The End of an America

The “Cat” climbed the steep West Virginia mountainside as effortlessly as if it were cruising across the plains of Kansas.   Its builders called it a Model D-8 but to the pipeline construction crews it was just a “Cat”.   Whatever it was called it was the most powerful crawler tractor made by the Caterpillar Tractor Company.   Its steel tracks studded with cleats that dug into the ground left deep footprints marking where it had walked.  It was of magnificent size: From the grille in front of its radiator to the winch mounted behind the driver’s seat it would not have fit sideways into a three car garage.  And had someone managed to get it into such a garage the tip of its exhaust stack would have destroyed the roof.  Out in front it carried a huge blade; a warrior’s shield. This blade was about twelve feet wide and four feet tall with a concave front surface that had been polished to a mirror finish by the tons of rock and dirt it had peeled off the surface of the earth and swept aside.    Arrows of sunlight reflecting from it darted into the trees alongside the right of way that had been cut through the mountainous forest.  As it rolled nonchalantly up the mountain thunder pulsated from its exhaust stack.  It blended with the clattering of a thousand parade drums that radiated from its steel tracks as they rolled over steel sprockets and bogie wheels.  It announced its coming with sounds that were fiercely intimidating.  Everything about it suggested raw, brute, irresistible power.  In these forested mountainous West Virginia backwoods of 1950 it was a foreign thing; a monster to be feared.  Birds, squirrels, deer and other woodland creatures scattered before it like snowflakes in a swirling storm.

It was an enchanted day within a magic time in an enraptured setting.   World War II had ended five years earlier.  It had been a brutal war.   Americans had come out of it scarred and wounded; but proud; and completely filled with a belief they could do anything, absolutely anything. After being terribly shamed and enraged by the destruction of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent capture of Wake Island, Bataan, and Corregidor, America had arisen phoenix-like to become an avenging angel.   Through terrible and continuing payments made with blood, sacrifice, and human life we had beaten, no, we had humiliated, the mightiest forces evil could assemble.  We left the dreams of their tyrants smoldering in the radioactive ash piles of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the smoking embers of Dresden, and the ruins of Berlin.  We were Americans.   We were indomitable.  The air was sweet with the pungent aroma of what we had done, and what we could do.


The face of the blonde, bare-chested, 17 year-old boy sitting in the driver’s seat of that “Cat” was alight with excitement, He flexed his leather-gloved hands that rested lightly on the black-knobbed levers that controlled this mighty power.   Euphoric, he smelled the fragrant potential-filled air and drawing it into his chest, he thrust his right hand forward on the throttle lever.  The big diesel engine in front of his feet sucked diesel fuel greedily into its combustion chambers.  Its rumble became a rolling cannonade shaking the world around it. Then for no reason other than because he was there - alive, awe-struck, and feeling something inexpressible, he toggled another black-knobbed lever.  Hydraulic pumps groaned as pistons shoved rods forward.   The giant blade came down, dug into the ground and began sweeping rocks, roots, and dirt aside as easily as a housewife brushes crumbs from a tablecloth.  The boy turned to look behind him.  He saw the wide path he had carved into the mountainside and seeing it drank deeply of the intoxicating wine of power.   Like his beloved country, he was young, free, adventurous, and . . . invincible.  I know.  I was that boy, and it was June 25, 1950.

And it was the beginning of the end of the America in which he had grown to manhood.

Love Lifted Me
A Cabin For Four

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Dennis Stack (website) on Monday, 11 July 2011 20:12

Our experiences at that age, our late teens, do alot to set our perspective for the years to come. This was well written and I could see in my mind that young boy becoming a man.

Our experiences at that age, our late teens, do alot to set our perspective for the years to come. This was well written and I could see in my mind that young boy becoming a man.