Thursday, June 23, 2011

That Son of Mine

Tomorrow my eldest (and tallest) son will take a walk up on a stage in a hot gymnasium, step up to the superintendent, take the diploma in his hand and at long last, graduate from high school.  I'm sure at least a zillion other parents all over the land are feeling the same wonderment and confusion as I am right about now.  I can hear myself asking the same questions as every other stunned and confused did he get so big so fast?  How did he become such a fine young man all of a sudden?  What happened to the kid who played soccer all the time?  How did he end up being able to drive?  College?  Why are we filling out applications for college?  Who's this big lug who calls his mother 'Shamu' and his father 'Dirt' and lives through it?  Well, maybe not too many other parents have to wonder about that last part but then, none of them have anything like my ever-hungry offspring either. one has kids like mine do they?  I guess all parents that care one whit about their kids think the same.  Everybody's kids are the best kids.  How could it be otherwise?  They're the be-all and end-all for so many years that you can't help but see them through lenses that filter out all but the best in them.  You pour your heart and soul into raising them from the day they're born and hope against hope that you're doing it right.  You probably aren't but you can only run with what you have.  In our case, that wasn't much.  As with all new parents, we didn't have a clue.

We found out early that with children, there never was and never will be an instruction manual, most advice is wrong, experts suck and nothing really matters except what you feel.  The only thing anybody ever said that was genuinely true was that it wouldn't be easy.  Wonderful yes,  That should be imprinted in the genetics of our species by now but it isn't.  Nobody knows one damn thing when they start down the road.  You just rolls the dice and takes your chances that somehow, it'll all work out.  Sometimes it does...sometimes you end up in the ER.  That's just how it is.  You wing it daily and screw it up regularly but somehow at the end of it all, if you love those kids enough and believe in them enough, everything comes together with time.  With so much of your own life sewed up in those walking, talking hormonal imbalances that they become, you really have no choice but to believe.  How can your children not be just a little better than anyone elses? 

Of course, ours really are the BEST and I'll go down swinging if you want to argue.

Tomorrow is the day.  I guess it's supposed to be one of those so-called 'chapters' in life when things are suddenly vastly different.  Not so much, I think.  Big events rarely come with so much preparation and anticipation.  Except for your wedding and that 9 month joyride before the kids are born, you just don't see it sneaking up on you.  Turns in the road come unannounced and jump out at you when you aren't looking.  Like the fact that my boy isn't really a boy anymore.  Nope, never saw that one coming.

So After Friday night when the cap is gone and the gown returned, I'll still be goggle-eyed wondering how it all came about.  And after the shindig on Saturday to make it official with the rest of the inlaws and outlaws, the Graduate will still need gas money.  Life in general won't change very much or very fast but in a way...some things will be different.

He'll be one step closer to being his own man.  One step closer to heading out on his own way.  Those steps up onto the stage are only the next ones on his long walk.  The next steps on his way to being not just a tall man, but a good man.  Not a beginning or an end, but a change.  A change of the heart, a change for the good.

And I'll be one proud and happy father.  Proud that he can still call me 'Dirt' and happy that I still know what he means.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sleepless in the Saddle

How does one operate on a near total lack of rest?  I'm doing semi-formal research into the possible outcomes of not actually sleeping for a couple of days in a row...not because it's a particularly smart thing to do but mostly because I've got too much going on to stuff it all into the waking 'real world'.  This entry is a product of that decidedly non-scientific study.

My latest experiment in sleep deprivation began last evening when I was departing my away-from-home-terminal (which by the way, the railroad abbreviates in the military/industrial fashion as the AFHT).  I can't decide if it should be spelled phonetically to be correct or maybe pronounced AFF-HAT, A-FAT or AH-F**K-THAT but the point is, it's a location where I spend a fair amount of time.  Sometimes an unfair amount of time as well but that's another story.  It's easiest to think of the one I stay at most frequently as a large, industrial storage shed where the carrier shelves the warm bodies it may use someday to crew a train.  It's a great place to see in the rear-view mirror.

Remember, I'm really tired so bear with me while I wander...

The usual pre-trip gyrations of a van ride to the office, assorted phone calls, computer and paperwork etc. eventually led us to a waiting train parked just outside the terminal sometime earlier that afternoon.  A relatively small and light piece of work as these things go, it idled quietly in the sun tempting me to think of other days when "run it like ya stole it" actually meant something.  The old and tattered lead engine got the evil eye of suspicion from both my conductor and myself but unfortunately you don't get to pick 'em, you just get to run 'em.  Nothing seemed obviously wrong except the crummy paint job and a strong scent of hot chemicals from the old toilet down in the nose.  It would be dark soon so the paint would look better and open windows at track speed would blow the reek of 'eau-de-blue-stuff' out in a mile or two.  Bad feelings aside, up go the grips and within minutes, off we go.

A short while later, a call from our seldom-heard but invariably-breathless dispatcher told of an opposing train out of the north with a crew on short-time in danger of running out of working hours at an inconvenient location.  He inquired as to our ability to make "a good run" of about 25 miles to a siding to allow the southbound to pass without slowing it down.  Do I hear opportunity knocking?  This bodes well for our trip because many dispatchers won't take the chance of letting you out in front of a short-timer.  It's easier and safer to just hold you were you sit and let the hot one come to you.  The bad side of that is that sitting a little too much can and often does lead to yet another crew (mine) running out of time somewhere ugly later on.  The fact that we might die on our hours is irrelevant for the moment however because by the time we do, the current button-pusher will be drinking beer on the deck and we'll be the next guy's problem.  C'est la vie.

But back to the story..."A good run" as I learned long ago is railroad vernacular for "haul ass" and the implication is that nobody will say much as long as you don't break anything expensive or do anything that involves lawyers.  This feat must be accomplished without speeding at any time of course lest much time be spent mowing the lawn and pestering a union rep. to get your job back.  It's really not about going fast anyway, it's more about not going slow.  Doing it right requires paying close attention to running 'on the numbers' and not spending any excess time taking in the scenery.  I allowed to the voice on the radio that if he lit the lights and lined us up, I'd give it the old college try.  Before he finished chatting on the radio, the throttle was all the way back and the amp meter on the way up.  Let the good times roll.

When handed a rare chance to run hot, it's almost like a flashback to the way I was originally taught way back when.  Some of the old-head engineers from whom learned this craft were veterans of passenger service or mail trains and they wanted you on the dot or above all the time.  I learned to slide into speed restrictions on the air brakes and yank back out as the marker crossed the line lest I receive a hide-peeling for sloppy train handling.  That speedometer hand was always in the corner of my eye because if the man said 50, he meant 50, not 49 and not 51.  It was good training.

I also learned a thing or two about stopping as well as going.  I found that a planned stop more than half a car-length from a selected target was grounds for humiliation or outright abuse.  To make the conductor step sideways to reach the grab irons was characterized as being cruelly negligent to the offended ground-pounder.  One guy was embarrassed enough to actually apologize to the waiting outbound crew when I blew a 'station stop' and the handrails failed to come to rest directly in front of the engineer's shoes.  Times have changed but I still have nightmares of those days.

Remembering my upbringing, I got my eyes inside the cab and on the gauges to give it a run for the roses.  It was actually kind of fun.  The train handled like a string of coaches and we were eating up miles.  The fly in the ointment came when I kicked off the brakes and got the throttle all the way back coming out of a curve.  I saw the amp meter start climbing as it followed the throttle but suddenly it quivered to a stop at about 300.  This is bad.  It should be nearly 800 or more at this speed and we're not accelerating one bit.  Visions of those grouchy old Erie men flashed before my eyes.  A glance in the mirror was even less encouraging.  The train behind the first two cars was completely obscured by a wall of greasy looking black smoke drooling out of the exhaust stack where there should only be heat-ripples blasting straight up.  It's always something but the timing was exceedingly poor on this occasion.

I begin trying to think of what I'll say to the DS while I run through all the options of what-in-the-hell could be wrong now?  When everything runs on software, the options are pretty limited.  The rat-trap of a leader has betrayed me when I needed it most and was about to make a liar out of me.  My vocabulary across the cab degenerated into that of the legendary drunken sailor or worse, a henpecked trainmaster at his fourth derailment of the week.

Fortunately for the remainder of the trip, I had two units but the second was shut down to save fuel and to start it now would require a complete stop and lost time while I get it fired up.  Decisions, decisions.  Keep going at what now looks like a slow crawl at best or come to a standstill long enough to boot up the computer and light the fires in engine number two?  Either one will blow any currency I had with the Second Trick Dispatcher when his southbound outlaws because I stuck a cork in the bottle right in his face.  Bad things may come of this.

In the background, questions are racing.  Who's idea was it to build engines you have to go outside to start anyway?  Why can't I do this from all the gee-whiz computers these things have?  Do pilots climb out on the wing to crank up another engine or check the power output?  Nooo...they have switches and meters INSIDE for such things.  They don't even risk sending the co-pilot out on such a mission once wheels are turning and engines are burning.  But not us...we have to chance sending the left-seater on a wobbly dance down the walkway to the other cab to push the buttons.  That's if the guy knows how to set up all the breakers and switches in the first place.  Some do, some don't, some do but won't.  Or, you just hang out the anchor and stop long enough to crank it over yourself.  Like I said, it's always something.

By sheerest dumb luck, just as the last poke at the computer screen behind my seat yielded no results and the radio call that would ruin the afternoon for at least five guys and banish me to sidings for months was taking shape in my head, the choice was made for me.  The red-hot coal man got whacked by a defect detector, had to slow to 30 mph and that was all she wrote.  His fate now sealed no matter what I did or didn't do, the pressure was off.  The dispatcher gave me an atta-boy for the effort (without knowing how close it was to working out somewhat differently) and so all was well.  We stumbled to a stop as the loads of soon-to-be-outlawed coal passed into the siding next to us to wait for another crew and another try.  The second unit of our train dutifully lit off on my request and after a minor tussle with it's Windows Embedded operating system, announced itself ready for the rest of the evening's labors.  Sometimes I miss engines with controls that would respond to a tap with a vice-grip or reset with a little prodding from a flag-stick but then I suppose re-booting is really about the same thing.  Somehow though, it's less gratifying even when it occasionally works.

Let's leave this little adventure by saying the ride the rest of the way home was something less than a picnic but then, sometimes that's the way of things.  Trains are usually tiring even on a good day and this one was only more so.  I arrived at the new Wayward Home about daybreak and loaded the coffee machine.  This at least did not require a re-boot to accomplish.  I had plans for a Tour de Cure scouting expedition in the morning so what do I do?  Stay up and keep on pushing.

Thus my experiment is still in full swing.  It's now been a tad over 24 hours and my fingers are starting to have a hard time finding the keys on the laptop.  Luckily, I'm not on-call and have a couple of days to recover while I get Son the First graduated from high school.  That's the Next Big Thing and I'm looking forward to seeing the big lug do the walk.  I'll probably have slept by then and with any luck, will be able to function like a human again.  Hope so because my inlaws are coming over.

Until then, let the path of science go forward!  Nothing is gained without sacrifice!  Blah, blah, blah, etc.

The hell with sleeping...I'm going for a ride.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I'm in recovery mode.  I pulled another 30+ hr. day yesterday between work and home.  You'd think I'd learn not to do that...or at least do it less often.  Old dog, new tricks...isn't there a saying about that?

The whole thing started when I woke up at my away-from-home terminal Sunday at around 4 pm and packed to come home.  This was followed by a twelve hour train ride in the dark with all the normal frustrations and dilemmas of railroading.  After my usual hour-long commute, it was full daylight and the second or third wind was kicking in.  Also by that time, the real world was up and around so I decided to just roll with it and not bother going to sleep all.  I know I'm not on-call Monday night and I've got stuff to do.

It always goes the same way and I know it's going to hurt before it's over but I don't want to be asleep when I'm home all the time either.  All work and no play...
That one decision led to a bike ride, assorted comings and goings, my son's jazz concert and a dose of Red Cat.  Let's just say the lights went out really, really fast once I hit the sheets.

But anyway, speaking of riding...My faithful road bike is at the shop getting a once-over by people who actually know what they're doing (unlike me).  I'm at a loss to determine the cause of a nasty front-end shake that has made an appearance on my Trek a little too frequently of late.  I pretend that I have a small amount of bicycle knowledge and I can sometimes baloney my way around the average technical conversation if I'm lucky or if the other person is an idiot but I'm out of my league with this one.  I've done all I can (which isn't much) and so I must defer to the experts.

Here's the scenario:  For reasons unknown, my 2.1 has decided that somewhere around 38 mph is damn-all fast enough and to remind me of that arbitrary speed limit, it suddenly goes into that above-mentioned wobble.  Just as I pedal out and start letting gravity do the work, I can feel it coming now that I'm expecting it. The bars get twitchy, the road feels like greased marbles and my fingers sneak out toward the brake levers without conscious thought.

Then the fun starts.  There's a moment of small vibration and then instantly, I can't steer anymore.  A few too many instances of practice have taught me that the only way to break the shimmies is to snap on a little rear brake (a trick I learned from a Harley Sportster way back when) and drag off some speed until things settle down.  If I'm quick enough, the wheel starts tracking in a straight line just as the adrenaline rush hits but slightly before the full blown panic attack.  I might expect it but I'm never really ready for it.  The whole thing is more than a little disconcerting.

An uncontrollable shudder that threatens to toss me over the bars at high speed is a bit more thrill than I typically look for these days.  Half killing yourself for the fun of it is for younger men.  Flinging my fragile self through space toward the inevitable crash landing just doesn't do it for me anymore.  Especially when I'm usually clad in nothing but cheap bike shorts with all the padding in the wrong place for this event, a flimsy spandex jersey that will only melt itself into the abrasions from the friction, fingerless gloves that will likewise merely burn into my palms on touchdown and a plastic helmet that won't even save my ears.  When I ride the SuperGlide at highway speed, I wear leathers and heavy denim. What does that say about my intelligence while riding a bicycle? Hmmm....
I'm absolutely certain that my half-century-old hide is an extremely poor defence against asphalt zooming by at 40 mph and therefore I make every effort not to land my pink skin on that rapidly moving surface. 

Thinking about it, I came up with a formula to quickly deduce the outcome of contact between human and highway:

(Skin area / Highway surface) + (Impact force / Time-of-flight) = (Hours of recovery + Unfinished ride) X (Rehabilitation / Time + Speed).

This can be further abbreviated as

THIS:  (S/H)+(I/T)=(H+U)(R/T+S). 

Laymen and experts alike, if they've ever ventured off the porch and out on the blacktop, know the product of this equation by it's scientific name:
Road Rash.

Road Rash is an injury that by itself is bad enough since it normally requires scrubbing dirt out of the freshly shredded wound with a stiff brush and much gritting of teeth.  Tweezers are sometimes involved for the fine stuff.  Hydrogen Peroxide, alcohol or other (very necessary) disinfectants add to the entertainment value.  Infection is almost a given unless you take better care of skin leaks than I usually do.  Bouts of artistic profanity are the norm during treatment and again later when the bandages stick and the surgical tape rips any remaining body hair out by the roots.

These unpleasant circumstances can be and often are accompanied by concussions, fractures, sutures, a tetanus booster, sizable investments in bike repairs and the occasional hospital stay.  It's even less attractive to me now that it takes twice as long to heal and hurts four times as much.  There's just never been much to recommend it as far as I can tell.

Even when I had dirt bikes that ran on fossil fuel instead of leg power and contracted the dreaded rash much more often, I never really got used to the raw nerve endings.  At one point I, was actually pretty good at removing the gravel, broken glass, dirt and ground-in clothing fibers from whatever was left of the skin but my interest in self-mutilation has faded some over the years.  Nope, don't want or need any new scars over the old ones and a wheel-wobble-of-death is a good way to collect some.  Hence, a visit to the guys with the fancy tools was in order.  I'll probably live longer.

In the interim, I took my mountain bike out for a little romp in the woods and back roads yesterday and quite frankly, got my ass handed to me.  Note to self:  quit being a roadie wannabe and go back out to play in the mud more often.  Everything hurts this morning from horsing around with the heavier bike but I've re-discovered that riding off-pavement is still a ball.  The mileage doesn't look like much but my shoulders are screaming discontent and my lungs are burning so it was a good day.  Without my old riding pal Doc around, I might bleed less but I still manage to have a good time.  Old dog...old tricks.

Which leads me back to recovery...I'm sort of taking it easy today while a line of drizzly showers pass through.  Letting the aches subside a little, catching up on the Wayward Home, odds and ends around the house, you know the drill.  The crummy weather is supposed to clear out tonight and leave near-perfect conditions tomorrow.  Could be a road day to test the 2.1 for shimmies.  I'm thinking it'll likely take at least 70 or 80 miles to do a complete evaluation.

You'd think I'd learn...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Lost Day

Waiting for the phone again.  Sunday is always my 'lost day' on the job I'm holding right now.  I usually get home sometime Saturday and my call window starts again at midnight so I can't get too far from the flagpole or I run the risk of getting caught short on sleep.  The train line-up on the computer is about as reliable as a horoscope or reading tea leaves so I gave up trying to out-fox the crew callers years ago.  The safest plan to avoid eyelids-of-steel is to just figure on going to bed early and hope for the best.  It's much like the NY Lottery;  "Hey, you never know..."

I conked pretty early anyway.  I managed to grab a couple hours of sleep after I got home Saturday morning then scooted out to run a vendor booth for our Tour de Cure team at a home-town 5K run.  Got it set up next to the local lake/pond/waterfowl LZ and all was well until, in typical fashion for this spring, the sky opened up.  Traffic by the booth dropped pretty substantially to say the least once the rain settled in.  Eventually, even the goose patrol holding forth on the pond couldn't take it and formed up in line astern to make for shore.

All was not completely lost as we got some folks interested and sold some raffle tickets before the deluge got serious and the wind started driving water sideways under the pop-up.  Wet and cold, we finally surrendered to the elements, folded the tents and vowed to fight again another day.  That led to an early crash into bed and a fitful rest wondering if and when I'll get called.

But back to this morning...

My younger son's birthday is today and as usual, I'll probably miss most of it.  As is so often the way, I'll just get settled into the day and the phone will go off with the a train to run.  My brood says they're used to it and it's all OK but I'm not and it's not.  I try to roll with the fable they tell me because it's the only way to get through it but it doesn't make me miss them less.  I was gone for my wife's birthday again this year and that one too is a hurt.  It comes down to the choices we make and these are awful hard.  Nobody ever said it would be an easy go when I signed up for this gig but knowing about it and living it are oftentimes different things. 

There'll be better days I know but in the meantime...I'll make the best of what we have and hope it's all worth it at the end of the line.