Thursday, February 25, 2016

Clear the Tracks!

When I read in one of E. L. Moore’s letters to Bill Rau that he enjoyed a book from 1943 called ‘Clear the Tracks!’ - and that he liked it even more after the second reading - I immediately looked for one from an online bookseller. And this being the 21st century, it didn’t take long for a copy to arrive in my mailbox.

I didn’t want to spend a lot on a collector’s edition - a reading copy was good enough for me - so when I found this odd little low-cost paperback, I snapped it up. And it turns out it too has a story all its own (from the inside flyleaf),

This Book is published by Armed Services Editions, Inc., a non-profit organization sponsored by the Council on Books in Wartime, which is made up of American publishers of General (Trade) books, libraries, and booksellers. It is intended for exclusive distribution to members of the American Armed Forces and is not intended to be resold or made available to civilians. In this way the best books of the present and the past are supplied to members of our Armed Forces in small, convenient, and economical form. New titles will be issued regularly. A list of the current group will be found on the inside back cover.

I’m humbled to think that this little addition might have been carried by a World War II veteran somewhere, sometime during that terrible war and provided some needed distraction. It’s not that far fetched a thought. Consider this passage from Gilbert Thomas’ 1947 Paddington to Seagood: The Story of a Model Railway where Mr. Thomas recounts an unexpected benefit to having his layout written up in the Model Railway News,

Most memorable of all, and affording the most striking proof of the psychological value of the hobby, have been some of the visits paid by soldiers on leave during war-time. I recall in especial a lance-corporal quite unknown to us, who turned up unexpectedly, and very apologetically, one day, asking if he might make a later appointment to see the model. He took from his pocket a much-tattered copy of an old Model Railway News containing a description, plan and pictures of our layout, and said that studying these, with similar particulars about other miniature lines, had been his consolation - nay, his sole means of preserving sanity - during “a fairly nasty time” on the beaches at Dunkirk. Of course we took him into the railway-room at once, and the extent to which he had studied the diagram and illustrations was apparent when he saw the real thing. Every detail had become so familiar to him, through his imagination, that he immediately found his way about the complex system - identifying in turn feature after feature, asking after the junior members of the “Board” (then at school), and even remembering our pet names for the stations - as if he had lived with it for weeks . . .  A strange world, this! I sometimes think that the model railway, started for my own amusement, has been more worthwhile, even in the deepest sense, than most things I have done from serious or dutiful motives!

Clears the Tracks!: The Story of an Old-Time Locomotive Engineer, published in 1943 by Whittlesey House, is the memoir of Joseph Bromley, as told to Page Cooper, who had a 29 year railroad career that started at age 15 in 1880, and ended in 1909 when he became Inspector of Safety Appliances for the Interstate Commerce Commission. He started his career on the Black River Line in Utica, New York, but soon left to join the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western railroad at the suggestion of his mother as a way to better his career. It was good advice. At 20 years of age he became the youngest locomotive engineer on the line, and stayed with the road for the duration.

The book is all recollections of Mr. Bromley’s life and adventures as a railroad man. I honestly thought I’d be bored by it, but was pleasantly surprised it turned out to be a page-turner. It was the accounts of the sheer differentness of life during that time - told in a matter-of-fact manner - that hooked me. From today’s vantage point, it almost seems like a story about life on another planet, full of it’s own highs and lows, and goods and bads. Obviously, there are also tales of railroad adventure. Not the ‘adventures’ of the railroad businesses and barons, or boy’s life type ‘adventures’, but of the men who worked the equipment and keep the lines running. The prose is spare, speedy and clear, and often humorous. I can see why E. L. Moore enjoyed it. 

And may have enjoyed it enough to let one of Mr. Bromley’s anecdotes stick in his mind and inspire the story of one of his construction articles. Was this story about Old Tom’s mishap with a homebrew elevator . . . 

At the moment the Old Man’s attention was completely focussed on the elevator which he had put into the new storehouse. The building was only two stories high, but Tom had the idea the men couldn’t steal so much equipment if they didn’t have access to the stairs; so he put in an open cage built after his own design. It was run by a pull rope and stopped by a contrivance that stuck out at the top of the second floor. Perhaps the Old Man calculated originally how much tonnage it would carry, but he was so proud of it that he ended by believing that it would lift anything.

One day when I hauled over a load of “brashes”, forty-or-fifty-pound bearings for driving-wheels, he ordered us to pile them all on. Old Tom was going up with them, to show Dal Alvord how she worked.....

Loaded with Tom and Dal and the brashes, the car labored to the second floor, but when it hit the stopper at the top, it fell back and bumped the starting trigger below with such force it shot up again.

“Jump, you damned fool, jump,” yelled Tom. Dal jumped as the cage descended, and the elevator, lightened by his weight, bounced up again, throwing the Old Man out among the monkey wrenches on the second floor. For a third time the cage fell, this time to the cellar, and imbedded the brashes in the cement.

. . . the inspiration for Uncle Wilbur’s fictional elevator in the Novelty Factory tower that appeared in the July ’70 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman?

I forgot to mention the tower has an elevator just big enough for one big fat man to ride in. But it was too slow, so the “come-five-o’clock” boys got together and cut a round hole in the floor and installed a brass pole, which, while not exactly a new idea, served to speed up the quitting time descent, particularly at such times as when Uncle Wilbur surreptitiously squirted grease on it.

Ok, it’s a bit of a stretch I admit, but I can imagine some tales from either Bromley or Moore being inserted into each others text without too much notice.

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