How the Railroad Never Came to Scottsdale

(Original publication date: 2007)

Thrice upon a time, there was an engineer named Sam.

That is, not one engineer Sam, but three. Upon different times.

Although there could, in theory, have been just one engineer Sam, thrice, with reincarnation. Or one Sam twice and one Sam once. Moreover, if reincarnation operates both forwards and backwards in time, it is possible that there is only one soul in the entire world, who has been, or will be, reincarnated as every human being ever, including, of course, all three engineers Sam, quite a large number of additional Sams, and a really substantial number of people not named Sam who, despite having names every bit as good as Sam, will not, unfortunately, have their fine names listed here.

To avoid confusion, then: Thrice upon some times, there were three engineers named Sam, once each, subject to varying interpretations of once-ness.

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Samantha Stephens, P.E., found herself spending the hot October afternoon of her birthday in a large dusty hole in the middle of Scottsdale, Arizona, sweating under a hardhat and feeling quite cheerful. Yesterday evening she had given herself a nice birthday present: she'd shredded some old photos her mom had mailed to her.

Snapshot: November 1964. Samantha Stephens, age 1, sitting on the carpet next to the TV, playing with blocks. On the TV screen, half-hidden by the flashbulb reflection, Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York in an episode from the very first season of "Bewitched." What a humorous coincidence that they'd used the baby's name in the new show. "Hon, take a picture, we'll want to tell Sammie about this when she's older."

That was the first one into the shredder.

Snapshot: May 1971. Samantha age 7 riding a blue bicycle and wearing a white plastic space helmet; Mark and Frankie from next door dueling with a broom and a mop. One minute after the photo was taken, Mark tried to get Samantha to ride on the broomstick, then stuck it through the spokes of her front wheel. Another one for the shredder.

Snapshot: Hallowe'en 1975. Samantha age 12 in the most elaborate robot costume, which she had assembled herself from cardboard boxes, flexible dryer duct, Erector Set parts, flashing circuitry from an electronics kit, and lots of silver spray paint. Only Samantha's unhappy eyes are visible. Aunt Margaret has just said, "Oh Sammie, why didn't you wear that darling witch costume instead of all this ugly stuff?" Shredder.

Snapshot: May 1979, Samantha at the Science Fair. Her unique bridge design is intentionally built out of flimsy balsa wood sticks. A big heavy O-scale Lionel train engine sits in the middle of its three-foot span. Second Prize.

Second Prize.

But she didn't shred that one. Instead, she took it to her office in the morning and thumbtacked it to the wall, next to her two Structural Engineering diplomas and her State of Arizona Professional Engineer license.

Samantha Stephens, P.E., was now a highly-regarded designer of office buildings with a firm of architects and engineers. That is, she designed the important stuff, the stuff that made the architects' designs into a building, rather than a collapsing. The paranormal and the supernatural had no place in her life.

Today, for her birthday, there was a project delay. That didn't bother Samantha — she enjoyed the challenge of fixing unexpected problems, and the opportunity to get away from her computers for a while and visit the construction site, where workers were excavating for the foundation of her company's latest office complex.

Down in the hole, an assortment of foremen and property developers and construction workers milled about. "We thought we'd better let one of you folks see it," a construction supervisor told Samantha uncomfortably. "So someone can make a, um, executive decision before, well. Before the Pimas and the press hear about it."

Samantha looked. The excavation crew had dug through what was obviously yet another filled-in ancient irrigation canal, maybe a thousand or fifteen hundred years old. The Hohokam civilization was responsible for hundreds of miles of canals, all over the Phoenix area, and no great effort was being made to preserve them.

This canal contained a railroad engine.

Actually, it contained great chunks of rust and corrosion and crumbling iron, and not much clue as to what the original object had been. But it was impossible to look at it without getting a definite impression of antique-railroad-engineness.

The property developers were muttering to one another. "But the railroad never came to Scottsdale!" said one. And it was true. Tracks went through Phoenix and Tempe and Mesa. But, except for the half-scale train ride in the Railroad Park, there had never been trains of any sort running through Scottsdale.

Samantha contemplated the rusty junk. She could simply say the magic words: "It's just a pile of rusty junk!" Voilà, problem solved, everyone gets back to work, this evening someone phones a reporter or talks to a relative who's a blogger or tells stories at the bar, and within 48 hours there are TV news crews and souvenir collectors and allegations of coverup and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and protests from the tribes and contract disputes and the search for ancient astronauts and many, many lawyers.

But Samantha suppressed a smile as an idea came into her head, and grew, and grew.

She announced, firmly, "I know what this is that we've uncovered."

That got their attention. "It's something out of the Akimel O'odham oral traditions." The Akimel O'odham, formerly called the Pima Indians, were likely descendants of the Hohokam canal-builders. Samantha noted the blood draining from the faces of the property developers, and said, "Let me tell you about Shahmt the Builder and the Flame Belly Beast of Sami-wel..."

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Ages ago (so goes the tale) — so long ago that even the great canal-building civilization of the Hohokam was yet just a few adobe huts and a few ditches near the riverbanks — in this distant time there lived a man who built things, and he was known as Shahmt, which means brick. And in fact he built many buildings from adobe bricks, and they never tumbled down nor were they crumbled by the rains. But Shahmt also built irrigation canals, and they never silted up nor did they erode away, and for this he became famous for miles around.

Sometimes Shahmt would sit for hours and days and weeks like a brick, watching the water flowing in the river and in the small canals. And then all at once he would rise, and say "We will build a new canal from here to here, and make it this wide, and this deep," and many people would help with the work, because they knew that soon they would have another canal that would not silt up nor erode away, and new farmland would become available for maize and beans and squash, and for cotton and tobacco. They knew that Shahmt understood the flow.

After a time people began to grow weary of canal building. Not only did they have to dig through the hard dry ground by hand, they also had to haul away the heavy soil by hand, so the labor was long and difficult. But Shahmt sat watching the water flow for hours and days and weeks, and became troubled. One day he announced, "People will come here from a distant place and take our land away from us. Not in my lifetime, not in the lifetime of my great-grandson, not in the lifetime of his great-grandson. But they will come to steal our future. I have seen this in the flow."

Hearing this, some became alarmed and said, "We must build a mighty civilization. We must dig more canals and plant more farmland and raise more children and build more houses, so that we will be strong in the future and not driven from our land." And others said, "Let the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren take care of themselves. We have seeds to plant and crops to harvest, and no time to dig more canals."

But Shahmt said, "Those who will take our land, they will have a great beast with a belly full of fire to labor for them. It pulls heavy loads from place to place, and it travels on a shining road. This too, I have seen in the flow. And we will steal this great beast with the belly of fire! It will build our canals for us! We will take the future from the invaders, just as they take our future from us!"

So Shahmt built a canal to the future. He built the weirs from adobe and drumbeats, and he built the canal from darkness and starlight, and just as he promised, he stole the future, but only so much of the future as would flow through his canal. The future flowed into the village, and it brought with it the great beast, huge and hard and hot, smoking and steaming with a belly full of fire, and on the beast rode one man.

The man spoke neither the language of the Hohokam nor any other language they knew, but he yelled and shouted and waved his arms, and at last Shahmt came to learn three things. He learned that the man was called Sami-wel. He learned that the beast had a mouth for eating wood and another mouth for drinking water. And, worst of all, he learned that he had failed: his canal to the future had a leak, and although he had captured the beast, the shining road upon which it traveled had leaked away, and it was lost in the fields of time.

Shahmt cried out in despair, and told his people that the shining road was lost, and the beast would never build canals for them. But the people said, "We will feed and water the beast, and it will work for us without its shining road," and they fed wood to its wood-mouth and water to its water-mouth, although Shahmt and Sami-wel both tried to stop them. And the beast grew a great fire in its belly, and became ill, and vomited a boiling cloud that killed Shahmt and Sami-wel and many others, and then the beast died.

§

"So they buried it in a canal," said Samantha, "and that is why we live in a future where the railroad never came to Scottsdale. It was stolen from this very spot, from a time that might have been our past but wasn't. And now, here it is." She gestured towards the pile of rust.

The foremen and property developers and construction workers all stared at her. At last, one of the foremen said, "Ma'am, I don't want to sound culturally insensitive, but that story is the biggest pile of horse hooey I've ever heard." There were many murmurs and snorts of agreement.

And then it was as if there had never been any question about what to do next. The crews went back to work, the rustpile was hauled out and dumped, the property developers discussed lease contracts, and everyone agreed (after Samantha Stephens, P.E., had left the site) that only a female engineer could ever fall for such a tale, and it was a lucky thing that real men — and, of course, property developers of either gender — were around to make all the important decisions, otherwise nothing would ever get built in this city.

§

Later, in the warm autumn evening, Samantha Stephens sat gazing at the waters of the Arizona Canal as they flowed through central Scottsdale. Samantha was enjoying a well-earned Irish Coffee and contemplating the fluid dynamics of mob action. Was she allowed to practice social engineering without a license? Samantha giggled a bit as she tried to imagine what questions would appear on the state licensing exam.

The night sky was clear, and the water was smooth, and the canal was a canal of darkness and starlight. And it was a miracle that no one was killed that evening, when the shining railroad tracks at last flowed back into Scottsdale.

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