Friday, May 27, 2011

The Summer of Storms

Once again the railroad threw me a curve and like always, it was strike three and I'm out.  I was supposed to go to work on my regular run last night but due to that ever-invisible (to me anyway) "Big Picture", there was no train to be had.  No deadhead either so here I sit.  They do this stuff occasionally and it's always annoying.
I have a 24 hour call 'window' during which I have to be available at any time to go to work.  That's sometimes a problem in itself in that anywhere from midnight to midnight, the phone can ring and off we go.  Ever tried to be awake and rested for 24 hours straight?  It's great if the call comes in the morning or even mid-afternoon but when it drags on into the late evening, it gets a little more challenging.  Usually I've slept all night like a real human, got up with the brood, fooled around most of the day waiting and watching the train lineup, then about the time a normal person is thinking about slowing down and settling in...that evil electronic voice rings my cell and it's time to go.  Now I've been up all day and even if I had tried to take a snooze in the afternoon, that's usually a complete waste.  I can't unwind the old biological clock so true to my evolution, I'm awake during the day.  It's always a dance trying to stay one step ahead of the call office and I'm certainly no Fred Astaire.

It all worked out in the end though.  After I'd pretty much determined for sure that there wasn't going to be anything outbound for me, I settled down with a sandwich and watched the sky get dark and ugly off in the west.  The TV started flashing thunderstorm warnings about six o'clock and kept it up every five minutes for the next two hours.  I looked at the weather site and sure enough...tornado warnings to go along with the t-storms.  Tornados, hail, dangerous lightning.  For crying out loud, this is New York, not Kansas.  We aren't supposed to be the northeast extension of Tornado Alley.  I started thinking maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that I'd be home this night.

Along about eight, I decided there was nothing doing so I'd read a while and try to sleep on the odd chance that something would pop up and I'd get a call after midnight.  I took one more look out the window and realized it was a lot darker out there than it should have been.  I hadn't heard any thunder yet but our chubby-chicken of a dog was cowering under the table and and shivering so I knew something was going on.  I decided I'd stay up a little longer and see what was coming over the hill.

In short order, the sky to the south and west started looking like it was falling in on top of us.  There was a perfectly straight line between dirty white and pitch black above the southern hills, lit with lightning.  A few tatters in the cloud layers almost reached the ground and were moving east faster than I thought possible.  The whole sky in the south was one continuous chain of brilliant flashes and I knew that somewhere off in that direction, somebody was getting a pounding.

Odd thing was, there was almost no thunder.  A few distant rumbles and bangs but not the explosions I would have expected out of such a display.  That dividing line tore off out of sight but I could see a blank wall of gray rain following right behind.  Before I could pull down the glass, a waterfall materialized in my lawn and instantly soaked the carpet.  Through the downpour, I could see the trees whipping and bending in the suddenly violent wind.  I scooted around to make sure all the windows were closed and was halfway out of my son's room when the power went off.  This is not a good sign.

We scrounged up flashlights and made the rounds to be sure the house was battened down.  Somewhere in there, our ever-watchful escape-artist of a cat saw a chance for a clean break when elder son went out the breezeway door to check the car windows.  Opportunity knocked so the furball made a run for it.  The blue-eyed feline shot down the steps and made his usual beeline to get around the corner or under a vehicle before anyone can catch him.  He almost made it when he realized he'd run into a solid wall of water and wind that would either drown him, blow him into the next county or both.  Suddenly the house didn't look that bad after all.  It's the only time I've ever seen him rocket back in as fast as he went out.  He'd probably say he meant to do that but I know he got suckered.

With no juice and no light, I perched next to a window to watch the storm.  The wind was still fierce but eventually the rain slowed down and I could see beyond the end of the driveway.  It was an awesome show.  The entire southern horizon was lit from end to end with constant chains of lightning.  It looked like strings of burning lace high up in the night.  The bolts jumped from one anvil-top to another in intricate, white hot patterns and at times it looked like the whole sky was on fire.  Webs of light chased back and forth from unkown origins to mysterious destinations.  It might have been road maps to heaven flashing among the mountains of clouds if anyone was quick enough to read them.  I've rarely seen anything like it.

Even so, it was still strangely quiet.  Except for a few strikes relatively nearby, there was only distant rumbling.  The heart of the storm must have been many, many miles away to be so muffled but the power of the thing to be felt and heard from so far must have been unbelievable.  When nature decides to really bring it on, she doesn't fool around.  After our serving of humble pie at the hands of a thunderhead, the line of storms marched off to the east and left only the peepers singing in the dark and a few encore booms of thunder to remind us who's really in charge.  The electricity finally came back sometime in the early morning after we sweated all night without a fan and through the whole affair, the railroad never called.  All in all, a wild and strange night.

I tend to think of the seasons in terms of the way they behave and if this is any indication...this will go down at the Wayward Home as the Summer of Storms.  I think I'll keep my eye on the sky.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Saddle Tramp

I admit it...I'm a bicycle mileage hound.  I don't care much about going fast but going far makes me want to hit the road again.  Nothing too complicated.  A few hours on the blacktop or chewing up fire roads gives me about the easiest de-stress I can find.  Planning ahead makes it too complicated so the only thing I ever look at much is the weather.  If only to find out how soon it's going to rain again and which way the wind is going to blow so I can tailwind for home.

I guess I'm sort of simple-minded because I can't comprehend all the nutrition planning, workout strategies, power meters etc. that 'real' roadies are supposed to be thinking about.  For me, my forethought consists of get on, click in and see where the next turn leads.

Having said truth, there really is one other main reason I spend so much time pounding the pedals around the countryside.  Sometimes when the rain stops and the sun finally peeks out, it's worth the price of admission.

I've seen more of my own little corner of the world since I took up biking than I ever thought existed.  It's always right around the next curve or over the next hill.  And you never know when the next rest stop will lead to something amazing...

I've missed a goodly chunk of what's right in my own backyard zooming by it at 55 behind the wheel or twisting the wrist.  Maybe it's my ever-advancing status as 'middle-aged' that slows me down to around 20...or maybe it's just the view.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Winter (Story) in Spring

In keeping with my semi-serious commitment to tickle the keyboard with tales of railroading on occasion, I bring you a winter night/day/night.  Names and train symbols changed to protect anybody who might still get fired over it:
(Trailer Park...are you listening? )

The weather turned to near-blizzard on the way out of the old home terminal one wintry Friday.  The whole world seemed to be shutting down as the snow piled up and the wind turned from howling to out-and-out screaming but we eventually made it to our temporary home and settled in.  We were figuring on being trapped up north for the weekend but lo and behold...the phone rings at 2:45 am with a call to deadhead home by train (no long-haul crew taxis allowed in bad weather...not safe you know).  The caller said we'd be riding on a foreign carrier train instead of our own which is unusual but not unheard of so I didn't think much of it.  She gave us a symbol of 270 and I know I heard it right because the conductor asked her to repeat it twice to him.  A local taxi was supposed to pick us up at 4:15 am to take us to the yard by 4:45 and then out to the train.  Well, the cab was late because of the horrible weather so we wound up getting to the yard a little past 5.  I see a train (170) pulling out but didn't know at the time that that was supposed to be our ride.  The yardmaster knows nothing about us deadheading on one of his trains but says that the 270 originates at another yard considerably further south so we have to taxi another hour south to catch the thing...oh and by the way...the crew's not on duty till 7:40 am.  Off we go in the cab (remember, we're deadheading by train because it's not safe to be on the road in taxis) to parts unknown.  I've never even seen this other yard so we have to go with the cabby's say-so that we're in the right place.  We found some engines and climbed aboard with our bags to get comfy while we waited for the crew.  A warm, dry haven in the storm.  As advertised, they showed up about quarter to 8 and started getting ready to head out.  By now, lots of people are starting to figure out that we were supposed to be on that long-gone 170, not the 270 and that the crew caller had messed up the call by giving us the wrong train symbol.  We were becoming a hot property as the conductor told us that everybody in the world had called to make sure we really were with them.

After about an hour, we left town with 2 engines running light and us perched aboard the second unit watching a lot of unfamiliar scenery go by.  I pretty much knew we were in for it when the dispatcher called and told the head-end crew that their connection would be late so it'd be OK to stop and grab a coffee.  UH-OH.  The late connection went from 10 to 11 to noon to highball the whole thing and come on down after AMTRAK goes by for Plan B.

The new twist is that we're going to wait for an empty unit train to come in with a nearly outlawed crew, tie our 2 units to his 3 and run south with the whole 99 empty salt hoppers he's got plus the 5 units.  Unfortunately, he's still 35 miles away, AMTRAK is in between him and us, there's a broken joint bar behind AMTRAK, the signals are out part of the way, and the marker on the unit train is dead.  These and a couple of other little complications with north bounds needing to get by and track men fixing the rail led to it being 4:10 pm before we ever left.  The switches were frozen, they had to arm and hang a new marker, tie the engines together etc. and now it's looking like it's gonna be impossible for the only crew with time left to ever make it home.  The 270 crew will go dead at 7:40 and us poor  slobs are still only about 15 miles from where this whole fiasco started.  Oops, I forgot, there was not one, but two crews on the salt train so now there's 8 men riding this freight/passenger train hoping to make port sometime before we all retire.

At long last the whole shebang launches and all's well for about 25 miles...right up until we hit the snowmobile stuck on the track.  I was riding on the second unit with my semi-awake conductor when I heard the horn going non-stop and then I heard the brakes come on.  I couldn't see anything because of the snow dust and the way we were bending around a curve but sure enough, the head end crew tones up the dispatcher to tell him the news.  Luckily, the sled's rider had the smarts to bail off before we vaporized his machine but the ensuing interviews with the police, fire depts. etc. led to another hour delay before they released us to head south again.

Now we KNOW we're not making it in so it becomes a quiz as to where we'll end up and get in the taxi (again).  Well, we made it to a siding about 40 miles short of home.  In the meantime, another local crew has outlawed right next to us with three men aboard.  Now we've got 11 guys dead in the water along with a truck load of grips and the assorted winter junk we have to carry.  A fleet of vans is supposed to pick us up at 7:30 but because of the weather (again), they didn't get there until almost 9.  Everybody piles into the 2 vans they sent out and off we go to again toward home plate.  Better than an hour later, we pull into our office and bail out.  By the time we finish with our tie up screens in the computer, 17 hours and 20 minutes have elapsed since we went on duty.  We've spent almost 4 hours in cabs (remember, we did all this because it wasn't safe to be riding in cabs), hit a trespasser, outlasted 5 dispatchers on 2 different railroads and the crew caller that started the whole mess has now rested and will be back on duty before we ever get home.

The train master called me the next day wanting to know how we ever got a deadhead like that and asking all kinds of questions.  I think he thought we made the whole thing up and just hung around stealing time.  Sorry, but I couldn't lie enough to make up something like this.  I guess we made the morning conference call.  I sometimes wonder if somebody got their lower regions chewed for coming up with an idea like this but I doubt it.  Just another day in paradise.

I keep telling myself that it's not just a job....

Sunday, May 22, 2011

No News is Good News

That will be all the comment I'll make on the continuation of life on Earth despite recent prognostications to the contrary.  Guess we'll still have to mow the lawn...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Working On Commission

I'm a little bit in awe this morning.  Somebody out in blog-land (someone I didn't actually bribe or shamelessly beg) showed up on the stoop of the Wayward Home and left a trail of comment-crumbs to prove they'd been here.  Yes, another sort of wayward-sounding soul from America's official retirement center, theme park and hurricane magnet (Florida) slid a note under the door with compliments and an easy request.  Trailer Park Cyclist (AKA Tim Joe); I'm most encouraged and happy to oblige...

As anyone even vaguely acquainted with me knows (and how could they not since I complain about it all the time?), I'm a locomotive engineer; by accident at first and profession a while later.  Yes kids, I'm a card carrying, horn tooting, sleep-challenged, freight hauler for a large eastern carrier whose initials incidentally coincide with Not Sure.  This is significant mostly in that I'm Not Sure exactly when the phone will ring to call me in for another adventure in Class One railroading.  It's a crap-shoot when all the planets will line up, the managers on two seperate railroads will actually speak to each other, Frodo will destroy the One Ring and Crew Management will remember to unleash the automated pet Harpy of theirs that calls my bedside phone.  This was illustrated nicely on the last go-round where the best-layed plans so stereotypically went awry.

Even so, with all it's well-known vagaries and tribulations...the job "suits me" as my wife so generously puts it and I plan to make an attempt at finishing out a full tour in the right seat of a locomotive.  The pay is good, there's a retirement plan that hasn't been looted yet, I happen to like what I do and on top of that, it's almost the only thing in a somewhat mis-spent life that could even remotely be thought of as a career.  Unless that wrinkly MegaMillions ticket in my pocket comes in with all six numbers and I'm forced to relocate "where the weather suits my clothes" like the song or everyone suddenly decides that all their 'stuff' looks pretty good right where it is and quits paying us to move it somewhere else, the carrier is stuck with me.  Or I'm stuck with them depending on how you look at it.  The jury is still out...

Anyway, as my esteemed commenter observed;  my railroad life is filled with an interesting and 'colorful' group of people to put it mildy.  It's a remarkably small terminal where I work and as with any such community, everybody knows everything about everybody else...or at least thinks they do.  We have two basic subjects of cab discussion;  bitching about the railroad and raw, unadulterated, vicious gossip.  When you're trapped in a tiny steel box with one or two other people for many long dark hours, conversation is the only thing that keeps you going and of course the popular topic is...everybody else.  I've often said that character assassination is our specialty and my wife reports that we sound like a pack of old hens in a sewing circle whenever more than two railroaders are in a room together.  Who am I to argue?  The good news is that for the most part, like Vegas 'what's said in the cab, stays in the cab' and while we may shred each other mercilessly, few incidents of open warfare seem to erupt.  Like the true adolescents we are, we get mad and then a few minutes later get over it.

Some of that is just's tough to not be at least civil with someone when out of necessity you're forced to work with them for extended periods in tight quarters.  Then there's the realization that at times, you literally have the other guy's life in your hands.  It's sobering to know that some mistakes on my part can easily kill or maim someone and that reality kind of puts the minor personality conflicts in perspective.  It pays to not sweat the small, unimportant stuff when you work with such unforgiving monstrosities (the trains...I said, not the crews).

Over the long haul though, the people I've worked with and for have been a good bunch of folks.  There's been the usual assortment of 'tools' but on the main, we look out for each other.  The way to get through the madness is with other madness and quite often, a laugh or two.  Case in point...

My first week on the property as a trainee was with a local switcher crew in a small yard that handled some industries and put together a train or two 5 days a week.  The engineer and conductor were both old-heads (a not-entirely-clear designation that could mean they know what they're doing and will help you or they're obstinate pricks and hate you) who'd been at this game for about 80 years between them.  The CO was a veteran of long-gone passenger service and since I was his problem to deal with, he eyed me with some distrust and informed me that my job would be limited to staying where he could see me and trying not to get killed on his watch.  He was matter-of-fact in that the paperwork on a fatality was extensive and it was his night to play cards so my death would be most inconvenient.  Touching.
My own initial assessment of this guy was likewise jaded by the fact that he looked like a Salvation Army thrift store had exploded and he'd been severely wounded by the clothes racks.  He was an apparition in pastel polyesters and gaudy stripes that by all laws of nature should have annihilated each other in a fireball on contact.  I lived through the '70s once and hoped that I'd seen the last of bell bottom stretch slacks but here they were again 20 years later; in full color...surrounded by cigarette smoke and gray hair, only partially obscured by a beat-up fishing vest festooned with pens, radio, assorted papers and other unidentifiable paraphernalia trying to escape the pockets.  He was the wardrobe statement of the year but fortunately his railroad skill and patience far exceeded his fashion sense...and he turned out to be pretty pleasant to be around.

I was so new that I didn't even have a radio or switch keys so I was basically useless and couldn't do much but follow around the yard like a lost puppy.  They casually spoke a language I didn't understand and worked away at accomplishing what to me looked like nothing.  All the while, my keeper kept up a running commentary which might as well have been aimed at the rails.  It was too much at once and I couldn't make heads or tails out of any of it.  Cars moved back and forth on tracks, the engine came and went and all the while, my new mentor chattered on the radio, smoked continuously and made sure I didn't interfere with his card game.  I was fascinated...baffled but fascinated.  Eventually, the CO tired of holding my leash so he suggested I ride on the engine for a while.

This was the realm of another aristocracy who at least didn't have to worry about where I was standing as long as I didn't fall out the door.  He was just as concerned for my safety as the conductor but instead of cards, by the fact that this was his bowling night and the loss of a trainee would probably mean a late start on his first frame.  The sentimentality of these guys was overwhelming.
He allowed me to watch his incomprehensible doings and also turned out to be pretty personable.  No one previously had mentioned the fact that sooner or later, I'd be required to become an engineer but he dropped that bomb on me about mid-morning and just grinned when I told him I'd likely be 100 years old before I could run an engine.
"You'll be fine", he said.  "Just keep your eyes open and your lips shut and you can have this seat when I take my pension."
As it turns out, I was and did on the first through third counts and didn't on the last.  I still can't touch his old job but wound up sooner-than-later making the trek to Engine School and ended up holding the same title, if not the daylight, Mon. through Fri. switcher.

Those first few days became a lot of days and a lot of nights for the next dozen years but I still laugh about the wardrobe disaster that led me through my blind walks on the yard lead and will always be grateful he didn't let me mess up his card game.  We became good friends and worked together many times after those early days.  He's retired now but I still catch up with him now and again...and the really funny thing is...I haven't noticed if he wears polyester anymore or not.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dark to Light...The Missing Call

Time flies when you're having the saying goes.  Unless you're waiting for the phone to ring to call you to work.
Looking out from my perch in the kitchen, dawn is just cracking over in the east and I've been up since 4 am to see it.  Why would anyone be up at 4 in the morning if they didn't really have to?  Well, I took a look at the train lineup yesterday afternoon and saw what looked like my usual gig planned for the wee-hours of Sunday.  Uh-oh.  Quick run through the shower and pack up the grip for an early start, then hit the sheets to grab what looked like a couple hours of shut-eye before the call.  I even woke up around 1 and hit the automated line to check on it...sure enough...ordered for 0440.  Back to sleep for a little more snooze time.  The next squint at the clock showed 3 o'clock and the phone should have chirped at 0240.  No call and no messages.  Now what?  Check in with CMC to find out why the train went but I didn't.  Turns out they're 'saving' my pool to use at some point later today on something else.  Great.  So, now I've slept almost eight hours, it's still zero-dark-thirty, I'm wide awake and the birds aren't even stirring yet.  A futile attempt to close the lids back down ended in frustration and soon had my feet hitting the floor.  Dogs out, coffee on.  Browse email and surf a little.  Watch day break rainy and cool.  That's how it's gone so far.

I should be used to this after all these years but sometimes I still get fooled and wind up sleeping on the wrong end of the day.  I'll pay for it later after I've been up for hours.

Oh well, the birds are singing now even though it's raining and the dogs shrugged and went back to sleep.  I guess I'll take the quiet in the kitchen and be glad I got to watch the day creep in from home instead of work.  I've seen enough daybreaks through a windshield.