Tag Archives: Western Union

Western Union The Pocket Watch

Glancing over, I saw that he reached into the top pocket of his overalls and produced a pocket watch, securely attached to a button hole in the bib of his overalls by a gold-toned copper alloy chain with a Masonic medallion on the end.

He consulted the time. “It’s three-o-two, we will leave in 8 minutes,” he proclaimed, still in the pensive mood he had been in all morning.

The watch was as large as pocket watches go, given to him by his father ten years ago as a gift when he was appointed a Railroad Engineer. He was the third family member to have the watch; in the late 1880’s, his grandfather the original owner. Now, both father figure’s were gone. His wife gone; his mother was ill; a great many losses for a man with time left.

Housed in a thick gold case engraved in relief, with a picture of a stag and doe emerging from the forest into the bright sunlight of a meadow, the watch was his pride and joy; within contained all the memories of what little senior family he had left.

The watch seemed to exist on its own, an individual entity, and would live on and go to others when he was gone. In this way the memories of his ‘tribe’ would be preserved. In a moment of intimacy between us, he had explained that in this life, he didn’t really ‘own’ anything, everything was ‘on loan’ to him, to be passed on to others when he made his final trip with me.

He turned and leaned out of the cab window, placing his full upper body weight onto his forearms, his right leg curled under him on the seat, his left leg out behind him braced by his foot on the back-head. He leaned out the window as far as he could, to get a clear view of the train behind him. His train, the train he commanded responsibly, as was his job.

Normally at this time his eyes would be on the senior conductor, waiting for the all-aboard signal, which would give him the go-ahead to leave the station.

I knew what was really on his mind. He was looking for her, the one who had captured his heart in an instant that afternoon here in Lamy, one month ago.

I studied him, he did not know how carefully I was considering him. His overalls were clean. His boots, although old, were kept in good shape by frequently replacing the soles and heels. He meticulously maintained the uppers, now partially hidden by the legs of his overalls fastened around the top of the boots by a leather garter, a fashion that would keep stray hot coals from getting inside his boots.

“Are we ready?” I questioned, knowing the answer full well. I had already topped off the boiler with water a few moments ago and the water had stopped flowing from the injector, leaving on my side of the roadbed only a steam-filled puddle.

The temperature and pressure in the boiler were back up to the levels I needed for a fast departure.

“All the conductors are standing in the vestibules and no one is left on the platform,” he said peaking around behind him. I could hear him over the thump, thump of the steam-powered air compressor and the whine of the generator on the boiler just outside the cab.

He consulted his watch again and compared his time with the master clock on the Western Union wall, scrupulously maintained by wire every hour. Time, which flowed through the wires hung on telegraph poles that lined the right-of-way. Time, which ultimately was regulated by the expansion of the universe, a recently considered wisdom by his contemporary, Albert Einstein.

Because once again, our country was growing quite fast, the Great Depression had come to an end, expansion was the order of the day. The telegraph poles supported more wires, sometimes as many as twenty pairs, all tied securely around the blue glass insulators on every cross arm.

Electrically transmitted information at the speed of light simultaneously streamed into every station in the country; a precursor of what was to come. Already telephone wires were strung along the same poles below the telegraph wires and would soon displace the mechanical telegraph communications with a human voice.

I heard the lead conductor’s voice ring out across the platform,“All aboard.”

My engineer turned and nodded to me.

I was ready.

He toggled the air valve to the engine bell, which rang out censoriously. He applied the sander, momentarily spraying sand onto the rails ahead of the locomotive wheels.

He reached up and pulled the whistle cord, two long blasts, which meant we were on our way.

“High Ball!” he stated loudly. “I’ve got the High Ball.” His voice was filled with emotion, I saw tears run down his cheeks; he was trying to outrun the losses that had accumulated, one after another and much too soon.

Angel Grains of Sand

Chapter two  Grains of Sand

“I’m going to run sand through the flues before we get to Lamy,” Angel said loudly over the noise of the locomotive running at full chat.

I had been keeping the throttle open wide, we were making good time and would get to Lamy a little early. Plus I’d be able get out of the cab and give the engine a look-see, with time left over to send off my weekly notes to my editor.

Angel locked open the firebox doors, turned and took a big shovel full of sand from the box on the coal tenders footplate. Turning gracefully, Angel held the shovel even with the firebox threshold. The shovel and sandy contents were illuminated by the fire, or the fire-from-hell, as I call it.

In preparation, Angel had elevated the smokestack to full height and turned on the blower in the blast pipe, which created a draft that sucked the coal dust from the floor of the cab and through the now open firebox doors.

I pulled up my googles from where they were hanging at my chest, and pulled down my grimy engineers cap. I knew from experience, once the sand hit the flues a shower of grit and soot would be blasted skyward from the stack into the quiet night.

A tornado of sand hovered just above the shovel before being sucked, with a great whoosh, into the burning hell in the firebox. Angel deftly held the shovel at the correct height and distance from the firebox mouth to allow just enough of the sand to get ‘sucked,’ at just the correct rate into the fire.

I sat mesmerized envisioning the grains of sand flying off the shovel through the fire and into the flues in the central part of the boiler. I leaned out the cab window and was treated to a display of sparks, tens of thousands of bright diamonds, blasted heavenward, a display that equaled any man-made fireworks.

A thought struck me: the individual grains of sand were passing through the fire like the days of my life, through the conflagration, to rise again as a Phoenix into the dark sky.

“Do you think she will be there?” I yelled at Angel as the final grains of my life went into the fire.

“I asked the conductor on the last trip if he knew who she was. She’s a starlet filming in Los Angeles and she and her boy had the biggest compartment on the sleeper car from Chicago but she may have even originated on the train from New York City. A big greeting committee met her at Union Terminal; plenty of press from prominent newspapers and tabloids. Apparently, the flash from the bulbs in the big press cameras scared her little boy because he hid behind her legs and held on to her with a death grip. Rumor is that she is having an affair with a well-known male star, a married one, you know Los Angeles, anything goes now-a-days.” Angel rattled off the litany of facts as if she was intimately aware of the young woman’s life and continued,“I saw a letter her agent sent to the railroad praising you for your skill as a driver and for inspiring her little boy, who wants to become a railroad engineer, which I bet the superintendent of the railroad will mention in the monthly company magazine, you’ll be the envy of every railroad man on the system.”

I became filled with pride, the pride of the knowledge someone knew about my skill and filled with the pride that comes up with the arousal of seeing a pretty girl.

“I know what’s on your mind,” Angel yelled at me as she threw open the fire doors one more time to check on the fire bed. “I’ll take care of your predicament with a trick I know, once this trick comes to an end.” Angel always had a way with words. “Did you answer your editor’s questions on your progress towards finishing your novels or is your head still in the flue?”

“I have a wire ready to go when we get to Lamy. It’ll bring her up-to-date but isn’t exactly a wire, it’s an email.”

“What’s an e that mails?” Angel asked inquisitively.

“Something only writers can do,” I retorted, “wires are so-o-o 1939-ish. Emails are so-o-o 2018-ish.”

“You got me there big-boy. You can explain it to me when we are in bed, that’s after you complete your assignment with me, you know what I mean?”

I looked over at Angel, who had on more clothes this trip. Or at least I think so because she’s wearing a light blue chambray long sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I won’t know what, if anything, is underneath until we get to the boardinghouse after our trick is over.

I want to help her wash the coal dust from her face and neck, among other places. It always amazes me that I can be with Angel that way and still think of another woman. A guy thing I guess.

Angel seems to be able to read my mind. “I don’t want you to wash your hands right away when we get in tonight. I want you to press some of your greasy sooty fingerprints on me. You know, the special places on my body. I can look in the mirror on the bathroom door and see where my man has touched me. By the way, it’s okay if you think of her, I’ll be thinking of her paramour.”

I saw the city limit sign go by and backed off on the steam. The train was drifting now, slowing under its own weight. Down from eighty-five, down below sixty. The yard limit was approaching; I applied the train brake and slowed us to twenty-five and then fifteen mph.

Angel was preparing the fire for the twenty minute station stop. She would have the steam pressure just below the pop-off point of two hundred ten pounds stabilized and ready for our departure when it was time to leave.

We entered the platform on Track One, which was filled with passengers, porters, well-wishers and loved ones.

I searched for her as I rolled to just the right place on the platform. Using the engine brake I gently took up the slack and we came to a stop next to the REA wagons; I gave a quick blast on the whistle notifying the conductors that the train was at a complete stop.

“I’m going to the Western Union counter to deliver my email,” I said in a loud voice.

“You don’t need to yell now, we’re stopped,” Angel answered, a little annoyed.

“Oh yeah, a force of habit I guess,” my ears still ringing from the engine noise and the wind at the cab windows.

“What are you going to tell your editor?” Angel asked softly this time.

“I’m going to tell her how far I have gotten on chapter four of `Michael and Lark,’ how little I got done on the beginning chapter of book two of `Secrets.’  And, alas, how lonely I am.”

“Don’t be lonely,” Angel said compassionately, “you will always have me.”

Western Union

We pulled out of the station three minutes behind schedule – there would be two hundred miles ahead.

I pulled the throttle open a little too fast and applied sand to control the wheel slip. Once the drivers regained traction we were off and running, accelerating quickly to sixty miles an hour. I adjusted the cutoff to keep up a comfortable pace without using too much steam.

I called over to Angel. “When we get past the grade crossing I’m going to make up the lost time from that last stop. The rails are dry, and it’s good weather ahead, running fast should not be a problem.”

One year ago, Angel began firing for me. At first, I was skeptical about having a female in the cab of a AT&SF Northern Class 4-8-4 number 3751, but Angel proved to be very capable, knowledgeable and strong.

In the cab this time of year, it gets quite hot and Angel had opted to wear her bib-overalls, post-era steel-toed work boots and gloves with the long firehose fabric gauntlets – and nothing else.

Distracting yes, but I am a professional engineer and I could put her diversions out of my mind.

“I’m going to blow down the boiler before the grade crossing,” Angel yelled to me over the roar of the firebox noise in the cab. “That-away I can have a boiler full of dry steam ready to go for the next one hundred miles.” Angel was always ahead of me. “Once we get under way after the grade crossing, I have a Western Union wire for you that the agent gave me at the last stop.”

Then, clang, blam and whoosh! All hell broke loose when Angel hit the blowdown petcock. The rusty and muddy water from the blowdown changed consistency as the mud from the bottom of the boiler blew out onto the side of the roadbed.

“Who’s it from?” I hollered over the blowdown blast. I watched as Angel leaned out her side of the cab window to check the progress of the blowdown.

When steam and boiling water were the only things blowing out, Angel shut off the petcock and announced, “Your editor.”

Angel leaned back into the cab and faced me, coyly releasing one of the snaps from the top of her overall bib and giving me a view of her pert, shapely right breast.

“For you after we finish with this trick,” she said with a mischievous grin.

The grade crossing was approaching; I saw the whistle sign blow by and got on the whistle cord, Wa-Waaa-Wa-Wa-Wa, I blasted away. I could see the flashing red warning lights come on as the crossing gates lowered. Back on the whistle for five more blasts, the standard code for whistling before crossings. No vehicles appeared; we flew by without incident.

I checked the rear of the train and waited ’til I could detect the last car, the observation coach, as it passed clear of the crossing. The red lights went out and I reached up to tug on the throttle.

“Read the telegram to me and stop fooling around with my feelings,” I admonished Angel.

Angel rearranged herself back into the bib of her overalls. She stepped over the foot plate and from her outer breast pocket, withdrew a Western Union telegram.

I still retained the vision of her exposed breast as she unfolded a yellow, 8 x 6″ piece of paper and read aloud:

“I need the fourth chapter of Michael and Lark ASAP: STOP.”

“And the first chapter of the second book of Secrets: STOP.”

“Send me more poetry and the next short story: STOP.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter and stop fooling around with Angel: STOP.”

“You will never achieve your dream if you don’t hurry up: STOP.”

Angel folded the Western Union wire and tucked it into my overall pocket next to my trainman’s watch. She turned coquettishly and slammed the firebox doors open with a loud clang. Angel reached for a long poker and raked some of the clinkers from the fire bed, before closing the doors and going back to her position at the left side of the cab.

“I saw the way you looked at the lady standing on the platform at Lamy,” she yelled over. “The one with the fashionable short skirt and the young boy who wanted to see the engine. They were going to Los Angeles, the new frontier, the West.”

A vision of that young woman, and her shapely calves, appeared in my mind, fresh, like the vision of Angel’s breast; neither one will leave me in my lifetime.

“Claire has been gone for two years now,” Angel interrupted my thoughts. “It’s time for you to find someone, you have seniority, and the new diesel engines are coming to passenger service soon and they’ll relegate this old steam engine to freight service. You can apply for the new engines, they’ll take you and then you can offer a woman security and a pension in your old age. Plus, a woman can help you achieve your dreams.”

I thought of my writing and then of the woman on the platform, of her young son, clinging to her knee. I wanted to do that, to have a woman to hold.

I reached for the throttle and eased the steam on. Adjusting the cut-off, the engine produced a mighty growl, we accelerated smoothly and quickly up to track speed. I would run this section of the trip fast, eighty-five, ninety, for one hundred miles at a time.