"The power of these stories is really something!" wrote Elisa E. Tubbs, assistant to the vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad Co. in Baton Rouge, La.
Naturally, she had an example of a powerful story in mind. I'll call it "The Man Caught in the Couplers":"In 1979 I was told this by a co-worker who was deadly serious," wrote Tubbs. "It seems obviously medically impossible, but the person who told me believed it completely.
"One night as a switchman was working in the yard in Kansas (or someplace nearby) he was coupled between two rail cars, completely through his midsection.
"This dreadful accident did not kill the man immediately, but others at the scene knew that the only way to extricate him was to uncouple the cars. They realized that the man would soon bleed to death when this was done.
"The railroad worker, still conscious, asked for his wife and children to be brought to his side. After tearful kisses and last goodbyes between the victim and his family, the railroad officials reluctantly uncoupled the two cars, and the man soon bled to death."
Tubbs concluded, "The teller insisted it actually happened on our railroad, the former Missouri Pacific, and I have heard the story repeated to new employees by various people."
My first reaction to Tubbs' tale was similar to her own: "Even hearing it for the first time," she wrote, "I felt a familiarity with it as if I had heard it before."
Then I realized that the coupler story sounded like a unique variation of another industrial-accident urban legend I call "The Last Kiss." But more about that one a little further on.
Three days after receiving Tubbs' tale, I got a variation of it in a letter from a former railroad worker. At this point I'm not certain whether there's any truth behind these stories or even a real connection between them.
My second man-in-the-coupler story came from James Dixon of St. Paul, Minn., who was a file clerk for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in St. Louis during the summers of 1966-68.
An older clerk told Dixon that the incident happened "right out here in the Choteau yards," which were only a couple (so to speak) of miles from their office.
Again the victim was a switchman, whose blood vessels, supposedly, were clamped shut by the closed couplers. In this version, a priest is called to administer last rites, rather than a wife to give a parting kiss.
When the cars are finally uncoupled, the man quickly bleeds to death.
Dixon wrote, "Pat (the other clerk) indicated the exact part of the body that was crushed - just at the top of the man's left hip bone. But he didn't claim to have personally witnessed the scene, though I assumed that he may have seen an official report of it."
In "The Last Kiss" legend, as I've heard it in Utah, a worker was caught in a large steel-rolling mill. His wife was brought to his side to give him a farewell kiss before the machine was re-started, killing the man while extracting his body.
In 1988 I heard "The Last Kiss" told in New Zealand. This time the worker was trapped in a "shingle crusher," a huge machine that pulverizes rocks into gravel.
After receiving his wife's last kiss, the man loses his life when the crusher is turned back on in order to eject his body.
Since I work in a profession where the on-the-job hazards run more along the lines of paper cuts and hot coffee spills than gruesome maimings and fatalities, it's hard for me to gauge the truth behind these stories.
I'd appreciate the comments of other railroad workers or others more familiar than I am with heavy industry.
Perhaps some such accident really happened, although the two professionals who wrote me expressed their doubts. In any case, the variations of details in the stories indicate that oral tradition has modified them.
Besides, "The Last Kiss" theme certainly casts a sentimental light over these otherwise depressing tales.