While cleaning out our mother’s house after she died, my sister found a letter I wrote in 1969 from when I was stationed at the Marine Corps base in Camp Pendelton, California.
Archie, Jay, and I had been bar-hopping in Tijuana earlier in the day and had just driven back to a friend’s bungalow near the beach in Oceanside, California. After a few more rounds of drinks, we walked up the street to catch a bus back to the base and encountered a stationary train blocking our path.
As we ran between its cars, we found a second train resting on the next set of tracks and heard a third one approaching. Archie and Jay sprinted between the cars of the second train. I followed them, high on adrenaline, alcohol-fogged, and unaware that the moving train was coming down a third set of tracks and getting ready to hit me.
Upon impact, time did not just slow down, it stopped. It felt like doing a belly flop into an empty swimming pool, but oddly painless. Disconnected from my body, I hurtled through the air, calm and relaxed, realizing the alcohol had me covered. Aware of imminent death looming over my head, I told myself, “Just roll with the punches.”
Time restarted when I hit the ground, but in slow motion, because it seemed that I rolled and tumbled through the black, rocky cinders that lined the tracks for an impossibly long time. Although I never saw the train, I guessed it was going around 50-60 mph based on the force of the impact, the pace of the railroad cars roaring by my ear, and the length of time I rolled through the cinders. After the impact, I laid still for a moment to feel whether any part of my body was hurting.
I heard Archie ask Jay, “What happened to Leif?”
“The train run over him,” answered Jay flatly.
The lack of emotion or any concern in Jay’s voice bothered me. I reasoned that perhaps, he was unnerved at seeing me get smashed by the train, or maybe it was because Jay had just returned from combat in Vietnam where he had lost a few friends and watching me survive a fight with a train was a relatively minor incident to him.
I felt surprisingly good, so I stood up slowly and noticed that every square inch of my clothes was soiled. It looked like I had been tumbling around inside a cement mixer full of cinders. My face felt okay, but my hair felt like a bird’s nest and there were cinders embedded in my scalp that took a while to pick out. Archie said that because I looked like Paul Newman with my sunglasses on, we should catch up to the train and tell the engineer that he ran over this famous actor. We had a big laugh about that.
The next day, however, I was so stiff and sore that I had trouble getting out of bed. After morning chow, Archie and I excitedly relived my accident for our Gunnery Sergeant, a man who was rumored to have seen much horror in Vietnam. He was unimpressed. So, I wrote to my mother:
Something finally happened worth writing home about. Last night I got hit by a train. I’ve got bumps and lumps, bruises & scratches, and a stiff neck but I’m okay. I don’t want to scare you with any details but that I didn’t get killed is really a miracle.