FINEST HOUR 136, AUTUMN 2007
BY WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
First published in two parts in The Daily Mail, 4/5 January 1932, and later in volume form in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, vol. IV, Churchill at Large (London: Library of Imperial History, 1975). Copyright © Winston S. Churchill, reprinted in Finest Hour by kind permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd., and the Churchill Literary Estate.
In New York in December 1931, on a lecture tour seeking to recoup his 1929 losses in the stock market crash, Churchill was searching for his friend Bernard Baruch’s apartment. Looking the wrong way halfway across Fifth Avenue, he was struck by a car and almost killed. In hospital, he began dictating, while his bodyguard Sgt. Thompson took measures to maintain his privacy— “which included flinging all the clothes out of incoming laundry baskets to prevent reporters from disturbing the sickroom by hiding in the baskets to gain admittance,” according to Robert Lewis Taylor in Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness (New York: Doubleday, 1952). No working writer can be unimpressed with Churchill’s ability to turn mishap into opportunity. Taylor adds:
Churchill was in agreement with his doctors that he should be guarded from upsets. His concern, while identical to theirs, was prompted by a different reason. Propped up in bed, he was busily at work on a rush article tentatively titled, “My New York Misadventure.” He finished it without distraction, sold it for $2500, then got up and took a convalescent trip to the Bahamas on the proceeds. Some weeks later, back home at Chartwell, he resumed the massive writing projects to which he was now dedicated.
Today, two things strike us about this article. The first is amusing: it could have happened yesterday, not seventy-five years ago; yet much would be avoided— Churchill would have had a cell phone! The second is more profound. It is the lesson Churchill offers us in facing death:
“There is no room for remorse or fears. If at any moment in this long series of sensations a grey veil deepening into blackness had descended upon the sanctum I should have felt or feared nothing additional. Nature is merciful and does not try her children, man or beast, beyond their compass….For the rest—live dangerously; take things as they come; dread naught, all will be well. ” —RML
Some years ago there was a play at the Grand Guignol called “At the Telephone,” which attracted much attention. A husband, called away to Paris, leaves his wife in their suburban home. Every precaution is taken against burglars. There is the maid who will stay in the kitchen; there is the door which is locked; there is the revolver in the drawer of the writing table; and lastly, of course, there is, if needed, the appeal for help by the telephone.
One by one the usefulness of all these measures disappears. The servant is called away; she leaves the front door unlocked so that she can return. She takes with her the key of the drawer in which the revolver is kept. Darkness comes on, and in the final act the agonized husband hears over the telephone his wife’s appeal for help while she is the victim of a murderous outrage. An impressive effect is given of doom marching forward step by step and of every human preventive slipping silently out of the path.
Something of this impression rests with me when I recall my experiences of the night of 13 December 1931. I had finished dinner and was inclined to go to bed; but an old friend of mine rang up and suggested that I should go round to his house. He was Mr. Bernard Baruch, who was the head of the War Industries Board during the two years I was Minister of Munitions. We made friends over a long period of official cables on grave business, and have preserved these relations through the now lengthening years of peace. He said he had one or two mutual friends whom I was most anxious to meet, and as the hour was a little after half past nine, I was readily enlisted in the project.
I descended by lift the thirty-nine storeys which separated my room from the street level. When I arrived at the bottom it occurred to me that I did not know the exact number in Fifth Avenue of my friend’s house. I knew it was somewhere near 1100. I knew the aspect of the house; I had been there by daylight on several occasions. It was a house of only five or six storeys standing with one or two others of similar construction amid large apartment buildings of more than double the height. I thought it probable I would pick it out from the windows of my waiting taxicab, so after a vain search in the telephone book—only Mr. Baruch’s
business address was there—I started.
Fifth Avenue is an immensely long thoroughfare, and the traffic upon it, as elsewhere in New York, is regulated by red and green lights. When the red light shows, every vehicle must stop at the nearest crossroad. When after an interval of two minutes the lights turn green, they all go as hard as possible until the light changes into red. Thus we progressed by a series of jerks.
When I got near the eleven hundreds I peered out of the cab window and scanned the houses as we sped past, but could not see any like the one I was seeking They all seemed to be tall buildings of fourteen or fifteen storeys. On the left lay the dark expanse of Central Park.
At length we reached the twelve hundreds and it was certain I had overshot my mark. I told the cabman to turn round and go back slowly so that I could scan every building in turn. Hitherto we had been moving up the right or centre of the thoroughfare and could at any moment have stopped opposite any house. Now we had turned round. We were on the Park, or far side from the houses, with a stream of traffic between us and the pavement.
At length I saw a house smaller than the rest and told the cabman to turn in there to make inquiries. It occurred to me that as we must be within a hundred houses of Mr. Baruch’s address, and that as he was so prominent a citizen, any of the porters of the big apartment houses would know which his house was. A London butler nearly always knows who lives in the three or four houses on the right or left.
The porter of the apartment house at which I inquired recognized me at once and said he had served in the South African War. He had no idea where Mr. Baruch lived, but eagerly produced the telephone book, which could, as I have stated, give no clue in my present quest.
In order to stop opposite this house we had to wait until the light changed, then turn round on to the opposite course, draw up at the pavement [sidewalk in USA], and thereafter make a second turn, again being very likely stopped by a change in the light. When this had happened three times and we were unlucky in missing the permissive green light, I began to be a little impatient.
It was now nearly half-past ten. My friends knew I had started an hour before. Ordinarily the journey should not have taken ten minutes. They might think some accident had happened to me or that I had changed my mind and was not coming at all. They would be waiting about for a tardy guest. I began to be worried about the situation at the house I was seeking. I thought I might have, after all, to go back to my hotel and go to bed.
We had now arrived, as I supposed, at about the nine hundreds, and here were certainly houses much smaller than the others. So instead of going through this long ritual of cab-turning on to the other side of the street, with all the delays of the lights, and then returning again on to its general course, I told the cabman to stop where he was on the Central Park side of the avenue; I would walk across the road myself and inquire at the most likely house.
In England we frequently cross roads along which fast traffic is moving in both directions. I did not think the task I set myself now either difficult or rash. But at this moment habit played me a deadly trick. I no sooner got out of the cab somewhere about the middle of the road and told the driver to wait than I instinctively turned my eyes to the left. About 200 yards away were the yellow headlights of an approaching car. I thought I had just time to cross the road before it arrived; and I started to do so in the prepossession—wholly unwarranted— that my only dangers were from the left. The yellow-lighted car drew near and I increased my pace towards the pavement, perhaps twenty feet away.
Suddenly upon my right I was aware of something utterly unexpected and boding mortal peril. I turned my head sharply. Right upon me, scarcely its own length away, was what seemed a long dark car rushing forward at full speed.
There was one moment—I cannot measure it in time—of a world aglare, of a man aghast. I certainly thought quickly enough to achieve the idea, “I am going to be run down and probably killed.” Then came the blow.
I felt it on my forehead and across the thighs. But besides the blow there was an impact, a shock, a concussion indescribably violent. Many years ago at “Plugstreet” in Flanders, a 4.2 shell burst in a corner of the little room in which we were gathered for luncheon, reducing all to dust and devastation. This shock was of the same order as the shell explosion. In my case it blotted out everything except thought.
Mario Constasino*, owner of a medium-sized automobile, was running between 30 and 35 miles an hour on roads which were wet and greasy. He was on his proper side of the road and perfectly entitled to make the best speed he could, when suddenly a dark figure appeared immediately in front of him. He applied all his brakes, and at the same moment, before they could act, he struck a heavy body. The car shuddered, and, after skidding somewhat under the brakes, came to rest in probably a few lengths. Three or four feet from the right-hand wheel lay a black, shapeless mass.
Mario had driven for eight or nine years and had never had an accident. He seems to have been overpoweringly agitated and distressed. He heard a loud cry, “A man has been killed!” The traffic banked up on either side. People came running from all directions. Constables appeared. One group clustered around Mario, another around the prostrate figure.
A friend of mine of mathematical predilections** has been kind enough to calculate the stresses involved in the collision. The car weighed some 2400 pounds. With my evening coat on I could not have weighed much less than 200 pounds. Taking the rate of the car at 35 miles an hour—I think a moderate estimate—I had actually to absorb in my body 6000 foot-pounds. It was the equivalent of falling thirty feet on to a pavement. The energy absorbed, though not, of course, the application of destructive force, was the equivalent of stopping ten pounds of buckshot dropped 600 feet, or two charges of buckshot at point-blank range.
I do not understand why I was not broken like an egg-shell or squashed like a gooseberry. I have seen that the poor policeman who was killed on the Oxford road was hit by a vehicle travelling at very much the same speed and was completely shattered. I certainly must be very tough or very lucky, or both.
Meanwhile, I had not lost consciousness for an instant. Somewhere in the black bundle towards which the passers-by are running there is a small chamber or sanctum wherein all is orderly and undisturbed. There sits enthroned a mind intact and unshaken. Before it is a keyboard of letters or buttons directing the body. Above, a whole series of loudspeakers report the sensations and experiences of the empire controlled from this tiny headquarters. This mind is in possession of the following conclusion:
“I have been run over by a motorcar in America. All those worries about being late are now swept away. They do not matter any more. Here is a real catastrophe. Perhaps it is the end.”
The reader will observe from this authentic record that I experienced no emotion of regret or fear. I simply registered facts without, except for a general sense of disaster, the power to moralize upon them. But now all the loudspeakers began to blare together their information from the body. My mind was overpowered by the hideous noise they made from which no intelligible conclusion could be drawn. Wave upon wave of convulsive, painful sensations seemed to flood into this small room,
preventing thought, paralysing action, but impossible to comprehend. I had, for instance, no knowledge of whether I was lying on my back or side or face.
How long this period lasted I cannot tell. I am told that from the time I was struck down to when I was lifted into a taxicab was perhaps five minutes, but although I was in no way stunned, my physical sensations were so violent that I could not achieve any continuous mental process. I just had to endure them.
Presently, however, from my headquarters I see a swirl of figures assembling around me. I have an impression of traffic arrested and of dramatically gathered crowds. Friendly hands are laid upon me.
I suppose I ought now to have had some very pious and inspiring reflections. However, all that occurred to me was, “I shall not be able to give my lecture tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Whatever will my poor agent do about it?” Then more definite impressions. A constable is bending over me. My head and shoulders are being raised towards him. He has a book, quite a big book, in his hand.
“What is your name?”
I protest I am no snob, but on this occasion I thought it lawful and prudent to add, “The Right Honourable Winston Churchill from England.”
I heard distinctly respectful “Oh, ohs” from the crowd.
“What is your age?” asked the officer, adhering to his routine.
“Fifty-seven,” I replied, and at the same moment this odd thought obtruded itself upon my mind. “How very odd to be knocked down in the street by a motorcar. I shall have a very poor chance of getting over it.”
The constable proceeded to demand particulars of the accident My mind and speech apparatus worked apparently without hitch, and I could volubly have told him all that is set down here; but instead, to save trouble, I said: “I am entirely to blame; it is all my own fault.” Later it seemed that another constable came with the question, “Do you make any charge against any person?” To which I replied, “I exonerate everyone.”
At this the interrogation ceased abruptly, and Mario in the background (though I did not know this until afterwards) was released from captivity.
During all this time I was in what I suppose would be called great pain; though the sensations really presented themselves to me mainly as an overpowering of the mind. Gradually I began to be more aware of all that was going on around me.
It appears that an ambulance was passing, and the crowd stopped it and demanded that it should take me to the nearest hospital. The ambulance, which had a serious case on board, refused. Thereupon a taximan exclaimed in a voice which I would perfectly well hear, “Take him in my cab. There’s the Lenox Hill Hospital on 76th Street.”
Accordingly I was lifted by perhaps eight or ten persons to the floor of the taxicab. I now discovered that my overcoat had been half torn off me and trussed my arms back. I thought both shoulders were dislocated. My right shoulder dislocates chronically, and I asked repeatedly that care should be taken in lifting me by it. Eventually the constable and two others got into the cab and we all started, jammed up together.
Up till now nothing could have been more calm and clear than my interior thought, apart from the blaring of pain and discomfort which came through the loud-speakers. All was in order in my inner sanctum, but I had not ventured to touch the keyboard of action and had been content to remain an entirely inert mass.
I now saw, as I lay on the floor of the cab, both my hands, very white and covered with blood, lying across my breast. So I decided to give them an order to move their fingers and at the same time I pulled the levers which affect the toes. Neither hands nor feet took the slightest notice. They might as well have belonged to someone else for all the attention they paid to my will.
I now became, for the first time, seriously alarmed. I feared that in this bundle of dull pain which people were carting about, and which was my body, there might be some grave, serious injury to the spine. The impression “crippled for life” registered itself in the sanctum. Yet even then there was so much going on that one could not focus it very clearly or grieve about it much.
What a nice thing it would be to get to the hospital and have this overcoat cut off, to have my shoulders put back into their sockets, and, above all to lie down straight upon a bed. My companions kept cheering me up. “We are very near now: only another block or two,” and so on. So we rumbled on.
And then a most blessed thing happened. I began to experience violent pins and needles in both my upper arms. They hurt intensely; but I did not mind, because at the same time I found my fingers beginning to move in accordance with my will. Almost immediately afterwards the toes responded to my orders. Then swiftly, by waves of pins and needles almost agonizing in their intensity, warmth, life and obedience began to flow back into the whole of my trunk.
By the time we pulled up at the hospital I had the assurance that, although I might have an arm or leg or two broken and was certainly bruised and shaken, the whole main structure of my body was sound. Blood continued to flow freely from my forehead and my nose; but I did not worry about that at all, because in my sanctum we had decided: “There can be no brain injury, as we have never lost consciousness even for a second.”
At last we arrive at the hospital. A wheeled chair is brought. I am carried into it. I am wheeled up steps into a hall and a lift. By now I feel battered but perfectly competent. They said afterwards I was confused; but I did not feel so.
“Are you prepared to pay for a private room and doctor?” asked a clerk.
“Yes, bring all the best you have ….Take me to a private room….Where is your telephone?….Give me the Waldorf Astoria….I will tell my wife myself that whatever has happened. I am going to get quite well.”
But after an interval they said, “She is already on the way here.”
Not for one moment had I felt up to the present any sensation of faintness, but now I said, “Give me sal volatile, or something like that.” A reviver was brought. A house surgeon staunched my wound.
“Let me,” I asked, “get these clothes off and lie down. I can stand for a moment if you hold me up.”
Soon I am on a bed. Presently come keen, comprehending eyes and deft, firm fingers.
“We shall have to dress that scalp wound at once. It is cut to the bone.”
“Will it hurt?”
“I do not wish to be hurt any more. Give me chloroform or something.”
“The anaesthetist is already on the way.”
More lifting and wheeling. The operating room. White glaring lights. The mask of a nitrous-oxide inhaler. Whenever I have taken gas or chloroform I always follow this rule. I imagine myself sitting on a chair with my back to a lovely swimming bath into which I am to be tilted, and throw myself backwards; or, again, as if one were throwing one’s self back after a tiring day into a vast armchair. This helps the process of anaesthesia wonderfully. A few deep breaths, and one has no longer the power to speak to the world.
With me the nitrous-oxide trance usually takes this form: the sanctum is occupied by alien powers. I see the absolute truth and explanation of things, but something is left out which upsets the whole, so by a larger sleep of the mind I have to see a greater truth and a more complete explanation which comprises the erring element. Nevertheless, there is still something left out. So we have to take a still wider sweep. This almost breaks mortal comprehension. It is beyond anything the human mind was ever meant to master.
The process continues inexorably. Depth beyond depth of unendurable truth opens. I have, therefore, always regarded the nitrous-oxide trance as a mere substitution of mental for physical pain.
Pain it certainly is; but suddenly these poignant experiences end and without a perceptible interval consciousness returns. Reassuring words are spoken. I see a beloved face. My wife is smiling. In the background there rises the grave, venerable countenance of Mr Bernard Baruch. So I ask:
“Tell me, Baruch, what is the number of your house?”
“How near was I to it when I was smashed up?”
“Not within ten blocks.” (Half a mile.)
Such in short were my experiences on the night of 13 December; and the message I bring back from these dark places is one of encouragement. I certainly suffered every pang, mental and physical, that a street accident or, I suppose, a shell wound can produce. None is unendurable. There is neither the time nor the strength for self-pity. There is no room for remorse or fears. If at any moment in this long series of sensations a grey veil deepening into blackness had descended upon the sanctum I should have felt or feared nothing additional. Nature is merciful and does not try her children, man or beast, beyond their compass. It is only where the cruelty of man intervenes that hellish torments appear. For the rest— live dangerously; take things as they come; dread naught, all will be well.
I ought not to forget to add that I have since looked into my despatch box and I have found that my far-seeing private secretary in England, Mrs. Pearman, had furnished me with a travelling address book of people I might want to communicate with in the United States, and in this I read; “Baruch, 1055 Fifth Avenue,” with the private telephone number duly set out.
All of which goes to show that even the best human precautions afford no definite guarantee of safety.
*On 28 January, Conscasino was among 2000 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to hear Churchill’s first lecture after his recovery. WSC also presented him with an inscribed copy of My Early Life.
**WSC cabled Professor Frederick Lindemann for a description of what had happened to him. Lindemann replied on 30 December:
“Collision equivalent falling thirty feet onto pavement, equal six thousand foot-pounds of energy. Equivalent stopping ten pound brick dropped six hundred feet, or two charges buckshot pointblank range. Shock probably proportional rate energy transferred. Rate inversely proportional thickness cushion surrounding skeleton and give of frame. If assume average one inch, your body transferred during impact at rate eight thousand horsepower. Congratulations on preparing suitable cushion, and skill in taking bump.”