THE taciturnity of the locomotive engineer is proverbial. In fact there seems to be a quality in the calling which creates this trait. Engineers are a silent lot. Grant your old salt an attentive ear and an often replenished glass and it is you who must stop the flow of reminiscence. But happy is he who can induce these men of the track to "open up."
Warned of the difficulty, but fired with the purpose, I struck out one hot day for the round-house of the New York Central Railroad at Mott Haven. There, in the little office of S. J. Delaney, master mechanic, I met Engineer Davis and Engineer Arthur Allen, "Big Arthur," the veteran of over thirty-five years' service.
Cigars were produced and conversation promptly languished. I wheedled for stories with bait-covered inquiries. Result nil.
"Never saw anything worth speaking about out of the ordinary run, have you, Arthur?" This from Davis.
"No, nothing much," agreed Big Arthur between puffs.
"Never been in an accident?" I queried. Both eyed me attentively a moment; then agreed upon a negative
"Never reach out nobly from the cow-catcher to save the oblivious little tot?" I attempted facetiously, for it was to test the verity of just such yarns that I was there. Both men caught the note.
No Hero Business About It.
One thing you can lay down for certain," said Big Arthur most emphatically "there's none of this here hero thing about engineering. It's all just a matter of business; understand?"
I understood, and longed all the more heartily for some of those yarns which Davis, in an aside, assured me fairly oozed from the pores of this Big Arthur who so strenuously denied the accusation of heroism.
"Why, that old Arthur over there he's been to the bottom of Spuyten Duyvil Creek; after that bell, you know," he prompted.
Big Arthur glinted an eye of remonstrance at Davis, but could not repress a grin at the recollection.
No, I didn't exclaim, "Oh, tell us about it!" I waited. Arthur eyed me suspiciously.
"Oh, that thing was when I was a youngster, but it was kind of a joke."
"Um; but, of course, what I'm tellin' you ain't worth print, you know."
"All right, let's have it any way." I lied.
"Well, it was a right long time ago. We were fixing the draw up at Spuyten Duyvil. Now, the bell on my engine was a beauty. Everybody knew that bell; had just as clear a tone, sweet as you like. Somehow, while the repair gang was puttering around, a chain caught up against the yoke of that there bell and, whang, off she flew clear off the bridge and down into Spuyten Duyvil Creek.
"Well, that bell was worth something. Besides, we set some store by it, it being so sweet-toned; so the boss and the rest of them, they get poles and probe around a-plenty, but no go; they couldn't locate it and gave it up.
"Now, I'd noticed about where she struck the water and I calculated on the tide which was running strong at the time taking it down at a slant, so I said to the boss, Billy Smith, you know, father of C. F. Smith, now general superintendent, I said:
"'What'll you give me if I get that bell?'
"'You can't do it,' says he.
"'But if I can?' says I.
"'What d'you want?'
"'Give me ten days off?' I asked.
"'All right,' says he, 'but I guess you'll work them ten days,' and he grinned and went away.
Down in Spuyten Duyvil.
"Then I got me a pair of rubber-boots, for the bottom of the creek was full of clam shells, mighty hard on the feet, and made one end of the bell-cord fast to the bridge (you remember, Davis) and dived into the water with the other end.
"Well, sir, the very first time I dived I struck that bell with my head. It kind of stunned me like, and I come up for another try, but, sir, I had to dive twenty times before I caught it again. But I got her at last and made the cord fast and pulled her out.
"It was kind of late then, so I went home. Next day I come up to the boss and I says to Billy Smith:
"'Remember what you promised me if I got that bell?'
"'Sure,' he says, 'ten days. But you'll never get it.'
"'I've got it,' I says.
"'Hell you have!' says he.
"And then I showed it to him. He looked at it a minute. Then he starts for the stock-room to see if any of the bells were missing. Then back he comes and, tying a line to the bell, he hangs her up on a pole. He strikes that old jangler soft like.
"'Chang!' says the bell in that sweet, old tone of hers.
"I got them ten days," chuckled the grizzled narrator, "and full pay."
He puffed awhile.
Nothing in that little trick. you see. Just a joke. Nothing out of the ordinary. I tell you there's nothing but routine to the business."
"That's all," agreed Davis.
"Yes, but the nerve-tension, the strain and exhaustion of the terrific speed?" I queried.
To See the Real Thing
Davis grimaced in disgust. "All fake magazine stories. A feller gets used to it, same as anything else. Now maybe if you yourself was to make a run, at night say, why you might think something of it; the speed, that is, say rounding curves or the like, but - by the way, I tell you what I think you'd better do to catch the spirit of the thing."
"What?" I asked.
"Ever ridden in the cab of an engine?"
"Never," I answered.
"Then you get permission to make a run, a night run's best. and maybe you'll get what you're after."
Big Arthur grunted agreement. I saw the interview was over, thanked Davis for the suggestion, shook hands, and left. Over my shoulder I caught what I took to be a grin.
The next day I applied to General Superintendent C. F. Smith, son of the man who gave Big Arthur his holiday for bringing up the engine-bell from the bottom of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. After signing a most formidable-looking legal document in the shape of a release from all claims for damages to life, person. property, and character. I secured my permit. It read:
Armed with this paper and attired in my worst I approached Big Arthur at the siding in Albany, where his engine. No. 3857, panted with a rising head of steam, waiting to pick up the fast Empire State Express during its three-minute stop at the capital.
Busy at a driving-wheel, he nodded a recognition, refused a hand-shake on account of grease, and told me to hop in the cab and give him the permit in New York.
Up to the cab I clambered and there confronted the fireman, Andrew Carolan, as I afterward learned.
It was ten minutes to seven and "Andy" was giving the locomotive a final furbishing, a housewifely finishing touch or two, before the trip.
"Pass me that can, Jack," he said and, proud of the familiarity of the "Jack," I handed him the can with "Big Arthur" lettered on its side, the gift of some admirer.
All Aboard at Albany.
The the train came in. Arthur swung to a hand-rail while Andy backed her to the coupling. This was fireman's work. The chief had not assumed command yet. Not until all the connections were made did he mount to his post. Then he took off his cap, tossed it into his locker, fitted a generous quid well back in his mouth, and took his seat.
In that moment before the signal to start, I could see his eye taking in every detail of the maze of working parts before him. He tried a cock, scalded his fingers with steam to an extent which would have sent me for the arnica bottle, flicked his hand, consulted steam and water gages, and, finally assured of the well-being of all, he looked out and back of the cab window.
At the signal he pulled out the throttle, notch by notch, and the engine, as though merely feeling herself and limbering up, puffed her way across the bridge to the east bank of the Hudson.
During this slow progress Big Arthur called to me above the reverberations from the slanting bridge girders:
"Who brought you up?"
I told him I had come to Albany by boat the night before. He grunted out:
"We'll pass her at Peekskill," and then added: " We'll give you a nice little ride."
Opening Out for the Run.
The straightaway now opened up before us, and from that very moment I became lost in that cab as far as Big Arthur was concerned. As he opened her out for the start of the real run, he glanced at Andy:
"She's begun," he said.
"She's begun," echoed Andy.
It was, apparently, a custom of theirs, one of the things which made it a treat to see these two men work together. Commands from Arthur were but a sign, an indication; Andy jumped in obedience.
For nearly the whole of the first hour everything was lost to me except the almost mad exhilaration of the headlong speed. I did not think of the power, the rumble and jolt, the tense strain that I had read of. I simply sat there and grinned my delight.
Andy came close and bellowed: "You like going fast?"
I bowed emphatically.
"You get used to it," he replied. Rather take a walk on a side street after a while."
I nodded, but doubted. Then I did get a little more used to my surroundings and began to look about me, not always ahead. Across the cab sat Big Arthur. I had read of engineers on just such runs as this, braced for the nerve-racking ordeal. Big Arthur sat at his post in the easiest manner possible. There was no straining of braced legs. They hung freely, swaying, and he bobbed in easy give to the motion of the none too springy cab.
For the most part he rested his left wrist on the throttle, his all-seeing eye fastened on the track ahead.
A Bismarck of the Cab.
Big Arthur is big. As he sat there one instinctively likened him to the Iron Chancellor. The resemblance is by no means slight. A good breadth of forehead, with a deep-set eye, and eyebrows of a shaggy growth, top strong features. One feels, particularly when he is at his post, that this man has been so long connected with an engine that he is a part of it. There is a dignity about him, a dignity exactly of the type inspired by the locomotive itself when one steps from the cars and passes the iron horse that has pulled him to his destination.
As Big Arthur sat in his seat, a twitching of the fingers of the right hand was the only trick that betrayed a nerve.
"You know that old fellow over there?" asked Andy.
I nodded. He grinned and made a motion as though it was enough. I had met the real article.
From time to time on curves, Andy would peer ahead to catch the signals that showed first on our side.
"All right!" he would yell.
"All right!" Big Arthur would answer.
"All right all the way!"
And a grunt would be the response. Once we caught a green "precautionary" signal.
"Hoa!" yelled Arthur, checking the speed. Andy jumped for a valve near my leg and opened it. When a clear white light showed ahead of us I asked the significance of that valve.
"Oh, that's the blower. If I didn't attend to that when he slows down the fire would back and burn your legs off."
When everything was running smoothly again I climbed down to the floor of the cab for a look at the fires. Incidentally 1 resolved to be a better man.
Every few minutes Andy had to turn the hose on that very floor on which I was standing to cool it off. In the intervals he had to feed the fire-box. To see Andy fire was a treat in itself, it looked so easy. A swing of a door-chain, a sway of a shovelful - a shovel full- and the trick was accomplished. Then he'd jump like a cat for the window, look ahead, and we would come to the water-tanks.
Just a little the speed would slacken and, looking back at the tender, I could see the flying spray as we caught up the water from the trough between the rails.
"All full!" would be the cry, and back we would swing to the old speed. From Albany to New York there was not a stop. After we had passed Poughkeepsie Andy said:
"We're making about sixty-eight miles now. Try the air."
I put my palm out of the window and could scarcely hold it there for the pressure.
"Ever have any trouble with signals in fog?" I asked, as we rushed past a semaphore.
Yes," he said simply, but he breathed a world into the monosyllable.
"You see," he went on, "these signals are the most important things about it. If you read one wrong that'll be all. You'll never have a chance to read another right.''
We thundered through Tarrytown. Big Arthur gave a little gratuitous toot to the whistle, for that is where he lives, and on we sped south. This is about the best run in the country, isn't it?" I shouted in the fireman's ear.
"Oh, well, it's pretty good." Then, as though this modesty was a little overdrawn, he added:
"There aren't any better. Clear track for us, you know. Duck!"
I ducked to a passing express, while hot cinders flew.
On Time to the Second.
In less than three hours from Albany and on time to the second, as Big Arthur thumbed his watch in his jumper pocket, we were rumbling through the blackness of the tunnel to the Grand Central Station.
Through the yard in time to clicking switches, our course swerved according to the man in the tower until we brought up under the shed, outside the gates of which we heard the cry: "Keb, sir, keb, want a keb?"
Big Arthur looked at Andy. "Here we are!" he said.
"Here we are!" again echoed Andy, true to their habit.
I followed the old fellow to the ground where he led the way to the cow-catcher to avoid an incoming train on the other track.
"Enjoy it?" he asked.
I hope I made him understand how much. I looked him over. Here before me was the "nerve-racked engineer of the fastest run" I had read of.
He caught my expression. "Going to write it up?"
I told him I would try.
"Get Andy's name?"
"Well, you just put it in as Andy Carolan, otherwise known as the Yellow Kid."
And so I left him, chuckling at his joke on the fireman.