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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Steam engines and cabooses

I enjoy the 24 hour showing of “A Christmas Story” (1983) every year on TBS. They start the loop at 9:00 Christmas Eve night and it runs continuously until 9:00 Christmas night. It takes place in the 1940s and brings back some nostalgic memories like Ralphie having to put a bar of Lifebuoy soap in his mouth as punishment for uttering the infamous “F” word when he and his dad were changing a flat tire.

In one scene there is the background sound of an old steam driven locomotive going down the tracks with its whistle blowing as it makes its way through the night. I grew up in southwest Ohio and can identify with that steam engine. They were still operating in the early 1950’s before diesels took over and we lived close enough to the railroad tracks that I could hear them late into the night. I would lay in bed next to my window on rainy nights and think about the romance of working on the railroad. To a ten year old kid it seemed like a really cool job.

A freight train never went through a crossing where I didn’t wave at the engineer and the other crew members who worked on the train. All of us kids respected those guys as trains were a really big deal. I loved movies involving trains like Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (1939) where George and Lenny hop a freight train during the Depression years. The trains were the major form of transportation for the hobos of that era.

During the early ‘50s, before our brains had matured enough to know danger, my friends and I would “hop” freight trains and ride them several miles before jumping off. This was really stupid but when you were 13 or 14 in those days, it was great fun. Never mind that we could have been easily killed or that many times we had to ride a lot farther than we wanted because the thing was going too fast to jump off!

The caboose was always intriguing to me. Unless you are a certain age, you probably don’t remember cabooses. They were separate cars attached to the back of the freight trains that were used as living quarters for the train crew. Many times they were decorated with pictures and posters and many had a cast iron stove used for heat and cooking. The stoves usually had a lip on the edge of the surface to keep cooking and coffee pots from sliding off. Those guys thought of everything!

By the 1980’s, cabooses had outlived their use as railroads were looking for ways to reduce labor costs and materials. They were replaced by a FREDs (Flashing Rear End Device). A FRED could be attached to the rear of the train to detect the train's air brake pressure and report any problems back to the locomotive. It did other duties too which used to be done by crews.

Cabooses are gone now but to a lot of us they were a big part of growing up in a friendlier, simpler time.

If you would like to leave a comment or read other comments, click "Jim's azcentral blog" in the right column under links. You will not receive a virus. Jim McAllister writes for The Arizona Republic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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