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Asleep at the Switch Read by Jean Shepherd

In a broadcast of June 19, 1973, WOR, New York City, radio commentator Jean Shepherd read an excerpt from the 19th century poem "Asleep at the Switch" by George Hoey (c1852-1907). Shepherd omitted the final verse in which the errant railroad switchman turns out to be having a nightmare and did not, in fact, cause the train wreck. There are other deviations from the text below, notably in the second to last verse. Possibly, there was more than one version of the poem. Asleep at the Switch By George Hoey The first thing that I remember was Carlo tugging away, With the sleeve of my coat fast in his teeth, pulling, as much as to say: "Come, master, awake, attend to the switch, lives now depend upon you. Think of the souls in the coming train, and the graves you are sending them to. Think of the mother and the babe at her breast, think of the father and son, Think of the lover and the loved one too, think of them doomed every one To fall (as it were by your very hand) into yon fathomless ditch, Murdered by one who should guard them from harm, who now lies asleep at the switch." I sprang up amazed—scarce knew where I stood, sleep had o'ermastered me so; I could hear the wind hollowly howling, and the deep river dashing below, I could hear the forest leaves rustling, as the trees by the tempest were fanned, But what was that noise in the distance? That, I could not understand. I heard it at first indistinctly, like the rolling of some muffled drum, Then nearer and nearer it came to me, till it made my very ears hum; What is this light that surrounds me and seems to set fire to my brain? What whistle's that, yelling so shrill? Ah! I know now; it's the train. We often stand facing some danger, and seem to take root to the place; So I stood—with this demon before me, its heated breath scorching my face; Its headlight made day of the darkness, and glared like the eyes of some witch,— The train was almost upon me before I remembered the switch. I sprang to it, seizing it wildly, the train dashing fast down the track; The switch resisted my efforts, some devil seemed holding it back; On, on came the fiery-eyed monster, and shot by my face like a flash; I swooned to the earth the next moment, and knew nothing after the crash. How long I lay there unconscious 'twas impossible for me to tell; My stupor was almost a heaven, my waking almost a hell,— For then I heard the piteous moaning and shrieking of husbands and wives, And I thought of the day we all shrink from, when I must account for their lives; Mothers rushed by me like maniacs, their eyes glaring madly and wild; Fathers, losing their courage, gave way to their grief like a child; Children searching for parents, I noticed, as by me they sped, And lips, that could form naught but "Mamma," were calling for one perhaps dead. My mind was made up in a moment, the river should hide me away, When, under the still burning rafters I suddenly noticed there lay A little white hand; she who owned it was doubtless an object of love To one whom her loss would drive frantic, though she guarded him now from above; I tenderly lifted the rafters and quietly laid them one side; How little she thought of her journey when she left for this dark, fatal ride! I lifted the last log from off her, and while searching for some spark of life, Turned her little face up in the starlight, and recognized—Maggie, my wife! O Lord! my scourge is a hard one, at a blow thou hast shattered my pride; My life will be one endless nightmare, with Maggie away from my side. How often I'd sat down and pictured the scenes in our long, happy life; How I'd strive through all my lifetime, to build up a home for my wife; How people would envy us always in our cozy and neat little nest; How I should do all the labor, and Maggie should all the day rest; How one of God's blessings might cheer us, how some day I perhaps should be rich:— But all of my dreams had been shattered, while I lay there asleep at the switch! I fancied I stood on my trial, the jury and judge I could see; And every eye in the court room was steadily fixed upon me; And fingers were pointed in scorn, till I felt my face blushing blood-red, And the next thing I heard were the words, "Hanged by the neck until dead." Then I felt myself pulled once again, and my hand caught tight hold of a dress, And I heard, "What's the matter, dear Jim? You've had a bad nightmare, I guess!" And there stood Maggie, my wife, with never a scar from the ditch, I'd been taking a nap in my bed, and had not been "asleep at the switch."
Length: 03:44


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