H. John Rogers
The Associated Press rendered the text of Sago Mine disaster victim Martin Toler Jr. as “Tell all I’ll see them on the other side. It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you. Jr.”
However, an examination of the actual text leads one to conclude that the wire service took some linguistic — and perhaps theological — liberties with the text. The Toler family permitted AP to photograph the note, a copy of which ran in most newspapers that covered this story.
First of all, the note clearly begins in the present tense. “Tell all I see them on the other side ...” The AP redactor for some reason made this “I’ll see them ...” This change is certainly not justified by the text — Toler’s “I” is clearly voiced in the present time. Further, there are no linguistic or grammatical errors in the text that would suggest Toler would make such a simple error.
Actually, Toler’s phrasing is consistent with the large literature on near-death experiences, like the “welcoming” of the person who is near death by a close relative or friend who had “crossed over” at some earlier time. It could have been something akin to the “host of angels” from the old hymn that Toler saw when he said, “I see them on the other side.”
Famously, General Stonewall Jackson said, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees” just before he died at Chancellorsville in 1863. One of his biographers, William Harbaugh, asked in his book, “Was Jackson speaking of the Potomac or the Jordan?” Jackson, too, spoke in the present tense.
This is significant because the final mutterings of the dying are our only evidence as to whether there is actually an “other side.” Many men who die in such a fashion are said to call for their mothers.
Of course, as with the Tim Robbins’ movie “Jacob’s Ladder” of about 15 years ago, these visions can just as easily be part of the psychological efforts to hold onto one’s present existence as they are evidence of an “other side.”
Toler places his name, “Jr.,” before the first phrase of his note: “Tell all I see them on the other side JR.” Then, on the right side, of the note, which is clearly written after the beginning of the note are three short sentences:
“It wasn’t bad.”
“I just went to sleep.”
“I love you.”
What is interesting about these sentences is that the first two are in the past tense. They are written — chillingly — as if Toler were already dead. The “I love you” is in the eternal present.
I telephoned the reporter who wrote the AP story and was told that he would be out for several days. I left a message with John Raby at The Associated Press. However, as of this writing, the call has not been returned.
There would appear to be two overlapping reasons as to why the AP reporter redacted Toler’s final words. First, he might have wanted to make Toler appear fully literate. However, this wasn’t really necessary since Toler’s note scans perfectly well.
What one suspects is that the reporter couldn’t handle what Toler seems to have been saying. He was seeing “them on the other side.”
The idea of a “Sweet Chariot” coming to carry Toler home may have been a bit much for a secular medium (no pun intended) and/or its “ink-stained wretch” dispatched to the scene.
Consequently, Toler’s words were transmogrified by one or both into a traditional pietism, to wit, how we’ll all get together on the other side.
However, it is pluperfectly clear that this is not what Toler wrote. He was addressing the present and not some “pie-in-the-sky” theology.
Rogers is a writer and lawyer who lives in New Martinsville.