Ambiguities

January 13, 1997
by Gordon Hodgson

1 John 4:1 – Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Most cities are built on rivers and Edmonton was no exception. Trouble was that the river was hundreds of metres below the plain on which Edmonton was built and railways coming from the south side had to negotiate the river valley, typically by crawling slowly down one side and then struggling up the other after crossing a normal short bridge over the river. The early part of this century saw railway engineers still in ascendancy, so in a moment of inspiration someone drew a line on an "elevation" chart showing Edmonton split by the broad, deep valley – a line joining the plain on the south with the plain on the north. He then sketched a train on that line going from south to north without crawling down into the valley and back out. And so the high level bridge was created.

High level bridges are spectacular for trains, and it was logical to make the bridge wide enough for street railway tracks on either side of the single railway track on top of the bridge as well. Thus electric street cars could take advantage of the high level short cut, too. A minor problem, though: street cars had their entrance and egress steps on the right side of the car so that passengers could come and go conveniently from the street car to the sidewalk. There were no stops for passengers on top of the high (windy) bridge, but safety-minded engineers, even in those days, felt they should provide for egress from the streetcars on the bridge should an emergency arise. It didn't take long for them to figure out that the normal exit from the car (there was no other!) on the bridge would leave the hapless passengers stepping down off the street car steps – down into the abyss below since the steps were on the outside edge of the bridge. That would surely be upsetting to most passengers, so back to the drawing board: the obvious solution was to switch the streetcar to the other side of the train bridge. Southbound cars would then have their exit steps away from the bottomless pit at the edge of the bridge, and passengers could now exit toward the centre line of the bridge directly onto the relative safety of the railway track. All that was needed, then, was to design a way to get southbound street car traffic relocated over to the left side of the bridge, and northbound streetcars over to their left side. This called for some fancy trackage at either end of the bridge. But this was possible and it was done. However, it caused for some noticeable lurching and swaying of the street cars as they went through the switch-over manoeuvre as they approached the bridge.

During one of the lurching and swaying motions one Sunday evening more than fifty years ago, a number of university students were returning from church services – so many of us, indeed, that we were standing in a tight group at the rear of the car where the swaying action was most pronounced as we approached the bridge entry. Suddenly, one of the students – Charles, a fellow in physics and several years my senior – turned to me and asked in a clear voice, "Are you saved?"

I was not well acquainted with the "saved" terminology, but I guessed he was dealing with the theological question rather than with the safety of the high-level street car as it lurched onto the bridge. Still, the question was ambiguous given the circumstances.

Two generations later, I still wonder whatever happened to Charles. When he asked if I was saved, was he implying that I was not saved? There is some ambiguity there. The market for physicists at that time was not strong although they were getting the atom bomb business up and running in those years. More ambiguity: could he have gotten into that business if he were saved? Fortunately my Christian faith doesn't depend on my having an answer to every ambiguous question.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to understand things we cannot understand, to grasp the ungraspable and to honour God all the while. Amen.

About the author:

Gordon Hodgson
(deceased)

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