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COLUMN SIX: Things to avoid while driving

This 1939 Packard 120 convertible is currently listed for sale on Hemmings.com for $57,500 USD. HEMMINGS.COM PHOTO

For example, trains

BY ROBERT NORMINTON
Special to the VOICE

This happened when I was in the middle of a four-year engineering course at the University of British Columbia. UBC was more or less tied with U of T, in about fourth place in North America, for the excellence of its engineering education, and so had a reputation to uphold. Standards were high and failure rates for under-achievers were brutal. Most failures took place in the first two years—only about 30 percent of us who had started out made it to the third year.

I was one of those who had got caught in a second-year purge.

I had flunked three courses: one, a one-hour-a-week course on the history of engineering, taught by the Dean of Engineering himself. Neither he nor I could understand how anybody could fail such a course, so with a sigh of resignation he gave me a pass mark anyway.

The two other courses were very important and difficult. I had to write two supplemental exams on them in the following semester, both of which I flunked again. I decided to drop out for a year, do some serious studying and earn some money before attempting the failed courses for the last time. That year was 1953.

I got a job with the B. C. Electric Company. I call this the family company, as most of my extended family —grandfather, father, myself, sister, brother-in-law, three nieces and two sons-in-law—have worked for B.C.E. at some times in their lives, some of them all their working lives. B. C. E. generated and distributed 75 percent of the electric power used in British Columbia, and was nationalized by the province in 1962, as B.C. Hydro. You could compare it with Ontario Hydro. But unlike Ontario Hydro, before nationalization, B.C.E., through its division B. C. Electric Railway Company, also ran the streetcars, trolley buses, and the big double interurban cars in the major cities before the days of our clogged super-highways.

In April, I was a member of a crew surveying the route for a power line along the mountains overlooking Harrison Lake in the B. C. interior. This area was famous for the Harrison Hot Springs at the southern end of the lake, and as our survey approached from the north, our crew bunked into a hotel in the area. We worked, I think, two weeks on and one week off. During the week off, we went back to our homes.

One day late in the month, we discovered a movie that three of us wanted to see was playing in the small farm town of Agassiz, in the Fraser Valley, just a few miles drive from Harrison Hot Springs. We three decided to make an evening of it.

I offered to drive, as I had just purchased a well-used cream-coloured 1939 Packard 120 convertible, and I was anxious to show it off. So off we went, all of us in the front bench seat, with the top up in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm.

Now, back in 1953, the approach to Agassiz led in from Harrison Hot Springs to the north, with a speed limit of 50 miles per hour. At the town’s outskirts, the speed limit abruptly dropped to 30 miles per hour as the road made a significant bend to the right. Immediately one was confronted with a four-track railway crossing marked with only the traditional “X” sign. Furthermore, a grain handler’s strike was on at the time, so there were long lines of parked and coupled rail cars on the first track, about 100 feet either side of the crossing, completely blocking any view of what was happening on the tracks on the other side.

As we started to cross the first of the tracks in the dark and the rain and the crash and flash of lightning, I thought I heard somebody yelling, “Hey! Hey!” I could have sworn it came from the left and behind me. Those are the tricks bad weather plays upon the mind.

Immediately my passenger on the right side yelled, “Look out, Bob!”

I caught a very brief glimpse of a big light and a train coupling coming into the right side passenger door. There was a great jolt and the car lurched dangerously as it was pushed to the left.

The two men with me were yelling at me to get out, but I could not and would not as the steering wheel spun uncontrollably in my hands and the car threatened to overturn while being pushed inexorably to the left.

Remember, this was a convertible, and there were no roll bars back then. My door had partly opened, and I clung to the steering column for dear life below the spinning wheel while wondering if I was to have a very short life after all.

Luckily, the train had only been shunting backward at low speed (it was the caboose that had hit us), so I came to rest only about 35 to 50 feet down the track.

All of us indecently hastened to tumble out my door, the only one that still opened. I noticed the engine smoking, but there was no fire, and it surprised me later that I had enough presence of mind to switch off the ignition.

The only casualty was that one of my riders cut his forehead on the rear-view mirror in his panic to exit what might have been our coffin. It took five stitches to close. Even in the dark I could see that my car was a write-off. You can’t argue with a train—even a low-speed train— without suffering terminal damage.

A railroad official materialized to inform me that there was a 60-mile-per-hour flyer coming along the same track my wrecked car was on in about 20 minutes, and that I would have to move it.

I said I would not “permit” this before a policeman appeared. I told the official to flag the train down, plant land mines on the track, or do whatever he had to do to stop it. In some degree of temper we exchanged mindless accusations that neither of us took seriously, such as: I was trespassing on railroad property, or, that the railway had kidnapped me from the highway crossing. At any rate the flyer never appeared.

A little later, an RCMP officer turned up. He investigated and listened to testimony all around, then turned to me and said that he wasn’t sure he should be telling me, but that he thought I just might have a case against the railway company, that perhaps they should have had a man with a flag in the crossing, since there were no other warnings of light or sound. I never pursued this, and left the whole matter with my insurance company.

I was then interviewed by a reporter for a local newspaper. He told me that folks in town had considered the crossing an accident just waiting to happen, and that they had badgered the government for years for a proper crossing signal and/or guard, but that the government kept turning them down for the simple reason that an accident had never occurred there.

Well, guess what. I had provided the locals with just the ammunition they needed, and they intended to play my misfortune up for all it was worth. I heard later that there had been two more accidents that year at that same crossing, one of them fatal. Then and only then did they get a proper signal and guard.

I came out sort of smelling of roses too. No charges were levied against me, and my insurance company paid me $687 for my car, which I thought was generous, being slightly more than what I had paid for it. I try not to think now that it would be considered a classic car today, and, fully restored, would be worth about one hundred times what my insurance company paid me.

But hey, my friends and I came out intact, so that’s got to be worth something! Oh, and I passed both my supplementals that fall. I’ve had a great life since, a fine career as an engineer, and 65 years of a good marriage. I have no complaints.

 

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