Friday, March 1, 2013

A Dying Railroader's Last Request

The train was set, the brakes tested and the engine ready to go.  The "North", or CN train 455, from Vernon to Kamloops was ready for the night crew to take over, making their run to Kamloops and back.  If they got back to Vernon before 0800, the three day crews would separate the three SD40-2's and tear the train apart for their daily runs to Kelowna, Lumby and Armstrong. 

455 on CP's Okanagan sub at Realm, just south of Armstrong.
Power consists of all four of ex-NAR's CN SD38-2's.
Photo taken by Duane Cook on May 28, 1999.

I was working the Kelowna job that week and as such, was the last crew to return to Vernon.  Therefore it was our job to re-assemble the power into a three-unit consist, couple up the train and perform the air brake test for the night crew. 

Keith Clark, the conductor, and Ed Bewly, the brakeman had already gone to the yard office to change and get the paperwork in order.  Meanwhile, I was going over the locomotives to ensure they had sufficient fuel, water and other supplies for the long night ahead.

The locomotive consist, now separated for the use of three crews, begins its day.  Here the Lumby job (right) switches at Lumby Jct, while the Kelowna job waits its turn.
Bruce Harvey photo

The northbound crew, Tom Anderson, engineer and Dana Robertson, conductor would arrive within the hour expecting the train and engine to be ready for a quick departure.  As time was never on our side in the Okanagan, everyone tried to make sure they did their jobs well, or they would surely pay a price the next day. An hour's delay today might mean that "the South" wouldn't get out of Kamloops until after the passenger trains had all arrived and left, thus one of the morning crews would have to get into a taxi and go out to find the train which had been left un-attended on the Okanagan sub while the night crew went home.  It could take a week to get caught up and back on
schedule again.

Tom and Dana were suspected by the other crews to be un-cooperative, un-repentingly abandoning their train before their mandatory 12 hours on duty had expired; thus requiring the three day shift crews to finish the work of the night crew before beginning their own.  On several occasions, a day crew had to 'rescue' the South at Kamloops, because the night crew didn't even get out of the yard there.  At other times, we would find the train at CP's Campbell Creek, CN's Monte Lake, Westwold, Falkland, Sweetsbridge, O'Keefe or Armstrong.

I climbed down the ladder from the front deck of the lead unit, and stepped onto the ground. As I turned around, I saw the boss, Dave Hanratty walking toward me with three people in tow.
Dave managed an introduction, but it was clear that he was uncomfortable about something.  He turned and walked back to the yard office.

In front of me, stood a woman in her late 60's and a young couple in their 20's.  The young woman was pregnant.  All three had been crying.

The elder woman took one step toward me and asked me if I might be able to help her with something she had promised her husband that she would do.  I had a pretty good idea what she had promised him, as my father had died a year or so earlier and I had kept a promise I had made to him thirty years before he died. 

I asked her what she might want me to do for herself and her family.

She went on to explain that her husband had been a CNR brakeman for 30 years out of Biggar, Saskatchewan, and every year since they were married, they had come to the Okanagan for a summer holiday.  They both loved the area and swore that if he ever acquired enough seniority, he would bid on a job, any job that would bring them to the Okanagan Valley to live out their lives. 

This was once the only way that CNR Trainmen and Conductors could move between the Prairie and the Mountain seniority districts, and Mountain Region men often found themselves being 'bumped' off a job they hoped to hang on to, by a Prairie Region man who had decided to move from Hudson Bay to Vancouver, or Jasper, or Edmonton. 

This woman's hopes rested on her husband's ability to hang on long enough to hold a job within reach of their beloved Okanagan Dream.

He died before that could ever come to fruition, and now..., his last remains were inside a shoe-box sized container which his wife of so many years now held in her trembling hands.

"When my husband was laying in his bed, a very sick man..., he asked me if I would spread his ashes on the Okanagan sub," she said.  "But, as you can see..., I'm not able to walk on uneven ground, or climb to the track to do it."  "And my daughter is expecting a grand-child soon, so I don't want her climbing the hills either." 

I looked toward the son-in-law with a questioning gaze.  He said, "I offered to do it, but 'dad's' last wish was that 'mom' do it." 

"Can you help me", she asked with tears continuing to well up and run down her cheeks.

"Of course I can", I said. 

I set my grip down beside the track and reached for the container that held her husband's ashes.  She looked at the box, holding it back from me. 

"What are you going to do with him," she asked?

"I'm going to take him up on top of the engine," I said.  "And I'm going to give him the best seat in the house." 

"There's a small cut-out on the roof of the cab that I'll put his ashes into."  "It's open at the front and when the train is under way, the wind will scatter his ashes over every mile of the subdivision all the way to Kamloops from here."  "That way, he'll have the ride he always dreamed of, and his last wish will be fulfilled."
Photo credit RailPictures.Net
Photographer Christian Vazzaz

She gave me the box, and the pained look on her face turned into a smile. 

I lifted the box up above my head, and set it on the front platform, then I climbed back aboard the engine.  Picking up the box, I put it on top of the nose and climbed again. 

Setting the box on top of the cab roof, I removed the lid and poured the contents into a neat pile inside the cut-out near the leading edge of the cab roof.

After climbing down off the engine, the two women approached me, offering a hug for my efforts; the young man thanked me and shook my hand.

Without another word, I unlocked my car and got inside, closing the door.

In the silence of the next few moments, I re-lived the experience of spreading my father's ashes at CN HARVEY, just a mile or so east of Tete Jaune at the confluence of the Tete Jaune and Robson Subs only a few months earlier.
Bert Harvey, my father, my friend, my mentor. 
A proud CNR Steam Engineer

In his resting place among the jack pines in the Robson Valley, while the Cedarside Switcher drifted past, blowing one long, lonesome whistle sound.

 Only Dave Hanratty and I knew about the ashes on top of the cab; and neither of us would share that information ... until now.  Then, driving away from the CN property, a wry smile spread across my face. We never spoke of it again.

You see, from the first day I arrived in Vernon after successfully bidding a job there, I had been treated quite badly by Tom and Dana, the union representatives in Vernon.  Neither of the men could, or would give me a satisfactory answer when I asked them what it was that set them off like that.

I knew that it would someday be my turn to get back at them, and this looked like a good opportunity to do that, while doing something for a fellow 'rail'.

Train 455 northbound near Westwold with five M420's
Photographer unkown at this time. 

Tonight, they would be blissfully rolling northward, all the while carrying the ashes of a dead brakeman only a couple of feet above their heads, while the breezes scattered the man's ashes over the subdivision he had dreamed of for so long

On this moonlit summer night, a prairie brakeman 'came home'.  The night-breeze and softly rocking engine gently scattered his ashes, which tumbled from the roof of the engine, just as seeds are hand-sown into a prairie field, along the right of way.

The whistle and bell announced his last run.

This story is a memorial, a tribute to every railroader who has gone before, leaving only memories behind.  This land has been stitched together by the steel rails and the souls of those who were blessed to have contributed in some way to steel wheels running on steel rails.

If Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" doesn't move you to your core, you're reading the wrong blog.  If it does..., you are one of many soul-mates found herein.

In addendum:
When 454 came in the next morning, I was looking at the same locomotive consist as had departed the evening before on 455.  I climbed to the top of the engine and found that every speck of the brakeman's ashes had vanished..., scattered over the entire run between Vernon and Kamloops.  The job was done. 


Susan said...

I still recall the day you came home from work and shared that day's events with me. That railroader could not possibly have imagines how much of the Okanagan he ended up sharing the rails with.

As for the payback... well, I still chuckle at how fate played a hand there. You're still Number One in the Valley to me hun...

The Wife

LOU said...

YOU'RE-A-GOOD-MAN-" HOT WHEELS ', it took me awhile to COLLECT-MYSELF-AGAIN ! ! ! ! ! THANK-Y'ALL-KINDLY for sharing such a ' GREAT-GRATIFICATION ! ! ! ! ! ! !

LOU said...

YOU'RE-A-GOOD-MAN-" HOT WHEELS ', it took me awhile to COLLECT-MYSELF-AGAIN ! ! ! ! ! THANK-Y'ALL-KINDLY for sharing such a ' GREAT-GRATIFICATION ! ! ! ! ! ! !