By Bill Clutter
An excerpt of COAL TAR: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing America's Children.
“This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right.
A wonderful read” --Scott Turow.
Prologue Part 3
On April 23, 1968, the Wabash Cannonball steamed out of Logansport, Indiana, a picturesque town on the Wabash River. Those who were there, the confidants of Kennedy, remember that day as the happiest day of his presidential campaign. His wife Ethel, who was pregnant with their eleventh child, and three of their children, along with the family dog, Freckles, boarded the train.
My Dad started his career working for the Wabash Railroad, based in Decatur, Illinois. He joined the U.S. Navy when he turned 17 and was trained in advanced electronics. After his enlistment ended, he went to work for the railroad as an electrician.
Dad’s work often involved being called to the scene of train derailments to repair electrical systems. With more people driving automobiles after World War II, the number of fatal accidents at rail crossings was steadily increasing each year. As a father with five small children, with me as the oldest, Dad was saddened by the sight of children who were killed aboard school buses, crushed by freight trains.
He came up with an invention that would solve that problem. A warning system, designed to save lives. His invention was a transponder that would emit a radio signal whenever the engineer sounded the horn when approaching a grade crossing. He envisioned school buses, semi-trucks and eventually all new automobiles manufactured could be equipped with the receiver he invented that would alert the driver of approaching freight trains.
On January 5, 1966, two years before he met Kennedy, the Decatur Herald ran a story about Dad’s invention. “Clutter said the device would need Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for an operating frequency and federal legislation to require it on . . . school buses and trucks carrying gasoline.” The article noted that Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, endorsed Dad’s idea. As a labor leader, Hoffa was concerned about worker safety, wanting to protect the lives of truck drivers.
Dad contacted Springfield’s Congressman Paul Findley from Pittsfield, and U.S. Senator Charles Percy, both Republicans. He also solicited the support of then Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, noted the reporter.
After a Gulf Mobile and Ohio locomotive plowed into a bus at a railroad crossing near Dwight, Illinois on Sunday, June 19, 1966, sending 13 people to the hospital, the reporter for the Decatur Herald contacted my Dad for comment. The story said the accident “…could have been prevented with the help of a warning system invented by a Decatur man.”
Dad vented his frustration with the politicians whose help he tried to enlist. “They expressed interest in it and clearly all of them made favorable comments, but they haven’t taken any step toward initiating legislative action on it. If they could just get a law requiring the system in all school buses and trucks carrying inflammable liquids, it would get it off the ground,” he told the reporter. He said eventually all automobiles could be equipped with a warning device that was cheaper than the cost of installing seat belts, a safety device that had been proposed for automobiles. Two years after he gave that interview, Congress passed federal legislation in 1968 that required manufacturers of automobiles to equip new vehicles with seat belts.
"It was said on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary, substantially this sentiment: Stronger than all armies is an idea whose time has come,” Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, said while debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For Dad’s idea, it was the political might of the railroads, with their army of lobbyists, who stood in his way. The year after he patented his invention, the Wabash Railroad was bought out by the Norfolk and Western Railway Company based in Virginia, forming a goliath corporation. Dad was unable to convince his employer that the price for his invention was worth the lives it would save. Using cost-benefit analysis to decide corporate policy, the railroad calculated it would be cheaper to defend wrongful death claims than to invest in new technology designed to save lives.
As they boarded the Wabash Cannonball a two-man band, hired by the campaign, played the Ballad of the Wabash Cannonball. The guitar player, Robert James Waller, a business major at Indiana University, years later would become a best-selling author, writing the book Bridges of Madison County that was released in 1993. Two years after that, the book was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
The lyrics of the Ballad of the Wabash Cannonball was originally penned in 1882 as The Great Rock Island Route, but was rewritten in 1904 with a new title, the Wabash Cannon Ball. Recording artist Roy Acuff popularized the song in 1936 with a top-40 hit single. Other artists, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, immortalized the Ballad of the Wabash Cannonball as the oldest song to be included to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
The Wabash Cannonball had operated along a 489-mile route, linking St. Louis and Detroit. One of the stops along its route was Taylorville, Illinois, which is the setting for the main story of this book. But once passenger rail service came to an end, as nearly every American traveled by automobile, so ended the run of the Wabash Cannonball.
As Kennedy boarded the train, he asked Dad if the band could play the Rock Island Line?
“Not on this railroad!” Dad shot back. The crowd erupted into laughter.
Standing on the back of the caboose, Kennedy faced the large crowd that gathered by the tracks of the depot. A fourteen-year-old, Marty Monahan, of Logansport, left school early that day, along with thousands of others to hear Kennedy speak.
Holding a bullhorn, Kennedy ended his speech paraphrasing a line from the Irish poet George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’,” which he repeated at every whistle stop.
After hearing the speech, Marty Monahan told a reporter, Kennedy was a “shoe-in”.
After pulling away from the station, Kennedy invited Dad to sit with him in his personal parlor car. Between the whistle stops, idle time, with the wheels of the train clicking and clacking beneath their feet, Kennedy asked Dad about his family and about his work with the railroad.
Dad seized the moment. Congress was beginning to formulate legislation, the Railroad Safety Act, to address the tragic consequences of the carnage caused by the intersection of rail and road traffic. Kennedy was impressed with my father and thought Dad’s idea was brilliant. RFK promised to follow-up with my father, and offered a helping hand. After all, if his brother could vow to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, making the public safe from the threat of rail accidents was a small step for Congress.
When they reached the end of the line in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the two men parted ways. Kennedy appeared destined to become the next American president of the United States. Dad felt more confident, he had finally overcome the obstacles that had hindered his dream.
When he came home, Dad hugged my mother and celebrated his good fortune. He surprised the family with a souvenir. It was the bullhorn that RFK used during his speeches aboard the Wabash Cannonball.
A few weeks later, on May 7, 1968, Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy to win the Indiana primary. Political pundits predicted there would be a rematch of Kennedy vs. Nixon in November.
To pre-order copies of the book go to: www.coaltarandneuroblastoma.com Release date scheduled for September 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clutter Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design
The author will provide a free paperback copy of Coal Tar to individuals who donate $20 or more to a not-for-profit organization of private investigators that he started at www.InvestigatingInnocence.org
About The Author
Bill Clutter is a private investigator who started his career in Springfield, Illinois. Clutter got his start as a private investigator by serving the complaint filed by Africans-Americans who alleged that the old commission form of city government elected city-wide, violated the Voting Rights Act in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Clutter was elected in 1987 as the first Ward One Alderman in the City of Springfield. Also elected that year to the new aldermanic government were two African-Americans. The attorney who filed that lawsuit also initiated the lawsuit against CIPS.
In 2001, Clutter started the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His investigation on two death penalty cases contributed to the exoneration of three innocent men who were among the 20 innocent men who were freed from death row in Illinois. The Chicago Tribune credited Clutter, among others, for the abolition of the death penalty in 2011.