“I’ve been working on the railroad.” Dinah done hate that song and I’ve worked all manner of jobs to keep her happy.
But somehow I always landed back behind the coal-fire shoveling and shining #482, stocking and stoking #473, or cursing the living fire out of #486.
Dinah hated how I’d be gone for weeks running between Chicago and San Diego. She hated the grime of soot in my hair, my clothes, even my breath. She hated the short cough I got and the shake I did in my sleep because the rumble of the rails got down in my marrow.
I’d leave for a while until the boys in the yard called me up.
I loved the wind in my hair and the smell of boiling water, the blur of the countryside, and the harmonies of the whistle changing from inside to outside the tunnel.
I loved the nights speeding across the prairie and the blur of stars on either side with one constellation clear like a tunnel in front. There weren’t no navigation required of a train operator. We just pointed her and she ran. Signals orchestrated the lines for us, sending us to Portland or Santa Fe according to some office man’s mind.
I loved #482, the Old Lady — reliable, game for any challenge. I loved #473, Little’un — epitome of finesse and style. We used her for parades and passenger runs but she showed her tough with her cow pusher! You can still see the dents.
I even loved #486, sometimes. The yard boys said she loved me.
Any time I left the yard to shovel hay or load bricks, they’d call me and say, “She’s blowin’, Tom.” That’s all it took. It meant they couldn’t get her to hold her steam. They couldn’t get the temperature and pressure balanced.
I never could explain or teach them the way. I’d get them to stock her full of fuel and tender. We’d be in the garage nice and cozy and she’d be all wiggly and puffin’. I could feel her excitement like she knew it was me and I’d stoke her right.
I’d ramp her up slow and gentle, little at a time. One piece of coal, two. One handful, two. The needle on the pressure gauge had to move slowly up to 100 and then there had to be a burst of fire — six shovels of coal — to rush up to 200. Without that rush right at the right time she never went any further.
Once she got to 200 we had to ease off and go slow again for the last 50. It could take as long to squeeze the last 50 out of her as all the rest. Then we’d let her rest a while. I would listen and feel her under my feet. All around I’d be hearing squeals and clicks and bursts — a band in the iron bandstand tuning up for the May Day picnic.
We’d light the headlamp, pull the whistle, and release the brake. That had to be done nice and delicate too to induce the old girl forward. Too quick and she’d stall. Too slow and she’d bind. I’d let her out a bit and stop. Let her out a bit and stop.
Once started that way she’d be reliable for a long journey. I’d fly right by Dinah in the backyard of our house, elbow deep in the wash tub trying to scrub the grime out of my overalls. And I wouldn’t feel the least bit guilty. Dinah’s hate was a kind of love. Where would she be without my grime and cough and shakes to hate on? And that grime she was scrubbing came from the bricks anyway.