Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Work of Art, Hidden Behind a Work of Art

There were many things I liked about our new house.  It was built on a quiet street where we could play we could play without having to worry about big dump trucks rumbling by, dropping iron ore pellets that rolled along the pavement, until they ended up at the edge of the road.  The dump trucks weren't actually an unwelcome site for little boys because with only a jack knife, we made sling shots from a branch with a natural crotch in it, cut from our sour cherry tree, a couple of strips of rubber from a discarded truck-tire innertube that Mr. Hanzel, our neighbor had brought from the shop where he worked, and a bit of old harness leather that Donnie Lemieux's grandfather had discarded.  A little trimming, cutting, scraping and whittling, and we had truly fine slingshots.  The iron ore pellets that fell from the dump trucks were ideal for use with a slingshot since they were round, like a glass marble, would fly true when released and...., they were free.

That was our old house on Sellwood Road.

Our new house was built on Vaughn Street.  Our lot was small, and so was our house.  But the lot backed onto a low, wide swampy area that carried a slow moving creek from a great, marshy pond on the north side of the tracks at mile 144 on the Alderdale sub.  The creek eventually disappeared into a culvert that drained into the Vermillion River way across town, beyond the YMCA which had bowling alleys and pool tables..., way beyond the Fire Hall and the town jail, which I spent a whole day in...., way beyond Nepitt's General Store where I bought snare wire and .22 shells to take out into the bush with my dog, Roxy. 

In the summer, 'the swamp', as we referred to it, was a wonderful place to spend the day.  The Tea Bush grew to four feet in height and the bull rushes grew much taller than that.  There were frogs and snakes, turtles and bitterns, blue herons, hawks and a great many small birds which nested there. 

Freddy Lammi had a young crow that he had tamed and he would proudly walk past my house with the crow on his shoulder.  I wanted a pet crow too, but couldn't find a nest to take one from. I would find, occasionally, a baby robin or blackbird, but was never successful in raising one to an adult.

One of the best things about living in Capreol, and in particular, on Vaughn Street, was the proximity to the railroad line.  If I walked down to the east end of the street, past Mike Corrigan's house, I could quickly cut through the bush on a well worn trail that ended at the beaver pond where a colony of beavers had built and maintained a typical beaver dam all the way across the low valley, creating a large, deep pond with a big beaver house in the deepest part. 

The beaver dam served as a great place for us to cross the swamp without getting wet, unless of course a mis-step caused me to slip into the water, filling one or both of my rubber boots with water.

In the winter, the beaver pond was a popular place to gather for game of hockey among friends.  I know..., you've heard this before, but it's true.  Back in the day....., winters were a lot longer and a lot colder, or more severe than they seem to be now.  Even tho' the temperatures would plummet to minus twenty five and stay there for weeks on end, it didn't prevent us from having fun outdoors.  There were hills to take our toboggans to, ice fishing, snow shoeing, playing hockey on the many backyard ice rinks that were made to provide kids with a place to play.

The only window in my tiny bedroom in our new house faced the creek, the swamp and the final three hundred yards of the CNR Alderdale sub.  I loved to watch eastbound trains leaving town and westbound trains arriving from Ottawa and Montreal.  They moved very slowly past my window because they were either leaving or entering the yard.  In either case, the trains pulled past the curling rink, the stock pens and the beaver pond, and I had an unobstructed view of some of the most awesome sights a little boy growing up in a railroad family could hope for. 

These were the final days of the steam locomotives.  More and more freight and passenger trains were being pulled by the non-descript, monotonous diesels with the strange sounding horns.  They didn't seem to have any moving parts and they looked much the same, whether moving forward or backward.  I found myself turning away from trains that had a diesel on the head end.

One such cold, winter night, I had gone outside after supper to lie on my back in the front yard to watch the Northern Lights dancing overhead.  I was dressed warmly and was able to lie there for quite a while without feeling any cold whatsoever. 

The moon had risen over the quiet little town, making the recently fallen snow appear to sparkle with the dust of billions of tiny diamonds in shades of blue, white, red and green.  There wasn't a whisper of wind, or any air movement and from every chimney, smoke slowly rose into the crisp night sky, hanging there, as if frozen until spring would come to release it from winter's icy grip.

I got up, brushed myself off and went to the kitchen door to be helped out of my winter clothes so I could go to bed.  Dad would be coming in off the road sometime in the night and, after he had some rest, he had promised to take us all to the lake for a day of tobogganing and dinner cooked over an open fire.  My mom and sister hadn't shown much enthusiasm for that idea, but I would work on them.

A cup of warm milk and I was tucked into my bed to wait for sleep to come.  As my eyes grew heavier, watched the bright moonlight play on the thick frost that had formed on my bedroom window.  I marvelled at the intricate designs that nature created each night on my window...., never painting the same thing twice.

In the morning, I woke to the sound of a steam whistle that I didn't recognize.  I can't describe it, other than to say that it was different from that of a Mikado, a Northern, or a Mountain.  It was deep, but with a sharp, crisp beginning and end, followed by that beautiful 'quilling' that always gave me goose-bumps.  It sounded something like a trumpet that was being played like a trombone.

Scrambling from beneath my covers, I tried to open my window for a look at this locomotive before it disappeared from view.  The window was frozen shut.  I guess all wood frame sash windows were left closed each winter for the same reason that mine was closed.  Ice.

I could hear the soft 'chuff' coming from the stack and knew that it was now directly behind the house.  It would be gone in a moment!  I placed my palms against the glass, which was covered with a deep layer of Jack Frost's most beautiful work.  I held them there until I could feel the smooth, flat glass beneath my hands.   Then I lifted them away, sticking them deep into my warm blankets.

I looked throught the holes in the ice that my warm hands had made. 

There, arriving from Ottawa on the head end of the morning passenger train, was perhaps the most stunning, unusual steam engine I had ever seen.  I did a double-take, looking at it very carefully, as it passed in and out of the clouds of steam that it was creating around itself. 

It was black..., and green.  It had a Vanderbilt tender, but it wasn't like any Vanderbilt tender I had ever seen.  On the tender was the round CNR Maple Leaf wafer that said it was one of ours, and it was a passenger engine.  And the wheels, they really couldn't be that tall!!!  And there were only six of them! 

It was beautiful and I knew at that moment that, not only did I want to see this machine up close, but I wanted to be a locomotive engineer and run it on the head end of the passenger train.

As it disappeared into the frosty haze that had settled on the town, I leaped from my bed and ran to my parent's bedroom.  Mom was having her coffee in the kitchen and she started to tell me not to wake dad, because he needed his rest, but.......,

Jumping on the bed, I urged him to get out of bed so we could go down to the station and see the new steam locomotive that had just arrived.  I was sure it was going to leave on the Ruel sub for Foleyet and Hornepayne in a few minutes and we should hurry if we want to catch it.

I'm sure that if it had been for any other reason than to see a new steam engine before it left town, he would have had a much different message for me when I 'yanked' him out of his deep sleep.

We scrambled to get dressed and, still doing up buttons on our coats, we went out into the cold morning air. 

"We don't have much time," he said,  "if we walk to the station, we may be too late."

"We have to take the car," I said.

He took the keys from his coat pocket and with some difficulty due to the locks being frozen, he got the front doors opened.  It took a lot longer to actually get the doors opened, as the rubber door seals  had frozen together. 

I suggested pulling until they separated, but Dad didn't want to do that, saying that the seals would be badly torn if we pulled on them.  Getting them to release seemed to take forever, but eventually, we got the drivers door open and we both slid in on the frozen seat cover. 

With fingers crossed, I watched as he put the key in the ignition, stamped on the gas pedal a couple of times and turned the key.  The block warmer had done its job and the engine turned over, catching after several seconds of cranking. 

With the defroster blowers on full, we backed out of the driveway and headed for the CNR station, the rubber tires thumping with every revolution.  Until we had driven the car for a couple of miles, the flat spots in the tires that had been next to the ground would remain as flat spots, causing the car to thump as it travelled down the road.

After ten minutes, we arrived at the station and parked the car.  Dad and I went into the yard office where he checked the train register to see what engine would be used to take the passenger west of Capreol.  Apparently, it wasn't the one we were looking for, because I overheard someone in the office say that "motive power wants it back right away."  It had been sent to the roundhouse for trip service and was to be run south to Toronto as soon as possible.

Dad, believing that we had lots of time, got into a long conversation with a small group of rail men while I hovered near the hot water radiator that stood near the table where the operating bulletins were kept.

Finally, we left the yard office and got into the car.  I thought that we should walk from the station, across the yard and westward along the shop service tracks to the roundhouse, but Dad wanted to keep the car handy, so we drove. 

After making a five-minute stop at the post office, we again carried on toward the shops.  Well, not exactly.  In order to get to the shops and the roundhouse, we had to back track almost all the way back to our house, then turn north, then east and then west; in effect, we had to drive almost the entire circumference of the town before we could get to the employee parking at the back of the roundhouse.

Young street, the main thoroughfare through the downtown business core would eventually end at Dennie Street which was an extension of highway 69 south, becoming Selwood Road which would eventually get us to the shops.

The Sudbury sub, or Bala sub crossed Young street in order to move trains to or from Toronto, and we sat for twenty minutes while a long northbound freight slowly made its way into the yard, blocking the crossing, thus allowing the mystery steam engine time to escape.

The moment the caboose finally tip-toed across the road, we were off!   A left on Dennie Street and soon we'd be on Selwood Road, driving past our old  house and on our way to the shops.

Nope.  The Alderdale sub crossed Dennie Street and runs eastward between the beaver pond and the curling rink.  There was a short eastbound freight already on the crossing, it's head end having disappeared in the clouds of steam that escaped from around the cylinders, beneath the cab, from the tender and from the stack. 

The caboose was soon out of the yard and 'on the high iron'; we once again headed for the shops to get up close to the steam engine I had seen from my bedroom window a couple of hours earlier.

I was beside myself with excitement, but couldn't get past the feeling that we had taken too long to get there.  The dark, steamy cavern that was the roundhouse seemed to be hiding my prey from my eyes.  Looking left and right, I saw only locomotives that were familiar to me. There was a small switcher with footboards, a couple of large-boilered engines with huge Elesco feedwater heaters hung over their smoke box doors.  These looked like an afterthought, because they had to mount the tri-angular number boards above the feedwater heater bundles, there not being enough room to put them below, due to the headlight placement. 

But, I couldn't see anything that looked like the one I caught a glimpse of through the little hole in the ice on my window.

Once inside, dad took me to the shop foreman's office, where he looked at the big board on which hung tags with the names of every fireman, hostler and engineer in the whole terminal, showing their status on the working board.  Some were booked off, others were waiting a call, and some were out on the road, or working a yard engine or snow plow.

Dad and the shop foreman spoke softly for a moment or two; then Dad turned to me and said..., "we missed him."  "He was on the eastbound we waited for by the curling rink."  "I've asked the foreman to keep an eye out for one of those engines for us, but he says that it was a rare sighting and even he didn't get a chance to have a look at it." 

It had been serviced and turned on the big turntable.  A crew had been called and was ready to take the engine to the yard to connect with an eastbound speed.  The turnover had taken less than 30 minutes.

The engine.....,  it was one of those beautiful racehorses of the steam era... a CNR K-5a Hudson.

I have never seen the real thing, but I have a wonderful, painted model of it on display where it reminds me of a cold winter morning chasing trains with my Dad, so long ago.


Linda said...

What a beautiful, personal, and vivid recollection of a simpler time when making slingshots, tobogganing, and knowing the sound of each engine were measures of the passing days, weeks, and seasons. You so very well conveyed the disappointment of missing this special engine.

It seems trains have always held a special allure for boys; and the steam engines certainly still rightly hold that special place of honor. Thank you! You brought back special memories of my son's nightly bedtime routine (at 2) of spending time leafing through a huge tome of steam engines with his dad, who had a new story to weave every night as they paged through the photos.

You are a gifted storyteller, Bruce! Apparently, there are TWO weavers in the house:)

Bruce said...

Linda, your comments are delightfully accepted. Thank you. Charlie, your husband wrote to me today to say how glad he is that you showed him the Caboose Coffee story blog. My story seems to have brought back wonderful memories of his childhood, watching trains and hearing the whistles. I'm happy to have been able to do that. Warm regards, Bruce.