Thursday, June 5, 2014

Time Passes While We Watch

Watches and railroading go hand in hand..., if you'll forgive that clever little pun.

Having been raised in a railroad home, in a railroad town, in a railroad country..., I have many vivid memories of railroad timepieces.  As a young lad, I would often drop in at the yardmaster's office while I was either on my way to the 'Swinging Bridge' over the Vermillion river at Capreol for some swimmin' and fishin'.  With my fishing rod and a can of worms which I had caught the night before on the lawn beside the CNR station, I'd quietly let myself into the booking-in room, or the waiting room and take up a position where I could watch the activity behind the glass that separated those outer rooms from either the yardmaster's office, or the operator's office.

In the yardmaster's office, there seemed to be a lot of activity.  The yardmaster, the clerk, the car-checker, all appeared to be quite busy and in fear of not getting all their work done before the end of their shift.  They were too busy to notice me as I edged closer to the opening that allowed me to see more.  There were several typewriters, at least one on every desk and half of them were noisily clacking away, creating lists, records, crew sheets, train consists and yard reports.

In stark contrast to this circus of activity, the operator's office, on the other side of, and separated from the yardmaster's office was an oasis of peace and serenity.  At least that is the memory I have of it.  Everything about it was different from the busier hub of railroad activity 'over there.'  Even the smell of the air in the outer rooms..., the yard office vs. the waiting room.  They were both unique, both very "railroad", but different from one another.  Cigarette smoke and decades-old bulletin books in one, and old varnish and the smell of stale steam heat in the other.
The sounds were different too.  From the operator's office, I listened to the telegraph repeater running on with its 'clack, clack......., click, clack, click'.  The operator's chair would creak as he pulled himself closer to the desk in front of him and reached for the 'key' to respond to the magical, mystical message that no one but himself understood.

And behind it all, there was the steady, soothing sound of the Standard Railway Clock, that most indispensable piece of railway equipment which every railroader whose boots stepped onto the right of way had to consult before he could begin his day's work.  The railroad ran on the timetable and the timepieces that all railroaders who had anything at all to do with the movement of trains must carry at all times.  And every man had to compare his watch with the station clock, adjusting it, or marking on the train register the number of seconds his watch was out of sinc with that station clock, as in 3 sec fast, or 7 sec slow, etc. Only then did all the members of a crew compare their watches with each other.  Then the work could begin.

My father carried one, a beautiful, gold pocket watch that he treated as if were made of delicate egg shell.  It was attached to his gold watch chain which had a gold clasp at the end.  When he was dressed for work, his boots laced snug, his striped overall doubled over at the cuff and tied about his upper ankles with shoe laces to keep coal dust, cinders and the cold from getting at his lower legs while he was working in the open air cabs of early steam engines; when he had buttoned his shirt up to the last button under his chin, and wrapped his paisley scarf about his neck, he pulled on his wool cap.

Then, he reached for his watch and chain that stood on the little table in the hall, just below the oak cased telephone that hung there by the front door.  It wasn't a 'dial up' type phone.   You simply lifted the ice-cream cone shaped ear piece from the black cradle on the side of the oak box and a young woman's voice said "Operator..., number please."  You could give her the number, if you knew it, or simply say, "Hi Gladys, can you connect me with Stechyn's Lumber Yard?"  She would say "One moment, Please", and be gone.

The watch, he would gently slip into the watch pocket that was designed and sewn into the front of the overalls, just about at the center of the wearer's chest.  The clasp would then be clipped onto a spare button hole place nearby for the purpose.

He was now ready to go and, picking up his metal lunch box, would head off toward the station, walking proudly as he passed each home along the way.  This is the way it was.

Then, in June of 1964, I passed my rule exams and practical training and booked on the brakeman's spareboard.  When I arrived at the station to take my place on the crew of train number four to Ottawa on that sunny, warm June day, I went into the station to compare my watch with the station clock, which was set using the National Time Signal, and was often checked with the clock kept in the dispatcher's offices, nearby.

But my watch comparison ceremony wasn't what I had dreamed of, having watched railroaders check their pocket watches since  my earliest memories.  No...., CN had decided a few months before I hired on that all new 'hires' would not be allowed to use the old standard pocket watches, but must convert to new, "approved" wrist watches!  The Bulova Accutron and the Universal Geneve were the only two choices.

The Accutron emitted a high pitched whine, 24-7 and the Geneva couldn't keep time with a turtle!  Only those who had already been qualified to work using a pocket watch could continue to use them.  The beautiful, gold pocket watches were gone for me.  I would never be able to re-enact that age-old tradition of reaching down, and finding the gold chain slung between the clasp and the gold watch and, gently lifting my treasure from my pocket, let it slide effortlessly into the palm of my hand where it would lay, softly ticking it's warm song of our mutual love of railroading, and giving me the exact time of day.

I quickly and surepticiously pulled my sleeve up, only just far enough to expose the face of that pitiful, stainless piece of foreign hardware, which I then compared to the time showing on the face of the faithful old station clock, hung on the wall above the operator's desk.  I was humiliated.
Keeping my feelings to myself, I carried on through the first weeks of summer until I found myself on a work train, replacing timber culverts with steel ones on the Ruel sub, west of Capreol.  One day, while helping to steady a long steel culvert as it was being unloaded from a flat car to the ground, the back of my wrist struck a piece of chain, breaking the crystal, of glass on the face of my watch. I was almost glad to see it smashed.

When the crew finally tied up in Capreol after a couple of wonderful weeks online, I went straight to the local CNR watch inspector/jeweler with my damaged watch.  After he had given it the once-over, he declared it destroyed and I was faced with buying a new one.  However, he didn't have any spares, and would have to order one in for me.  He would sell me an Accutron, he said, but they had all be re-called because they would occasionally suffer a 'runaway', either gaining or losing an hour or three in the space of fifteen seconds!

I'd have to accept a 'loaner'.  It was a beautiful Hamilton 992B, a gold pocket watch on a leather strap with a steel clasp.  PERFECT!

As the days, and the spare trips rolled by, summer rolled by too and I was facing a nine or ten month layoff as the senior men came back from their summer vacations and the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence river froze up for the winter months, slowing freight traffic to pre-war levels.

When the Labour Day weekend arrived, I was given my layoff notice and a clearance that would allow me to look for work anywhere on my seniority district between Toronto and Hornepayne.

There's another story that could be told about the time between my last trip at Capreol, Ontario and my first trip at Jasper, Alberta, but in order to keep with the 'watch' theme, we'll just step off the westbound 'Super Continental' at Jasper on a very cold pre-dawn morning in mid December, 1965.

I checked my wrist watch, a used Universal Geneve that I had picked up from a young railroader in Capreol who had resigned to continue his education.  But, I also had the Hamilton, which had been offered to me by the CNR watchmaker when CN officials told him not to 'loan' it to any railroaders.  Rather, he was forced to buy a few extra wrist watches, leaving him with a couple of pocket watches that he opted to dispose of by selling them off at very reasonable prices to anyone who wanted one.  Since I still had one of his loaners in my pocket when CN made that announcement, I gave him some cash and kept the watch.

Jasper, the dividing line between the Prairie Region and the Mountain Region of CN's massive railway; all trains moving west of the west switch were governed by the dispatching offices and CN officials in Kamloops or Vancouver, and east of the west switch was the domain of the dispatching offices and management hierarchy in Edmonton.

Also, the west switch, for railway purposes was on the line that separated Mountain Standard Time from Pacific Standard Time.  In practical terms, you could be standing in the parking lot, west of the station admiring the beautiful lines of the CNR Mountain Class 4-8-2 steam locomotive on static display at 1500 (3:00 pm) and walk a hundred yards westward until you had passed the west switch, and it was suddenly 1400, or 2:00 pm.

OK...., so what?  Well, I quickly learned that when one is awakened from a sound sleep by the CNR Call Boy, an employee who was assigned to go around to the home of any railroader who didn't have a telephone, and there were still many..., I was one of those.  The Call Boy would wake the employee and give him his customary two-hour call, saying something like...., "Bruce Harvey, you're called for a drag west out of the yard for 0330."  "It's a bit of a short call," he said.  "I had to call the other brakeman too, and he lives at the other end of town."

He would only then leave once you had assured him that you understood the call and were sufficiently awake that  you would not go back to bed in a sleepy stupor.

Well, this time zone thing was a bit of a learning curve for me because every time I had to check my watch for the time of a First Class train at the next station where an inferior train (my train) must clear, I had to double check that I had done the math properly, to accommodate for the fact that the time west of Jasper was one hour behind that east of the west switch at Jasper.  Crews running east of Jasper didn't have to concern themselves about that for a number of reasons..., one being that they were working in only one time zone, and moreover, the Edson sub was controlled by Centralized Traffic Control and the dispatcher looked after all the meets between trains.

West of Jasper was all 'dark territory' and all crews had to be extremely alert at all times, checking their timetables, checking their watches and conferring with each other on the movement of their trains relative to that of other trains on the subdivisions.  It was very exciting work, and I loved it.

OK..., so what could go wrong?  Well, I took the call for 0330 and stumbled into the kitchen to put the coffee pot on.  Then into the shower.  While I was hopping on one foot, trying to force the other one into the leg of my jeans, I caught a glimpse of the clock on the stove.

The clock read 0310!!!!!  What?  That meant that I was already on duty!  He had given me a very short call, and I was already late for work.  I turned off the electric burner under the coffee pot and went to my meager pantry where I pulled out two cans of sardines and the last remains of a loaf of now-stale white bread.  I shoved this into my 'grip' while I frantically finished dressing myself for a long trip on the Albreda Sub.  I would be damned hungry on arrival at Blue River, but at least the Beanery would be open where I could get a meal within fifteen minutes of getting off my train.  I was already planning what I would order that the girls could put down on the counter in front of me in the shortest possible time.

As I hurried along the street through the darkness, was grateful that we were called 'out of the yard', which meant that even though I was late, the conductor could cover the delay as long as I was able to get the engine off the shop track and onto the train without mishap.

Emerging from the faint glow of the street lights, I pushed open the back door of the train crew's booking in room..., to find it empty.   There was no one there except me..., and Harry Lyseko, the operator who looked up at me and said...., "My, but you're early, aren't you?"  I looked at my watch, then I looked at the clock on the wall above Harry's head.  Then, it dawned on me.  I had been called on "West Time", and the clock on my stove was on "East Time."

I thought about going back to my apartment to make that pot of coffee and scramble up some bacon and eggs, but it was now only 20 minutes before the rest of the crew would begin to wander in.  I was resolved to do something about this, but what?

Harry waited until the entire crew had assembled before offering me up as the morning sacrifice.  When the laughing had died down, one by one, they all pulled out their pocket watches and showed me the faces on their cherished timepieces.  Each one had TWO hour hands.  One was a polished, blue-black hand that came with the watch, and the other was bright red, and had been installed there by the CNR watch inspector in Jasper.
When we eventually returned home, I made my way downtown to visit the watch inspector.  I presented him with my wrist watch and when he saw it he said he couldn't put an extra hand on "those damned things!"  "It'd be different if you had a turnip (pocket watch)," he said.  I pulled my Hamilton out of the watch pocket in my jeans and handed it to him.  While he removed the crystal and plucked the hands from my Hamilton, he told me that he wouldn't accept responsibility if I got caught using that pocket watch on the job.

You see, every Standard Railway Grade Watch must be accompanied by a "Watch Inspection Card" that has the corresponding watch number written and registered on the card.  It was one of those things, along with current timetable, rule book and medical card that some railway officers would ask occasionally ask to see if they happened to run into you on the job.

So, thereafter..., I wore my wrist watch and carried my Hamilton, seldom looking at the wrist watch, but always checking the 'turnip' first.

Do I still have my beautiful Hamilton?  Sadly, no.  The watch, along with my father's gold watch chain and my grandfather's gold fob all disappeared from our home during a real estate showing when we were asked by the realtor to leave the house while he conducted an "open house".   I miss it.  We made wonderful memories together.


Susan said...

.... and yes, the watch was put away in what we thought was a safe and secure place.....

So sad.

Maybe we can buy you another turnip?

:) Railway Wife

Canadian Train Geek said...

Great "behind the scenes" post as always, Bruce. I've enjoyed catching up on your blog.

Unknown said...

Yes, I can remember having two watches as well. In 1977, I had a wrist watch that was not an approved railroad timepiece. As we were heading back to Nelson from Midway, a railroad officer boarded the head end at Grand Forks (As always seems to happen & made me nervous). Noticed my unapproved wristwatch . I was fortunate to have my approved pocket watch with me, but was told to put my wrist watch away.. Needless to say, it made for a long trip home!

Bruce said...

There was a time when watch inspections were important enough that if we were a bit late taking our watch in for its inspection, or a mandatory cleaning..., we'd be called in to explain to the Trainmaster why you shouldn't be taken out of service until you could produce a watch card that had been updated and signed by the watch inspector. As time passed, and technology overtook the railroad, watches became much less important. However, we old farts will always remember the experience of just checking the time on our gold watches!

Glen Dirk said...

Bruce, I recall the old tales about the air hose gasket imprint in the coveralls to cover up a "Turnip" in hock by train crews back in the day. May have had some truths. The wrist watch was a life saver, couldn't keep a balance staff in my "Turnip", did get costly,

Churlish said...

As someone obsessed with both watches and trains I greatly enjoyed your post and I learned a great deal. Thank you for sharing.