Sep 10, 2007

The Older I Get

The slower I am. At posting, that is. My apologies.

See, today I turned 40. The dread four-oh. Had the requisite black-ballooned party this past weekend. And today, my 'for real' birthday? Just another day.

Okay, not really. *grin*

Remember one year ago around this date? I took my first flight in a hot air balloon. Memorable experience, something I shall carry around with me until I quit walking this muddy old ball. Today I got to do something just as memorable, only not as planned. See, I knew I didn't want to work on my birthday, especially not my fortieth. I knew I wanted to do something fun, weather and time permitting. Unbeknownst to me the Universe decided to turn it's 10 billion candlepower smile on me. I planned on doing some trainspotting, get out and play with my camera a little bit, see what I could do.

And the Universe kept grinning. What fools these mortals be.

I went up a ways into the little town north of us to see if I could catch the morning train from the lumber plant, a fairly easy catch and a nice way to start the day, or so I thought. Found myself wading through knee-high grass still soaking with dew, and met a wonderful old man tending his garden. He lives in a trailer right up against UP's right of way, and I had been skirting his yard. We talked about cameras (he was a camera buff in his day) and about armadillos. Seems the armadillos were giving him seven kinds of Hell, and we tracked one a short way through the wet grass, a dark clear path where a little armoured digging machine had waddled through, looking for grubs. And we talked about trains. Seems a lot of the engineers would take time to visit with him when they had the chance; drink coffee and chat. He knew names, and towns of residence, all sorts of neat things.

I could have stayed there all day with him, just talking, but I was on a mission. I finally excused myself and took up post on top of a little hillock and waited, and watched the sun beam through the fog, which was trying desperately to hang on for a few more minutes.

I waited for twenty minutes, until long past the ordinary run time of that particular train, and decided to walk up the right-of-way a little to see if I could find a place out of the sun and maybe walk up on something nice.

And the Universe grinned.

I walked a ways and spotted something big and brown in the distance. Walked up on it and found the most beautiful old iron trellis bridge over a little bit of meandering river. Had no idea it was there, it's so well hidden from the highway. Stood there grinning like a fool for a while, and snapped some pictures, and listened to the birds in the trees and the insects buzzing around, and the quiet 'plash of turtles diving.

Stood there a while longer and a pair of old men puttered by in a little boat, fishing. We passed a few kind words and they went on their way. The sweat was gathering on me, my pants legs were still wet with dew, and I was coming up on having spent a near-fruitless hour on the same plot of land. I knew how desirable a photo of a train engine framed by that bridge would be, what an excellent thing indeed, but I decided to leave and come back another day, perhaps deeper into Fall. A day when it was much cooler outside. I knew now where it was, and knew the nice old man.

It was then that I heard a distant horn echo out across the intervening forest, a wild, sharp animal screaming in the green, and thought to myself "Well Sonny Jim, I've got you're ass now. You can't get past me without me seeing you."

Funny; I was right.

He hit his horn a brief blip when I waved, and thankfully stayed off it when he drew alongside and past me, forcing a juggernaut's rush of wind to either side. I wanted to give chase but knew that I still had to walk two miles back along the right of way before I could get to my truck, and UP 4181 was going to maintain his quick pace, so I ambled. Walked the very edge of the right of way while tons of auto racks roared by just a few feet from my shoulder.

I ended up catching him way up the Interstate again some twenty minutes later on another bridge, a spot I had scouted out a few weeks ago.

It was a banner day indeed. Only the Universe and it's smug smile knew what was still ahead. I drove up the Interstate a few more miles and got some nice photos of engines in the UP yard at Alexandria, including a brand new Ferromex power unit, all green and red and white, thinking I had indeed hit the Mother Lode. The Universe just kept smiling.

I had some errands to run then, which I did, having no idea what I was about to intercept. I was in no rush. I took my time, even. Gods, how little we realise the impact timing has on everything. EVERYTHING.

It was pushing eleven and even in the a/c I was pushing the edge of smelly; the temp was pushing 90. I had a camera-full of photos and was about ready to head home when a last minute decision hit me to drive to a little wooded area by a lake where I had seen a lot of boxcars parked. My hope was to catch some graffiti and then head home. When I got there, I saw the cars all right, and something more. A pair of engines hooking them up. My timing had been impeccable. Only the Universe knew just HOW impeccable.

I snapped pictures. I climbed the steep, bramble-covered embankment to snap some more. I watched the engine back and fill, pull forward, back up, connecting up with each and every empty car sitting there on the three sidings, preparing to haul them off, every one. Now, there is a little bridge there where the highway goes over the rails. I've always wanted to sit under there, a troll with a DSLR camera and wait for a train to appear, framed by those old (circa 1937) concrete pilings, but I had never had the time. Well, now I had the time AND the train was being assembled while I watched. I walked up, grinning, and took my place. A few minutes later, the engine followed me up, and stopped while the switchman changed sidings.

And it was then that the engineer came down out of his high cab and offered me a bottle of ice-cold water. We exchanged a few words about the heat; he could see that I was on the edge of heat prostration, and I thanked him heartily for the water. I drank it down gratefully, snapped a few more pictures, and my heart leaped into my throat as an idea arrived in my mind. It was now or never.

I ambled over, looked way way up at the engineer sitting at his window, and asked "Hey, do you think I could come aboard?" He grinned, a dazzling white smile against his dark sin, and said "Well, I'm not supposed to let you, but sure, come on."

Crossing in front of the engine I tried not to giggle too much.

I climbed those steel treads and ascended into Heaven. Or at least a small, hot, oil-and-machinery-smelling metal version of Heaven. The engineer gave me the nickel tour (there's only about six controls in a diesel engine's big wrap-around dash) and we chatted and listened to the radio dispatch office talk about a derailment somewhere. He showed me how the throttle had eight settings, and how the horns were controlled by a big yellow button, and how there were separate levers for the engine's brakes and for the entire train's brakes. He pointed out the big speedometer, and the tiny compartment for the restroom. Me, I couldn't get my fill of just staring out the windshield at the track spooled out before me. I told the engineer that in forty years of living I had never been aboard a train, much less stood in the business end of one, and that the opportunity he had given me was the greatest birthday present I had gotten.

Finding out it was my birthday, he went one further.

He told me to sit in his seat.

Then he told me to swing the air brakes lever to "disengage," which I did, listening to the long sharp whoosh repeated all down the line.

He told me to grab the throttle lever and pull it left, to it's first setting. I did. I heard the massive engines being me roar up from their purr, and the train started backing up. I could hear and feel each car bump into the one behind it as the slack was gathered in, as we, the engine and I, pushed them together, pushed them backward down the line to connect up with another cut of cars waiting.

He told me to push the throttle lever up to "two." I did. The engine stepped up it's music, and we sped up, just a little.

The Universe, I'm sure, was basking in the joyous radiance that had to be pouring off me, outshining the Sun. I. Was. Driving. A. Train.

He relieved me before I peed on his seat, and let me off some sixty or so feet from where I had boarded. I don't recall touching the iron steps on my way down; I'm sure I simply floated out of the cockpit, a piece of thistle carried on an errant zephyr. I could have been shot point blank with a load of rock salt at that moment and never felt it.

I had driven a train.

I positioned my buoyant, jubilant self up under the bridge and waited patiently, the heat long forgotten. And finally the train rolled forward, and I got my long-awaited photo.

You know, somehow it was different than I expected. Before, I was waiting for a train to appear under that bridge, but what I got was MY train under that bridge, and a lesson from the Universe: Once in a while She will hit you blindsides with something so good, so life-changing that you'll never look at the hours and days ahead quite the same way ever again.

I'm glad it took this long. I could appreciate it for what it is now. And thank you again, my engineer friend, for letting a boy hiding in a man's body do something that he didn't even dare dream of.


Scott from Oregon said...

You sure are a wonderful weirdo...

Batgirl said...

Awww...that made me all weepy, in a good sort of way. Sounds to me like you've had an amazing day. What a great way to celebrate your birthday! Happy Birthday, Irr.

Nancy Dancehall said...

You're so cute.

Happy birthday.

Bob said...


When I was a kid, I used to help a guy clean boxcars. The siding was across the highway from my grandpa's store. The train crews would stop after switching out boxcars at this siding, leaving ones to be cleaned, picking up the cleaned ones, and go over to my grandpa's store for a break. sometimes they would let me ride the engine while they were doing the switching. This was back when there were still cabooses and I got to ride in it once too.

frickin' AWESOME.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

That is SO COOL!!!!

Happy Birthday!

Wow... driving a train, and you got killer photos and you met some really great people.

What an awesome birthday. Can't be topped, or can it?

There are always space shuttles.

*big grins*

Happy 40th.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

meno said...

Wow! what a cool thing to happen! There's a present you won't soon forget. Happy Birthday.

Joan of Argghh! said...

So damn jealous!

I used to have an art studio that sat above the last private-owned train yard in the Southeast. A wonderful yard where they restore club cars to their former glory, and loan 'em out to presidents and dignitaries.

I had to lift my brush from the canvas as the trains rolled by, so violently would the old buidling shake!

Stucco said...

Hippo Birdy there Irr! Glad the cosmic tumblers smiled upon you. They usually bitch-slap me to mark the occasion :)

Mona Buonanotte said...

Well Happy Birthday! Spank yourself 40 times for me!

I got goosebumps reading your train adventure...that's a memorable birthday!

Mona Buonanotte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Irrelephant said...

Scott, I'll take that as the high compliment it is. : )

Batgirl, it'll definitely go down in the archives as one of the more memorable ones.

Nancy, shall I take that as a compliment? *grin*

Bob, I was astounded that he let me, and thanks for sharing YOUR memory! We live in such uptight times that I fear things like my short drive and your childhood memories of working in and on the cars and riding in the switchers are going to be as extinct as common courtesy and, well, cabooses. *S*

Scarlett, it was a teriffic time, no questions about it. As for the shuttle? Whew. I can just see me, walking around the launch pad with my camera, yelling up to an astronaut leaning out the little side window... "Hey, can I come up?"
"Sure! Here's a space suit just your size! Here, press that button, lift that lever, and next stop: MARS!"

Meno, it was. It's difficult at times like that to think that the Universe runs by happenstance. But I manage. *lol*

Joan, that's utterly cool! There's a few small groups of folks around here who are involved in restoration projects but so many engines and cars are going to rot and ruin around here. I'm a restorer at heart if not at wallet, and it withers my soul to see those beautiful old things go to pieces.

Stucco, they usually get me too--there's only been about five birthdays of mine in which it hasn't rained. I was ASTOUNDED that the weather held.

Mona, how about I wait until you can deliver that present in person? *wink* I'm glad you enjoyed it. I don't think there's any way I could possibly catch all the nuances and strength of my reaction to his offer, much less the experience itself, but I can try, right?

Jean said...

What a perfectly sweet birthday for a perfectly sweet man.
You are forgiven for not posting more often :)

Happy Birthday!!!

Schmoopie said...

Love the story and pics! Happy birthday, Irr.!

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

That would be quite a memorable 50th...

Scarlett & V.

Irrelephant said...

Jean, thank you for the forgiveness! How many Hail Marys do I need to pray? *grin*

Thank you, Schmoop! *big hug*

Scarlett, I think it might! Hmmm. I guess for starters I need to begin hanging out around NASA facilities....

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. This is the anonymous who's Father was an engineer down in your area. I miss it down there and you sure take me back. I too know that feeling of sitting in "the seat" and you took me there again. Thanks soooo much.

-Kim (now in Indiana cornfields -500 yards from train tracks)