Monday, August 1, 2011

Girls Swimming under the Railroad Bridge, circa 1970

The big diesels rumbled, three, dirty yellow SP&S thirty six hundreds on the point, as the trainmen say--six hundred horsepower per pair of flanged-steel wheels, rolling with over a hundred cars behind them down the long grade above Bend, Oregon. It was five A.M. We had just passed Lava, a siding named for the landscape outside--like the surface of the moon. Burnished steel rails stretched out ahead of us. To lay this track, the section workers must have blasted for years through the burnt, twisted-looking stuff outside. The lava spread out for miles toward snow covered summits, the Three Sisters, Mt. Bachelor, and Broken Top.

It was a pristine July morning, but the heat and smoke from the engines gave a brownish tinge to the blue of the sky and the snow covered peaks. It was still cold enough that we needed the cab heaters. Their buzzing added to the din of the engines and made dust circulate in the air. Before daylight it had taken all my attention to keep from dozing. With the sunrise, I was alert. The rest of the crew had perked up too.

Pat Kilty, the engineer, was admonishing me on family planning. "You're making good money now, kid, you think, but wait till you have a bunch of parasites running around on your carpet! Look at me. I thought I'd paid long enough, but now I'm putting another daughter through college." He spit out the words between glances at the track ahead of us. Sitting there gripping the air-pressure handle, he looked a little crazy, sparse hair poking out from under his canvas engineer's cap, his face white and powdered looking. Almost ready to retire, he was still one of the hottest engineers on this line. "Physical Education!" He barked disgustedly over the roar. "Why the hell couldn't she have studied accounting? Spoiled her, I did. She didn't know the difference. The only physical education she needed was a good screwing."

"Ha!" The fireman yelped.

Pat's upper lip trembled a bit as if he was shocked himself by what he'd said. If he wanted to amend it, he couldn't seem to find the words.

Clumps of Junipers and sage brush growing in the flats on the fringe of Bend gradually gave way to civilization, such as it was: Rock shops baiting the tourists along Highway 97; gas stations; motels; an automobile salvage yard; and the Johns-Mannville Lumber Mill that whined day and night. Boxcars waited with gaping doors for wood-products cargo. Smoke drifted up from the Wig-Wam Burners where milling slash burned. On stacks of Ponderosa Pine logs, sprinkler heads turned, dousing them before the heat of the day set in.

The inertia of the weight and length of train behind us pushed us into town. A freight train rolls without friction if the engineer knows what he's doing. Hundreds of thousands of pounds glide on steel, the slack between cars surging and ebbing. Engineer Kilty drew off twenty more pounds of air to stretch everything out. If he had miscalculated the slack would have come smashing, one car at a time, all the way from the caboose. That kind of force is bad news if a brakeman happens to be hanging on the ladder of a boxcar.

In the yard, tracks branched into infinity, straight and parallel on the cinder roadbed. The radio sputtered something unintelligible, and Kilty slowed us down to a nearly imperceptible roll. The rear-end brakeman and the conductor were getting off the caboose. They'd have to take a cab and meet us at the depot.

Car men were moving about on the ground. Called "car toads" by the trainmen, these gnome-like figures wore greasy coveralls and gloves up to their elbows. One of them carried a shovel.

A few of the tracks branched into the mammoth doors of the engine barns where other diesels idled heavily. Huge vents hung down from the high ceilings to fan out fumes. These diesels are never turned off while in service because the engine blocks contract too much in cooling.

I shoved the fireman's travel bag across the floor of the cab. It was heavy. "What are you smuggling in this thing?"

"It's glass," he answered. "Food supplements."

Mel Starr was a body builder. On the road his bag was full of bottles of vitamin pills and protein tablets.

Time to get off. Mel picked up his travel bag and mine. I had to uncouple these "hogs." We went out the door onto the catwalk. Mel's weight lifting and pill popping seemed to be working. His back was broad under the vest back of his coveralls.

A robust day was beginning, but I was spent. After a few formalities in the depot, I went over to the Pioneer Hotel and flopped for five or six hours.

It was hot in the sparsely finished room when I awoke. I shaved and showered and put on clothes that didn't smell of diesel. When I let up the shade, traffic was moving below my window in the afternoon sunlight.

Down the street at the Coffee Corral, I had lunch, avoiding the gravy. The old rails warnings weren't wasted on me. These greasy-spoon restaurants let the gravy stew on the steam table for days on end. Then some unsuspecting cowboy, or railroader, comes in and gets food poisoning from his hot-beef sandwich.

Walking through downtown Bend, I looked at Indian jewelry and polished agates through display windows. Erotic scenes behind glass on movie billboards left me cold. Never have had much interest in other people's sex lives. I went out Century Drive, the route to Mt. Bachelor ski area. Skiing was the earliest of my passions for the mountains. Cold air, blue sky, glaciers, and rocky summits on the horizons never fail to lift me out of apathy.

Out that way there is a park along the Des Chutes River. I sat down on a bench to watch the ducks and the home-town girls walking along a path under the trees. My oh my! The sex drive may have been under control, but it wasn't dead. By that time I had dated several very pleasant women, but the economy of my feelings had slipped into recession. Was I lonely? It's hard to say, really. Why did Mary and I have to break each others’ hearts?

That evening I called a guy I knew who lived about twenty miles north, on a ranch near Redmond. Harold was a strapping guy about six feet, four inches tall, with powerful forearms. He had played football until a shoulder injury sidelined him. Nice quiet sort of guy, but he looked at anybody who gave him a hard time with eyes you didn’t' mess with when they showed aggravation. He wasn't as urbane and smooth as some of the pre-law types we knew from Portland, but he could certainly hold his ground. He had had a somewhat unsatisfactory relationship with a woman, I gathered.

He met me at the Pioneer Hotel in his late model Buick, and went to a night club. Neither of us were good talkers, but we tried to make conversation over the noise of the band, an over-amplified bunch of guitar bangers. In the smoky, low-ceilinged room we eyed the available women at other tables. It just wasn't worth the effort. I drank enough that I slept pretty hard back at the hotel. The bourbon in that low-ball joint had suppressed even my dreams.

I started using more of my time on railroad layovers in the hotel room with the Bible--more interesting than the night clubs. Only after I'd had enough of Nehemiah or Obadiah, would I come downstairs for air.

In the lobby of the Pioneer Hotel I learned a few things as well--vital information about the famous, black-stud football player who made it in Hollywood and tried to penetrate what’s-her-name, Tarzana, the movie queen, while they were doing a love scene on camera. Mel Starr the body-builder fireman estimated with both hands, "He's probably got a wanger about that long on him."

Now a story like that would be enough to make a lot of Christians go back upstairs to the stuffy room and lock themselves inside. But a lot of what I'd been reading the "Good Book" was just as lurid, though slanted differently than the magazine Mel had been reading. Mrs. Kline, the proprietress, tried to keep that kind of literature off the tables the trainmen found at their elbow when there was time to kill.

There was a color television set in the lobby. I remember watching Tom Jones in a tuxedo against a background of lavender. He sang with a wide vibrato while women shrieked and threw motel-room keys on the stage. John, another young brakeman, a Vietnam veteran, started telling me about the whore in Thailand whose terry-cloth brief he had brought home with him. I remembered him as a state-champion wrestler in high school. In the army, he was laughed at when he asked about trying out for the wrestling team. "You're going to Vietnam," they said. Another former, high school athlete we both knew was now working at the Elks club in Klamath Falls as a bar tender--too crippled to do anything else.

Engineer Kilty was talking with the proprietress at the front desk. She and her daughters ran the Pioneer. It was clear that Mom was the brains of the operation. The girls were well endowed physically, but about a quart low intellectually. It showed in the way they applied their make-up. One of them spoke with a lisp. When I asked what kind of wooly little dog that was that followed her around while she made up the rooms, we took several runs at it before I could understand her answer. "Pekapoo," she was saying through the lisp. "Pekinese and Poodle."

The girls were watching television in the apartment behind the front desk that night when I approached to ask Kilty how late we might expect to be called to work. He said it would be after midnight. He was going to church with the proprietress. She spoke up and invited me, too. It was this religious side of Mrs. Kline that eased your mind about the possibility that she might be running the kind of operation John had been describing in Thailand. Just about then, one of the girls in back blew a pink bubble-gum bubble.

The two girls, Kilty, and I squeezed into Mrs. Kline's Rambler. She drove us out a red cinder-ash road. It was about sunset. A lava butte jutted up behind the Junipers along the road, where the lip and high arch of a ski jump were visible above the pines. I felt a little like a sportsman climbing the stairway to the top. I hoped the church service wasn't going to get too wild.

Kilty was getting pats on the back from Mrs. Kline. Embarrassed, but proud at the same time, he told me, "I quit drinkin', Kid. Didn't have much help, either."

I, for one, was glad he had. Trainmen sometimes get called before they can sober up. Half a million pounds of train going seventy miles and hour with a drunk on the engine is no joke.

The church service at the Assembly of God that night made me glad we were beyond the edge of town. It was fervent and loud. Energetic gospel hymns were accompanied by piano and the preacher's electric guitar. Reverend Hootin made quite an issue of the cigarette burns on that guitar. I gathered he, like Kilty, had been quite a "rounder." He had worked for years in a band on the country-music circuit. He'd played in half the taverns in Eastern Oregon.

The first time he finished preaching, a young woman got up to sing. Kilty elbowed me and said, "That's Hootin's daughter." He assumed I'd be interested. I imagine I could have gotten interested. She was fresh as the Juniper-scented air drifting in the windows. The intense lighting in the room made her skin seem angelic. She could sing, too. "She's gettin' married," Kilty added, noticing how closely I paid attention. Rev. Hootin could well have been proud.

Hootin got up again. It was the time of night that truck drivers would be going home with the women in the places this minister used to work. Now, his appeal brought a lot of people forward. Most of them looked like church members in good standing, but they knelt on the red carpet. Some of them wept. We sang another hymn, then the piano player improvised, and we were left to contemplate eternity.

I guess I was looking at the carpet when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into Hootin's benevolent face. "Do you know the Lord, Son?" He asked.

I think I surprised him by saying yes. He looked at me earnestly.

"That's real good," he said, and he patted my shoulder.

Kilty was watching me carefully for signs of cynicism. He was sheepish about his religion with the other railroaders, though he would allow it helped him stop drinking. If I was a believer, it was all right with him.

It must have been about three A.M. later that night when our crew was called to work, an ungodly hour to be awakened in a dark hotel room. "All right," I answered the voice outside the door, one of the other crewmen. I turned a switch, and brassy light filled the room.

Outside it was better. Cool air flooded the silent streets. Like a sailor in a foreign port, I walked along, swinging my travel bag. Switch engines were working in the yard. The occasional slam of boxcars coming together reverberated in the darkness.

Light dimly penetrated the windows in the stone-walled depot. In front of the mail room, baggage carts on large, spoked, steel wheels rested on the walks under awnings that ran the length of the building. Teletype machines clattered inside. Kilty handed me the train orders.

Ralph Brainard, the conductor off an incoming train, was talking with one of his crewmen. I listened without looking in his direction. They said he could be mean as hell. He had made it rough for one fireman, a long-haired nephew of some official in Seattle. Brainard wore a straw hat with a belt-like leather band. He owned forty or fifty acres in Klamath County, and he was talking about one of his bulls. The animal had injured his sex organ trying to mount an uncooperative cow. "That poor son of a bitch groaned like a wounded elephant," he said.

As Kilty and I climbed the ladder up to the cab of the engine, air overflow was spurting out from between enormous wheels. We went inside and stowed our bags in the nose of this old Western Pacific "Flyer." Some of these Iron Horses should have been put out to pasture years ago. It was going to be a long pull up to Chemult.

We waited in the dark for the air pressure to build. Green gauges throbbed on the panel. Kilty wasn't happy about the "power." The engines were woefully inadequate for the length of the train. When he got it all rolling, the stretched-out tonnage behind us made the diesels lug down. Our oscillating headlight cut a slow swath ahead of us through the trees. Juniper again, you could smell it.

At the crossings our horns blared. Electric whistles on the new engines could knock a man off the catwalk if he was out front. These tired air horns just moaned.

It was a hard night, twenty miles an hour up the grade, engines conking out all the time. I had to crawl through the nose cowlings of engines coupled head to head to get to the rear units that needed to be restarted. Even at the speed we were moving, dust and creosote fumed up from the tracks in the light from my lantern.

We waited on nearly every siding for the Southern Pacific freights to crash through on the main line. Before we got up any momentum, it was daylight. The sun came up on the rim rocks along Sprague River Canyon. Jaybirds flitted in the pines. Rattlesnakes on the dusty outcroppings must have been looking for breakfast.

We blew through Chiloquin making bells ring as the crossing gates came down. Indians who had traded their land rights and timber for Pontiac GTOs and Corvettes waited for us to pass. Sporting long black braids and wearing blankets and moccasins the squaws on Main Street stood in patient symmetry in front of J.C. Penney and Woolworths.

The rails gleamed as we rounded a long curve leaving town and went back into the trees. In forest clearings cattle grazed behind barbed wire fences. Grain was ripening toward Klamath Lake and the timber covered mountains on the distant shore. A few Pelicans dotted the sky.

We had been following the Sprague River for thirty miles now. From the rocking engine I saw a bridge coming up. The water rippled and spun into green coils in the backlash from rapids. We had this tired out equipment rolling in a blast of wind and wheels. Kilty made some crack about how the dispatcher would probably give us the pickle, but he sat up suddenly out of his stew, and I'll never forget the stab of joy I felt when our wheels hit the bridge and Kilty laid on the horn for the farm girls who were swimming and waving at us from the clear green water of the Sprague.

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