A recent review of an aging church directory gave me an engaging idea for this NewYear’s blog entry. Thumbing through the 1967/68 picture directory of the Brookdale Baptist Church in Bloomfield, NJ, I came across the photo of Mr. & Mrs. Archibald Speer. I realized that before that directory had even been distributed, Mr. Speer was no longer in the church or on the earth. He went to be with his Savior on Nov. 1, 1966, and the circumstances of his passing brought into focus the words of an old Southern Gospel song that saw a substantial revival in recent years in the performances of Lynda Ronstadt in 2005 and other Southern Gospel musicians.
Engineer Archibald Speer was a 45-year veteran of the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad and only weeks away from retirement. On November 1, 1966, he was guiding his passenger train west through Dover, NJ close to the end of his customary run. Unknown to him, two joined, untended but active diesel locomotives inched away from their landing seven miles away to the west on higher elevation in Port Morris.
Slowly, then faster, the 200 tons of switcher engines hurtled down the same track as Speer’s passenger train, reaching speeds of nearly 85 miles per hour. Too late for evasive action, Speer saw death racing toward him. Newspaper reports of the accident quoted a spectator at the clean-up remarking, “He must have gone through the tortures of Hell when he saw the train coming.” The articles said that “Speer, of Clifton, NJ…apparently was killed instantly.”
Reports circulated that Speer, knowing what was about to befall him, was in full control of his train to the bitter end. In an age before computerized systems, his hand was still on the throttle and his eye searching the rail with its raging runaways.
Archibald Speer may have seen mortal hell coming, but he was instantly transported to Heaven. “So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.” (II Corinthians 5:6-9)
And the believer’s crown awaited him as his soul fled the scene. Revelation 2:10 says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer … Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
In the months following this tragedy, which took place only a few miles from our ministry offices in Towaco, NJ, I used this vivid illustration in countless meetings. Erick Webber and I had teamed up as musician and preacher. While Erick strummed an introduction on his twelve string Fender guitar, I told the story of Archibald Speer, recounting how he became the embodiment of an old Gospel song written in the 1890s by Eliza R. Snow and M. E. Abbey. Then, with typical southern style, Erick sang,
Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that’s brave; We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave; Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
You will roll up grades of trial; you will cross the bridge of strife; See that Christ is your Conductor on this lightning train of life; Always mindful of obstruction, do your duty, never fail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and rain; On a fill, or curve, or trestle, they will almost ditch your train; Put your trust alone in Jesus; never falter, never fail:
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.
As you roll across the trestle, spanning Jordan’s swelling tide, You behold the Union Depot into which your train will glide; There you’ll meet the Superintendent, God the Father, God the Son, With the hearty, joyous, plaudit, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home!”
Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.
Forty-three years ago, Archibald Speer made his last run, but he finished with his hand on the throttle and his eye on the rail. In 2010, we may safely arrive at our human destinations or we may find life’s track bringing a sudden departure. Whatever our lot, we need steady hands and clear vision.
A blessed New Year to you as we travel life’s rails to Glory!