"Phallic," muttered my female editor.
"You're pitiful," taunted a female reporter.
OK, so it is a guy thing. Tough noogies. I'm a guy. Live with it. In fact, get comfortable with it. This may develop into a long-running series.
First, a man calls me up and asks whether I want to drive a city bus. Then another guy reads my bus column and calls to ask whether I want to drive a locomotive. Not a Lionel. A real locomotive. A 126-ton, horn-blaring, track-eating hunk of diesel-fired heavy metal.
The call came from a fellow who works with a fellow who employs an engineer. The engineer does his thing for Portage Limestone on the southwest outskirts of Kent.
"The thing about railroading is, it's still an adventure," says Bob, the engineer. Bob doesn't want his last name used – probably, as you will see later, for good reason.
"If you want to go someplace and just get there, fly. But if you want an adventure, go by train. . . . (Having this job) is like being touched by an angel."
He really said that. I have witnesses.
The angelic locomotive only plies a two-mile stretch of track. It picks up cars filled with stone near Mogadore Road and yanks them back toward Middlebury Road in the heart of the 15-acre Portage Limestone complex, where the contents are dumped into a pit and then stacked in temporary gray mountains. But despite the shortness of the run – done at a top speed of 10 mph – "it's still an adventure," insists Bob.
Bob is right on. Now level with me: Could you pass up the chance to drive a metallic beast that, when fully loaded with 45 cars, gets 8 gallons per mile? That's not MPG, mind you; we're talking GPM.
In railroad parlance, my engine is a GT-10. She's medium blue with white trim. Yes, she.
"All good pieces of equipment are named after women because they have their own peculiarities," proclaims Bob. His boss, Herbert Hirt, rolls his eyes and moans at the political incorrectness. "They do!" says Bob. "They have a personality. They could be identically built, but they still have their own personality."
My heavy-metal babe, known to her friends as No. 7564, once had a fling with Conrail. The offspring of General Motors employees, she was born in 1955 – and looks marvelous for her age.
"These are made to last forever, barring a catastrophic event," says Bob, making what I hoped was not an allusion to my impending run. "The technology changes are what makes them obsolete. This uses 5 1/2 gallons an hour just sitting here idling; the new ones maybe 3."
Before we get started, Bob informs me, we always walk around the train to make sure nobody's sleeping under it. Apparently, people who would never dream of sleeping under an auto are drawn to trains.
Then Bob shows me what's under the hood. Make that hoods. He opens and closes a series of heavy vertical doors that hide an endless parade of greasy metal stuff. "It has its own starter coil," Bob tells me. "These are the decompression plugs," Bob tells me. My eyes glaze over. Suddenly, I'm flashing back to adolescence, when my father repeatedly attempted to show me how to maintain and repair the family cars. At least that's what he said he was doing. Actually, he just needed someone to hold the light. From age 11 to 18, I thought my name was "Hold The Light, Will Ya?" I never actually fixed anything. My ultimate goal was simply to avoid casting shadows onto the wrong gizmo.
"We're starting to prime the engine," Bob is telling me as I return from my flashback. Then he begins babbling about pressurization.
Compared to driving a bus, driving a train is rocket science. There are levers and dials and handles and foot pedals as far as the eye can see. You can brake with the engine brake or the train brake. Then there's the big red "full emergency" lever. (I make a special effort to remember that one.) By the time Bob says, "The next thing we're gonna do is energize your generator field," my head is ready to explode.
Energize my generator field? What is this, Star Wars?
But energize we did, and soon I'm reveling in raw power. You should hear this sucker. Firing up an 1,800-horsepower diesel-electric locomotive is like putting on the headphones, turning the treble all the way down and maxing out the bass and volume.
And talk about bells and whistles! The bell – triggered by pulling out a brass lever – is cool enough. But when you pull on the air horn . . . guy nirvana. The horn is audible five miles away. You can blast it over and over. In fact, as you approach an intersection, railroad etiquette requires two long blasts, one short blast and another long blast. You honk once before stopping . . . twice before moving forward . . . three times before backing up . . . four times to call the brakeman from the east . . . five times to call the brakeman from the west. You use a series of short blasts to express "concern." (Another good thing to remember.) And then, apparently, you can occasionally honk just for the hell of it. Which I did. A lot.
I drove about a mile down the track, shockingly close to downtown Kent, crossing over actual, working intersections. Hoooonk. Then I reversed the engine and backed up almost two miles, passing our original starting point and heading onto a rarely-traveled stretch of track, a stretch used only to store cars. Because it doesn't get much action, tall weeds have grown up through the rails and tree branches have encroached into the airspace.
Railroads use a lot of weed killer. Although weeds are no match for a 126-ton locomotive, they make the track slippery and are tough to pry off the metal wheels. Or, as Bob so eloquently puts it, "Weeds are like snot on a doorknob." You sure you don't want your last name used?
Anyway, a good time was had by all, with the possible exception of a female onlooker, who seemed more disturbed than I when Bob commented that, in real life, I would have been fired for exceeding the 10 mph speed limit by 8 mph. She also seemed less amused than the rest of us when the train clobbered a series of tree branches. Apparently, membership in her gender prohibits her from fully appreciating destruction done solely for the sake of destruction.
What's next? Well, having passed my locomotive-driving test, more or less, Herb said he could probably get me into the cab of a long-distance train that hits 60 mph. He also gave me the name of a guy who owns gigantic earthmoving equipment.
So the future looks bright. The ceiling is unlimited. Full speed ahead.
And, remember, my phone number appears at the end of this column. Any unreasonable offer will be considered.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com