To tell you the truth, I have no idea what to say about this open-a-vein news feature from the Dallas Morning News. This really stirs something in me, as a guy who spent a big chunk of his childhood in Wichita Falls, Texas. Let's just start right at the beginning. Sometimes the simple facts say all that there is say:
HENRIETTA, Texas -- The train whistle blows several times a day in this North Texas community, the familiar soundtrack of life in small towns located along railroad lines.
But since late last month, the sound has become a haunting reminder of the evening when a beloved couple stepped onto the tracks and stood in embrace until a train ran them down. The double suicide of the Rev. Eldon Earl Johnson, 69, and his wife, Linda Kay, 61, was particularly shocking because of the key role the Johnsons played in helping nearby Ringgold rise from the ashes after nearly being destroyed by wildfires three years ago.
Why the popular minister and his wife took their lives is a secret that they carried to their graves. But their deaths have left a community struggling to plumb the mysteries of the human heart.
So many Texas Panhandle details work their way into this story.
If you've lived in that part of the state, you just know that some of the key scenes will take place in a Dairy Queen. And, of course, Johnson was a Southern Baptist pastor. The odds are good that he would be, in terms of who would still be around to serve people in these small, struggling communities. Some of these towns have been struggling since the 1950s. The struggle comes built in. As the late, great Baptist humorist Grady Nutt used to say (and he knew Henrietta, Texas): "In West Texas they're proud of their nuthin'. They put fences around their nuthin' to keep your nuthin' out of their nuthin'."
Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher is still a newcomer to Texas, relatively speaking, but he still gets the heart of this story -- right between the eyes.
I don't know what the meaning of this is. But elements of the story -- a Baptist preacher and his wife, a small Texas town, an oncoming train, their final embrace and turning away from the instrument of their deaths -- sound like a Johnny Cash song. Or something equally hardscrabble and haunting.
Christ Almighty, the burdens people carry, unknown to the rest of us. May the Lord cover them with His mercy.
We do find out a few crucial facts, on the journalism side of the ledger. It's clear that there was trouble between the mother and a son in the military, centering on an engagement that the mother opposed. That leads to this unforgettable exchange.
Jerry gave this account of the day his parents died. About 6 p.m. that day, he was at the base, learning how to operate and maintain a tank. His cellphone buzzed with a text from his mother.
He said his mother's text read: "We're going to see Jesus tonight, and it's for you."
The text also said that he shouldn't come to their funeral. Alarmed, Jerry quickly replied with his own text: "How is that?"
"You will see later tonight," his mother wrote.
"What are you going to do?" wrote Jerry.
"You will see later tonight," she replied.
When I was a kid, we used to drive through Henrietta all the time -- the last bright lights on the road from Dallas when you were headed home to Wichita Falls.
My father used to be the Southern Baptist associational missionary for this region, based in Wichita Falls. That's the closest thing that Southern Baptists have to a bishop and a big part of that job is to be the pastor to the pastors and help start missions (while paying special attention to small, struggling churches). Looking at the ages, there's a tiny chance that this pastor could have, as a young man, worked with my father, if he had worked elsewhere in the region before reaching Henrietta.
In the end, the whole story just doesn't add up -- which only adds to its power and mystery. So far, there is no evidence of some larger, lurking pain, disease, scandal or problem in the couple's life together. So this is how the story ends:
Jo Vardell, the DQ manager, also said it was best not to try to understand what reasons led the Johnsons to take a walk down the railroad tracks that night. Life is hard, she said, and sometimes people falter.
"This is so odd, so out of character," she said. "It's just -- I don't know how to explain it.
"It's like the Bible says: 'Even the saints get weary.'"
What a sad, sad, sad story.