36. Ben and Virginia

36. Ben and Virginia

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After

Ben and Virginia

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.

~William James

In 1904, a railroad camp of civil engineers was set up near Knoxville, Tennessee. The L&N campsite had tents for the men, a warm campfire, a good cook and the most modern surveying equipment available. In fact, working as a young civil engineer for the railroad at the turn of the century presented only one real drawback: a severe shortage of eligible young women.

Benjamin Murrell was one such engineer. A tall, reticent man with a quiet sense of humor and a great sensitivity for people, Ben enjoyed the nomadic railroad life. His mother had died when he was only thirteen, and this early loss caused him to become a loner.

Like all the other men, Ben sometimes longed for the companionship of a young woman, but he kept his thoughts between himself and God. On one particularly memorable spring day, a marvelous piece of information was passed around the camp: The boss’s sister-in-law was coming to visit! The men knew only three things about her: She was nineteen years old, she was single and she was pretty. By mid-afternoon the men could talk of little else. Her parents were sending her to escape the yellow fever that was invading the Deep South and she’d be there in only three days. Someone found a tintype of her, and the photograph was passed around with great seriousness and grunts of approval.

Ben watched the preoccupation of his friends with a smirk. He teased them for their silliness over a girl they’d never even met. “Just look at her, Ben. Take one look and then tell us you’re not interested,” one of the men retorted. But Ben only shook his head and walked away chuckling.

The next two days found it difficult for the men of the L&N engineering camp to concentrate. The train would be there early Saturday morning and they discussed their plan in great detail. Freshly bathed, twenty heads of hair carefully greased and slicked back, they would all be there to meet that train and give the young woman a railroad welcome she wouldn’t soon forget. She’d scan the crowd, choose the most handsome of the lot and have an instant beau. Let the best man win, they decided. And each was determined to be that man.

On Friday evening, as the other men tried to shake the wrinkles out of their Sunday best and draw a bath, Ben sat down on a log next to the campfire. Something glinted orange in the firelight. Idly, he reached down and picked it up. His friends had been so busy and full of themselves, they’d left the girl’s picture lying on the ground.

The men were too preoccupied to see Ben’s face as he beheld the picture of Virginia Grace for the first time. They didn’t notice the way he cradled the photograph in his big hands like a lost treasure, or that he gazed at it for a long, long time. They missed the expression on his face as he looked first at the features of the delicate beauty, then at the camp full of men he suddenly perceived to be his rivals. And they didn’t see Ben go into his tent, pick up a backpack and leave camp as the sun glowed red and sank beyond a distant mountain.

Early the next morning, the men of the L&N railroad camp gathered at the train station. Virginia’s family, who had come to pick her up, rolled their eyes and tried unsuccessfully not to laugh. Faces were raw from unaccustomed shaves, and the combination of men’s cheap colognes was almost noxious. Several of the men had even stopped to pick bouquets of wildflowers along the way.

At long last the whistle was heard and the eagerly awaited train pulled into the station. When the petite, vivacious little darling of the L&N camp stepped onto the platform, a collective sigh escaped her would-be suitors. She was even prettier than the tintype depicted. Then every man’s heart sank in collective despair. For there, holding her arm in a proprietary manner and grinning from ear to ear, was Benjamin Murrell. And from the way she tilted her little head to smile up into his face, they knew their efforts were in vain.

“How,” his friends demanded of Ben later, “did you do that?”

“Well,” he said, “I knew I didn’t have a chance with all you scoundrels around. I’d have to get to her first if I wanted her attention, so I walked down to the previous station and met the train. I introduced myself as a member of the welcoming committee from her new home.”

“But the nearest station is seventeen miles away!” someone blurted incredulously. “You walked seventeen miles to meet her train? That would take all night!”

“That it did,” he affirmed.

Benjamin Murrell courted Virginia Grace, and in due time they married. They raised five children and buried one, a twelve-year-old son. I don’t think they tried to build the eternal romance that some women’s magazines claim is so important. Nor did they have a standing Friday night date. In fact, Ben was so far out in the sticks while working on one engineering job that one of their children was a full month old before he saw his new daughter. Ben didn’t take Virginia to expensive restaurants, and the most romantic gift he ever brought her was an occasional jar of olives. If Virginia ever bought a fetching nightgown and chased him around the icebox, that secret remains buried with her to this day.

What I do know is that they worked on their relationship by being faithful to one another, treating each other with consideration and respect, having a sense of humor, bringing up their children in the knowledge and love of the Lord, and loving one another through some very difficult circumstances.

I am one of Benjamin and Virginia’s great-grandchildren. He died when I was a baby, unfortunately, so I have no memory of him. NaNa (Virginia) died when I was twelve and she was eighty-five. When I knew her, she was a shriveled old woman who needed assistance to get around with a walker and whose back was hunched over from osteoporosis. Her aching joints were swollen with arthritis and her eyesight was hindered by the onset of glaucoma. At times, though, those clouded eyes would sparkle and dance with the vivaciousness of the girl my great-grandfather knew. They danced especially when she told her favorite story. It was the story of how she was so pretty that once, on the basis of a tintype, an entire camp turned out to meet the train and vie for her attention. It was the story of how one man walked seventeen miles, all night long, for a chance to meet the woman of his dreams and claim her for his wife.

 

~Gwyn Williams
A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

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