Michigan State undergraduates of my era - the early 1950s - firmly believed that one of the married student housing units had the highest birth rate on campus because of the local train schedule.
I heard the story while a student there. It was accepted wisdom that precisely at 6 a.m. each day a freight train roared past an MSU apartment unit situated on the edge of the campus, rudely awakening all the residents.Since it was too early to get out of bed, and too late to go back to sleep, young love ran its natural course, and the birth rate soared.
I wondered at the time why the train didn't also wake up all the couples' young children, and thus ruin the sudden intimacy of the moment. But when I heard the same story told about other universities, I realized that this most likely was only a campus legend.
Thirty-some years later, I learned that the same legend is told in Australia.
Folklorist Bill Scott included it as the final story in his 1985 book "The Long & the Short & the Tall." He called it "Not Worth Going Back to Sleep." Scott heard the story, as he told me after I inquired about its origins, "from an anonymous public servant, a casual acquaintance I met at the Leagues Club at Queanbeyan in 1978."
The Aussie version described census officials in Canberra noting that a small town on the coast north of Sydney had a birth rate three times the national average.
They sent an expert out to investigate, and he found "bloody kids everywhere" - so many of them that the local school had built several temporary classrooms and the hospital had added a new maternity wing.
After three nights in the town, the census official figured out what was happening:
"This town was on the main railway line. The road crossed the line just north of the town and then crossed back about half-a-mile south again.
"The Kyogle Mail (a local train) used to reach there and go through about half-past-four every morning. When it hit the road crossing it used to blow its whistle very loud, and wake everybody in the place. Just when they'd be dropping off again it'd blow for the other crossing and wake them all up again.
"Well, it was too early to get up but it was hardly worth while going back to sleep again, so. . . ."
Scott considered this yarn a typical example of Australian humor, and figured that it is probably a relatively new story, since the Kyogle Mail only began running in the 1930s. But his theories fell apart when he found a much earlier version of the story, which may be the ancestor of both our versions.
Scott made his discovery in Fred Archer's 1971 book "The Secrets of Bredon Hill," an account of life in a Shropshire (England) village during the year 1900.
In this version a parson is visiting members of his flock who live down near the railway yard and who seem to be "breeding like ferrets." The minister asked one young mother why she had produced such a large family in so short a time.
" `Tis like this, vicar,' she said. `It's that early morning goods train as it comes up the incline.' "
When the vicar failed to understand, the woman explained that the train passed her cottage at half past four and her husband dared not fall asleep again, fearing to be late for work. "It was too early to get up," she said, "so there was nothing else to do but. . . ."
"I know, I know!" the vicar said, cutting her off abruptly.
Scott is looking for further versions, and he wonders if perhaps much the same story was told about "some ancient Celtic couple awakened by the builders of Stonehenge off to work early!"
And I'm wondering if undergraduates are still telling the campus version.
(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.