Sunday, March 31, 2013
The darker side of the trip to LunaCon:
'Twas late at night on my second day of travel, after we'd finally gotten out of Texas and were rolling north through Arkansas, and only a few of us in the last car -- and the lounge car -- were awake.
The first thing we noticed was a slight thump under the wheels. Then the train put its brakes on and stopped. Then we noticed train attendants getting off and hurrying toward the back of the train with flashlights. One man who got up to look out the rear window saw "lights, and chunks of meat between the tracks". Then more train attendants came up into the main passenger section and taped paper over that rear window, with stern warnings not to remove it. The train stayed parked where it was for three hours, and the only answer we could get out of train attendants was: "There was a slight collision". Only later, at the stop in Little Rock where the train changed crews and the outgoing crew was willing to talk, did we find out what had really happened.
A man had deliberately run onto the tracks as the train was coming, committing suicide by train. Of course the engineer had to stop the train and call the nearest sheriff as soon as he saw what had happened, and the sheriff showed up with a sizable posse and the coroner to pick up the "chunks of meat", and the forensics team (I got an image of CSI techs swapping blood off the engine's drive-wheels), and the train was understandably delayed. One of the attendants added: "Dammit, this is the third time in the last month."
Third suicide-by-train in a month? Ye gods, what's in the water in Arkansas, anyway?!
I pondered that question while we rolled on through the night, and the only answer I could think of was -- economics. Arkansas never was one of the richest states in the US, depending mostly on farming and its support industries; certainly the current Depression must have hit it hard, destroying thousands of jobs and making it hard for businesses to survive. The state welfare system, never very well-funded, would have broken down early, and stopped taking on any new clients. Even the soup-kitchens wouldn't be enough to feed all the jobless. It's understandable that jobless people, especially if they couldn't even raise the money to get out of state and job-hunt elsewhere, might get desperate enough to choose a fast death over slow starvation. ...But then, why should anyone starve in a farming state? Farmers would be all too willing to swap food for work.
Then the sun came up, and I saw at least part of the answer. As far as the eye could see from the train were empty fields, fallow land: not planted, not grazed, not even managed as timber-land -- or even wilderness park. The trees I could see were all second-growth, none more than 20 years old, and mostly leafy softwoods: worthless for anything but making charcoal, or cheap paper at best. Everything else was weeds and brush. Yet the soil was good; it was all dark brown crumbly loam, and well-watered, with small streams everywhere. As we drew closer to towns I saw some fields that were worked -- planted with pasture-grass and grazed by fat cattle -- but also abandoned urban lots, all too often strewn with trash. I asked my fellow passengers, and the only answer I got was that the soil wasn't really as fertile as all that; it had been overworked and couldn't grow much of anything. I privately questioned that; as an Arizonian, I'd seen plenty of land -- hardpan clay, with never enough water -- that had been made fertile by determined farmers, or at least grazed by sturdy ranchers. Hell, give me topsoil like that (even a city lot-full), and I could make it yield. I'm planning to reconstitute the soil in my back yard and grow fruit trees in it. Why was that land really lying fallow, left to trash and weeds, that could have been growing crops or at least livestock, and providing jobs or at least food for all those desperately unemployed people?
I got another answer when I reached the convention and asked various fans. "It's the soil bank," one local fan said. "The government pays the farmers not to grow food." Why, I wondered; just to keep food prices high? "To save for planting in case of emergency," he said. Well, gee, what would you call our current economic mess? Food prices are too high already, which doesn't do us or even the farmers any good, and too many of our own people are jobless and desperate. "Those unemployed are city people," another fan argued; "They won't take farm-work jobs." What, they'd rather throw themselves in front of trains?! From what I've seen, and I've lived all over the US, there is no such thing as a job that Americans won't take; there are only wages that Americans won't take, and there are rather few of those these days. So, for me, the mystery still remains.
I have a dark suspicion that maybe those lands are kept fallow for another reason; the federal government and the banksters are planning to use them to pay off the US' monstrous debts. It wouldn't bother them at all to sell big chunks of our land to China, regardless of what that would mean for the rest of the country, or the people in it.
Can anybody come up with a more likely reason?
--Leslie <;)))>< )O(