On January 6, 2005, a train carrying toxic chlorine gas derailed in Graniteville, SC killing nine people and injuring about 250 others.
At the time I heard about this incident, I was waiting at O’Hare International Airport for what would be my last flight to London to date, after having spent a miserable summer and winter back in South Carolina.
Hearing about the incident worried me because I had family living right in the path of that gas. Luckily no one in my family was hurt but my aunt’s car and the paint and wiring in her house (a nice old Victorian house near the old Graniteville mill) were ruined.
Thinking back though, this was right before I really stepped up my wanderings in the UK. At least some of the travel I did, without a doubt, was looking for love and visiting friends and potential love interests, but I think this was when I also started yearning to find a village that existed in my mind, but I couldn’t pin down.
A few months later (and almost exactly 90 years after the Second Battle of Ypres), the thought of clouds of creeping toxic gas now far at the back of my mind, I was in the New Forest, staying in the town of Lyndhurst, Hampshire, a tickle of nostalgia developing and an overwhelming feeling that I was close- very close- to this village I wanted so badly to find. That was also the trip when I trekked to the village of Minstead, where the tickle of nostalgia became a deepening itch. Ultimately, though, I never found a village like the one I half-pictured. I made up my mind that I must be looking for some place that no longer existed, that it was a long-lost fantasy of a part of England now buried under ASDA stores and Renault dealerships. If I had been less than sixty miles to the West I’d have stumbled right into the heart of East Coker and been greeted by a flood of deja vu, but sadly I had no frame of reference to look for this tiny village in nearby Somerset.
It would be easy to say that the impact of that poison gas was well and truly over, but that isn’t the case. Not only did I develop a keen eye for Edwardian and Victorian architecture and a weird compulsion to eat bully beef, but upon returning to the US in the summer of 2005 there was an incident that drove home for me how much the images on the news of that cloud of chlorine had shaken me.
On or around June 12, 2005, I was helping a friend (more accurately, my very first friend with benefits) move from Anacortes, WA to Ft. Worth, TX. I think we were somewhere in the farm country south of Portland, Oregon (strangely enough) when a chemical smell wafted into the car. It wasn’t the smell of chlorine, but I freaked out. My chest tightened and I literally could not breathe. I began to cough and felt my eyes water. I had such a strong somatic reaction to that chemical smell that I literally thought for fully a minute that I was going to die.
I also discovered, some time later, that I could no longer be around indoor pools without an intense sense of anxiety and a nervous cough from the chlorine fumes (outdoor is OK, but I still don’t like being around that smell). Luckily I don’t do anything that uses a great deal of bleach because I’m sure that would have much the same effect on me.
There is a distinct possibility that John was involved in the Battle of St. Julien, where gas was used on the Western Front for the second time. I don’t know if this has anything to do with all of this or if my response to the news of the chlorine spill was just the usual, expected response of a classic anxiety case like me; the way it fits into that seeming emergence of a sort of visceral, unconscious awareness of that life is interesting, though.