Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Stranger's Christmas Train










His fascination with steam locomotives began as boy. Both his uncles worked at the car sheds in Keyser, and he had ridden in the cab of the 1106 with another of his uncles, a fireman on the B and O. He befriended many of the mechanics, steamfitters and grease monkeys in the shops. He ran little errands: bringing cigarette tobacco, apples or a mess of catfish from the Potomac.

He watched, asked questions and learned about steam engines: how to rod out the flues, repair a leaking cylinder or clean a boiler. He watched as they dismantled the massive machines to rebuild them into powerful, gleaming, steaming locomotives again. He wanted to be a part of that.

At 16, he got himself a job as a mechanics helper, handing tools, cleaning parts and whatever else needed doing. He enjoyed the work, but troubled times were coming. The Depression had begun in earnest, and with it came the layoff.  The coal mines were shutting down. The big saw mills went bust. It was the worst of times.

 The bank got the family farm. He and his brothers decided to leave in search of work, leaving parents with other family members on a smaller farm they owned outright. He figured to head South to warmer weather and perhaps a job in North Carolina or maybe Atlanta, Georgia.

It was warming each day as the slow freight rolled south. He had hopped this one in a small town after a long weary day of walking in cold November rain. He had chopped stove wood for a farm lady in return for a meal and a couple of ham biscuits. He walked all the next day in the rain, heading for the tracks. Walking toward a little village rail yard he saw the slow freight steaming as they were loading the cars. He spotted an open empty boxcar, and after a patient search for signs of the railroad “bulls”, he ran to the car and pulled himself in. The train began to move within the hour.

He unrolled an old wool patchwork quilt from an piece of oilcloth. His other belongings were in a small feed sack. Wrapping himself in his quilt, he used the sack for a pillow and fell asleep. The slow clicking of the rails woke him up a first light. He ate his last ham biscuit. He would have to stop this afternoon and try to bum a meal. He had learned the Hobo Signs code for friendly houses, but the bad dogs couldn't read. Approaching a farm house was risky business.

He dropped off the freight in another small town rail yard. These small town yards were similar, a few side tracks, a water tower, and a small station for freight and passengers. He hoped it was not the County Seats. There were always more police and less tolerance for drifters in County Seats.  He had spent 10 days in a county jail for loitering, although he was just passing through. You didn't have money in your pocket you were jail bait.

He stepped across the tracks, noticing a man watching from the open door of a garage. He quickened his pace and walked up an alley to the main street of the town. Two things caught his eye as he reached the main street. The square supported a huge spruce, not a Court House. Good news. Encircling the square was a narrow gauge rail line. A small steam engine stood a one end. The small locomotive, with 6 cars to scale, was obviously home built, and had not seen service for a while.

He walked closer and began an inspection of the small scale 6 wheeler. He was taken by the skill and attention to detail expressed in the engine. He got on his knees to look at the firebox, gauges and cylinders. It wasn't in too bad shape…on the outside.

“Pretty nice engine, wouldn't you say”?

He looked up to see the man who had watched him cross the tracks. He got up, acknowledging that it was a very nice locomotive, and asked where it came from.

“My Dad built it about 20 years ago. He died 5 years ago, and it fell into disrepair because no one around here knows how to work on steam”, he said. “It used to be his pride and joy after he retired from the railroad”.

“It took about 5 years to build it and the track. The town council let him build the track around the square. He ran it for a week around the Forth of July and the after school let out in December until the kids went back to school New Years. Kids and seniors rode free, and donations kept the engine in repair and coal in the firebox. It hasn't moved since he died. We don’t have the heart to scrap it”.

“May as well scrap it, if it ain't running or put inside”, he remarked.

“Well, Dad used to store and work on it in my garage there. He built a rubber tire gantry that would lift it off the tracks and we’d push it into the shop. He made a jack frame to put it on so as to work on it. Trouble is that I needed space in the garage for a lift, and there ain't room for it in there anymore.

“Don't look to me like there’s much wrong with it, could be fixed with a little work…and a place to work”, he added, hopefully. He had fallen for the little engine.

“You want to give it a try, Stranger”?

“Well, I might. You got tools and did he leave blueprints of this thing? “

“Yep, and there’s a room over the garage for you, if you want to take it on..You look like you may have missed a meal or two. My wife, Faye, can do something about that if you ain't a fancy eater. I can always use a hand in the garage, too, if you're handy with tools.

“I don't know a lot about gas, steam is my training. I'm agreeable to give it a try anything at this point”.

“You got a name”? asked the garage man.

“Stranger will do, like you just said.”, he replied.

The next morning, word was all over town that Joe Bentley had hired a man called Stranger to put Mr. Jim’s engine back on the track by Christmas.  By noon, the engine was hanging under a rubber tire gantry being pushed down the street followed by half the town folk, all the kids, and most of the dogs in town.

Stranger, now his official name, spent the afternoon finding all Jim’s special tools to work on Mr. Jim’s locomotive. He found the blueprints stored in a box under the work bench and spent the evening in his small room with a kerosene lamp, going over the blueprints. This thing was a near replica to the locomotives he has seen dismantled many times in the car sheds of Keyser.

Next morning work began in earnest. The smoke box nose cap came off exposing the flues. They were stopped up with soot and needed roding out.  The steam pipes were nearly closed with lime scale from the water used to make steam. The firebox grate was badly  rusted because it hadn't been shook clean  after the last use some 8 years ago. The cylinders were in need of seals. Stranger thought it best to start at the cow catcher and work back to the tinder. This was gonna’ be a slow process, even if it was a small engine. It had all the parts of a big one…and there would be expense involved.

The local machine shop made a lot of the pieces for Jim when the locomotive was built, and were willing to work for free if Joe would supply the materials. Money began to come in nickel and dime at a time as the local newspaper did an article, with a picture of Mr. Jim’s locomotive and a story of Stranger’s efforts to restore it. The little engine had a following.

It took some doing, but with some help from local retired railroaders, Stranger felt the engine was ready to steam up. They built a small fire in the firebox, added water to the tank and let it steam up slowly. When the gauges were in steam range, Stranger slowly he pulled the throttle back. The cylinders began to work back and forth and the wheels began to turn. There were leaks here and there but nothing serious. They all breathed a sigh of relief.

The day school let out the town maintenance crew began decorating the huge tree on the square with garlands of silver. The put one huge electric star on top, and that was the only electric bulb on the tree. The silver garlands simmered in the light of the star lighting up the square.

People had the habit of writing season greetings to each other, and hanging  these cards on the tree. It was a daily thing to check the tree for a card. It had been a town tradition for years. It was a wonderful way to send a card and save the postage. Everybody joined in the fun.

The engine ready, Stranger and Joe decided to wait until late Christmas Eve to put the train on the track. Most everyone was at home, and all the children were “snug in there beds”, so they wouldn’t attract to much attention. The two put the engine on the gantry and pushed it down the street with the help of the night policeman, and a few others. With the chain fall they slowly let the engine down on the rails. Stranger banked the firebox.

He woke up a four o'clock that Christmas Morning and walked out to the engine. He had banked the fire, so adding a little coal brought it to life. It worked up steam slowly and sat there in the calm cold of Christmas Morning panting like a small dog, steam rising up to what promised to be a clear Christmas Day. At 6:00 he pulled the chain and a shrill sound of a steam whistle filled the air. Two shorts blasts. That means leaving the station. It took only a few minutes for the first little boys and a couple of older men to show up…all smiles.

 “Is it fixed, Stranger”? asked the boys.

“Get on board, and we’ll try her out, called Stranger, with a chuckle, “kids ride free, and so do seniors. Everybody rides free on Christmas Day”!

He straddled the little engine, donned his new engineer cap, rang the bell and the little locomotive moved off around the track, black smoke a rolling. When the train came around the corner closest to the garage, the headlight landed on Joe and his wife waving down the train.

“Thanks, Stranger”, Joe said, as he walked by with a tear in his eye, “Dad would be proud. And you’re welcome here as long as you want to stay”. He and his Faye climbed onto the little car and around and around went the little locomotive as the sun hit the star at the top of the big Spruce.

The little train ran all Christmas Day that year, as it still does every Christmas. Stranger still drives it with a smile, and calls it Mr. Jim’s train. Everyone in town knows that if it weren't for a man known simply as Stranger, there would be no train whistle on Christmas morning.

Stranger never made it to Atlanta. He’s still at the garage, married, with children. Diesels put steam locomotives off the line. Stranger is the only kid on the block to have a steam engine to play with.

Never knew his real name



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