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The Straight Dope



Can you tell me why the missionary position is called the missionary position? If the woman gets on top, is that the heathen position? Is there a difference between the Lutheran missionary position, the Methodist missionary position, and for that matter the Zoroastrian missionary position? --Victor M. Cassidy, Chicago

Victor, you're so juvenile. Learn to be serious, like me. The legend behind the "missionary position" is this: early European missionaries discovered that native peoples, while going about the business of propagating the species, often used unorthodox positions--positions that people today spend thousands of dollars on Kamasutra sex therapy to learn. (OK, I exaggerate: the alternative position usually mentioned in this connection is the so-called dorsal or dog-style position, in which the man approaches from the rear.) Shocked, the missionaries declared that only the couple-facing/man-on-top position was acceptable before the Lord. How the missionaries became apprised of what positions the natives were using I don't know, but I suppose if you're a white guy in the outback with a mate whose ideas on procreation are as unenlightened as your own, you probably have nothing better to do than prowl behind the wickiups come evening.

That's the legend, at least. It may not be true. The earliest citation for "missionary position" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1969, the Random House unabridged says the term first showed up between 1965 and '70, and Webster's Ninth says 1948. In other words, it may have been invented by postwar hipsters who looked down upon the uncool Presbyterian proselytizers of an earlier age. In any case the missionary position was not some Anglo invention; surveys suggest it is, and no doubt always has been, a common sexual position in most of the world.

Why don't freight trains have cabooses anymore? --George, Dallas

Don't need 'em, and besides it's cheaper without them. There used to be two guys in the caboose: the conductor and a brakeman. The conductor did paperwork, the brakeman threw switches, and they both watched for "hotboxes," overheated freight-car wheel bearings. They also radioed useful tidbits of information about the train (e.g., there's been a little accident) to the engineer. Today virtually all main line switch throwing is done electrically from the central office, roller bearings have virtually eliminated hotboxes, the conductor can do his paperwork in the locomotive, and the useful tidbits of information are provided to the engineer by a soulless machine. So it's curtains for the caboose.

What you see instead on the end of the train is a gizmo that senses motion, monitors the pressure in the air brake line, and automatically radios its findings to a receiving unit in the locomotive. Unlike car brakes, train brakes are released by increasing (not decreasing) the pressure in the brake line. This can take a while in a mile-long freight. When the engineer wants to start the train, she pumps air into the brake line until the rear-end gauge reaches a certain level. That tells her all the brakes throughout the train have been released and she can give that puppy some gas.

The motion detector, as you might surmise, lets the engineer know when the back of the train is moving. The significance of this will not be apparent until I let you in on a key fact from my vast storehouse of railroad lore: you can't start a whole freight train at once. Too much inertia. Instead you have to start it one car at a time, taking advantage of the slack in the couplers that connect the cars. Before starting, all the cars in a freight train are bunched up behind the locomotive. When the engineer opens the throttle, the locomotive starts moving solo until the slack in the first set of couplers runs out, whereupon the first car in the train starts with a jerk. An instant later the slack in the next set of couplers runs out and the second car jolts into motion, and so it continues all the way back through the train. Eventually the last car starts moving and the motion detector signals the engineer, who can then lay on some serious horses. If more people knew stuff like this, the country would be a lot better off.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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