oday I experienced the full range of railroader emotions. In the morning, Cal (my Arvin buddy from the day before) and I took a beet train up the hill. That was the idea, anyway. We got to one of the dispatcher dead zones (where we can’t be contacted, perched along a desolate ledge named, quite rightly, as “Cliff”). And that’s when an opposing train we were supposed to meet there suffered a mechanical breakdown and didn’t show – no show, no go. And before he could arrive and liberate us, the passenger trains descended on us like sharks on a Weeki Wachee mermaid. We had to send flagmen along the heart-stopping precipice to direct first class trains to go around us. All in all, we spent three and a half (real) hours stuck in that Mars-arid and even-more-Mars-craggy place before a message runner got as close as he could in his Studebaker and hand-delivered an order getting us out of this situation.
Following this, the helper I was running dropped off at Tehachapi and wyed around. The roll back to Bakersfield was an easy deal, by the book. Very easy. Very relaxing.
And then, the perfect storm of stress.
My next run would be a freight out of Bakersfield, sixty-two cars behind some old ATSF engines, one with a broken gear that sounded like the telltale heart. To start, the train was half flats and gons, all in the middle, way light. This would make train handling something like the greased pig allegory. I wasn’t looking forward to this. Then I got chased out of the ATSF yard by the ever-angry yardmaster. Once sitting on the joint main (gaining frowns from the Kern Jct operator), I got my orders – six or seven pages of meets and rights over, all to my disadvantage. It was like the entire railroad was against me. This was a superb chance for me to die in a fiery death if I got so much as a small part of this wrong. But had some (or all) of these trains listed in my orders arrived at Bakersfield? I tried to check the register but train after train were pouring in, some into the SP yard, some into the ATSF, and not all of them had gotten around to signing the book. While i scurried around trying to find who had come in and who was waiting to crash into me further ahead, I noted from my soup ticket that one of the advocates of this sort of operations, a man who got me into this entire TT&TO thing and who had several books to his credit about this, well, he was going to be one of my helpers I’d pick up in Bena before assaulting the grade. If I got us killed, it would be a very stupid death with this guy witnessing it (possibly being pulled out of the wreckage). About this time the Bakersfield YardMaster cheerfully recommended that I get the fuck out of his yard. And so, with one of my engines knocking loudly, with a thick wad of orders scribbled with notes in my pocket, with knowing experts waiting at the helper pocket and who knew what on the line ahead, I rolled down that long mainline sweating bullets. In the time it takes a dead man to walk his final mile I was in Bena, the helpers were on with air pumped, and everyone was looking to me for direction. The exert cocked an eyebrow.
“Let’s roll,” I croaked.
I have to admit that I eased along through the twisting Caliente canyons, expecting to be bathed by headlights at every corner. But we made it to the next order station (I was betting against my own survival). And along the way, flats were coming off and needing rerailment. We paused in Caliente for water (the rear helper was a steamer) and picked up another order (a meet in Woodford – that I could handle). And, as eight o’clock rolled around and we broke for dinner (lashing down the train in Cliff, my favorite place), I let out a ragged sigh. Thank goodness. I hadn’t embarrassed myself my crushing myself in a burning locomotive cab. The hard part was done.
Tomorrow, after a group breakfast, I return to the hill and try to live long enough to make Mojave. And, shit, there was a passenger train stirring….