Biographical Non-Fiction posted April 25, 2022

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A Day in the Life of Daddy and John

A Train Ride

by Annmuma

One Thursday, my dad, my brother and I were sitting on the front porch of our rural Tioga home.  Daddy sat in the rocking chair, watching the Purple Martins flit from birdhouse to birdhouse, catching mosquitos and chattering.  John and I sat on the steps, more for company than anything else. 

We talked a little among ourselves, but, for the most part, we just sat, watched the cows, the jacks and jennies in the field between us and the gravel road a couple of hundred yards away; one or two cars drove by and we returned the hand wave we could not even see, but knew existed.  It seemed out of the blue when Daddy spoke to John.

“Son, would you like to make the run to Lake Charles tomorrow and ride up in the engine?”

To know how out of the ordinary that suggestion was, you need to know a little about our history.  Daddy was fifty years old when John was born and sixty-one when Mama died.  He had grown up as a country boy using a horse and buggy for transportation; his dad worked as a blacksmith for some time.
The US Cavalry chased Geronimo until 1886 and only the elite had automobiles in the 1890’s.   

Here it is 1958.  He’s been widowed twice, married three times, divorced once, recovered from a heart attack, re-entered the world of dating via mail-order and without Mama to temper his decisions or soften his ways, he did the best he could.   He went to work every day on the three o’clock switch engine and came home around midnight.

Many nights, he brought us a Billips Café hamburger and fries.  He would come into our rooms and shake us awake.

“I got you a hamburger and French fries.”

Those burgers and fries smelled and tasted so good as we wolfed them down, visited with Daddy a little bit and then went back to bed. 

Otherwise, we communicated via notes written on rough, pink tablets of paper he brought home from work.  That worked pretty well and we had gotten used to the routine.   Then he bid on another job!

In the 50’s, railroad workers were governed by a bid system, allowing the man with the most seniority to have the job he most wanted.  Daddy wanted the Lake Charles turn and he got it.  Lake Charles was just over one hundred miles from Alexandria and his job was as engineer on the passenger train to Lake Charles and then deadhead back. 

I could almost hear John’s heartbeat at the question asked.  His answer came in little gasps.

“I surely would like to go, Daddy.”

“Aw right.  Tomorrow, when I get up for work, you’ll need to get up too.”

John went to bed happy that night, but I don’t think he got a lot of sleep.  I heard him in the bathroom, in the kitchen and even heard the front door open as he went outside to sit under the stars. 

By five in the morning, I watched as he and Daddy drove off in our pink Studebaker, headed for the roundhouse.  John told me later that the drive was so good that he dared not ask a question or even voice an opinion so as not to disturb the good mood.

“Olevia, when we got to the roundhouse and got out of the car, Daddy pointed to the engine.  He just sort of nodded his head in that direction.  I knew I was supposed to climb up the ladder.  I was so excited.” 

“How did you know where to go or anything?” 

I enjoyed John’s adventure, vicariously by asking questions and hanging on every word he told me the next day.

He continued his story.  “Mr. Cole, the fireman, was already in his spot. He was a skinny guy, looked like a teenager to me and seemed to be covered with smiles.  He had the kind of face that shouted ‘I like you and I hope you like me.’  I did. 

Daddy climbed up behind me and Mr. Cole spoke to him.  I can hear him in my mind right now.”

John painted the scene for me, imitating Mr. Cole’s speech, demeanor and Daddy’s reactions.  

“Hey, Uncle Johnny.  I see you brought us some help today.”

 “Yeah.  I brought him down here to see if he could give us a hand.”

While Daddy and Mr. Cole talked, John explored with his eyes, the first thing he saw was a sign: “Danger, 5,000 Volts.” and recognized “volts” as something to do with electricity.  At first, he remained quiet and just watched and listened.  Finally, Mr. Cole’s smiles gave him the confidence to give in to his curiosity and he began to question Daddy.

“Daddy, why do you need electricity to run a diesel engine?”

“Well, son, this engine is just a big old generator.  The generator runs on diesel and the electricity runs the wheels.  It is called a diesel engine because diesel runs the generator.  It is dangerous.  Don’t open that door. 

"Now, you need to get right back here and sit on that stool.  No need for everybody to see you riding up here in the engine.”

“Yes Sir.”  John hunkered down in a little cubbyhole behind Daddy.

 Mr. Cole looked a little concerned.  “What do you think the superintendent would say, Uncle Johnny, if he saw you with your boy on here?”

“I’ll tell you what, Cole, I would sacrifice the rest of my job.  I have been here almost forty years and, if he wanted to fire me for this, he could.  This experience is worth that to this boy.  I bid on this shift just so I could take him with me to Lake Charles.”

John had always figured Daddy sort of owned the engine, the way he loved it and talked about it.  He didn’t know who this superintendent was, but John has just learned that whomever the boss was, John was more important that day and I could hear it in his voice and see it in his face as he continued to share his story with me.

“I stayed quiet and slunk down lower to be sure I wasn’t the cause of any trouble.  I kept my eyes peeled as I watched Daddy shove a lever up, hit another lever that caused a bell to ring and finally hit a rope hanging from the ceiling to blow the whistle. 

That bell ringing, that lonesome whistle blowing, boy, was I in hog heaven!” 

John was squirming in that cubbyhole; he wanted to stand next to Daddy with his hand on the throttle, looking down those tracks like he was in charge of the world. The wheels hit the tracks--click, click, click. 

Every now and then, Daddy would hit the whistle while he and Mr. Cole made small talk.  The clicking was getting faster and faster--clickety, click, clickety, click.  The engine was swaying from side to side, like a rocking chair with the increasing speed as they left town.  Daddy motioned John out of the cubbyhole.

“Come on up here, boy.  You are going to have to do some work.”

John wondered what kind of work he could do on an engine, but he was ready to try anything.  He clambered up, stood next to Daddy and waited for any instructions to come.

“Anytime you see a road or a highway crossing these tracks, you need to flip this lever right here so the bell will ring; then you pull this string here.  Pull it as hard as you can, a couple of times, because that is the whistle. 

"We are required by law to do these things at every crossing so if there is a car coming, the driver will know we are coming and will stop the car.  We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

John was liking this job.  By the time they left Alexandria the train was barreling down the tracks with the engine swaying from side to side; John noticed the lever Daddy was pushing had eight notches on it.

“What’s that lever for – the one you are pushing, Daddy?”

“Well, that tells us how fast we’re going, like a speedometer on the car.  We started out at one and you can see we’re at four now.  If we got to eight, we might be flying.”   

Daddy chuckled, as did Mr. Cole.  John was thinking this day might be the best he ever had.

 He kept a close eye on the lever and, even though he never liked speed in a car, somehow it seemed all right there in the engine.  When Daddy reached the sixth notch, the engine quit swaying and began to go up and down.  It felt good to John, but he noticed that Mr. Cole’s smile had gotten a bit strained.

“Uncle Johnny, you don’t think there is anybody out here today checking speed, do you?”

“Oh no.  I’m watching.  I don’t know why they worry so much about it. 

You know, Cole, I started out on a steam engine.  They had sorry track, sorry cross ties, and they let us run just as fast and as far as we wanted to go.  Now, we got the best tracks, the best cross ties, the best railroad beds and they want us to hold back to sixty-five miles per hour. 

I think we will stretch this thing out a little bit and then, just outside of Lake Charles, I’ll cut her back a little.  The orders say we have a passenger train coming in the other direction and we are going to have to get on a sidetrack anyway.”

He pulled out his watch at the same time Mr. Cole pulled his out. 

“It’s nine sixteen and we ought to hit Lake Charles at eleven nineteen.”  

When railroad men told time, it was never eleven fifteen or ten o’clock; it was something real precise, like eleven fifty-nine or ten eighteen.  Engines had no radios, so everything was scheduled by the pocket watches the engineers carried.  All engineers were required to have their watches checked for accuracy once a month by railroad officials.  At each check, the engineer was given a Health Certificate to be carried with his watch and available for random checks by supervisors. 

Daddy enjoyed getting his watch checked and George Alexander, the watchmaker used by many of the Alexandria railroad men.    He usually found it within four or five seconds of the exact railroad time. Railroad men wore their watches with pride.

“Cole, does your watch match mine?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then we’re okay.”  

Daddy’s confident look and Mr. Cole’s one foot resting on the dash eliminated any fears John might have had.  Daddy continued to explain the engine to him.

“Son, you see this pedal down here that I have my foot on?”

“Yeah, I see it.  What is that – another gas pedal?”

“No, this is the dead man.  I have my foot on this pedal and, if I were to fall dead, my foot would come off of it.  The engine would begin to stop and prevent a runaway engine.”

That sounded cold to John. He didn’t like the sound of dead man because he surely did not want anything to happen to Daddy, not on account of that engine, but because we sort of needed him at home.

“You know, I’m feeling pretty good and my foot is getting tired of holding down this dead man pedal.  Hey, Cole, hand me my dead man stick.”

Mr. Cole handed him a stick someone had whittled out to fit.  Daddy braced it under the dash onto the dead man pedal before he relaxed and took his foot off. 

“Boy, we were moving on; we would see a crossing and I would put the bell on and hit the whistle. Looking down the tracks, three little black boys playing got Daddy’s attention.”

“Son, this ain’t no street crossing, but you never know what kids will do.  Hit that bell, give four or five shorts and two or three longs on the horn.”

John liked that and I could hear it in his voice as he continued the story.

“Just before we got into good sight of those boys, Daddy leaned way over; I flipped the bell on and hit the whistle.   

When those kids looked up, they could only see me driving the engine. They pointed, laughing and waving at me and a grin covered my face when I waved back.  Once out of their sight, Daddy settled back in his seat and began to slow the train.  He and Mr. Cole pulled out their watches and verified the time for each other.” 

“We are going to have to get on the sidetrack because we have one coming through.”

John was animated as he related what happened next.

“The switchman leaped off the slowing train and trotted over to throw the switch, a big lever that looked something like a bow tie until it was thrown; he had a special 'switch key' he carried on ring of keys.  Then it went crosswise the track and eased the train off to the side.  I bet we hadn’t been there a minute when we saw the other train coming towards us.”

“Before this train comes by, you need to get back in that cubbyhole, son.”

“I did.  I could hear that train just a `whooshing’; it sounded close enough to touch.  Daddy hit the whistle with a couple of shorts and gave the other engineer a deliberate wave.  The train gone, the switchman threw the switch back and we eased on the main track again with our string of passenger cars.”

”You see, son, how we are going up a little hill here?  The driver wheels on this engine are made out of steel and the tracks are made out of steel.  When you are pulling a hill like this with this kind of load, you gotta get traction.  See, this other little lever up here?  That’s sand.  Flip that lever toward the door.”

John reached and flipped it and felt the engine wheels start to catch, to pull instead of slipping.

“You just put sand on the rails for me. That gives us traction and, once we get our momentum again, you can turn off the sand.”

It wasn’t long before the side-to-side swaying was replaced by up and down and Daddy told John to cut off the sand.  Mr. Cole’s face betrayed his worries about our speed.

“I hope there is not an inspector back there.  If there is, he may say something.  What do you think?”

“No.  I looked around and checked all of the pastures.  There was no inspector around there.”

“Daddy, if there were somebody wondering how fast you were going, how could he tell for sure?”

Daddy pulled out his watch and gave John the equation for figuring the speed. 

“Look at your watch and count how many telephone poles the engine passes in one minute.  You divide the result by the right number and you have the speed of the train.  But these are good tracks; they are not like they used to be.”

He went through that story again with Mr. Cole and Mr. Cole seemed placated.

 “Oh, yeah, Uncle Johnny, I know you know what you are doing.”

“Cole, do you know who they call when water goes over the tracks on that Monroe run?”


“They call me.  You saw the steam engine down at the roundhouse?  You can’t run one of these diesels in high water. They will short out and won’t go.  When they must make a run and there is water on the tracks, they use that steam engine; they call me to drive it. 

"I get back on a steam engine and it’ll go through water above the cowcatcher.  I’m about the only one left to run a steam engine.”

John felt good again, so proud of his Daddy, his chest almost burst.  He thought daddy can do just about anything when it comes to railroading.  They rolled on in and Daddy put John back in the cubbyhole when they got into Lake Charles.  He pulled out his watch.

“I’m right on time.  Cole, you know, I am the only hogshead who can stay this close to schedule every time.”

Railroad engineers were called hogsheads and Daddy liked to talk about himself a little bit.  Mr. Cole laughed and, since John was back there where he couldn’t be seen, he grinned too. 

Daddy told him to keep his seat until he signaled him to come out.  He got off, Mr. Cole got off and John was hoping he would not leave him there long because the engine was running.  Directly, Daddy crawled up the ladder and motioned him to come on down.

As he climbed down the ladder, Daddy said “Let’s go get us a hamburger.”

John described the lunch in detail, going out to eat in another town was new to John. 

“We walked into a nearby café where everybody knew him.  The waitresses, the cashier, everybody was saying, `Hey, Uncle Johnny’ and he was waving and saying hello to everybody.  Those striped overalls, long sleeved white shirt and that railroad cap and I just loved him so much.  They asked about me.”

“Oh, I had to bring some help with me this time.  This was a tough run.”

“They rubbed me on the head and a couple of the waitresses hugged and kissed me.  I liked it, but I was embarrassed too.  Everybody was so friendly with me and Daddy.   Daddy bought a hamburger for each of us and got me a Grapette.  We ate and talked and it was good.”

“Well, we have about a half-hour or an hour to kill.  We need to get back to the roundhouse because I need to talk to the hogshead who is going to take the train back.  We are going to deadhead.”

That meant the engineer who brought the train up was going to ride back in a passenger car.  Daddy walked up to the assigned engineer and they stepped off out of John’s earshot, but he was watching every move.  The engineer pointed to a guy standing over at the ticket window and Daddy walked over there.  John heard that guy talking to Daddy.

 “Hey, Uncle Johnny.  Did you bring that one in?”

“Yeah.  I brought it in.  Are you the conductor going back?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be punching the tickets.”

Daddy touched him on the shoulder and they walked away where John couldn’t hear their conversation, but it wasn’t long before they headed back to where John was standing.

“So, this is the help you have?”

“Yeah.  This is it.  We are deadheading back on your train.”

He tousled John’s hair and goosed him around a little bit; he was an older man and friendly.  Daddy and John got on the train and found seats.   John had some questions.

“Is the conductor the boss?”

“Oh, no.  They argue about that a lot of times, but anybody knows the man who has the throttle is the boss.  Now, if you asked him, he would probably say he is the boss, but his job is just to tend to these passengers.”

The train pulled out and they headed toward Alexandria.  John noticed the passenger cars didn’t sway back and forth and then go up and down like the engine did when Daddy was at the throttle; they just kept swaying from side to side.  Daddy pulled out his watch, counted the telephone poles and moaned and groaned about how these new hogsheads drove. 

“You know, son, I don’t know how these new boys even pass an examination.”

“What do you mean, Daddy?”

“Well, they drag along on these fine tracks.  They got fine roadbeds, the best cross ties and they act like they’re afraid to run the engine.”

“Did you take an examination to run the train?”

“Yes, sir, I did.  Passed with flying colors, too.  Hogsheads today have the best equipment in the world and they don’t know what to do with it.   When all we had was steam engines, the railroad bosses stayed out of your business.  They let you run the train. The engineer was in charge.  Now, you gotta watch for some inspector, some supervisor, somebody who don’t know nothing, but wants to tell you everything.

"You know the railroad is gonna make me retire when I’m seventy and I’ve forgotten more about running these trains than these young fellas ever learned.”

“Why would they make you retire if you don’t want to?”

He sorta laughed and looked far away.

“Well, it’s the union contract.  Seventy seemed a lot further away when I voted for it.”

They rode along quiet-like for a while and then he started in again on the railroad.  Finally, they got back to Alexandria and pulled into the station.  The conductor got off and put down the step. John started to run on off because they were in the first seat, but Daddy held held back.

“Let the passengers go first.  They are paying and we are just deadheading.”

They stood back and let everybody off before they got off.  When they stepped down, the conductor turned John’s cap sideways.

“I sure enjoyed meeting your help, Uncle Johnny.”

“I sure appreciate what you did.”

John couldn’t figure out anything he did but sit back there in the back of the car with his hands folded on his stomach looking as if he were half asleep.  They walked out to the car, got in and headed back to Tioga. 

John told me about the ride home and how different it was from the day before.

“Daddy was real quiet, driving with the window down and his elbow resting on the ledge.  Daddy rolled his cheek in one hand and drove with the other, an obvious signal to me of serious thinking.  

"I got a little jumpy when he did that, but I never asked if anything was wrong.  I knew there was and was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what.”

“You know, son, I told you there are rules that everybody has to live by.”
“Yes, sir.”

“Well, every now and then, you see a rule that needs to be broken to make somebody else happy or help somebody.  Do you know what I mean?”

“No, sir.  Do you mean I can break the rules sometime if somebody else wants me to?”

“If breaking that rule doesn’t hurt anybody, then it needs to be broken.  It is hard to tell those kinds of rules, but they are out there.  When you get older and have your judgment, you will know that every now and then there is a rule that needs to be broken. 

I broke a rule today.”

“You did!”

“Yeah.  I broke one today.”

“What rule was that, Daddy?”

“Did you have fun?”

“I had a lot of fun.  I would like to go every time.”

“You can’t go every time, but I am glad you had fun.”

“What rule did you break today, Daddy?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

Nothing else was said and they pulled into Billips--about a mile from home—where he ordered a cup of coffee for him and a Grapette for John.  He motioned the enormous waitress over to their table.

“Ruby, take a look at this boy’s hair.  Isn’t it pretty?”

John’s head was covered with cowlicks going in every direction and, to his chagrin, his hair was always source of amusement to Daddy.  He ducked down a bit and looked off as if he hadn’t even heard him.

“Well, yes sir, Mr. Yeager, that boy does have some pretty hair.  Wish mine was that color.”

  Daddy laughed and she did too as she took a seat at the table with them.  They shared some small talk, he finished his coffee and they went on home.

That was a day to remember!



My dad is the middle one in the attached picture. i did not have a close 'do-stuff-together' relationship with my dad. Dad's didn't often have those sorts of relationships with their daughters during my teenage years and in my community. But I lived all of John's adventures vicariously as he shared them with me. This is one of my favorite.
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