Catching trains in Maryland and nearly blinded for life

This was one of the fastest, smoothest catch-outs ever.

I dropped off my rental car at the Citgo station in downtown Cumberland, Md., and climbed aboard a grainer a few hundred feet from the gas station. There was a westbound waiting for clearance, conveniently in front of my face. In about a half hour, the train creaked west through the gritty town and up the hill, toward Sand Patch Grade and through the Cumberland Narrows, the historic, rock-walled passage for 19th century westward-bound settlers.

The leaves on the hillsides were just starting to turn, giving me a pang of regret that I had not planned this trip for two weeks later. It was a dreary day of drizzle and clouds, the kind of weather that keeps the landscape from opening up. The drizzle kept me huddled in the grainer’s cubbyhole except for periodically coming out to view the glassy river, until darkness fell. This was a red part of a blue state, verging on Appalachia – small towns, farms, gun shops, abandoned American cars up on blocks. Since I catch trains in Maryland, once again I was beset by darkness in Pennsylvania. Overly curious, I periodically looked around the side of the car, even though I had been warned twice that it was too dark to risk such behavior by unseen boughs slapping my face.

The third time was when fate grew tired of warning me off and pulled out the big guns. We were going about 25 miles per hour or faster; I lazily leaned around the car to look into the darkness – projecting only a head’s length from the side – and got bashed in the head by a pole placed amazingly close to the tracks. In the instant that it clobbered me, I could feel the scaly, cold paint. I fell flat on the floor of the grainer, blinded by the impact. This was my Bill Mellman moment (he who was hit in the face by a bird).

For several minutes I lay on my back, in a new and unwelcome universe of solid blackness. I had to wonder how to find help if blinded for life. I would be stuck on the train until the crew change in New Castle, Pa., and if I jumped off there would be no safe way to walk out of that yard.

Fortunately, maybe undeservedly, my vision began coming back after several wretched minutes. It remained imperfect, but other than strange spots that made me think (correctly, I was told later) I was seeing through my own blood and a patch of void in my left eye’s field of vision, I could once again see.

Relieved to have gotten my life back, I waited until the train pulled into a hole beside the US Steel mill in Braddock. The security guard in the booth did not notice any signs of trauma – strangely, I had less bruising than a simple punch would have caused – and directed me to Braddock Avenue, the main drag that led to Pittsburgh. It would have been eight miles to downtown. I headed down the darkened street of worn-out buildings, until a UPMC hospital suddenly loomed on the right, as if Allah himself had built it for my use. I had reached an ER only about a half mile into my trek toward Pittsburgh. The CT scan proved I had no brain injury or skull fracture, but the doctor did not like the looks of my corpse-like, dilated left pupil and sent me off to an ER with an ophthalmologist on duty.

After a night of observation, I was cleared to return home on a dismal Greyhound, having used up another in my fast-diminishing number of lives.