The inquisitive passenger, on the rear platform of the long train snaking its way along the French Board River, was puzzled by occasional round white signs with black figures. They were not mileposts, because they were always the same series—100, 125, 150—and not speed-limit signs, because on that line no engineer could make 100 miles an hour and live.
So the passenger asked the flagman: “What are those figures?” “Car-lengths,” the flagman said. “That means so many car-lengths to the switch. If it’s a long train the engineer can’t see all of it at once, around these corners. But he knows how many cars he’s got in his train and them signs tell him whether the last car is out of the siding or not. The engineer’s got to know where his hind end is.”
“Oh,” said the inquiring passenger, and fell to thinking.
The engineer does have to know where his hind end is, sure enough. If he doesn’t, he will think the train is all out on the main line when some of it is still on the sidetrack. He will think the train is ready to roll when it isn’t. The engineer not only has to keep a lookout forward; he has to think backward too, all the way to the caboose. Where is the train? is a question that can’t be answered by looking out of the Diesel window sideways; it has to be answered by thinking back all the way to the last car. If that one isn’t past the siding, the train isn’t past the siding.
Parents, statesmen, leaders of men, all “human engineers,” need to know where their hind end is. They can’t afford to leave it behind, and it is dangerous to assume that it is farther along than it is.
The teacher, for example, must know where the hind end of the class is. The front-row boys and girls (intellectually speaking) may be picking up speed, clicking ...1
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