Following is a story from my uncle, who was hit by a freight train when he was sixteen. It is also an example of the types of emails I am lucky to get from him and my father, Dave, when they feel like reminiscing.
“My Wonderful Train Ride.” If I appear to be rambling it is because the experience has been tied to so many other occurrences in my life.
In February 1961, I was in my junior year of high school at East Leyden. It was the weekend of semester break, although we did not have an official break in high school. One semester ended on Friday and the next semester began on Monday. It was a Sunday night and I was over at my girlfriend’s house. We were sitting in the living room, pretty much making out (necking only) like we usually did when we were alone, and 10:20 rolled around. I stood up and said it was time to go. She couldn’t understand why because her parents were not expected home for another hour or so.
Although I didn’t explain this all to her, at the time there was a TV show that came on at 10:30 after the 10:00 news called, “Playboy After Hours.” Hugh Hefner hosted the show from his apartment in downtown Chicago and in addition to having a lot of good looking young women walking around he always had some very interesting guests, mostly actors, musician, writers, and other personalities. I loved to watch the show because they always had some very good discussions and the musicians would usually play a piece or two on whatever instrument they were known for. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, totally impromptu.
So, I left my girlfriend’s house and got into my car (actually, Dave’s car). That is the last thing I remember about the next four days.
The next thing I remember is lying down in bed. My buddy Paul was sitting in the chair
next to my bed, and the TV was on. The Alfred Hitchcock show was playing and I said to Paul, “What is Alfred Hitchcock doing on on a Sunday night?” Paul said it was Wednesday. I just let it go. I felt a little bit of a scab hanging from my right eyebrow so I attempted to peal it off the rest of the way. Paul said, “Hey, what are you doing?” I told him I was just trying to get rid of the rest of this little scab that must have formed somehow above my eye. Paul told me it was not a scab but stitches. “Stitches?” I asked. “What am I doing with stitches on my eyebrow?” Paul told me I had been in a car accident and I was in the hospital. That was the first I realized I was lying in a hospital bed.
During the next couple weeks I learned everything that had happened. I‘d been headed home from my girlfriend’s house and crossing the railroad tracks in Franklin Park on Ruby street. There were only flashers at that crossing and no gates. Freight trains coming through that part of town were either going into the Mannheim yards or coming out. Consequently they were usually moving very slowly. If ever the flashers were going I would come to a stop at the crossing, see how far away the train was, then determine if I was going to go for it or wait for it. That was a very common way of getting across the tracks in F.P.
After the traffic light at the corner of Ruby and Franklin, which is the corner I would have just come from, if the flashers were off and no train was coming I would put the car in second gear to let the transmission slow the car so as not to go across the tracks fast because it was a very rough crossing and hard on the car. When the car was taken to the junkyard after the accident it was in second gear, which meant I was not trying to beat the train but was merely coasting across the tracks. If I had been trying to beat the train the car would have been in first gear. It was not unusual that the flashing lights at some of the crossings in F.P. did not always work properly. I also learned later that the repair crew was out at that crossing the next day working on the flashers.
The engineer of the train told the railroad insurance lawyers that he had seen me ready to cross the tracks and blew his whistle at me several times and I still came across the tracks. As it turned out, the guy who drove the bus to our away basketball games knew the engineer. The engineer told the bus driver that I scared the shit out of him. He had been coming into the yard with just the engine and caboose. He only had his dimmer driving light on and was going about 30 mph. The first time he saw my car was when he heard the crash.
Right next to the crossing was a VFW hall that had dances every Sunday evening during the winter months. A couple guys were outside having a cigarette when they
heard the crash. They went back into the hall to get their jackets and made the announcement that a car had just been hit at the crossing. A bunch of them came running to see what had happened. The car was bent like a horseshoe. The passenger door was up against the steering wheel. And you need to remember, that was a 1957 Chevy that was much bigger than most cars today; three people could comfortably sit on the front seat.
There was blood and broken glass all over the place. When the train finally stopped, about two city blocks from the crossing, there was a small crowd of people who knew me at the scene. The driver’s side door was open and this was before there were seat belts on cars. It is pretty amazing that I actually stayed in the car.
When my parents got to the hospital I was still covered with blood and broken glass was in my hair and on my clothes. But after they realized I was pretty much ok, they went home. Our mom woke Dave up to tell him the story. He jumped out of bed insisting he wanted to go to the hospital but was told I was asleep and doing ok. She told him his car had been totaled, but he was completely unconcerned. (It was only years later, and only in a very joking way, that he made a comment about how I had destroyed the best car he ever had.)
I suffered from a severe concussion. It not only wiped out my memory of the accident but it also had me acting very cuckoo for several days. During the night in the hospital I was found wandering around the corridors. They ended up putting a restraining strap on my right wrist and my left ankle so I couldn’t get out of bed or fall out of bed. I also would simply look at the food they brought me and not attempt to eat. My mother asked if I was hungry and I said I was, so she ended up feeding me. From then on there was a note on my food tray, “Please feed.”