent. I thought I knew what he was thinking last March as he scanned the behemoth for potential hazards. He was hoping like hell his daughter and grandson wouldn’t find themselves stranded in some hellish desert.
The more things change, the less I seem to learn. At least this time I’d taken the precaution to get the behemoth checked over by a reputable mechanic. All of which probably means we’ll break down in some bleak wasteland where cell phones go to die. We’ll be all right, hopefully.
First stop along the way: Chez Ross in Linglestown, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Mr. Jeff Ross, our inscrutable friend, invited us to dine with him and his mother, Dorothy. She’s an 88-year-old spitfire.
Two months ago she fell and broke a hip. Now, with considerable aid from her ever-faithful son, she’s recovering in stupendous fashion. Even her doctors are surprised by her progress.
We show up sometime after 7, late as always. Check out the menu. It’ll be a while before we again dine in such ramshackle elegance. When we visited for Jeff’s birthday dinner last year, we became enamored of two books in the Ross family library. Max, and to some extent me, fell in love with “Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets,” the second in Dav Pilkey’s crude but surprisingly intelligent series of comic novels. Rhoda and I got mesmerized by “A Treasury of Great Recipes,” an atmospheric, magisterial cookbook written by the actor Vincent Price and his wife, Mary.
Jeff decided to take his cue from the Prices and dug hard to find recipes adaptable to vegetarian palates. He succeeded magnificently.
The carrot vichyssoise was a subtle delight. I”d always been skeptical of cold soup. No more. It was, as the Brits say, brilliant. The pea and lettuce tart, an even more audacious selection, was followed by tortellini palmermitana. The closer, and I don’t think calling it the piece de resistance is engaging in hyperbole, was baked Alaska. Or, as the menu shows, Baked Alaska to the Max.
Baked Alaska is a culinary highwire act if I’ve ever seen one. As the name indicates, the mint-chocolate chip ice cream and Ghirardelli chocolate were nods to the peculiar tastes of a certain 5-year-old. Accented by two bottles of excellent white wine, our dinner with the Rosses was convivial as it was delicious. Now, as for that Patron … a nostalgic dance with tequila’s volatile alchemy left me in a state of temporary, well, unease.
In any case, we remain grateful to the Rosses for such a delicious and heartfelt sendoff.
Dorothy Ross celebrated her 22nd birthday on Feb. 17, 1947. To celebrate, she worked her customary 12-hour shift at Altoona Hospital. She wouldn’t get much rest on her birthday night.
Around 3:20 a.m. on the frigid morning of Feb. 18, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Red Arrow passenger train, hauling 278 passengers and crew on its way from Detroit to New York, came galloping out of the Gallitzin Tunnel and barreling down on Bennington, Pa. The train, which pulled 14 cars, was an hour behind schedule. Engineers Mike Billig and Mike McArdle were intent on making up for lost time.
The Red Arrow hit Bennington Curve, 2,200 feet above sea level in the thick of the rugged Allegheny Mountains, at something greater than 50 mph. Two powerful steam engines and a host of Pullman cars hurtled the track and careened down a steep, 150-foot gorge into the icy darkness.
For Dorothy Ross, it would be an unforgettable night. In her final year of her nursing studies, she was summoned to the scene of the ghastly wreck. Her older sister managed the night nurses at the hospital, and she played no favorites this day.
“Some people thought I got picked because I was her sister,” she said. “That wasn’t true.”
Along with the rest of the rescue personnel, Dorothy had to shimmy down the hillside and then crawl through cars on her hands and knees in search of victims.
“It was horrendous,” she said. “People were everywhere. One woman I saw was almost entirely scalped.”
Tom Lynam, a photographer from Altoona, was at the scene. He spoke with a reporter, and his account of the wreckage showed up the following day in an Associated Press story.
(Lynam) said he saw three or four bodies lying around and injured passengers were moaning inside an overturned car.
“I shone my flashlight inside and saw arms and legs sticking up” he said. “Some railroad workers with acetylene torches were cutting the wreckage to release passengers who were pinned down. The injured were being carried away on stretchers.
“One woman was calling for her daughter, who was in a car that went down a 100-foot embankment. It was a pretty weird sight and made me feel shaky. My two brothers, who drove from Altoona with me, became so nervous they could hardly hold still.
Bennington was a Pennsylvania Railroad company town that sprang to life in the mid-19th century, home to the Irish laborers who carved the Gallitzin tunnels into the heart of the Alleghenies. It also was site of a company-owned coal mining business which provided fuel for the Pennsy’s engines. It sat on the railroad’s main line a half-mile east of Gallitzin and just west of the fabled Horseshoe Curve. Now it is gone, with nothing left to show for its colorful history but a cemetery and a series of abandoned coke ovens.
Twenty-four people died in the wreck of the Red Arrow, 131 more were injured. Six of the dead were clerks who worked in Train 68’s Postal car. The last to succumb was G.C. Bowman.
When Postal Car 5473 finally came to a rest on the ghostly embankment, Bowman was left suspended in air, dangling upside down. He helped direct rescue personnel who worked for at least eight hours to cut him free. All the time the mangled body of his brother and fellow postal clerk, Holland Bowman, rested in plain view.
G.C. Bowman took pains to dictate a will during the course of his rescue. He would need it. He died at Altoona Hospital the following day.
Among the other victims was an Altoona man named Frank Turek, who worked in the railroad’s machine shop. His wife and two young daughters were returning from Detroit, where they had visited the girls’ grandparents. Frank Turek decided to surprise his family and join them for the final leg of the trip. He was waiting on the platform when the Red Arrow arrived in Pittsburgh.
When Passenger Car 4289 left the track and tumbled into the gorge below, Turek’s family all managed to survive. He didn’t.
One of the passenger coaches was filled with dwarfs from Rose’s Midget Review, a traveling troupe of undersized entertainers. They all managed to escape the carnage with their lives. So did Billig. McArdle, as well as the two firemen, John Parascak and Ralph Henry, were not so fortunate.
Sixty-six years later, the wreck of the Red Arrow remains one of the worst train disasters in American history.
I asked Mrs. Ross if she had any regrets about being called to work in the middle of that awful night. She shook her head no.
“It was terrible,” she said. “But it was a lifetime event, I guess.”
Postscript: Thanks to Mrs. Ross for sharing her thoughts on the subject of the Red Arrow. Other information on the crash was pulled from one of her books on the subject, Wreck of the Red Arrow by Richard Clark, a calendar-sized account of the disaster. I also culled information from Dennis P. McIlnay’s The Wreck of the Red Arrow: An American Train Tragedy, published in 2010 by Seven Oaks Press. An excerpt of McIlnay’s account is available online.