The Main Line Maestro


THE MAIN LINE MAESTRO
by
Dwight Hilson

Jim Hollingsworth couldn’t remember ever sleeping past sunrise; the anticipation of running machines bigger than life overpowered any dream. He arose bedside and watched Delores roll herself into a cocoon with splotchy, frayed hotel sheets; even mummified that girl had curves to stop a freight train. He’d met her at a bar near the Jacksonville yard, another comely lady looking to catch a ride with a locomotive jockey (one of the perks from a job that often left you hundreds of miles from home), but Delores was becoming sort of a regular, which, in Jim’s experience, was worse than losing your brakes on a long downgrade. Not like he’d ever leave Brenda; hell, they’d even talked about starting a family. No, railroad tarts liked a challenge, and once they’d coupled up, they were hard to cut loose. Delores could move her hips like a pile driver, but her talents weren’t worth risking a high-speed derailment. Rising early was a gift that had helped Jim escape most entanglements.

He quietly reached behind his shoulder and pulled over the straps for his blue jean overalls—hard to believe how fast that stiff, navy cotton loosened up softer than the silk in a Carolina cathouse when rubbed against railroad iron. And Jim had been rubbing against trains since the day he was born, feet first—never to meet a mother who wouldn’t survive delivering a baby facing the wrong direction. Relatives told him he was “the light at the end of the tunnel,” as if he needed consoling, but for as long as Jim could remember, the only family he ever wanted worked on the Panama Limited, the train his dad ruled as senior conductor, in charge of passengers and trainmen alike, where even the engineer wouldn’t move until his dad gave the signal. Jim grew up on the rails, speeding between New Orleans and Chicago, the conductors and brakemen his teachers, the colored porters and stewards his brothers, and the baggage coach a living room where he first heard a harmonica and washboard soar higher than a symphony.

The brass hoops on Jim’s coverall straps hooked onto the front fasteners with an oily click, and Delores groaned to life. “I swear you trainmen are all alike. You love them steam engines more than women. You know your wife knows you’s a no-good cheat, don’t ya?”

“How you figure, Delores?” So much for leaving unscathed.

“All women know. Only a fool thinks she can control an engineer. How could any woman compete with all that power? Makes a man loopy if ya ask me, like ya got your own rules. Best make sure you don’t steer off them tracks, Mister Jim Hollingsworth.”

“Delores, there ain’t no steering wheel on a locomotive.” Good thing her body had more bends than the Blue Ridge Highway, ’cause you could see straight through her ears.

Delores giggled and flailed her arms in the twisted sheets. “Why don’t ya just leave that wife of yours and move in here with me?”

There was that moist-lip smile: equal parts tempting and chancy. “Now, hon, don’t you start in with that. I got a train to catch.”

“That’s what you always says. Maybe I should just ride on down to Tampa and find your wife.”

If Delores tried that she wouldn’t know what hit her. Brenda’d put her down like a Joe Louis uppercut—and then come after him. He’d need to uncouple her caboose—soon enough. Jim pulled from his chest pocket a tarnished, round watch (inherited during the war when the great trains stopped running and his dad followed suit) and unlatched the front cover. “We’ll discuss all that next week. Make sure you try those oranges I brought you.”

“Oranges!” Delores crossed her arms and stuck her hands into her armpits, scrunching up her ample chest. “Jim, we got oranges here in Jacksonville. What kinda present is that?”

“That ain’t no present.” Jim snapped the watch closed. “A passenger left ’em on the train.”

“Freight trains don’t carry no passengers.” Delores pulled her knees to her chest, hiding the view.

He mumbled, not wanting to get into it, “Well, sometimes I give them colored migrants a ride.”

“Just like I said: you engineers think ya got your own rules.”

“I gotta go, Delores. Here’s a sawbuck. Buy yourself something pretty.” Jim patted a folded bill on the dresser, flashed a broad smile, and unwrapped the cellophane from a stubby cigar. “Enjoy them oranges,” he said and shut the door behind him.

Across from the hotel a hulking, black locomotive sat blocking the searing sunrise; a column of gray-black coal smoke belched skyward, steam pressure on the rise in its boiler. Delores was right about one thing: nothing felt better than easing back the throttle lever on 45,000 pounds of tractive force. Sometimes it seemed that those drive wheels helped rotate the Earth, and at full speed there wasn’t anything could stop it—you just never tired of the sensation.

Jim flipped open a scratched Zippo lighter (a souvenir from hauling men and supplies between Army bases and Navy ships during the war) and fired up the cigar end—the bitter smoke tasting better than greasy grits and bacon. He exhaled a thunderhead into the thick, stubborn air and hurried across the road to the rail yard.

***

Throughout the Seaboard Air Line’s Jacksonville marshaling yard, switcher locomotives, half as big as their main line brothers, puffed and chugged about on never-ending chores to organize branch line arrivals on to their next long-haul movement. Nearest to a clapboard yard tower coated with a generation of coal dust, the hostlers dumped fireboxes, ignited fresh fires, lubricated, and prepared the big boys for another chance at the main line. And just beyond, a baker’s dozen tracks pulsated with all manner of rolling stock: saffron, black-and-green, wood-slatted boxcars, miles of dented, gray gondolas—northbound ones filled with phosphorous ore, heading to fertilizer plants in Georgia or farther north still; southbound gondolas empty for the deadhead back to central gator-state quarries—flatcars piled with building supplies, tankers filled with liquids—some sweet, some sour—reefers dripping condensation from iceboxes or newer ’frigerator units, and more hopper cars than a cracker could count.

Jim’s forearms twitched. Only sight better was watching countryside speed by as you highballed down the line, coal smoke and steam vanishing alongside in a blur. There just wasn’t any better job.

He chewed his cigar, clamored up the yard tower stairs, and waded into the office air, already stale with the odor of sullied shirts and ancient coffee. Buddy Kitts was on duty, and, seeing Jim, he tipped his straw porkpie hat, the one with a sweat-stain wreath that should’ve been roasted in a firebox years ago. “Well, it looks like you’ve gone off and become a celebrity, Jimmy boy. Looky here at yesterday’s Wildwood Reporter.”

“Hell, I didn’t know you could read, Buddy.” Jim poured a mug of oil-dark coffee.

“This here says you been makin’ friends all along the main line.”

“I’ve been tryin’ to keep that a secret.”

“No. You ain’t in no trouble that way.” Buddy handed over the newspaper, wrinkled and folded to a quarter size.

Jim fixed on the biggest headline: “Main Line Maestro Serenades Central Counties.” He grinned.

About time someone noticed how he made that whistle sing; Jim had performed his rail-crossing music going on three years. Started fooling with it during the war; not in the fort yards, where officers might write him up, but out on the main line after furloughs in Memphis, Nashville, or New Orleans. That’s where he found nightclubs playing the music he remembered from the Limited—Gershwin of the club coach and Ellington with the coloreds—melodies that always masked the apprehension of hard times. He figured a steam whistle just might be coaxed to sing a bit.

“We guess they talkin’ about you,” Buddy shouted. He walked over to Jim and tilted his hat back.

“JR didn’t take the news too kindly. Thought you’d like to know.”

JR must be pissed off big time if he let Buddy see him angry. Damn good fireman—Jim never needed to nurse the steam pressure—but JR was the quiet sort and never smiled when hearing Jim’s music. All JR wanted was his own train and probably felt Jim’s antics might ruin the chance. “JR’s all right. Just think he’s been fireman too long. Hard to keep stoking all that steam when you really want to send it to the wheels.”

“Well, the steam days are numbered, Jim. Diesels are takin’ over fast.” Buddy slapped a clipboard with the day’s running schedule into Jim’s hand. “The Silver Meteor’s gonna pass you today, makin’ its first run with that new Electro Motive diesel. Should be quite a sight; signals will put you on a siding just to git ya out of the way. Pretty soon we’ll be buying freight diesels, and both you boys best sign up or switch to mining phosphate.”

Jim spat coffee grinds back into his cup and scanned the running orders. “Won’t be the same, for sure. I rode one of them diesel switchers at Fort Bragg in ’45, mighty powerful and easy to drive. Lousy whistle though.” He smiled.

Buddy stared clear straight through him. “Listen, Jim, it’s one thing to make a whistle sing and another bein’ late. Better concentrate on being on time for a change.”

***

Jim stuffed the day’s consist manifest and Reporter article into his overall pocket and bound down the yard tower steps. The yard smelled like tar bubbling sweet and acrid on a South Georgia rooftop—an acquired taste, for sure. Even ocean breezes couldn’t clear the air any better than rain showers washed away dirt. The coal tipple, water tower, and especially the turntable stayed covered in dust, grease, and grime, but engineers breezed past like monarchs that dirt dare not soil, their boots crunching coal cinders (round as peas) with every satisfying step. Jim was one of them and couldn’t wait to grip the locomotive’s throttle and feel the vibration.

JR Johnston, Jim’s fireman for near two years, finished easin’ SAL #847 off the turntable; her cattle catcher now headed back toward Tampa. The yard hostler usually turned the locomotive, a Richmond-built 4-6-2 Pacific blessed with rail-meltin’ power, but JR grabbed every opportunity to engage the throttle, even if for only a few feet at a snail’s crawl.

Jim couldn’t blame him; she was quite a sight: two stories tall and 150 tons of pig-iron heavy. All that metal caged a boiler as simple as Grandma’s teakettle, but capable of enough steam pressure to haul 100 freight cars—or blow down a brick building if the steam weren’t managed right. And she had a special rhythm, almost intoxicating: the firebox roared, a generator whizzed, and compressors pumped, all sounds that reminded Jim of the colored jazzmen he heard in backroom nightclubs during the war.

Before Pearl Harbor you wouldn’t think about crossing the tracks to hear that music, but the war seemed to get everyone on the same side (at least for a while). Jim reckoned he’d test Brenda with a first date in a tough part of Fayetteville, but damn if she didn’t flinch at the suggestion. She baked for soldiers at the fort and was used to men raising their hackles like roosters on the prowl. When Jim tried to impress with a speech about the “big equipment” he handled, she just shook her head and laughed. Brenda owned attitude in spades, but it was her eyes, too green to be true, that left him tongue-tied and nervous, like a virgin schoolboy. And when the liquor flowed and the band kicked in, that girl had more confidence than a straight flush. Jim didn’t wait for a second date to propose.

JR peered down from the locomotive cab, and Jim raised his hand in a hello salute. JR turned his back and pulled the airbrake lever, releasing a whoosh of air that rushed from behind the wheels. #847 squealed to a stop and Jim pulled himself up the iron railings beside the locomotive cab.

JR’s expression looked tighter than a shrunken head, but not being cordial was downright disrespectful. Instead, JR cranked the firebox lever handle, and a red-orange glow poured into the locomotive cab, illuminating sweat beads on his shiny forehead. He thrust a 15-foot iron hoe rod into the firebox, pushing and pulling like a possessed gardener, heat filling the cab with each stroke. In one final motion JR yanked the rod out and clanged the firebox shut; the gleam on his glasses changed to shark’s-eye black. He was an ornery cuss but could sure burn coal.

JR was no six-footer like Jim, but stood thick as a sycamore stump, with forearms that stretched even a trainman’s baggy shirtsleeves. He’d hostled a bit around Fort Rucker during the war, but when Army discharge orders sent men scrambling for work, JR reckoned it was time to venture out of Alabama for a change. The Seaboard line needed trainmen, so JR set up camp near the Tampa terminal to wait for his turn at the throttle.

Jim bellowed through the hiss of venting steam, “Ready to roll?” He figured JR had to loosen up—eventually.

“Full head of steam. Maybe this time you won’t waste it all playin’ your whistle.” JR opened a valve above the firebox, releasing a hiss of water into the boiler.

At least that was a start. “You didn’t like them news people taking our notice? I thought you liked my signaling.”

JR stopped tightening valves; he looked madder than a fire ant. “No one can argue that you make her sing, but sometimes it sound like a darkie cryin’ over some cheatin’ whore! Maybe you could learn ‘Dixie.’”

From anyone else that would be a joke, but JR was serious. “I think ya know we lost that war, JR. Besides, we wouldn’t want to insult all them colored folks living by the tracks, would we?”

“It sure might keep ’em off our train—since you won’t.” JR turned away.

No use arguing, JR was in no mood for niceties. Best to just get on the road.

Right on schedule, Jim engaged the throttle, and #847 coughed out an eruption of coal smoke and steam. The drive cylinders pushed against a maze of groaning drive rods, and wheels taller than a man screeched in rebellion before accepting their purpose and turning in unison. Jim pulled the whistle cord, and a short signal rose slowly to a mad scream before diminishing to a whisper. JR just stared out his window.

They switched out of the service yard and ran over to track 10 to couple up to their consist, already marshaled, of 15 boxcars (some empty, others filled with building supplies), 25 deadhead gondolas, 10 grain hoppers, and a dozen or so flats covered with equipment, metal, and scrap.

With another baritone toot, Jim squeezed the locking ratchet release and pulled back the throttle lever arm. #847 strained against the string of cars as a chorus of squealing flanges bespoke movement. Jim opened the throttle wider, and the train accelerated out of the Jacksonville yard and onto the main line. As she gained speed, a funnel cloud of smoke bent back over the locomotive, and a cooling breeze swirled through the oven-baked cab.

They peered out their windows at the passing industry, which soon changed to single-story shanties with flaking paint and patched roofs. At every crossing Jim varied the required long-long-short-long signal, twisting the wail to imitate Woody Shaw’s clarinet or the shout of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Sometimes he imagined Sinatra crooning over the trackside farms and swamps, all the while thinking that since folks near the tracks weren’t likely to own radios, his hollering steam train might be the sweetest sound they’d hear until Sunday church. JR kept pretending not to notice.

They reached the outskirts of Jacksonville in no time and headed south toward the endless scrub pines, palmettos, and orange groves of central Florida. Hereabout, only a few months back, Jim noticed the colored migrants shuffling trackside. At first, their bowed heads and pocketed hands suggested aimlessness or maybe a fruitless attempt to grasp a refreshing breeze in the train’s wake, but with each passing, their heads rose higher, and once-mournful stares seemed replaced by arms waving with hope. Without fully realizing it, Jim had started slowing at their sight.

JR shouted at him over the rushing noise, “I hope you ain’t plannin’ to slow her down at Middleburg.”

Jim looked up the line and hollered back. “How else they gonna get home?” Part of him hoped they weren’t there today.

“I’ve tol’ you before, Jim, it ain’t right givin’ them a free ride. They ain’t good for nuthin’, and nuthin’ good can come of it!”

“What they ever do to you, JR? They’re just folks, like us.”

JR was primed for confrontation and shouted, “The hell they are. You got no right lettin’ ’em on this train.”

“They just tryin’ to make a go like anyone.” Jim figured to try reason, but knew it was probably a waste of time. “During the war, the coloreds signed up just like the rest of us. Hell, those Tuskegee pilots came from your Alabama!”

“It ain’t right, Jim. You can’t make your own rules. It ain’t right.” JR glowered and opened the firebox. “Keep us on time, Jim. That’s all I ask.”

At the next crossing Jim let the whistle sing like a soaring trumpet. JR would’ve started up again if he realized Jim imitated a colored musician, but JR just didn’t want to see what was coming, and even if he could see around the bend, it wasn’t any use discussing things. He wanted his own train, plain and simple.

Mile markers passed with precision until distant signal lights marked the Middleburg branch line junction. Jim pushed back the throttle and twisted the train brake lever, causing #847 to lurch as the mass of rolling stock pushed against the slowing locomotive.

He was glad JR’s view didn’t reveal the fuzzy forms emerging from the heat up ahead, but Jim figured JR knew what was up just the same. As the train slowed, three tattered Negroes sharpened into view: the tallest wore no shirt under his tan overalls, his bald head glistened in the rising sunshine, and the others looked disheveled, with boots lacking full laces and brown caps held tight to their chests. One carried a burlap bag stuffed with round fruit. Jim increased the brake pressure to a chorus of squealing metal, and she slowed to a steady crawl.

As the locomotive passed the three men, they started running alongside the track. Not four cars back of the engine, an empty boxcar caught up to the men, and they picked up their pace, crossing onto the ballast. One of the short ones grabbed the floor at the open car door and seemed to jump right into the boxcar. His hand shot out to pull in his companions, and, although Jim couldn’t be certain, he thought he saw a bald head lean out of the boxcar and nod.

JR never uttered a word, and Jim let #847 quicken down the main line.

***

They were highballing now, on schedule and busy, flying down the line. Jim held each whistle note just a touch longer, like a choir singer trying to be heard from the last row, and he wondered if his boxcar passengers could recognize the tunes.

JR just channeled coal and his anger into the firebox.

It was easy to get lost in the smoke and speed and all that thumping power; and Jim could read the track signals even before they came into view. He chuckled to himself and remembered how Brenda’s momma had cautioned her about wandering railroaders. But when she first saw Jim’s eyes straying, she just laughed and said, “Make sure you don’t wake the gator until you’re well across the bridge.” Fair warning and fitting for a working woman used to giving orders. Brenda cut a wide swath but still knew how to get her way while making Jim think it was his idea all along. She was way ahead of the times, and he knew that before long, she’d expect him to catch up.

#847 left a trail of coal dust and steam mist over the towns of Starke, Hawthorne, Ocala, and on past Wildwood. Wouldn’t be long before they met up with the Silver Meteor.

Afternoon thunderclouds started to filter the gleaming sun when signal lights below Leesburg beckoned to slow down and prepare to exit the main line at the Bushnell siding.

Jim needed 10 minutes to pull the train through the turnout and onto the siding; each car sidewinded through the switch, like an old copperhead slithering to hide under a patch of oak leaves. At full stop Jim mewled the whistle. JR walked to the steps behind Jim and leaned out. “I hear those new diesels run so fast, they want to fly off the rails.” His anticipation finally squelched the anger.

“I don’t think you need worry about that, JR, but I reckon we’ll miss her if we don’t pay attention.” Three black heads leaned out of the boxcar in expectation of what they could not know. JR saw them too but kept quiet.

Far back up the line, a pinpoint light sparkled through waves of heat mirage. Jim strained to separate the light from glare flashing off the rails until a passing cloud shaded the distant tracks, and the Meteor’s lamp glowed like Venus at twilight. “That’s her for sure, and she must be haulin’,” he yelled.

The Silver Meteor’s headlight grew brighter with each second; its beam pierced the humid air like a movie projector, and dust swirled out from under the rumbling locomotive. They could feel the vibration, and the diesel’s front windows soon appeared as eyes; a golden stripe seemed a mouth open to swallow anything in its way.

The trembling climbed as she first overtook their caboose, and, in a finger snap, the Meteor passed 60 cars. At the boxcar holding the three Negroes, her air horn let fly a piercing blast, louder than an air-raid siren, a twister of debris filled the space between the two trains, blurring the air, and a dark form jerked out of a boxcar and on to the ground. The diesel’s backwash sucked against #847. Jim held himself steady, and the Silver Meteor wailed by, echoing on down the main line and trailing chaos.

Trackside palmetto fronds slowed their frantic waving as the dust eddies settled.

Two Negroes jumped from their boxcar and huddled on the ground beside the train. Their companion lay motionless, and Jim thought he saw blood contrast against the dark railroad ties. The tall, shirtless Negro and another lifted their limp companion, his arms dangling, back onto the boxcar. They disappeared out of sight; a small brown cap remained trackside.

Jim’s stomach sank. What made them lean out? Couldn’t they see the Meteor’s speed?

Wouldn’t matter: they didn’t know why the train had stopped, let alone that a slipstream could suck a man off his feet.

Jim headed toward the cab steps. JR blocked his way. “We got to go help them,” Jim pleaded.

“I told you not to pick them up.” JR wouldn’t budge. “You can’t help them, ’cause they not ’sposed to be here in the first place. We’ll both lose our jobs, and we can’t be late. Let ’em fend for themselves.”

Jim felt helpless, and worse still, JR was right: it was his fault, and there wasn’t anything they could do. Train tracks were no place for good intentions. Jim looked out his window toward the Negroes’ boxcar. A single black head leaned out from the car, and he saw an arm waving the trainman’s up-and-down sign to proceed.

The throttle felt heavy and pushed back against Jim’s shaking arm. Wouldn’t do any good to let JR see his agitation. Luckily, his fireman was fixated on the firebox. Jim concentrated on holding his hand steady and let the locomotive leap down the main line.

He kept it wide open past Dade City and on through Zephyrhills, every few minutes pulling out his dad’s old watch to gauge time against mile markers. JR wouldn’t report the accident; no good could come from an investigation about a dead Negro migrant, but Jim worried just the same. His dad had slowed to a crawl once off the trains, and now Jim’s recklessness risked a similar fate. What was it Delores had said? “You engineers think ya got your own rules.” Damn, she was right, too. And not only that, his rules had switched to unfamiliar tracks. Even the Meteor’s new locomotive hinted of a path he’d need to understand—and fast.

All sudden-like, Jim couldn’t wait to see Brenda; she owned more common sense than a county judge and tolerated more than she deserved. They needed to reach Tampa on time; all he could do was slow down to let them off.

On the outskirts of Tampa, they reached the eastern branch main line to Miami, and Jim eased off the throttle. He saw the bald Negro lean out of the boxcar and released more brake pressure to slow the train even more. JR came over to the ladder rails and joined Jim to watch as the tall Negro slid out of the boxcar. His companion angled their injured friend’s legs out the door, and the tall one grabbed his shoulders as the limp torso flopped down. The final man jumped down and ran back to prop up their motionless companion. As their figures retreated in the distance, Jim and JR saw the two men drape their friend’s unmoving arms over their shoulders to support his body as they crossed the tracks and out of sight.

***

They reached the Tampa yard in less than 30 minutes and snaked the consist into the marshaling tracks. JR hopped down the steps, disconnected #847’s brake line hose, and pulled up the coupling release pin lever. He signaled the same up-and-down wave delivered by their passenger earlier that afternoon, and Jim throttled slowly away from the cars. JR scampered back into the cab and handed over a burlap bag full of oranges.

At the service yard, Jim and JR parked the locomotive and headed toward the office. JR had been quiet for going on an hour and now walked with an almost righteous calm. He stopped short and gripped Jim’s arm. “I want you to recommend me for engineer.”

The pressure was firm, and Jim couldn’t remember JR ever touching him. They had differences, but respect too. Jim said, “Sure, JR, I’ll put in the word. Guess we both better learn up on operating those diesels. Wouldn’t mind switching over to passenger service either. That Meteor locomotive was quite a sight, wasn’t it?”

Before JR could answer the Tampa yardmaster burst out the office door. “Well, I don’t know what’s more impressive, the Meteor’s new diesel or Jim Hollingsworth arriving on time!”

***

When Jim proposed to Brenda, she said yes, with the condition they move farther south at war’s end. That suited Jim fine, since running locomotives in ice just complicated matters, and he remembered that passenger moods on the Panama Limited sure improved more when heading south than trudging north. Marrying an engineer didn’t bother Brenda, even knowing their reputation. She planned to keep working anyway and found a job running the dining room at the Vinoy Park Hotel in St. Pete. They bought a house a short walk from the train yard, just far enough so Brenda didn’t have to smell coal smoke all the time. Of course, those new diesels would eliminate that problem. The bag of oranges sure felt heavy as he walked home, but was most likely the last one for a while. No way to stop for the migrants anymore. Brenda wouldn’t mind; she’d always thought a bag of oranges pretty meager compensation for risking your job—even if the right thing to do. This episode would make her wonder who was dumber: the Negro falling off the train or the arrogant engineer who let him on in the first place. It would take more than the Main Line Maestro to help those folks get to work. At least he could keep singing the whistle—of course, that wouldn’t last for long.

Those new diesels couldn’t match a steam locomotive’s personality; all streamlined sheet metal with windows sealing the engineer from the world hurtling by outside. But perhaps that’s where the tracks were heading: down a path of power and purpose with no firebox and a lousy whistle.

THE END