RyPN Articles August 8, 2006
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Accidentally On Purpose... MTV meets Texas State RR
Before I get wound up telling stories and showing pictures, I want to thank the many RyPN readers who have supported the online petition effort to save the Texas State Railroad from threatened closure, and the RyPN organization as a whole. We chose this particular time to run this material because it is still possible for anybody who wishes to help this cause to join in with us. While it is very hard to even decide where to begin telling TSRR stories, I settled on making my case with this one because it's kind of sentimental, kind of typical, and kind of unusual. Hopefully you will enjoy these pictures taken in odd moments during my two years as a Texas State Park Ranger, and this rambling recollection of a loyal, proud ex employee. And thanks in advance to everybody who passes the word about the TSRR petition to somebody else at this critical time.
The very last time that I worked on a steam movement over the Texas State Railroad was an accident, although I became involved on purpose. Unlike so many of the other adventures I had during the time I worked there, it won't be necessary to censor this one (much) or leave out any of the juicy details. Matter of fact, this is a rarity among all my railroad experiences in general for just this very reason. It sure is hard to believe that this all happened almost a decade ago now, when the TSRR was probably at an all time peak right around the Centennial celebration in 1996. How time flies. You've no doubt heard the saying, "I'm too old to work, and too poor to retire..."
During the summers, all of our operating/mechanical workers were concentrated on meeting our scheduled services, two trains each way between Rusk and Palestine, five days a week, powered by steam. Most of the fellas senior to me had 10 or 20 years of full time, professional steam experience, so I started as a hostler. After 13 years of beating the reaper and staying out of trouble on the BN, this was like Gilligan's Island with steam engines for me. The guys were good teachers as well as good railroaders, and I eventually got a few turns working as a machinist, firing, or running. Not only were there no blizzards in Cherokee County, but this was a stable, good paying job that allowed me to experience sleeping at night in a bed like normal people do, too. After the tourist season ended, we all took our vacations and then put in our time working in the shops preparing for next year. All of the work was important, but a lot of it was boring, such as painting cars and repairing coach seats, and keeping the shop clean, etc. Of course, most of us enjoy that part a lot less than we enjoy the part about blowing the whistle and waving at pretty girls as we drive down the track. It was early during one such dull shift that my friend Weldon Wallace asked me if I wanted to trade jobs with him for the day. He's a nice enough guy, but I'd been railroading long enough to know he wasn't likely to be motivated by charity. Naturally, I asked what the catch was.
Weldon, or Junior as he was usually called, is a master oil burning locomotive fireman, and he had patiently taught me most of what I know on the subject. With a slightly guilty grin he replied that he would rather redo coach seats than make another trip on #201, which had been assigned to him for a movie shoot that day. He also said he was sick of doing movies, idling for hours in between making nauseatingly thick clouds of phony looking smoke, and that since nobody senior to me wanted any part of it, I was his only hope. Since I was too bored to even enjoy my coffee, I gladly accepted his magnanimous offer.
This engine is a real high drivered, stylish aristocrat, having been built as passenger power for the Texas and Pacific, and ending her service on the big railroad by working the branch lines of Texas and Louisiana. #201 is slippery and fast, and equipped with a most authoritative sounding six chime whistle. She was really the engine that got the TSRR going, and was used more than any of our other locomotives for Hollywood westerns, etc. However, #201 for many good reasons has received more cussing over the years than all the other TSRR engines combined, and was generally despised by everybody who could be held responsible for her. Something out of the ordinary usually happened every trip, although you could count on her being hard to handle, rough riding, and a certifiable nuisance to work on. When she was parked, she was prone to starting large diesel fires under the cab, which grew rapidly, threatening to consume the rubber fuel hose, tender, locomotive, and all creation itself. When she didn't catch herself and everything anywhere near the track on fire, her fire was inclined to woof itself out completely, then relight with either a fireball, or a terrifying explosion, or both. She was built in an era of wooden passenger cars, and the only way to make enough steam to get her over the road with a few heavyweights was to bump the fire up until flames shot out from under her rear end for several feet in all directions. It was even said that #201 must be haunted because a workman had been killed while restoring her for service on the TSRR. My engineer for the day, Roger Grahm, always liked to say that "#201 is like a snake --- It'll reach out and bite you." I always came to work early if I had to deal with #201. She never gave me any trouble that way. But, if I reported ON TIME, it was always TOO LATE for #201....
Employees see and experience exponentially more than park visitors can, and I had seen the beautiful side of #201 during my two years in Dogwood country. I had already decided to leave after the first of the year, and I knew I'd miss the place. It was a cloudy, rainy day, and I thought about all the other days I had serviced, fired, run and ridden steam courtesy of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept. It was really hard to pick a favorite memory, but the first student trip I made as a fireman had included a luckily timed perfect running meet between the eastbound and westbound trains. I felt that I was back in the fifties as we eased into Mewshaw, hanging off #500's bottom step and feeling for the roadbed with the toes of my trailing foot. After dropping off at the west switch and lining #201 out of the siding once the eastbound cleared, I caught her gangway as she beat it for Palestine. By this time in railroad history, the same class one that had trained me to safely get on and off moving equipment had prohibited that practice. Watching the world from on top of the gently swaying tender, I knew then that the past was soon to be gone forever, even as both engines crossing whistles still sounded, getting further and further apart....
Our movie train was typical, two combines for camera gear, and a coach for the crew. The information we got was that the project was to be a video for European MTV of a female punk singer from Germany doing a version of Muddy Water's classic blues, Hootchie Cootchie Man. The part I thought would be fun involved deliberately running over a pretty nice Ford Ranger pickup (full size, too) parked on Oakland Crossing. The motor had been removed, and the special effects guys had rigged some plastic explosives to go off when we hit, and some cans of diesel fuel to catch fire. After all these years in railroading constantly on guard to prevent accident, injury, death and destruction of all imaginable variety, and otherwise, I was going to really enjoy this. At the time I figured that it would be my last revenue trip ever, but it turns out that I was to use my steam experience one more time, firing for Ferrovias Guatemala a few years later.
My friends, JC Jones, Cleo Cox, Wesley Dearman, Roger Grahm, Junior, and Moze Tinsley all helped me get #201 out of hibernation and heated up. I didn't have to do very much besides drink coffee and take turns telling stories. It seems like Bill Langford, Rusk depot agent, was conductor. We grabbed our cars and coasted downhill to the station, spotted the baggage doors by the loading dock, picked up our train orders, and waited for the highball. A cool wet wind shook the tops of the trees, and slivers of lightning stirred up the livestock. It hadn't been too long before, on a day like this, that I'd begged a chance to run #500 light while breaking in a rod brass. A broken down old gelding bolted, jumped out of his pen by the track, and raced us up Oakland Hill running on my side. I slowed down as soon as possible, and he jumped in front of us just about the time we reached the top. Just missed him. Roger asked me why I'd dumped the air, then looked at me like I was nuts when I told him.
Even though we had only three cars, #201 had a hard time on the wet rails, and she spun and stalled and struggled all the way to the top. I gave up on following the throttle settings --- under these conditions you just let the stack clear when she spins, the fire goes out, then she catches the rail, the fire explodes and smoke boils, then she spins out again, and so on. Fighting it just makes it worse. We finally pitched over and Roger made a set, bringing us to an easy stop at Oakland Crossing. They were all there. Our bosses and their sidekicks, film producers, special effects specialists, paramedics, paralegals, innocent bystanders, all manner of cops, game wardens, cameramen, towtrucks, firetrucks, ambulances, and the star of this production were all waiting for us. We had a little talk with Curtis Pruett, Park Superintendent, and laid our plans. Roger loves having his picture taken, and he was on the same side as the cameras and the truck. He was planning to stick his head out the window. Not me. My approach was different. I was going to have as clean a fire as possible climbing up Oakland. It seems like maybe Jimmy Mosley got his track crew to put some sand down near the summit for us, which helped me out somewhat. Anyhow, after we went over, I was going to start the injector and stand in the gangway ready to kill the fuel and jump in case of derailment. I wasn't going to bump the fire down, but just hold onto the ripcord while ready on the ladder, within reach of the fuel shutoff valve. This was the safest course for me, and would also result in huge clouds of nauseatingly thick phony smoke for the pictures of the collision. Curtis said that would be fine, he'd radio us when they were ready.
Our other expert steam engineer at the time, Moze Tinsley, came up from the shop with the boys to watch the fun. It's rumored that he asked Curtis if he could do anything to help, and was told to go sit in the truck...
While this was happening, we backed up and got ready for the demolition derby. The boss called us, and we went for it, making no attempt to stop until well after the collision. The main event just didn't turn out to be all that thrilling for me, since it happened on my blind side and we stayed on the track. Roger got a face full of fire, though. When he jumped over to the middle of the cab, I knew we were rolling past the crossing, and resumed normal operating procedure. Of course, on #201, being ready to kill the fire and jump for your life IS normal operating procedure.
When we went through Oakland, it was just like stirring an anthill with a stick, and the crossing was swarming with people when we shoved back to get the crew. The fire trucks put the fire out after everybody got pictures. Then the hazmat guys disposed of the unburned diesel, and the paramedics confirmed that we survived. Three of our employees, Carl Perry, Danny Byrd, and Bill Langford, took VHS movies of the crash from the opposite side of the track from the movie crew. This means that they all had a perfect view of me on this glorious occasion, and fortunately for the world, got tape of it. Even though our guys all stood next to each other, they all videoed everything differently, and each of their home movies looked pretty cool. The park made them all into a little program, and gave me a copy before I left, which is highly appreciated.
#201 had a bent pilot step and some slop on her face, but was otherwise none the worse for wear. After we loaded everybody back up, we headed west over Fairchild Hill, and down into the thriving metropolis of Maydelle, Texas. The MTVers wanted to get some chase scene pictures there, and they had another Ford Ranger that looked pretty much like the one we just clobbered. (Seems like they could have got by with only one truck if they had done the chase scenes FIRST, but nobody asked me.) Anyway, Roger went over to the store, leaving me and #201 alone together for one last time. Not to miss a chance, she refused to stop smoking for the pictures, since they now (of course) wanted absolutely no smoke. I had to go get Roger, who had to interrupt his lunch to come back over and adjust #201's fire. Only thing is, that she stopped smoking right exactly when he got there, and he didn't need to do anything. Typical, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Since there were lots of emergency personnel around, help was at the ready if #201 had caused us any real trouble. She got more enjoyment out of bothering Roger while he was eating, and making me look dumb in front of all those people. Like I said, typical.
We turned her on the table, tied onto our cars, made and tested the air, and got 'em rolling back toward Rusk. Everything went smoothly the last time I kept #201's crownsheet covered, kept her stack clear, and held her right at 5 pounds under MAWP while flames shot out from under her rear end for several feet in all directions. Back at the shop, we wyed her, ran around our train, and sawed back and forth until all the cars were back in the correct storage tracks. Then, we eased out to the gate and locked up, and took #201 back up to the shop and got her ready for bed. By then it was coffee time, so we made sure to respect that custom. Before we went home, we warmed up the crease in #201's pilot step with a rosebud, then Roger looped a chain around it, and I yanked it back into line with the little forklift, good as new.
A few months later, I came back to Rusk for one last visit when they were running another special with #201. The FRA man happened to be there the same day, so he got my cab ride. I settled for waiting in the woods at Fairchild Hill and watching the beautiful spectacle of #201 blasting over the top with three cars doing track speed. I hope I live to see it again someday. Before I left, Roger Grahm and his wife Carol took me to lunch at the Texas Burger in Rusk. We had a chance to catch up, so I asked if he ever saw the video we made for MTV at Oakland crossing. He said yes, but that it was only on European MTV. The tape was all reversed and speeded up, so that it looked like the fireball was sucked into the truck, which appeared to jump backwards up out of the bar ditch, hit the train backing up as fast as it could go, and land in one piece back on the track without a scratch on it. The end of the scene showed all that smoke and fire being sucked back into #201's smokestack, while we highballed at double track speed backwards up Oakland Hill. At the very end of the video, which is really the beginning of the story, the cops start chasing the bad guy. At least, that's the way I remember it, and I was there....
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