Monday, September 5th, 2011

I’ve been working on the raaaaaaaail-road, allllllll the live-long day.

Does anybody even learn that song as a kid any more? I sure hope so. It was one of the first songs I can remember my Mom singing to me, besides “You Are My Sunshine.” And by the way, did you know that the part that goes, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” is just the chorus? My mother never taught me any of the actual verses of the song, probably because she was trying to spare me the emotional trauma I might have suffered from exposure to the manic thoughts of a lovesick suitor whose significant other has ditched him and left him to wallow in abject, suicidal depression:

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
And so I held my head and cried

I’ll always love you and make you happy
If you would only say the same
But if you leave me to love another
You’ll regret it all someday

You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between
But now you’ve left me and love another
You have shattered all my dreams

Jeeze Louise! If I were that guy’s former sweetheart I’d be looking to slap a restraining order on him and spend the rest of my life sleeping with the lights on.

Anyway, I spent almost all day Sunday in East Troy playing with trains. Remember the song about railroads that I started this drivel with? I really was working on the railroad, only it wasn’t all very railroady work. The very first job they gave me was cleaning the spiderwebs and dead flies off the windowsills of a coach that had been in the barn for about a year. I could’ve been doing that in any office building in the state, until the point when I was about halfway down one side of the car and it started moving. That doesn’t happen to the cleaning crews in office buildings downtown.

The coach car I was cleaning was an old interurban, an electric commuter car from the 1920’s that’s about eighty feet long and has probably twenty-four windows, really wide ones with lots of windowsill space that turned out to be slathered with plenty of melted ice cream that had been baked on by the heat of the summer. There’s an ice cream shop right beside the tracks that the museum’s owners not only encourage tourists to stop at but also apparently allow them to bring their tasty treats on board for the ride. Cleaning up bugs and spiderwebs was a cinch compared to the ice cream.

I kept on working as the train came to a stop on a faraway stretch of track and eventually I could hear the tromping of the driver and the rest of the crew as they made their way through the second coach that was coupled to the car I was working in. Both coaches were the kind that could be driven in either direction and when they were coupled together they worked like a single car: You could drive them from the front of one car, stop, swap the trolley poles around so they were pointing in the other direction, then go to the back of the other car and drive them in the other direction, which is what they were doing. I didn’t know why they had to drive the empty cars out onto the track but I didn’t care – I was riding on a choo-choo train!

I finished cleaning up the car by the time we got back to the station so I tagged along with Ryan, one of the guys on the train crew, who was trying to figure out what to do with me. “What is it you were thinking of doing?” he asked me. I told him I’d do just about anything they needed help with. “Including … driving the trains?” he asked, a bit hesitantly, as if he was afraid I might be scared off by the question. “Well, yes,” I answered, then corrected my answer to, “Heck yes!” Do people actually say “No” to that question? I have to remember to ask him that sometime.

We were walking down the track toward a couple interurbans Ryan had to park in the barn, so he said, “I want to put this on track four, so line up the switches and open the barn door,” and he tossed me his key ring and climbed up into the cab.

I looked down the spread of four tracks leading toward the barn. “Okay. Uh. Is track four on the far left, or the far right?”

“Good question. It’s on the right.”

The points on two of the switches ahead of him had to be realigned so he could get to track four, and aligning them turned out to be simple to do. It was actually very much like switching tracks on a model railroad. All I had to do was unlock the catch that held down a heavy swing arm, flip it over, check the alignment to make sure I’d done it right, and move on. And the barn doors unlocked like the back doors of a delivery truck, so before he even got there I had all the switches lined up and the doors wide open for him to slip the cars into their spot in the back of the barn. Once the cars were parked, he showed me how to switch off all the electrical systems inside each car, set the brakes and pull the trolley poles down off the wire, then took me around the side for the last little bit of housekeeping, bleeding the air out of the tanks under the car. “I’ll let you do this ’cause you’re going to get dirty,” he said – I was in grubby cleaning clothes, and he was wearing a white button-down shirt. There was a stopcock on the end of each tank and all I had to do was crawl under the car, squeeze the trigger and twist it. The opening of the valve was pointed down at the track and started to hiss as twisted it. I figured it should be wide open – why wouldn’t I? – so I cranked it hard all the way around and was hit in the face by a cloud of gravel blown up by a terrific blast of air. For the rest of the day, I was picking gravel out of my hair and finding rocks in my pockets. To let the air out of the other tanks, I cracked the valve just a bit, then walked away and let it bleed off.

Back at the clubhouse, Ryan took care of some administrative paperwork to get me signed up in the club, then asked me if I wanted to flag the dinner train. “Sure,” I said. “You’re gonna tell me what that means in a minute, right?” Not only did he tell me, he drew me a map. I had to race ahead of the dinner train to stop traffic at the places where it would cross the road, which seemed like a simple job when I was watching other guys do it as we rolled along on the dinner train two weeks ago. Then, the train was barely creeping along at five or ten miles an hour. I don’t know how fast it was going while I was flagging it, but it wasn’t creeping. Each time I raced ahead of it, I got to the next crossing with just a few minutes to spare. At the last crossing, I was supposed to unlock the derail, align the points so the train would turn down a siding and energize the line before blocking traffic. When I got there, the dinner train was waiting just down the track for me, so I hustled to set the points, threw the switch that would energize the line, then ran out into the road to stop traffic. The train didn’t move. I didn’t know how to signal them, so I just stood there in traffic, waiting, until I could see Bob, the driver, coming down the track. He stopped and bent down to fiddle with something, and that’s when I remembered the derail. Facepalm!

A derail is a wedge of iron that gets put over the track to keep runaway cars from going where they’re not supposed to by making them crash. Well, not actually crash – it forces the wheels to jump off the track, bringing the car to a stop. That’s why it’s called a derail. Bob wouldn’t be able to drive the dinner train over the crossing until somebody – Bob, in this case – flipped it off the track. I ran over to let the traffic pass and to apologize to Bob for missing the derail, but he told me not to worry about it, they were stopped back there to give the catering staff time to serve the food. But he checked to make sure I remembered the siding and the electric switch.

I chased the dinner train all the way back without forgetting anything else, then spent the rest of the afternoon helping Ryan clean it and get it ready for the next trip out. One of the steps to cleaning it out was dumping the toilets, which was just a matter of connecting a hose to a spout on the bottom of the car, pulling a release valve – staying well away from any danger of backblast this time! – then rinsing it out with a garden hose. The extension hose that connected to the spout on the coach came out of a drain set into the ground beside the tracks. “You just have to grab it and pull it out,” Ryan assured me, but the thing seemed to be wedged in there pretty tight, and it was hard to get a grip on because it was only a little smaller than the drain pipe. I could just barely get my hands down in there. “You might have to wiggle it a bit,” he prompted. I tried, but couldn’t wiggle it. It was wedged in there too tight. I paused a moment and looked back at Ryan. “This is the joke you play on newbies, isn’t it?” It wasn’t, but he thought that was a pretty funny idea, so my ears are probably going to be burning for years as future newbies try to get that damned thing out of the ground.

After we got the dinner train cleaned up, Ryan and Al went over to Lauter’s ice cream shop for a malted milk, and I had a cherry phosphate and a big chocolate chip cookie, Ryan’s treat for helping him out.

song | 11:05 am CDT
Category: daily drivel | Tags: ,
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One Comment

  1. 1 The Seanster said at 9:45 pm on September 5th, 2011:

    And yet you’re still alive. One would think you would have died and gone to heaven. :)