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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Of The 'Aughts'

New Year's Eve...just prowling around the house not doing too much. To my surprise, the railroad did in fact decide not to run my job today so it looks like I might have a few days off before I have to hit the road grind again. Sure is weird not to be working and even stranger to be here on a real holiday by myself. This stuff of being alone isn't what it used to be...wait a minute...it never did have much going for it. I'm playing my metal way too loud and eating far too much. The cat is having apoplexy over the roar and the dogs want to go out in the snow to take the edge off. I almost wish I had worked today so I wouldn't think so much. I miss the kids and Chris and I just don't like this.
So it's just me and the music again for New Year's and the first decade of the century ends...with Alice In Chains and DP's '37 Stitches' to keep the pain in.

Spin the dial up to 10 old man, stare in that Black Steel Mirror and pray for the glassware...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Up Early

Got up at 4 am today for some reason. Could have been the wind banging the loose downspout on the corner of the house or the furballs barking at every gust against the shrink-wrap storm windows. Could also be that it's still weird to kick around this old place alone. The creaks and shudders of the big barn sound a lot bigger when there's nobody here but the four-leggers and me. Someday I think the moaning and groaning will end and the place will just fall over from exhaustion. One of these days when the west wind hits the kitchen wall there'll be a crash and a pile of wreckage but so far, it's still hanging in there. I myself crashed pretty early last night (without the wreckage) just because there wasn't much of anything else really constructive to do and besides, it seemed like a good night to finish an old book I was re-reading for the umpteenth time.


I usually have a book or two stashed on the nightstand or one propped open on the floor where I dropped it when I rolled over to kill the light. I can't stand TV at night (or much of any other time really) but to dig down in the covers and read a while usually unwinds most of the leftover insanity from the day and gets my lids heavy enough to conk out.

I've been chewing away on a long-ago book club selection that was looking kind of dusty and neglected on the shelf. I hate to see them in that state so I picked it up. Even the paper jacket went missing somewhere along the line so it's just a plain, black cover with 'Prelude To Mars' and 'Arthur C. Clarke' in used-to-be silver lettering on the spine. It's an old sci-fi omnibus made up of a couple of novels and a section of short stories sandwiched in the middle that was mostly written in the late '40s and early '50s. I think I got it when I was in Junior High because it has that goofy looking loopy signature I used back then on the title page. Anyway...it's interesting to read again and look at the way they saw things back then before dot.coms and derivatives. Nuclear power was still new and wonderful, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound...that kind of thing. Clarke talks about a miles-long launching track for atomic rockets across the Australian desert and how we would be happily lighting off radioactives in the upper atmosphere. Quaint in it's own way but not exactly how things really went. It's like a snapshot of the time to read his take on how the 'conquest of space' would take place; a private enterprise based in London, launching from Australia with mostly British leaders. The future in 1947 had us jetting between continents on huge airliners (which worked out), running a space program with it's first stop as the moon on a nuclear powered rocket (which didn't), and still broadcasting it over the radio and the morning papers (hmmm). And in the end, merry old England sort of missed out on most of it.

Clarke's description of the offices of 'Interplanetary' in London is a hoot. It's just plain fun to read about a place bustling with typists and mimeograph machines, engineers with slide rules; not a laptop or Blackberry in sight, astronauts doing orbital calculations with paper and pencil while nursing a brandy and listening to a 'light orchestra with soprano'. I guess 'The Right Stuff' was still a ways off.

It all looked so hopeful through old Arthur's eyes back then. The book is full of those uplifting 'we're all in this together' moments that I suppose were the post-WWII, pre-Cold War way of seeing the future. Mars was a real possibility before the turn of the century to him and the moon was just a hop and a skip for those big atomic rockets. Too bad it went a little bit differently in the real world. First there was Sputnik, then Yuri Gagarin, then all the Mercuries, Geminis and Apollos that I watched in black and white. A few footprints on the moon and we never stayed long enough to call it much more than a fare-thee-well.

I actually remember being very much younger, sitting on the steps of the old empty church behind my house looking up at the sky and wondering. We sat out there and looked at the stars on summer nights and dreamed of rockets. I figured out that I'd be 40 years old in the year 2000 and at the time, I couldn't help but imagine I or a whole bunch of others like me would be living up there by now. It seemed so promising. Now I'm 50, 2000 came and went in the Y2K scare and we still haven't even been back to the moon...to say nothing of Mars. Even living in orbit is reserved for a select few zillionaires willing to pay the Russians for a seat on a Soyuz or U.S. astronauts and payload specialists with a ticket on the shuttle. It just didn't play out the way old A.C. Clarke envisioned it...but then forecasting is a risky business even for weathermen. It very often doesn't go the way we thought it might but it's always pretty interesting no matter what. I never made it into being an astronaut and I guess I'm probably a permanent fixture on the ground but thanks to my friends like Arthur, I can still see the way things might have been. In a lot of ways, I guess I'm still looking up from the front steps of that unused white church...and hoping.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Home Alone

I'm a bachelor this week and it sure is strange. I'm used to being on my own when I'm in hotels or on the road but kicking around this big old house with just the dogs and the cat is weird. It's too quiet. Chris and the kids took off the day after Christmas for a little jaunt down south and I'm here to hold the fort...or at least feed the fur-bearers and let them out. This is probably the first time we haven't been together for a vacation since I don't know when. The brood was gone for most of the summer once when Chris's step mom was sick but that wasn't really voluntary. This is something new. I guess lots of people take separate vacations but I'm not so sure I want to make a habit of this. I'm out of time off from work so I couldn't have gone anyway but it still feels odd.

At least I managed to grab a vacancy on a local job for the week. I won't have to worry about being out of town for the next holiday. With any luck...I might even be home for New Year's Eve. I worked back home from the hotel Christmas Eve and have been on trains for all the major holidays this year. It's getting a little old.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Last Ride Before The Day

One more go-round tonight and I should be home sometime Christmas Eve. As usual, nobody knows if we'll get a train back or a taxi ride but at least it should work out to be home before Christmas Day. I wish I knew...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On The Road Again

Back on the road after a very short hiatus on the local switcher. It only lasted a week but it sure seemed nice not to listen for the phone all the time. Oh well, there's only a little over 18 more years until I can retire so I imagine I'll have plenty of time to saw back and forth before it's over. With any luck at all, I'll still manage to get home for a while come Christmas.

...and so it goes.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Dark Days

It's the heart of the dark days of December again and like I said in the last post...this is the toughest month of the year every time it rolls around. I usually manage to slide into what I call a 'downside' from about two weeks before Christmas until around the middle of January. This year isn't much different except in the details.

It usually starts with me thinking about how much I'd just plain like to be home for Christmas. In my line of work, there's no guarantee I will; I'm well aware of that and accepted long ago that it goes with the paycheck, but it doesn't mean I'll ever have to be happy about it. The carrier always trumpets that they're going to get everybody home for the holidays and for the most part they do. The catch is when and for how long? Thanksgiving went that mysterious way...the original (published) plan was to 'curtail operations' at 7 pm the night before. Color me doubtful. That got pushed back to 11 pm at some point but my phone rang at 11:30 to go on duty at 1:30 am Thanksgiving Day. Thirty five empty boxcars couldn't wait to roll for Canada so away we went. It turned into an all-nighter dragging another train up a hill and eventually taxiing back with a cab driver who also ended up working. I got in my driveway at about 4:30 that afternoon, staggered to dinner and fell asleep in my plate. I guess I should be happy, at least I didn't get stuck in a hotel.
Last time I checked, I'm not deployed in the military, at sea aboard a ship or even travelling very far from home so it doesn't seem like getting to my own door would be too much to ask or plan on.


Yup, I was home as (sort of) advertised but when any of the 'big' holidays come around I'd rather they just said, "Look, we're going to run trains just like every other day so don't plan on being home." I could deal with that. Maybe I'd bid my vacation to cover some of it if I could. Maybe it would have to be a 'Close Counts', near-miss celebration like so many birthdays and anniversaries have been. One way or another, we'd make it work.

Or if they'd say, "As of 0001 Christmas Eve, you'll either be home or on your way and that's final." That would be fantastic but they can't or won't commit to anything with that much conviction. The annual mystery of when or if they're actually going to shut down and send crews home is murder. That's the beginning of the slide.



The next step is the 'Spend It All' mentality that everybody develops. In days past, I've read that perhaps we expect too much from this time of year. I was under the impression that Christmas was supposed to have something to do with your family and some religious figures we're not allowed to mention lest we offend. I always get my hopes up that somehow it will. Then reality sets in and it becomes obvious that for all intents and purposes, it's a commercial. We're reminded constantly that we're supposed to be ecstatic over an ever-lengthening 'Holiday Season'. This joy is reported to begin around October first and last into the end of January. It seems to be particularly encouraged by people who'd like very much to sell me something obscenely expensive or at least outrageously beyond my means. My happiness apparently depends on a new 60" flat-screen bought with 35 or 40% plastic. Frankly, I'd be happier with new snows for the front of the Malibu so I could get to work or a real miracle of the season...a head gasket before the thing blows up entirely. I know I'm an oddball but I can't figure out how to be happy going broke buying things I want when there's so much we need and can't afford. The philosophy is we're supposed to BE HAPPY dammit; and if we're not, just keep spending until we are. The 'happiness' in such a thing escapes me and more often than not...pushes the down-button again. Maybe I'm being cynical but it just seems like there should be more to it.

I hate to feel so crummy when I know there's a boatload of things to be thankful for...my family and the friends who hang on even when I get like this...a home of my own, even if it is ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion...a job that pays well when half the country doesn't have one at all...the chance to be home late when there's so many who won't be home this year and so many who won't ever come back...how can anyone be down when he has so much? I wish I knew.

As usual, this too shall pass. When the dark gives up to lighter days, I'll think about it less and push along like always...but one of these years, I wish it wouldn't get so cold in December.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Slip Sliding Into Winter

Now I remember why I always dread the coming of winter. It's not that I mind winter so much once it's here...but just knowing the snow's going to start and the wind's going to get cold always makes me wish for warmer days. After the ground is covered and the weather settles into glacial for weeks on end, I kind of get used to it and go on my merry way but the transition is always tough. I know it'd get pretty boring around here having the same season all the time but when you know it's going to get nasty and cold, it's like waiting to get a tooth filled. You know it'll be better once it's over but anticipating the drill isn't much fun.

The short days are the other downside to this time of year. I usually go to work in the dark and get home in the dark with an interval of grayish daylight somewhere in the middle. Or it's just dark the whole time and my entire world is in the headlights. Someone once said that the worst thing ever hung on a locomotive was headlights because once we could see at night, the railroads quickly figured out that they could make money 24 hours a day and most of us became nocturnal. My job typically gets called between midnight and five in the morning so I'm used to starting at "zero-dark-hundred" but in the warm months that usually means a daylight finish. Not so this time of year. Lots of trips its flashlights at both ends and frozen in between. Cold is the icing on the cake when you work all night.

Locomotive cabs can be like the meat drawer of a Frigidaire and if the door and window seals are shot, no amount of duct tape will stop the drafts. We used to crank up the hotplates 'till the breaker tripped on the decrepit Canadian National engines we had for awhile, just to take the chill off when the heaters would give out. The newer units are usually better and some can cook you right out but even now, I'll still get an NS 'sidewinder' on occasion with the door right in front of the engineer's seat. Those old monsters usually have rust holes you could throw a cat through and I've turned on the dome light a few times to find a snowdrift over the top of my boots with the heaters going full blast. You can't wear enough sweatshirts and long johns when you can look out at the snowbanks through the wall of the cab.

Somehow though, all of it is more tolerable in the daytime. Even running in heavy, blowing snow is easier when there's natural light. The long hours of dark and cold make everything harder. Trying to stay awake and alert when you're freezing is a tall order no matter how much sleep you've had. Nothing hurts like riding along poking holes in the dark and staring at swirls of snow in the windshield for hours on end. Your eyeballs get as dry and scratchy as the fuzzy dice hanging on the mirror of a '57 Chevy and you'd swear they were bleeding. The only advantage to the lack of daylight in winter is that when I do finally get near a bed, odds are it'll be dark enough to fall asleep and cold enough that I won't wish I was out pushing pedals somewhere.


Speaking of pedals...I'm already bike-deprived and it's only December. I refuse to take the new mountain bike out in the salt so if I go anywhere near the road at all, it'll be on one of the old steel battleships that usually reside on the porch. Hunting season has kept me out of the woods for three weeks and now the salt will keep me off the highway with either of my aluminum frames. Even if I could get on enough layers to actually keep my fingers from freezing off, dodging snowplows is somewhat more excitement than I look for in a road jaunt. I guess I'm getting old but the entertainment value of a frozen nose and aching knees has also faded a bit since I rode home from Florida one October on a Sportster (but that's another story).

I really do hate being a houseplant for a couple months though.

My road bike is still in the shop getting some attention anyhow so at least I won't be tempted to corrode that one into ruin even if it does get above freezing, which is probably a good thing. I know what happens when you ride all winter from past experience and expense...I pretty well demolished a bike in one year playing in the salt. The cables broke, the freewheel locked up, the bottom bracket digested itself and the chain resisted all efforts at lubrication until it kinked into a knot. It's bad enough to have to put the cars through the metal-eating crap but that's kind of a necessity to get to work. I'd rather not chew up vehicles I don't have to.

The good news is that winter always ends eventually, even in New York. In the meantime, I usually get some good pictures and tinker on the Harley or the leg-bikes (all of which have moved into the kitchen) until the days get longer, the salt washes off and the sun pokes out again. On two wheels or two hundred axles, spring always makes the ride a whole bunch easier.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor In My World

Mostly just kicked around the house and ran errands on Pearl Harbor Day. Seems like I should have been doing something more significant on the "...date that will live in infamy."...but I didn't. Another day between trips doing what my short time at home allows; half recovering from the last one and half getting ready for the next one. The usual dash around the house with the laundry, stray dishes and vacuum (yes, real men do housework and don't mind it). Between runs to the car repair shop with a sick van, the grocery store and kid drop-off and pick-up, the day went fast. They all do when you have to think about being in bed by 6 because the phone'll likely ring by 11. Keeps me busy if nothing else and today was no different but it kind of felt like I should be doing something to remember that Sunday in 1941 besides just thinking about it.

Of course the actual Pearl Harbor attack was almost 18 years before I was born so I don't have any living memory of it or the war it led us into. Hence it's something of a history lesson to me but also something more than just a section on my bookshelf. Out of all the studying, reading and listening I've done about World War II over the years, December 7th is one of those dates that sticks in my mind more than most. Maybe because the events that day are always trotted out whenever some politician younger than me has a point to make and needs a soundbite...or maybe its something else. I've been a reader of WWII history as long as I can remember and still for some reason gravitate toward the Pacific Theater when I'm cruising the shelf for a book. Pearl was the start of the Pacific war and something about the idea of a mangled Navy scraping itself together and heading west across all those miles of ocean looking for a fight is somehow inspiring. I don't like to fall into the trap of seeing it as all heroics and sacrifice that we can't or won't do now because it was a different time and a different set of circumstances but it was without a doubt...a lot of heroics and sacrifice. Could we do it again if we had to? I'd like to think so.

In the meantime, the memory of Pearl Harbor lives in at least one from a generation that never knew it as anything but memories and printed pages. Maybe it's enough to keep the thought in my mind as another December day flies by and I do all the things I do in the world I know. To think a little about who was there and what it meant; then and now. Isn't that the highest honor anyone who lived and died that day and all the long days after can recieve? To be remembered?
Maybe it's enough to simply "Remember Pearl Harbor" after all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Fourth and Warm...

Hard to believe it's December 4th and it's supposed to be in the 40's again. I guess global warming has come to New York. Not that I'm complaining...I've been able to get out on the mountain bike in between trips most times lately. Even with deer season open for shotguns and rifles, I've managed to stick to dirt roads to get some miles in without getting shot at. I don't dare venture into the woods proper until the out-of-town maniacs take their long guns and go back downstate but at least I can get out. I don't know of anyone getting popped riding a trail but I do know I don't want to be the first so I'll stay out of my usual haunts for the time being. Unfortunately, sooner or later it's bound to snow around here. With or without deer hunters and bike riders,the salt will hit the roads and that'll be the end of it until spring; at least for the Trek. I've got some old bikes kicking around that I might finish corroding to death over the winter but that depends on my capacity to put up with frozen fingers and slush. I hate to settle in for the cold months and get out of shape again but riding in snow is a real test of endurance for this old guy anymore. The days of riding the Hog in December at twenty degrees (or less) are long gone and so is the inclination to push pedals when you have to dodge snowplows. My knees and fingers ache for weeks when I pull that stunt so call me a softie if you want but don't look for me out there freezing to death for fun and entertainment. There are limits to how much abuse a body can stand! Especially this body.

We've been talking about getting a trainer to ride on indoors so we don't lose all the edge but they're pretty steep for one that won't self-destruct in a week. With Christmas on the way and a couple of sick vehicles, it might have to wait until after the crisis of the month.
Like I said...I hate to give up easily on staying in shape. It's been almost five years since I looked in a mirror and saw 218 pounds staring back at me with a 36" waist. Talk about shock and awe. I knew I was getting heavy but for some reason...it suddenly dawned on me that I was really packing it on fast. My line of work is murder on your health anyway, especially when you hit the right-hand seat but this was ridiculous. Doing what I do, you pretty much just sit for a living and eat because you're bored. I was working a job to Allentown when I realized I was hogging down a sub and a big bag of chips for a warm-up before we'd been 30 miles. It was out of control. I pretty much made up my mind that this was not happening and haven't bought a Blimpie sub or darkened the door of a Wa-Wa since.
I've been a lot of miles on treadmills and bicycles since March of '04 but I did finally crack the 160 lb. barrier...if only briefly. I always said that 160 was my 'fighting weight' and that was my goal for all that time. Too bad I had to get sick to get over the last plateau but now the trick is to stay there.
Just like before...working the road is tough because of where we have to eat and the hours we keep. There really isn't much to be had at a mini-mart or Dunkin-Donuts at 3 in the morning that won't kill you. I pack a lot of my survival food from home and have gotten out of the habit of eating out and buying junk to eat on the way. I told my conductor last time out that everytime I walk away from the counter with only a large coffee and a thermos of black high-test for later, it's another little victory. It ain't much but I'll take them where I can get them.