Wednesday, June 9, 2021




  1. Robert Heinlein describes an incident very much like this in one of his collections of essays. I don't think he mentioned the kids, though.

  2. I'm glad Anthony mentioned the incident, as I had remembered the same thing.

    If you're interested, there are more details:

    Heinlein was speaking at the XIXth World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle in 1961. In his speech, he mentioned an incident in 1911-ish ("about fifty years ago" from 1961), when he was a small child living in Kansas City, recalling the story his father had read aloud from the Kansas City Star. He describes the incident happening at the popular Swope Park, which had a rail line running through it.

    " they heard a train coming.

    "Too late to flag it down--too late to do anything--save continue trying to get her foot out of there.

    "Of course both the husband--and the stranger who had happened along--could have saved themselves easily.

    "But they didn’t. Neither gave up, both men kept trying and were still trying as the train hit them.

    "The wife and the stranger were killed at once; the husband lasted just long enough to tell what happened and died before he could be moved.

    "The woman had no choice. The husband had a choice but acted as a husband should.

    "But what of the stranger?

    "No one would have blamed him if he had jumped clear at the last moment at which he could have saved himself. After all, in sober fact, the woman could not be saved--it was too late. She was not his wife, not his responsibility--she was a total stranger; we don’t know that he ever learned her name.

    "But he didn’t jump back. He was leaning over, pulling at this stranger’s leg with all his strength when the locomotive hit him. He used the last golden moments of his life, the last efforts his muscles would ever make, still trying to save her."

    Heinlein finishes with the moral to the story:

    "I’ll never know anything about [the stranger]--except how he chose to spend the last five minutes of his short life... and how he elected to die.

    "But that is really quite a lot and I’ve thought about it many times since. Why did he do what he did? What did he think about in those last few rushing minutes when the train bore down on them? Or did he think about anything save the great effort he was making? Was he afraid? If he was, what inner resources did he draw on to offset that fear with ultimate courage?

    "We can’t know. All we know is that, with no flags flying, no bands playing, no time to prepare his soul for the ordeal--he did it.

    "And the only conclusion I have ever been able to reach is this: *This* is how a man lives. And this is how a *man* dies."