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.


Tim Joe said...

And so it begins...thanks, Wayward. Keep them coming. What is just a Day at the Office for you is a total mystery to the rest of us. It's like knowing an astronaut. And you are correct, I am definitely a bit of a Wayward Soul. For instance, I've always wanted to travel cross country in a box car. How cool would it be to show up at some rail yard with a loaded touring bike, throw it and yourself into an open car and ride out?

Wayward Son said...

Yep...this might be the start of something. Of course you have to retaliate with descriptions of your own local wildlife...
I lived in a '67 single-wide in a park for a while so I KNOW there's some flora and fauna hanging out on the patios!

And believe me I know about being Wayward but pleasepleaseplease don't hop freight trains to do it. Those things are as dangerous as rattlesnakes to ride on. More people than you ever hear about get killed trying. It's so serious that it's a firing offense for us to ride inside cars...and we do this for a living! I've seen enough dead and hurt people along the tracks in my career...I'd hate to think of losing a friend I just found.