Being Railroaded

In a small town, anything different just lit up us young boys’ curiosity, and we always wanted to get involved. This attitude was exemplified by the arrival on a weekly basis of the “Putt-Putt” in the center of town. This “Putt-Putt” was a four-wheeled little railroad maintenance vehicle that carried up to four workers. They were always dressed in typical fashion: bib overalls and cap, both white with thin, blue stripes. We never knew what their job was, because all we cared about was that they came to town, and we were in for what we saw as an adventure.

We could hear them putt-putting up the tracks. When they got to the depot, they’d shut her down and get off. Then they’d pull out a couple of long handles which they used to pick up one end of the putt-putt, turn it at right angles to the track, and walk it off the tracks. Then they’d cross the street to Bill Higgins’s Restaurant where Olivia Richardson would serve them lunch. That lunch hour was difficult for us to endure, as it usually lasted an hour and a half, and we were anxious to get on with our fun.

Finally, out they would come, and we’d be right on their tails. They gave us the impression they were resisting our overtures to help put the putt-putt back on the track, but they easily gave in. Several of us would grab the handles and start pushing the putt-putt toward the tracks. With some effort we were able to line her up so that she eventually fell into place on the rails, ready for take-off.

One time, I think a little on purpose, we lined her up facing the wrong direction, which only meant that we could play with this thing a while longer. The climax of the experience was for us to start pushing the putt-putt down the tracks (she had no starter, so she had to be jump-started). As soon as we got some momentum, the men would jump aboard and urge us to push harder and faster.

I think they had as much fun letting us do it as we did in doing it. Finally, at the right moment, the driver would engage the clutch, and the initial putt-putt turned into putt-putt-putt-putt-putt, and away they went until they disappeared down there where the tracks meet in the distance. Later on, we got into the big stuff, the freight trains.

You could hear from pretty far off the sound of the freight train’s whistle as it pulled into Depot Square. Jack Walsh ran the station. We were too young to know what he did. Frankly, we didn’t care much. All we knew was that Jack Walsh worked at the station, and when a train came in he was there for a reason.

We didn’t come running to see what Jack Walsh was going to do. We wanted to see who the engineer was. If it was that older fellow, we had a pretty good chance. The younger engineers were kind of grouchy, which seemed queer to us, because it was usually the older men who were grouchy.

Sure enough, there he was: the old fella. “Can we help run the train today?” We thought we had him fooled into thinking that we were volunteering to help with some of the dirty work. Maybe we did, as he would invite us aboard with a kind of grin on his face. “Sure. Come aboard. Don’t forget the rules.”

We knew the rules better than we knew how much one and one was. And I’ll tell you something else: We had probably broken every rule there was in a youth’s life, but there was no way we were interested in finding out what would happen if we broke these rules. Too much of a risk. “You stand over there, hold onto that bar, and don’t let go. And you, jump up into the seat and take your turn first.”

We usually had a lot of “work” to do, ’cause there was Harry Snow’s coal to deliver, and then we had to drop some cars full of lumber for Josh Nickerson. We had to be careful at Nickerson’s, because if we didn’t leave the cars in just the right spot, Grover Chandler, the yard man at Nickerson’s, would have to use his Samson car mover (a kind of long-handled lever that you’d put under one of the wheels to push the car along) to put the car where he wanted it. Grover was one of the grouchy ones.

“Sound the whistle a few times.” I’d use my left hand for that, because that way I could lean farther out of the engineer’s cab and look back and forth for safety reasons, but mostly hoping that other kids would see me.

“Open the valve slow.” Boff,boff,Boff,boff, sounded the steam as it pushed the big piston on one side and then got changed over to the other side. The sound of the steam would vary as it moved from one side of the engine to the other. If you opened the steam valve just right, you’d release just enough steam so that the engine would creep forward, gripping the tracks without slipping. If you did it too fast, the wheels would spin, and the stoker would put on that look, first to the engineer for letting us kids on, and then to me for having lost so much steam and going nowhere. We learned fast, I’ll tell you that.

Down toward Eastham we’d go, hanging out and looking back for the flagman to give the signal that the caboose had passed the switch. I’d keep looking back for the signal that he had turned the switch. Now we could back her up into Grover’s domain, not without some trepidation.

“Shut her down and pull up the brake.” That was when the other kid would join in and help pull on that great long brake handle. We needed two kids for that, because we didn’t weigh much in those days. “Clak cIak clak” the brake handle sounded as it passed each cog, bringing those tons of steel to a rattling halt as each car banged into the car ahead, taking up the slack between them.

“Release the brake, and let’s back her up and see if we can piss off old Grover.” The second part was easy, but the brake release required perfect timing between the two of us. The handle was about at a 45 degree angle, so we’d both grab hold, jump on “three”, squeeze the handle, and use all our weight to release the last cog, and move the brake forward to release status. That was the hardest part, and the old man wouldn’t help us a lick. We didn’t want him to, either.

“Open up that other valve and back her up.” Boff boff Boff boff, the engine said as it slowly crept back into Nickerson’s lumber yard. We had left the caboose back down the main track a ways, so all we had to do was disconnect the cars bound for Nickerson’s. Next we headed for Harry Snow’s to drop off some coal cars and pick up his empties. It wasn’t easy to maneuver cars into Harry Snow’s yard, as, unlike Nickerson’s, where we could go beyond the yard, turn the switch and back into the yard, Snow’s yard was one you had to enter going forward.

So, we had to do a lot of backing up, dropping off cars, going forward, using the siding, backing up again, and so on, all in an effort to put Snow’s cars ahead of the engine so we could push them forward into the yard. This ”work”, though real for the train crew, was just delight for us boys.

By now we had the process down pat. We took turns as we were told and even learned how to jump better on the release of the brake. Back and forth. Pull the brake. Give her some steam (not too much). Back and forth. Jump on the brake. Give her some more steam. Forward and back. Pull the brake. Forward and back. Jump on the brake. Open it up slow. No slippage. Back and forth. Forward and back.

The last part was the best, as the job was done when we backed out of Snow’s and reconnected the caboose. This was done right in the center of town where the “Stop, Look, and Listen” sign was, the warning bell ringing, and traffic stopped. Bursting with pride for all to see, we expertly jumped down from the engine and sauntered away, all the while looking for other kids’ expressions of envy, of which there were many. In later years I came upon the word “symbiosis”. I think it is one of the best words I have ever heard, or lived.

Sam Sherman