ackstory here: You gotta understand the damn scale of the La Mesa Club. It’s big. Really big. Imagine that you were a tiny little HO figure. The distance is 29 scale miles from simulated Mojave to pretend Bakersfield. In most locations, pretty much all the track alignment is correct for the 50s. We run trains that are 50-100 cars long (often with two or three operators controlling engines). A half dozen clerkish characters keep the railroad organization (from crew calling to cooking to dispatching to MOW) humming.
So I’m in Mojave – just got into town aboard Extra 6386 West, four black widow F-units in SP livery idling on yard track one near the station building, a string of fifty-nine empty wood car flats (along with occasional gons and boxes) strung out behind them. It’s colder than shit out – we’re simulating December 22, 1952 and it’s 3:45 in the morning, a frosty desert night.
The frigid gravel crunches under my work boots as I make my way back to the train, nervously eyeing passenger train 55, its crew waiting for orders. They go out at 4:08, and if they fly green flags (and indicate following sections) I’ll be screwed. And if 60 East rolls in opposite with same-hue flags, again, screwed. And there is a collection of eastbound freights coming towards me, an unknown number of sections of 802 and 808. First 808 got in a few hours back and the rails are still humming from second 808, through a couple of minutes ago. But the registry book marks it as green so there is at least one more section out in the dark. And 802 is due in right now. The only thing going for me is that I’m facing a double track main all the way up to Summit, meaning all this oncoming stuff should pass me by.
Slamming the cab door, I check my paperwork, unfolding the flimsies on the dash and flicking on the cab light. My two orders are:
TRAIN ORDER 8: EXTRA 6386 WEST HAS RIGHTS OVER THIRD 802 TEHACHAPI TO BENA.
TRAIN ORDER 9: ENG 6386 RUN EXTRA MOJAVE TO KERN JCT
So this means I can drive this train from here to Kern Jct (in Bakersfield) legally. And once I clear the summit at Tehachapi, where the track goes single-with-sidings (a slow crawl around rugged turns and a steady downgrade) I can brush off the third section of 802. Still, that means I’ll have to hold at Tehachapi for the first two sections of 802 to clear (even though all men are born equal, the fact that they are numbered third class trains while I am an extra makes them more equal than me). And there is that missing third 808 somewhere out on the hill.
I look up at the roar – 55 is rolling past, no flags, hot damn. The next passenger west is 23, and that’s hours away. Nobody behind me, not on the time table anyway. I give two hoots from the horn and start rolling forward. Ahead, a yardlette lines the crossover switches, setting me dead on 55’s receding marker lights. My conductor dashes off the entry in the register book in the station and then starts a toy-soldier march across the icy rails, looking back for the distant caboose and its welcome grab irons. Yeah, we all want to get out of town.
I keep the speed down until we clear (so the conductor doesn’t de-socket his arms as he grabs his passing caboose). We’re picking up speed, climbing out of the Mojave sink yet losing proximity to 55 who is loping away from us, wending up the long valley towards the distant summit. No sign of 60 nor 3-808, nor any of those damn 802s (there are at least three out there). And every turn of the wheel rolls me closer to the end of easy double track and into hop-siding land.
At Warren, there is a center siding and there sits a freight aiming Mojave-ward – it’s a line of beet hoppers. We give a long-short recognition exchange as we catch each other’s numberboards – third 808 and thank God, no greens. That’s the end of that series. The brakeman and I were discussing where some of these other trains might be when there is a flash of coaches on the far side of the beets. As luck would have it, we can see both numberboards and lights over the tops of the overfull beet gondolas – it’s 60 showing green. And I’m wondering how many beets we shook out of third 808, two trains flying by one either side at forty, buffeting him. I know the conductor – R. Martin – he’ll probably bitch about the rough handling next time I see him. He’s always bitching about something.
We’re out of Warren and running hard upgrade. Eventually the concrete towers of the Monolith cement plant loom against the frigid dawn sky. Down the rails, a star shines on the ground. A moment later, this swells into 60 second, running yellows on the first, no signals, no more 60s. A check to the timetable. Next varnish is 58, due through Tehachapi at 5:43. Between that and those now-overdue 802s (we should have passed at least the first section by now), it looks like I have some waiting to do. We come into Summit main and ease up to the end crossover, unhappily looking down that single-track main. There are some sidings here too, but I make a conscious decision to hold on the west main, saving the sidings ahead in case I need them. Catty-corner across the grade crossing, the lights are on at Tehachapi station, as is their order board. Red light. They have paper for me. I curse, opening the door and sliding down the icy handrails. I’d rather just sit in the cab but I’ve orders to collect. It’s just after 4:30 when I stomp into the office, my feet numb with the cold. The clerk is OS-ing me in to the dispatcher, reporting our arrival. Without saying much, I gesture for the orders. Looks like one sheet.
Train Order 10: EXTRA 6386 WEST MEET THIRD 802 AT BEALVILLE
And that’s sucky. No further protection against the first two sections (which pin me here), nor against 58 (which also pin me here). And my system-wide domination over third 802 has been reduced to one town, meaning that instead of him staying out of my way, now I have an equal responsibility to meet him at a specific location, which pins me down further. And so now it’s the waiting game.
“I hear,” ops the station operator, “that first 802 had helper problems at Rowan.”
I add this to my list of things to curse (namely, overdue trains (three of them, at least), the cold, the ungodly hour, and now this). First 802 has floundered miles away yet I can’t move against him because the second might run past him, and regardless, I’m still inferior to him, regardless that he’s gone lame on the grade.
The waiting continues. I go back to my cab.
Sixty minutes pass. 58 arrives, no signals, and makes a flag stop at the station. And he’s away.
But I still need to wait for the first two sections of 802, and they’re nowhere to be seen.
The sun is just coming up when I get the shock of my life. A passenger train is growling up behind us, Santa Fe warbonnets. I rip open my timetable in a cold sweat but, no, I’m not on a scheduled train’s time – this guy is a passenger extra, some sort of holiday movement. Even though Southern Pacific and Santa Fe share trackage rights here, I don’t like giving foreign varnish a break. I radio back to my caboose to let me know what they say. If I have to pull forward onto the siding, I will. If I have to.
He’s apparently expecting me to move. He and my conductor hunch in his headlight, comparing orders. He’s got a meet with third 802 at Woodford. I’ve got a meet at Bealville. If he goes around me, I’ll just have to pass him again (because my meet in more-distant Bealville pins 3-802 there. It makes no sense for him to run around me. I radio back my refusal to let him around. Then, in front of me, the station order board goes red. Now what the shabby-shit does the clerk want now? Fuming, I radio my conductor to tell Fe to stay behind us and climb out into the chilly dawn, to slump over to the station (again).
“Dispatcher wants to make sure you go out first. Otherwise…”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll just end up going ‘round the varnish at Woodford. We had this discussion already.”
He glares at me. I glare at him.
“You dropped your train order board on me. I’ll need new clearance out.” He doesn’t like that since it means more paperwork, but he also knows I’m right. I pluck my no-orders clearance out of his hand and strut out, not quite closing the door and letting the heat out. Who cares?
One good thing – as I get to the end of the platform, the crossing gates come down. Shielding my eyes against the headlight glare, I watch a long line of Tuscan-rust cars rumble east, headed by engines crowned by 1-802, green flags fluttering. They grind to a stop to start dropping their helpers at the wye; I’m sure they’ve had a brisk morning, manhandling broken helpers back into service in the dark. That explains the lengthy pause of the cut-out; their fingers are probably blue. Without hesitation, I duck between their cars and cross tracks to get back to my train. They are still fussing with icy couplers and trying to coax a limping AC unit out as I mount the cab ladder and slam the door tight behind me. Brrr!
Eventually they are rumbling out of town, easing into the long downgrade to Mojave. That’s when I spot the east order board dropping, clearing an eastbounder. A moment later a headlight flares along the western tabletop. And here it comes, second 802, green flags out, riding hard on its first section. Hot damn!
Of course, he has to stop to drop his own helpers and that blocks the crossover to the main. To hell with this – the siding is still open and so I boot my front end switchman out to reverse the turnout points. Then we pump off the brakes and begin the long slow roll forward. Since things are going to start sloping fast, once the brakes are pumped off I hiss off some pressure, setting them against the coming decent and notching to three to keep us moving. I notch this back to one as our caboose clears the turnout, letting the rear crew drop a man to heave the points over and chase after the caboose. Over the radio, they let me know when he’s aboard. Good thing, since we’ve touching dynamics to hold the speed down. With him aboard, the next ten minutes we wind down through Cable and into the string of pop-tunnels, getting the train up to 25mph, touching in brakes and balancing with dynamics to keep us rolling right at the posted limits. And off we go.
Nothing much to say after that. I’m not expecting to see anything until that meet with Third 802 at Bealville, well distant. All The way down I’m conscious of a following headlight, that passenger extra, all hot to run at speed. But the Woodford arm is down and we throw in dynamics, dragging the train down to 10 mph or so. Throwing open the window (and getting a blast of cold dawn air), I hook the raised orders into the crook of my arm and see what’s so damn important.
Train Order 13: EXTRA 6386 WEST MEET FORTH 802 AT CALIENTE
So that’s great – we’ve got another section of eastbound freight. And since I’m an extra, that means I’m the guy who has to drop crew in front to toss a turnout (and keep the speed down so the back man can clean up after us). I’d rather just ride the grade down, toying with the dynamics, but now I’m trainhandling this mother in and out of sidings. Well, no use crying over it. The caboose crew confirms that the passenger extra is taking siding 1 in Woodford for his meet with 3-802, so I don’t think we’ll see any more of him.
Down past Rowan, down along the gulp-inducing drop along Cliff’s sharp edge, down through the horseshoe and that final tunnel at Bealville. Happily, 3-802 has already sent a man out to stand near the turnout. At the sight of us emerging from the tunnel, he throws the points over and gives a wave that they’ll align after we’re gone. Nice of them. With the new sun shimmering down our flanks, we’re down to the low end of Allard where there are no nice men to throw our points so we slow to a crawl to do it ourselves. Dropping down the long slope to Caliente, we can see Fourth 802 just getting into town. Great. At least we won’t be waiting for him.
We drop to a stop at the head end of the sidings so my man can line things up. And yes, there is my meet, idling in the cold. And there are those green flags, telling me we’ve got even more trailing sections. I thought the Christmas store-stocking rush was behind us. That means we’ll be waiting. But maybe not… the Caliente order board hasn’t dropped for us and I can see an office clerk walking across the rails to take up position to hoop us orders. Praying for a reprieve, I release the independents and coax the train forward, sliding back the window to pluck up my orders.
Train Order 15: EXTRA 6386 WEST AND EXTRA ATSF 38 WEST HAVE RIGHT OVER FIFTH 802 CALIENTE TO BENA
Thank you Santa – that’s what I wanted to hear. My weary front end man clambers down the ladder to toss the points at West Caliente and we roll through, holding 5mph, then 3 as the rear end drags across the turnouts. With confirmation that we’ve recovered our monkey, we ease back up to track speed, squeaking and squealing through the winding valley to Ilmon, following the lazy river out towards Bena. There, the fifth section idles in the center siding and I’m surprised to see even more green flags. The dispatcher is probably pulling his hair out now, trying to work things so that that pathetic westbound passenger extra can move against the 802 parade. Well, good luck to him on that – as for me, we’re pumping our brakes off and leaning into the throttle, boosting up the short climb at Sandcut and edging up to a teeth-rattling 40 mph down that straight as an arrow approach to Bakersfield. Everyone on my train relaxes – the job is nearly done and there are no more turnouts to throw or 802s to meet. Once this train is tied down, I’ll probably grab a tin cup of soup at the bean house before telling the crew caller that I’m available. Odds are I’ll be going back up the hill in a couple of hours.
It’s a job. Nothing more.