I've been a little off lately. So what else is new when the weather stinks and a 'breezy' day has winds of 25 mph? I can't ride off my frustrations easily in the 40 degree, sleety nasty conditions of the last couple of weeks. It gives me too much time in front of my laptop when I'm home. Not that that's all bad. I get a lot of work done on the Tour and my team (which incidentally, I should be doing now...but am not). So it goes...
In regards to the aforesaid frustrations...Sometimes, you get a kick in the teeth that just takes the wind out of your sails and makes everything look just a little bit less sunny. Such was my return from a trip a week or so ago. I'm really having kind of a hard time getting around the news of my old friend Bobby.
Bobby was my conductor last fall on a work-train that I held until they chopped it off for the winter and sent me back on the road. We had an absolute ball on that train. He was counting the days until he could retire after 40-plus years in this line of work and nothing seemed to make him stop laughing about the good times he had lined up at his new digs in Florida.
Every day for those few weeks with Bob started with his 'Country Breakfast' (coffee and a cigarette) as the sun came up over the ball park in the east. Then he'd tell me the news on the sale of his house in Pennsylvania, then tales of moving truckloads of stuff down I95 and the ongoing work on the new place outside Daytona. He was as giddy as a puppy and even though I knew I'd rarely see him after the move, I was glad to see someone getting out of the grind with all the ducks in a row. He said the days were dragging but the end of the line was in his cross-hairs and I was happy for him.
We had an old NW bay-window caboose (or 'shoving platform' as they now call them) on that job that we kind of adopted. The 'boose was a concession to the fact that we had to go backwards for long distances with the rail train we were hooked to and riding the side of a flat car for miles in the rain was something Bobby flat-out refused to consider. We used our down-time to sweep the old wreck out, bagging up years of accumulated trash, wiping the dust off the seats and plugging up the worst holes with duct tape. I called it Bobby's pimped-out caboose after we got is semi-presentable.
Nothing in it worked of course; the coal stove was long gone and the old box radio was gutted to it's electronic innards on the wall. The bank of batteries was still in the floor but they hadn't had acid in them in years and the generator was probably seized anyway. Regardless, it became something of a prize. Bob said it was pretty cool that he began his career on a caboose and was now going to end it on one. Even this long after cabooses were abolished from everyday service.
I even learned to handle a train with a cabin on it. It's a little different running when you have to think about smacking someone around who's riding on the other end. You can slap them about pretty hard if you're not paying attention. The stories from the old-heads of getting tossed against the wall or having their lunch fly out the window were strong in my head. That was one of the reasons cabooses disappeared...too many injuries from ham-handed engineers running the slack in and out. The later versions had 5-point harnesses on the seats like a fighter plane. Wiggling the tail on 100 cars must have been like getting hit by a truck. But I figured it out and if I did hit him with the slack, Bobby never mentioned it. He kept the rail-train crew chuckling all day long while holding court from his rolling office like he owned the whole railroad. In some ways, it seemed like he did.
I met him soon after I hired out way back when and once he found out I had a Harley, we were friends. He was our union rep. for all those years and managed to save my skin a time or two when I rubbed the carrier the wrong way as well. Sometimes I wouldn't even see him for weeks but then he'd call and want to know everything.
Then he surprised me by jumping on a long-pool job with me. We spent months after that riding up and down the track between New York and Pennsylvania with an assortment of trainees and miscreants who were qualifying on the run. It was a blast. The tales of the Bobby and Harold Show would keep me blogging for months but nobody would ever believe any of it could was true. It was one hell of a run.
Eventually, he went off on other trains and I moved around as we all do in this trade and we only ran into each other at union meetings unless I grabbed a vacancy on his job for a week. We stayed close though and whenever the madness would get to me, I'd call and shoot the breeze for an hour. Then the work train came up and the stars aligned just right for the old road-team to have one more go at it. I was tickled to be able to hold the job with Bobby, even though I knew it was only for a couple of months until he was old enough to take his pension.
He told me before he left that he was happy he had the chance to finish out his career with me as his engineer and he was glad we got the chance to work together one more time. That meant more to me than he ever knew and I'll remember it well. Sooner than I wanted to think about, he was shaking my hand for the last time as he headed south for his new place in the sunshine. I never would have imagined it would be the last time I'd see him.
Bobby passed away suddenly last week at his home near Daytona. He slept away in his bed which is a long stretch from how he ever expected to go. Only a couple of months into his retirement that he worked so long to get, like turning out the lights, that was all she wrote. He got to party with all his friends at Bike Week, sent them all on their way and then he was gone. When I heard the news, another little bit of the good leaked out of the world. I still haven't figured it out.
We all know that fairness doesn't enter into these things and sometimes fate is one cruel bastard but it leaves us who stay behind to wonder...why him, why now? Nobody ever knows their time but how is it that the cards played out the way they did?
As my favorite author, Ernest Gann said, "...by what ends does a man ever partially control his fate? It is obvious from the special history of our kind that favorites are played, but if this so, then how do you account for those who are ill-treated? The worship of pagan gods, which once answered all this, is no longer fashionable. Modern religions ignore the matter of fate. So we are left confused and without direction. Let us admit, then, that the complete answer may only be revealed when it can no longer serve those most interested."
I for one, wish I knew. But until I do, he's a good man gone and I'm proud to have known him. We'll get through the hard time somehow because he always did. We might even end up laughing about it. He would. He was my friend and all I'm sure of is that I'll miss that man. And it'll be a while before I get some of the wind back in my sails.
So here's to you Bobby...I'll whistle for you in the night like I do when I think of all the others gone before. It's a long, long line you've joined now Brother; hold me a place and we'll do Daytona when I catch up with you next time.