The Iron Horse

For folks accustomed to Percherons and Clydesdales pulling heavy loads, steam-powered locomotives were the “Iron Horse.”  Draft teams did not shoot black smoke from their ears nor steam from under hoof, but for those who experienced both, the metaphor worked.

Maybe once a year, Mama and Daddy squeezed little sister Judy and me onto a blanket covered wooden box behind the seat of a forty-one Chevy coupe.  After battling the serpentine, rutted, mud-holed “road” up Indian Canyon, over Daniel’s Summit, and down to Price, Daddy delivered his brood to Grandma’s house in Ferron.

On one jarring dusty adventure, I first experience a massive, black, steel stallion with black smoke blasting straight up, dark pony-tail trailing over a chain of cars, steam jets shrouding its great steel wheels, and the relentless, chug-chug-chug of steel pistons forcing steels rims over steel rails: my first Iron Horse!  We waved at the seeming out-of-place man, his arm resting on the sill of a tiny window, who reigned and braked the great metal animal.  He waved back, once grasping his hands overhead.  Daddy said, seeing human life along those lonesome tracks snaking from Duchesne to Helper, the man in the little window feel happy.

Fact was, he was not alone.  A Fireman stoked coal into the furnace.  And far back at the end the Iron Horse pulled a cabin on wheels, a caboose with a crows nest where a brakeman kept an eye on things from behind.  Think on being a brakeman, in winter, Topeka to Denver say, back there all alone all night.  Not much to  see, even in daylight.  A small, wood burning stove to keep warm.  No TV, no cell, no telephone.  No space to jog or walk.  Did he read or just sit and gaze at the prairie, wait six hours to hop down, set the brakes and wave his red lantern?  If each of us spent half-an-hour a day like a brakeman alone his little cabin, humankind would be better off.

Decades later, our Wasilla house was across the highway from the railroad.  On hearing that sound, baby Marty’s first words were, “Chu, chu.”  Karen would pick her up to wave at the man in the little window.  He’d wave back.

My first train ride was a nineteen-fifties analogue of First Class air, a “Streamliner,” the California Zephyr!  Teenagers, Stewart, Howard, Kent and I, boarded in Price before daylight.  With subdued lighting, etched-glass panels at each end of each car, plush seats, little water fountains with little paper cups, the Zephyr’s opulence remained unimagined across the poor, parched farm country of Emery County.

The passengers were sleeping.  Only the conductor was awake.  Conductors never slept.  Rumor had it Streamliner Conductors were not born.  They were assembled in railroad shops, complete with a black, pill-box cap, silver “Denver and Rio Grande” or “Santa Fe” above its short beak, back or dark-blue uniform, ticket-puncher in a leather case on their belt and the steely-eyed authority a Marine Drill Sergeant, a Conductor was shipped with each twenty-five passenger coaches.

The California Zephyr Conductor tolerated adolescent boys on his train with the forbearance of an Orkin Man finding under-the-sink roaches.

In ten minutes we stopped in Helper.  A rail junction at the mouth of Price Canyon, Helper was distinguished for its whorehouse and “helper” engines to pull coal laden gondolas to Soldier Summit where they coasted the hundred miles to U.S. Steel’s plant on Utah Lake.  A rhythmic click-a-click, click-a-click, click-a-click and whisper of steel wheels on steel rails under foot, we started up Price Canyon.   Swaying side-to-side, holding onto seat-back in a carnival-like ride, dodging the Conductor, we made uncalled-for trips through the cars to the water cooler and tiny restroom.  Then it was down Spanish Fork Canyon and on to equally exotic adventures in Salt Lake City.

Karen and I took Amtrak from Portland, Oregon, to the Gulf and New England.  For extra bucks, a tiny “sleeper” affords comfort.  Amtrak feels safe and stress-free.  In our sleeper, the dining or lounge car, day and night, we sat and watched America’s forest, fields, mountains, meadows, shacks, homes and downtowns pass.

Freeway traffic and mobs in airline terminals worry me.  What’s the rush?  Battling traffic Karen famously said, “Why are we in such a hurry?  We’re all going to the same place, and we’ll all get there.”  Life would better if more of us traveled by Amtrak.  The world would be better if, instead of cutting its funding, President Trump took a four-day Amtrak ride across his country.  I’d pay for a sleeper.

At the gym I met Walter, a retired locomotive engineer.  What a privilege!  Are they still called “Engineers”?  I’ll ask.  I guess anyone who operates an engine an engineer.  Walter tells me today’s freight trains, even the really long ones with engines in the middle or pushing behind, are operated by one little man—or maybe woman.  It’s odd how little different from the lonesome little man in the window of an Iron Horse over half-a-century back, except now no fireman, no brakeman.

We waved at the man at the little window of an Iron Horse.  Today I don’t.  I’d like to but today’s streamliners have a tinted engineer’s window high up front.  I can’t to see anyone inside.

With self-driving cars and trucks, self-driving locomotives must be slated.  Maybe they already are.  Will Walter’s gang follow Percheron and Clydesdale hostlers into the abyss of history?

Will it end there?  We have drone aircraft.  Self-flying airliners?  Would you fly Continental of Delta without a pilot?  Machines don’t have a “self,” which for me, means a mind, not necessarily a brain, but something making decisions based in human feelings, values and judgment.  I don’t trust “self-driving” anything.

We lost something important when we scrapped the Iron Horse for six-lane freeways, grid-lock and jumbo jets.   Engineers at their little windows, firemen and brakeman signified something hard to put in words.  When the last one retired or was canned, humankind lost something significant.

When we scrapped the last Iron Horse we scarped something important.  There was something good about rocking and swaying up Price canyon before daylight in the California Zephyr, the click-a-click, click-a-click, the whisper of steel wheels under foot, the robotic Conductor, the trees, utility poles, farms, homes and towns darting past windows.  As I’ve written before, now age eighty-two, I see what it was.

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