Fall seems to be the season of remembrance for me. The short commute to work through corn and bean fields makes me remember childhood with a cozy feeling. One morning this week I was driving to work a bit earlier than usual and had to stop for a train which was a bit unusual! As the first in line, I watched flat cars of Caterpillar tractors passing slowly by me. Then a few piggyback cars. Then tankers and grain cars. Thankful that I was early and not in a rush to beat the clock, I enjoyed the clackity-clack of the wheels, checked the springs to see if the grain cars were loaded, and remembered.
Trains are a wonderful part of history and a special part of my own history. The first train rides I remember were taking The Rocket out of Peoria with my mom and brother to visit our cousins in Naperville. I was so young that when they told me we were taking The Rocket, I thought it was a real one! My brother laughed at me.
When I was in junior high, my dad got a job as brakeman on the Toledo, Peoria, and Western (TP&W) fondly known as the Tip-up. I was glad he didn’t work at the Peoria and Pekin Union railroad. I didn’t want to tell my friends my dad worked for the P & PU. Someone was not thinking when they named that line. Dad had to pass a test within the first few weeks of his new job. He was nervous because it had been quite some time since he’d been in school, so he asked for my help. Many nights were spent learning the towns between Washington and Watseka (Eureka, El Paso, Chenoa, Fairbury, Forest, Chatsworth, Piper City, Gilman, Cresent City, Watseka – to name a few), memorizing terms, rules, and regulations. Dad would also teach me the hand signals, numbers, and lantern signals which he learned on-the-job. Teaching me helped him to realize how much he knew. He did great on the test. I knew he would.
Our lives became ruled by the Extra Board. The workers’ names are put on a board, and when a train needs a crew, the crew caller will dial the men on the list in order, usually two hours before they need to be at the station. This was in the days before cell phones, so we were pretty much tied to home if it looked like dad might be called. I also had to stay off of the phone, which was difficult for a girl in high school. (See previous friend blog – i.e. Karen) If you missed a call, your name went to the bottom of the list. Missing a call meant money lost. When dad got a little more seniority, he could bid on a shift and work regular hours – if you call 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. regular. Dad loved working on the railroad.
We all became familiar with the terminology – switching cars, roundhouse, red board, highball, bumping, deadhead, graveyard shift, griever, hotbox.
On my 14th birthday we stopped by the train yard to pick up his paycheck. When he told the crew working that night it was my birthday, they let me get up in the engine and drive it into the roundhouse! I couldn’t drive a car, but I could drive a train! Dad put a penny on the tracks and I had a flattened reminder of a special night.
One of my favorite stories dad told was of the young man who started working on the extra board. The crew ‘went dead’ which means they had worked as many hours as the union allowed, so a new crew had to replace them and the ‘dead’ crew had to be driven back to the main yard. Unfortunately, this man had not explained to his wife what ‘going dead’ meant and when he got home, she was in tears, had called her family and the pastor, and was planning his funeral. They may have changed their training classes after that one!
Many times I rode Amtrak from Galesburg to Denver while in college and living in Colorado. When my grandmother passed away, I was recovering from surgery and could not lift anything more than five pounds, including my 18-month old daughter. My husband, who worked for the Denver, Rio Grande & Western Railroad, put Karrie and me on the train and spoke to the conductor. There is a wonderful camaraderie among railroaders. The conductor came and asked me if I’d like to be in the observation car rather than the crowded car. Karrie and I spent the night in the observation car – totally alone. He’d closed it off to all other patrons. In the middle of the night two young kids came up and were being romantic in the front of the car. He caught them and shoo’d them away. When they changed crews in Omaha, he made sure the next conductor knew the situation and I felt like royalty the entire trip.
My girls have fond memories of trains as well. They still sometimes imitate the train whistles coming to a town crossing: traaaaiiiinnnnn, traaaaiiiinnnnn, Big, traaaaiiiinnnnn. We often drove to the crossing in town to wave to Grampa (and sometimes Grampa Joe) as they went to Watseka. One special night Karrie was having a slumber party. We kept the police scanner on and when I heard the train coming up the hill I turned it up. There were quiet whispers and giggles in the living room, about 1:30 a.m. when Grampa came over the police scanner “All right all you giggly girls on South Elm Street. Time to go to sleep.” What fun we had as they tried to figure out how he knew they were giggling and talking and that he’d talked to them over the radio!
Such special memories. Sometimes, late at night when I’m in bed, I can feel the rumble of the train as it comes up the hill (even though it is a mile away). I can gauge where the train is by the whistle as it signals each crossing. And I remember how dad loved the train. And I miss him.