Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Fireman and the Beanery Queen.

I had been sitting on the Jasper Trainman’s Spareboard for more than 48 hours, slowly inching my way toward the top of the board.  Rail traffic was slow and I was looking for every pay-mile I could find. 

A TV (temporary vacancy) opened up with a crew on the Albreda Sub, and knowing that I really didn't have enough seniority to keep the job, I hoped that I would get one or two trips with the crew before being bumped.  

A half hour before the train was due to arrive, Conductor Joe Blasko, Engineer Rudy Switala, Fireman Gene XXXXXX,  Rear Brakeman Dizzy Dallyn and myself gathered in the crew room in Jasper's beautiful station.  The Operator handed two sets of orders to Joe, who pinned a copy of the Register Check to the back of the orders and handed the flimsies (orders) to Rudy.  Together, they read each order and compared them to the corresponding numbers on the clearance.

One at a time, we compared our watches with the standard time on the clock in the Operator's Office.

With the F7A and its helpers pulling hearts out, the heavy drag crawled slowly over the last few hundred feet of the Edson Sub, and stopped in front of the station.  The tonnage rating for the locomotives was very closely balanced against the total weight of the train. If the weather held, and the rails remained dry, we shouldn't have any trouble on either of the hills we had to climb in the next 132 miles.  And neither would we be making 'track speed' at very many places between Jasper and Blue River.

I dashed across the street to buy coffee for Rudy and myself.  I asked Gene if he'd like one too, but he mumbled something about not taking coffee from a brakeman.

The trip promised to be uneventful.  There were few, if any trains to be met and we would be in Blue River before Number 2 would arrive there.

The locomotives were in good condition as was the track.  Automatic Block Signals were green and Train Order Boards stood erect, showing green indications.  With headlight and ditch lights leading the way and engines and train following behind, we ate up mile after mile.

Swinging through the Rocky Mountain Trench, we were running at full throttle for a run at the Canoe River Hill.  Before long, the speedometer began to drop, settling down at about ten miles an hour.

CNR Extra West with F7A 9028, SD40 5015 and unknown F7a
Heavy drag climbing Canoe River Hill
B.Harvey collection

Gene flipped a switch in the ceiling of the cab, turning on his overhead light.  He reached into his ‘grip’ and removed a magazine that featured young women posing in a suggestive manner.  I was surprised to see Gene reading this sort of material as he was a long-term bachelor and seemed to be interested only in going to work and going home.  But here he was..., with a satchel loaded with 'girlie mags'.

I leaned a bit to the left to look over his shoulder at the magazine.  He pulled away.  I asked him if I could read it after he finished with it.  He scowled, and stuffed his magazines back into his grip.

Rudy noticed this and convinced Gene to share them with me.  Without speaking, Gene handed me a magazine.  I leafed through it and handed it to Rudy. 

After a long silence, Gene began to shuffle about in his seat.  Finally, he said that he heard I was from ‘back east’ and did I know about French girls ???  I said that I was, and he told me he was planning to go to Expo ’67 next summer and would like to meet a French girl ‘for a good time’.

I decided that this would be a good time to throw a bit of chum in the water and feed him a line with a ‘hook’ on the end of it.

I told him that if he went to any one of the ‘French Quarter’ sidewalk café’s and ordered something small from the menu, like wine and cheese, the waitress would bring him his bill when he was finished his lunch. 

He half turned toward me and leaned forward a bit.  He was definitely 'nibbling'.  I told him that if she brought the bill with the corner folded over and placed it face down on the table in front of him, it likely meant that she found him attractive and would be interested in going out on a date with him.  All he had to do then was to place enough money to cover the cost of his lunch, plus an extra twenty dollars (seed money) on top of the bill.  He was to place the money diagonally across the bill and then fold the opposite corner of the bill over the money so that the money would be cradled between the two folded corners of the bill.

I suggested that she would then come back to the table, pick up the bill along with the money.

"If she came back to the table and brought your change that meant that she was busy that night and you should perhaps try again the next day, or move to another café down the street."

"If she didn’t come back, but smiled at you when you got up from the table…, that meant that she would meet you after she got off work and your “date” would begin then."

Gene, being the Prince of Frugal, or ‘tighter than a bull’s arse at fly time', wanted to know what would happen if she didn’t bring him any change, and she wasn’t there after work. 

Without missing a beat, I assured  him that he needn’t worry about that, as with Expo coming, the authorities had taken steps to ensure that the honesty and integrity of all those working with the visiting public were under the strictest control.

He leaned forward and looked at Rudy, who said…, “Oh yes Gene.., that’s right!”  “You can trust the women in Montreal, for sure.”

Gene settled back into his seat, deep in thought.  Then he reached into his grip and pulled out a half dozen more magazines and passed them to me.

Approaching the summit near Albreda, the sky cleared and the full moon lit up the glacier on Mount Albreda.
With a “Clear Board!”, we were on the home stretch to Blue River.  I was looking forward to a plate of bacon and eggs in the Beanery and a few hours rest in cool, clean sheets and a quiet room in the bunkhouse.

As the engine was passing the small Operator's office, the dispatcher called on the radio and asked if our fireman would be available to protect service as fireman on Number 2 in the morning, as the regular fireman would not be available. (No reason given)

Gene simply nodded, and said he was happy he didn’t have to ride home with us.

I was happy too, because if we weren’t to have a fireman for the return trip, I would have the left hand seat all to myself.

The author, at nineteen years of age and feeling at home on the Albreda Sub.

I would not be forced to ride in the middle seat which often had no arm rests, no foot rest and no visibility of the track in front of the train.   The middle-seat man would have to brace himself with one foot on the corner of the water pail and the other on the speedometer bracket.  It made for a long trip.

As we began the descent down the west side of the hill, Gene was chatty, as never before.  Rudy smiled his approval each time Gene expanded on his plans to go to Montreal and meet some girls. 

But it was getting a bit stale.  Both Rudy and I were thinking the same thing; enough is enough.

When Rudy reached over his head and snapped off his overhead light; usually a signal that it was time to settle down to work, Gene left his on.

He sat, straight-backed in his seat, sometimes just ‘sittin’ and grinnin’, and at other times, looking at his reflection in the window glass by his left shoulder. 

The timer attached to the bomb within the breast of our erstwhile fireman was now ticking and it wouldn’t be denied.

The dark forest and the winding pair of steel rails unfurled in the bright ditch lights on the front of the old F7A as we passed the little station at Albreda, mile 91.5. 

The operator came to the door to wave as the engine went by.

Rudy began to notch the throttle down as more of the heavy train rolled past the summit.  Checking the speedometer over the control stand, he reached for the brake valve with his right hand and made a reduction of brake pipe pressure from the train.  He then screwed back the ‘Feed Valve’ to a pre-determined spot which was marked with a small, white chalk-mark.

Checking the speedometer again, he was satisfied that no further adjustments would be needed; the needle was holding at just less than 40 mph, which was the posted limit between mile 94.5 and 116.7, just two miles west of Pyramid.

Shortly after leaving Pyramid, Rudy re-adjusted the Feed Valve settings and notched up the throttle until we were rolling along beside the North Thompson River at a little over 45 miles an hour.

The ABS signals remained green through Thunder River and Redsand.  With fewer than a half dozen street lamps in the village of Blue River, there was no glow of habitation being reflected from the clouds as we were running out the last of the Albreda Sub’s 132 miles.  There were only the green and red searchlight signals to light the way.

At Blue River, the bright lights that hung from beneath the broad eaves of the station roof overpowered the single light bulb at the front door of the two story bunkhouse.   The oil lamps, perched precariously on the top of each switch on the yard lead showed either green or yellow, depending on whether the switches were lined for the lead or for the tracks in the yard.

The operator told us to bring the train into track three and put the power to the shop as there were no Kamloops crews available to take the train west.  In fact, there were no crews at all in Blue River that night.  I knew that I would be able to get a room on the second floor, back corner where it was away from the sounds of trains arriving and departing, and away from the early morning light that would find its way inside my small room. 

The night had gone by quickly and it was nearing 03:00 when we finished putting the train away.

Once the engine was parked on the shop track, I spun a hand brake on the lead unit and walked through the warm, oily engine room where the 567 diesel drummed out its musical song and the air compressor pumped and hissed.  Rudy and I climbed down from the cab and walked across the yard to the station together while Gene scurried ahead of us.

Rudy and I met with the conductor in the booking-in room, next to the operator’s office.  The operator advised us that we wouldn’t be getting called before 09:00, probably for a ‘speed’ that was still west of Kamloops.

I began to feel weary; I had been on the go for nineteen hours, so I decided to forego an early breakfast in the Beanery.  I lifted my grip from the platform and headed past Lamont's Store along the road to the bunkhouse.  Bacon and eggs could wait until I was called to go back to Jasper, or until I woke up…, whichever came first.

Blue River Beanery on East end of station.
Sandy Czorny Collection
On arrival in the bunkhouse, I found that my favourite room was available…, no surprise there…, and after depositing my grip in my room, I had a hot shower and went to bed, falling into a deep sleep within seconds of putting my head on the pillow.  

The young fellow who worked as a car checker, crew caller and gopher knocked on my door and edged it open a bit.  The room filled with light and I cleared my dreams from my thoughts.   He said that I was called for an eastbound speed train for 09:00.  We were to follow Number 2, he said.

What the heck???!!!  Follow Number 2?  What had happened to my railroad while I was sleeping?  Number 2 should be close to Albreda by now!

I sprang out of bed, (I was much younger then) and got dressed.

The passenger train was moving now, the ringing of its bell echoing through the trees.  White jacketed waiters were serving breakfast to their guests.  Silver tableware, set on white linen table cloths was dressed adorned the tables in the dining car.

Beneath the windows, hot water dripped from steam fittings with a faint 'hissing' sound; ... steel wheels "clicked" against the joints between the rails.

A uniformed Trainman stood in the rear vestibule as the markers, displaying 'red to the rear' disappeared beyond the station.  We exchanged a brief wave to each other as he turned and entered the car for the beginning of his long trip to Edmonton.

The familiar smell of steam, associated with passenger trains hung in the still morning air for several minutes after the train had disappeared into the forest, leaving only the shiny rails and red signal lights in its wake.

At the station, my crew had already gathered and was chatting with the shop foreman and the operator. There was a fair bit of story telling and head shaking going on, so I stepped up to find out what had happened.

The tale that was being told in the station went like this:

By the time Rudy and I had walked from the shop track to the station in the early morning darkness, Gene had already found himself a seat in the Beanery.  The waitress, or Beanery Queen was making every effort  to wash the floors and clean the counters, etc, in preparation for the arrival of train number 2 that was due in at 04:30.  As Rudy and I walked past the doorway into the beanery, Gene was sitting with his back to the door watching the Beanery Queen, a rather plain girl of about 19 who had drifted into town from somewhere, looking for a job.

While she wasn’t what one would describe as pretty, she had a nice personality and a ready smile.  When she laughed, it was a loud and genuine laugh that invariably ended in a trailing cackle!

Pushing a wash bucket ahead of her with her foot, she washed the floor with a grey mop, swishing it back and forth.  Bending at the waist, she pushed the mop under the counter and around the base of each single pedestal stool in the nearly empty, brightly lit beanery.

Almost absentmindedly, Gene sat holding his coffee cup in both hands, slowly turning it, first one way, then the other.  Whereever the girl moved, his eyes followed.  Ruth began to prepare breakfast for Gene while he drank his coffee.

Ruth operated the Beanery,  and was under contract to keep the little restaurant open primarily for crews so that they could acquire a hot meal before they went to work, or after they had tied up at the end of a trip.  Danny, her husband helped out in the kitchen  when he wasn't servicing the passenger trains' locomotives during their short stops to change crews.

The food was good, the prices reasonable and the young staff were always friendly.  In addition, an employee of the CNR could eat at the Beanery using an in-house credit system called "Pie Books".  You could purchase 'pie book' coupons by signing a document authorizing a payroll deduction from your next pay check.  They were available in ten dollar denominations, with coupons that could be torn off in 5 cent increments.

Courtesy Dave Emmington
Instead of going to the bunkhouse for a couple of hours rest, Gene ordered breakfast in the Beanery and while he waited for it to be prepared, he sipped at the cup of coffee that the Beanery Queen had placed in front of him.   Meanwhile the young girl set to work, washing the floors and wiping the counters.

A socially awkward man, Gene sat in silence while the girl worked.  He watched her work until he was finished his coffee and then, perhaps to make conversation with the young woman, he asked for his bill.  She set the mop into the pail and dug her receipt pad out of her pocket.  

After writing out the bill for his breakfast, she placed it, face down on the counter in front of him.  The corner was folded slightly so that it made it easier to pick up, as nearly all food servers have done for generations.

He removed enough money from his pocket to pay for his breakfast, and placed some extra money on the bill.  He folded the opposite corner of the bill, and gently pushed the bill and the enclosed money toward the young waitress.

She looked at the amount of money that Gene had put on the counter and realized that there was more than enough to pay for his order; she therefore assumed that the additional money must be her 'tip'.

She picked up the money and the bill, dropping the 'tip' into her pocket.

With a broad smile, she thanked him for his generous tip and, picking up his empty cup, turned and began to move toward the kitchen with his empty cup in her hand.

Well, I suppose that the story that I had planted in his mind the night before had been simmering until he just overflowed with love. 

He reached across the long counter, wrapping his big arms tightly around her.  She tried to twist out of his grasp, but he held her firmly.   When she ordered him to let her go, he refused, appearing not to hear her and he pulled her even closer to him.  She swung the empty coffee cup she had been holding, trying to force him to let her go.  He held tight.

Her scream broke the peaceful tranquility of the quiet CNR station. 

Ruth, the shop foreman’s wife and proprietor of the CNR Beanery hurried out of the back kitchen carrying a bowl of eggs that she had brought out of the big cooler for the expected influx of passengers off Number 2 who would get off the train for a fifteen minute breakfast and a cup of coffee.

Ruth smashed raw eggs on top of the fireman’s head until he finally released her employee!

Somehow, they managed to get the fellow out of the beanery and onto the platform in front of the station…, alone, in the dark.

CN Officers in Kamloops were notified and our favourite fireman was told that he would have to report to a Supervisor on arrival in Jasper, later that day.  He was also told that he was ‘banned from the beanery until further notice.’

If another qualified man had been available to work as 'fireman' on Number 2, Gene would have been suspended, pending the inevitable investigation.  But there was no one else available, so CN officials decided that he would be allowed to work back to Jasper, where he would be informed that he was 'out of service'.

When Number 2 arrived, the outgoing engineer conferred with the incoming engineer for a few minutes, to discuss the condition of the engine and steam generators. The incoming fireman would have done the same with Gene, but Gene was not to be seen.   When he hadn't turned up by the time the train was due to leave, the yard checker went looking for him.

He found the fellow in the bunkhouse and when he asked why he wasn’t on the engine, ready to go to work, he was told he wasn’t leaving Blue River until he was able to have breakfast.  Since he had been banned from the Beanery due to the earlier incident, and the hotel restaurant wasn't yet open for business, it followed that Number 2 wouldn't be leaving until he had breakfast, and he couldn't get breakfast until the hotel restaurant opened.

The Super Continental passenger train was delayed for several hours while Gene had his breakfast.

While the rumour mill ground out several versions of the story, the facts were never released to the rank and file employees.  I felt compelled to maintain a low profile, as I was responsible to setting in motion the chain of events that resulted in the assault on the Beanery Queen, Gene's suspension from the Beanery and the delay to the passenger train.

Gene took the train to Montreal in the summer of 1967 for the festivities at Expo 67.  He never spoke of his trip to French Canada, nor did he ever mention the Blue River Beanery episode again.  But I think he might have approached the matter of amour in a strange city with a bit more caution.


In the story above, I have left out the last name of the fireman involved.  Even though he has since passed away, I would not intentionally sully his name or his memory.  I'm quite sure that many of you will know who this gentleman was, and will concur that which we all knew at the time..., this man was "one strange dude!"

At the same time, he was just one of many who made up the fabric that is remembered as The Railway Men of Our Age.

I concede that we were all a little "strange", in one way or another.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who help to make this blog possible.
Photographers, collectors of railroad memorabilia, historians and others have gladly offered their assistance
whenever I have asked for it.

Some of those same people, and a number of my readers have called or written to add bits of information, offer corrections and to tell me about the wonderful memories of railroad life that Caboose Coffee has stirred in them.

You are all very much appreciated.

Thank you,


1 comment:

LOU said...

By title I thought it would be BRUCE, but it turned out BETTER ! ! ! ! ! You sure set that timer short enough that you'd see the ' ACTION '! ! ! ! ! ! !

Can't help but wonder if he MADE-OUT in Montreal ? ? ? ? ? ?