ust another day on the railroad.
Was aboard 391, a mixed through freight out of Alamosa, creaking its steamy 1936 way up to the high slopes and eventually to Durango. I was conductor – boss man of the movement. In the cab, young Eric, still new enough at railroading to have a spark in his eye (and I knew he was aiming at moving east to high stepping Pennsy eventually). Richard slumped in the crummy, sucking at a bottle of rot gut, occasionally stumbling down the steps to realign the turnouts behind us if Eric blew the whistle long and loud enough.
We were into Navajo late – the Alamosa hostlers had been slack and now we were tucking up behind 123, another working freight that was just clearing. What a bottleneck and we’d only been on call for less than an hour.
Leaving Eric in the cab of our teakettle, I crossed the rusty rails to the tiny railroad office, snatching the phone out of Cook’s hand and rattling the cradle, calling for the dispatcher. Once I raised him, I told him that I wanted to bring my engine across the main to fetch out a box car, then ease up to water on the main. “Okay,” he replied unconvincingly. “Main and siding. We’ll call when clear.” A pause. “Okay.”
Shaking my head, I tossed the phone back into Cook’s lap and stepped out onto the rickety platform. There was a neat little pin-pusher of a woman standing there, and in her shadow, her hen-pecked husband.
I should have thought about this more, but being a freight guy, varnish-hoppers didn’t factor into my day. Lighting a smoke, I crossed to the east end switch and shouldered it over. Then, a wave to Eric to bring it forward. He tried to toot twice but it came out as one long warble. Still learning.
Everything else went like clockwork. He rumbled past me – I threw the turnout back to the main then walked down the line, aligning the spur and stepping clear. Our steamer rumbled across the points, easing back down the turntable lead where the box car waited (I tossed another look at the distant reporting mark, confirming the pickup against two copies of paperwork. This railroad was red-tape happy these days). Then Eric brought her forward, missing the spout. Frowning, I gestured to him to back. It was then I heard wheels pounding rail across the bridge just east of Navajo, down Ute Junction way. Turning, I found train 2, the passenger those nice folks on the platform were waiting for, highstepping down the Placerville grade into town. And here we were jutting onto the main. Eric was up on the tender, both hands on the scoop, gaping over his shoulder. Richard was, I supposed, drunkenly sleeping in the crummy. I pulled off my hat and waved it, hallooing them to stop.
Train 2 ground its wheels, back-spinning desperately. In the end, she threw cinder grit all over our cow catcher, she came so close. For a moment there was silence, both crews, the two passengers and Cook, all staring at each other.
And then Train 2’s conductor was swinging down, swarming towards me with murder in his eyes and a timetable in his hand. “What are you four-flushers doing on the main? We’re scheduled through! You’re on our time!”
Truth be told, I hadn’t even thought to glance at the timetable, having gotten direct (if hesitant) authority to occupy. So I snarled back, saying just that. And back and forth we went, stomping and arguing, but it was really a sparring of kittens. Nobody was really mad. This was model train operations. It’s all in fun.
Only later did the Superintendent mention that two trains collided under the tunnel past Ute a session ago and that this was a reoccurring theme of bloodshed on his railroad. One train had been the hapless Train 2. “It’s a wonder anyone would ride the Western Bay,” he fumed.
“What else can they do?” Richard observed, not as drunk as I’d imagined him for the fantasy. “Ride a mule? A buckboard?”
But all in fun. Already I’m circling my trains not to pilot. 391? Check. 2? Check.
Safety first, right? But fun a close second.