Walking down the well worn path to the dispatcher call box, I savor the cool night air, something about being up at four thirty in the morning. The cicadas are singing in the trees and it is my job to get the horses out of the watering hole, take ‘em down the main, and put them on the train.
Friday night in the big town, tight shoe money night, payday! Here I am, fetching another rattler to take down the line.
Walking up to the call box, I hear something in the south, I turn and look and see the headlight cutting thru the night like a sharp knife, I hear her whistle crying out, such a lonely and mournful sound at this time of the morning. “Well, we aint going anywhere soon, that is for sure” I think to myself. Another freight is slowing rolling into town on its journey up the main to Kansas City or maybe even Chicago, one of many each day carrying the necessities of man, the nations’ goods.
Stepping back from the tracks I reach into my shirt pocket and fetch me a smoke, we will be here awhile. The northbound freight slowly rumbles by, and pulls up to the depot for a crew change and I savor my cigarette and check the night sky.
Don’t really know why I have developed this habit of checking the night sky, most of the time, it is all there, right where God put it and I notice nothing out of the ordinary. Something rustles in the weeds to my right, and I wonder what it was, or if it is going to bring harm to me.
Most folks this time of the day are tucked into their beds, sleeping peacefully and warm. But not the railroader, he is out, shagging the main, boarding up on a shooter and heading to the end of the line. Seven days out and twenty-four hours a day, an unsung hero of the working American economy. Out chasing the almighty dollar, no birthdays, anniversaries, high-school graduations, holidays or the like, just one endless string of trains to be rode and put away at the end of the day. Flea bag motels and greasy spoons to dine in, one after another, some better than others, most not all that great.
Air brakes kick off on the main, crew change is now complete, she slowly starts to rumble outta town. Funny, we always refer to trains as “she” perhaps in nostalgic remembrance of the sweet thing we left at home? Hack flies by, she is run eight now and speeding down the line, I walk over to the call-box and the phone. The red warning light on the rear-end starts to get smaller as she rolls away. I take one last pull on my smoke, toss it to the ground and grind it out with my boot, open the call box.
“Two fifty-seven, Purcell.” I bark into the phone.
A little static on the line, and then the voice of the dispatcher answers up. “Go ahead two fifty-seven.” I ask the dispatcher for permission to enter the main. Three hundred miles away, a man who I have never met, will unlock the gate and let me out.
The big horses and I will head on down the main and get on our train.
The light at the end of the pole, flips from bright red to high green, and I unlock the switch and give the locomotive engineer a come ahead with my lantern, the locomotives belch a ton of smoke and come on line.
The ground shakes below my feet as the four big pig iron ponies come out of the watering hole and thru the switch.
Slowly we take our place on the main. One more player in the parade of life. One more long train in the night.
What a way to make a living.