Irving and I went to visit Spidey and Janna in South Austin. They live in a nice house with a huge backyard. Just beyond their back fence, there is a set of railroad tracks.
On New Years’ Eve, Irving and Spidey and Janna and Bill and a bunch of other people walked down the rails to a spot where the tracks run across a small bridge above a gully. It is fun to throw rocks off the bridge in the dark and hear them clatter against the larger rocks and dry ground below. While they were throwing rocks, another group (perhaps already in their cups) was setting off fireworks in the area beneath the bridge. These were beyond your run-of-the-mill bottle rockets and spinners; they were the type of fireworks that require a mini-cannon to set off correctly. As this party did not have a mini-cannon, they were just throwing the fireworks into the creekbed and watching them explode and shower the surroundings with light.
The fireworks were beautiful, according to all reports. Big bursts of exploding blue and red.
Occasionally, the fireworks would start a small fire amongst the dry brush in the creekbed. The celebrators would then run down into the dark and stomp out the fire. This happened more than once, and each time tragedy was averted. Irving says, when he tells this part of the story, “I thought to myself, ‘they’re going to start a bigger fire and they won’t be able to put it out.’ I mean, they didn’t even have any wet gunny sacks or anything.” All celebrators were in a bit of a wild and crazy mood, and everyone was cheering the amateur pyrotechnics on.
Then a bush caught fire. “It was a prickly and thorny bush,” recounted a different witness. “I almost jumped into it to try to stomp it out, but I realized that it was full of stickers.” The flames reached a height of between five and twelve feet, depending on the person you ask. The fire was out of control.
Everyone fled. On the way out, someone called 911. The fire department showed up and extinguished the fire.
We went back yesterday to see how bad the damage was. It was not bad at all: the bush that had caught fire was above some rocks and the damage was contained to about a ten-foot-by-ten-foot patch of gravel. We threw some rocks into the gully and walked gingerly across widely-spaced railroad ties while looking down into the wild expanse below, at the accumulated garbage and detritus. There was a shopping cart on its back, off-kilter and stretched into an unusable tangle of wires. There were piles of beer cans, some with what looked like pull-tabs. There was lots of graffiti. It was cold. A train whistle blew, lonely in the silence. “That train whistle is relevant to us,” Irving said.
For about twenty, maybe thirty feet on either side of the railroad bridge, the ground slopes off at about a 90-100 degree angle away from the tracks. We ran off the bridge and threw ourselves onto a pile of gravel buttressed by a huge chunk of lumber about eight feet from the tracks. The train came up behind us incredibly fast. We all lay against the lumber with our knees up against our chins as the train blew past us. It was going fast, it was very close to us (because, as one forgets, train cars are wider than the tracks themselves, usually by a good foot or two on either side), and it kept going for a really long time.