Asleep at the wrong switch

Kevin Cowherd

January 07, 1991|By Kevin Cowherd

EVERY SO often the newspapers carry a story about some poor slob who got hit by a train.

My first reaction is to feel sorry for these people, as I imagine getting hit by a train must sting a little.

Even if you're lucky and the train doesn't smash you into so many tiny pieces they need to vacuum up your remains, you're probably staring at a stretch in the hospital -- at least until the indentation spelling "Amtrak" fades from your chest and skull.

But my second thought is this: How dumb do you have to be to get hit by a train?

Think about it for a minute. Here's this huge 5,000-ton train chugging up the track, blowing its whistle and rumbling and clattering and causing the very earth to shake.

Now tell me: How could anyone with two working eyes not see a train coming? It defies all logic. And if you see the train coming, why wouldn't you -- let's just throw this out for the sake of argument -- GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY?!

Yet despite the seeming clarity of this course of action, people get hit by trains all the time. All over the country, too, not just in jerky backwaters where folks walk around with hay dangling from their mouths and you'd expect that sort of behavior due to overwhelming boredom.

According to studies (and there are actually people who monitor these things), many of the people hit by trains are drunk.

Which, of course, makes perfect sense, although I would say this: You have to really be tanked up not to see a train heading your way.

I can understand being so drunk that you don't spot, oh, an ashtray on the bar. But a train?


It seems to me you'd have to be sipping something stronger than Jack Daniel's (I'm thinking along the lines of Amoco super-unleaded) in order to miss an event like that.

If the people hit by trains are not flat-out, knee-walking drunk at the time, they are usually -- believe it or not -- asleep.

There was one memorable story of a fellow in Texas, I think it was, who fell asleep behind the wheel of his parked car one balmy summer evening.

This was all well and good -- he wasn't bothering a soul and God knows he needed the rest -- except for one thing: The car was straddling the railroad tracks.

Well, as often happens in the vicinity of railroad tracks, a train came roaring along at about 50 mph while this fellow was getting some shut-eye.

And as so often happens when a speeding train plows into a car, the car ended up somewhere in the next county.

And as so often happens when an idiot is asleep in a car when a train plows into it, the idiot miraculously survived.

Questioned later at the hospital by the authorities, the idiot said that, yes, he was aware that the two steel rails intersected by wooden slats on which he had parked signified an existing train track.

Nevertheless, he insisted that the place was -- I'm quoting accurately here -- "right peaceful."

I am assuming that someone pointed out to this idiot that, as a general rule, there are safer places to fall asleep than on railroad tracks.

If I may be permitted to tick off a few, I would list individual homes, hotels, motels, campgrounds, mobile homes, backyard tents, screened-in porches and so on.

If none of these is available and a sleeping bag on the hard ground does not appeal to you, then, yes, by all means catch a few Z's in your car.

But do yourself a favor: Park behind the Safeway. Or over by the bowling alley. Or to one side of a lightly traveled country lane. DO NOT PARK ON THE RAILROAD TRACKS.

Or, if you absolutely have to park on the railroad tracks, I would consult the train schedule to make sure that the 7:15 Boston Flyer is not due in the vicinity for the next few hours.

Call me Mr. Worry-wart, but even then I would plan on an early wake-up call. Certainly I would not wait until the shrill blast of a train whistle pierces the air signifying that, yes indeed, the 7:15 Boston Flyer is right on time and bearing down, even as we speak, on Toyota Cressida.

The Cressida is certainly a fine automobile. But what if it doesn't start on the first turn of the ignition key? What if it needs a minute or two to warm up?

There's no guarantee you'd have that kind of time, partner.

I think you see the problem.

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