Saturday, October 22, 2011

Thoroughly Disgusted and Sleeve-Grooming His Ears!

The C. P. Huntington
Once in a while we got to ride the train!  The only things more colorful than the engines themselves were the fellas that manned the throttles and made ‘em go. Lidge and I received only a few opportunities to hop a ride with the fellas in the cab.  But those were some mighty memorable opportunities! The old cabs were cramped at best, and sightseers were discouraged.  Even under the best of conditions, the engineers were hard-pressed to keep up a good head of steam in the old wood burners, and with pests like Lidge and me onboard, it was almost impossible; we were never content unless we were blowin’ the whistle! 
   On a couple of occasions we finagled a ride, out to tracks end and back, in the cab of the C. P. Huntington.  Named for Mr. Hopkins’ fellow shopkeeper and coconspirator, Collis Potter Huntington, the little engine was a workhorse for the Central Pacific. Chugging along through the Sierra’s aboard the cab of the Huntington was reminiscent of riding an iron-wheeled wheelbarrow down a cobblestone street, only more gut wrenching and exhilaratingly perilous!
   The heat off the boiler and firebox was enough to wilt the feathers off a wooden Indian, and you could fry an egg on any surface of the cab!  We were hard-pressed to turn around without banging our head on something; and most of the time the cab was full of smoke and cinders, and the floor pitched and rolled till a fella couldn’t find his feet! “God pity the poor sailor, out on a night like this!”  We rarely made headway for more than an hour, without needing to stop for something.  If she wasn’t low on wood, she was out of water.  There were little wood yards scattered all along the way, and anyplace that had access to water, boasted a gigantic barrel-like water tower, at a sufficient height to deliver water to the thirsty boilers.  This process was rarely accomplished without soaking your boots and pants, which was mighty invigorating high in the Sierra Nevada’s. Occasionally, constellations of toxic, black smoke and carnivorous sparks would inundate the cab, the fragrance of scorched overalls and singed whiskers would permeate the atmosphere, and the place would erupt in flailing arms, as folks sang and danced and swatted shouldering cinders!
   The survey teams worked diligently to avoid grades in excess of 4%, but were rarely ever successful, and failing brakes were an ever-present concern.  Steam locomotives make real good time when their brakes fail on a hill. That’s about the only time! Most are fitted with cowcatchers, but I don’t recall one ever catching a cow.
   If ya had the good fortune to be invited into the cab, ya got acquainted with the engineer and the fireman. You could tell which was which; cause the fireman had only smudges of soot, where his eyebrows used to be! My favorites were Zeek & Zak.  One spoke brogue, the other, broken German, and ya rarely caught their drift, unless they were cussing!  Zeek was fastidious!  He kept a wire brush hanging from his belt and a big bucket of stove-black near the firewall.  He kept that whole engine polished up like Grandmas’ parlor stove!  The petcocks and grease fittings were all made of brass or copper, and he shined ‘em all up till they gleamed like Teddys’ teeth! He was adamant about keeping the firedoor spit-shined velvet black, and every time he got ‘er done, Zak let fly with a chaw of tobaccy.  The projectile expectorate would splash and splatter, a wisp of steam would rise from the stained and affronted surface, the cab would light up with profanity, and Zak would swab his chin and bust up laughing! He antagonized poor Zeek at every turn.  It fell to Zeek to stoke the fire, and that entailed trips to the tender to bring back firewood.  The tender was directly behind and downwind of the engine of course, and that made ol’ Zeek a mighty tempting target!  Zak had sworn a blood oath, to holler, “hot solder” before he spat, and he done his best, but he generally hollered after!  Zeek invariably came back thoroughly disgusted and sleeve-grooming his ears!   “Obie’s Quest”   

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