Excerpt from “Last Train From Cleveland”
By Chip Deyerle
It was a cold December first, under foreboding grey skies, when BL pulled his Overland into the gravel parking lot next to the 16th Street railyard. With his metal lunchbox in hand, he locked the car and walked toward the yard entry gate to begin the day’s work. It was dawn and overcast, the yard lights cast shafts of light on the rising smoke and steam. At 6:40 this morning and the yard was beginning to crank up with activity. Steam and smoke curled up into the darkness from the yard engines, waiting for their “masters” to put them to work. A noisy freight train with box cars, flat cars and chemical tank cars rumbled near the yard on the main line and east bound past the 5th Street Bridge.
The gravel path to the Yard Office led across four sets of tracks and several puddles from the rain of the previous evening. The lights were on in the Yard Office revealing the three dispatchers busily preparing the day’s train orders and posting the train schedules for the day when BL walked in.
As always, his eyes were drawn to the Board to see what was scheduled for the day. He noted that Engine 813 was his assigned engine this day rather than an older engine he had to use while 813 was out of service for some long-overdue maintenance.
“Good morning, Mr. Deyerle, there is a message here for you to see the Trainmaster at the Roanoke Terminal at 8:00 this morning,” said the young dispatcher as he handed the note to BL.
Through weary eyes, BL read the note, which indicated a meeting with the trainmaster this morning. Immediately, he felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him. What was this all about? There was no further explanation, but he now noticed a schedule board note that he had been substituted on his engine crew for the morning through lunchtime.
“Thanks,” replied BL, as he pondered the note. “Please confirm with him that I’ll be there at 8:00 to the Trainmasters office as requested, but I’d like to know what he wants to see me about.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that, Mr. Deyerle,” replied the dispatcher.
Could it be that they were going to reassign him to other work because of his current health situation? After all, he had not heard anything from Dr. Barrett. Maybe the Trainmaster wants him terminated. These were the fears lurking in the psyche of most railroaders. After all, the union efforts to represent members of the bargaining unit can only do so much these days. BL would have to wait to find out what the Trainmaster wanted.
With much skepticism, BL walked out of the office and slowly headed back to the parking lot. Many thoughts were running through his mind, not the least of which was job security in these troubled times. After all, he had been a faithful engineer his entire career with the N&W, over twenty years. Imagining the worst case situation with the Trainmaster, he wondered what would he do without his job, without medical care as such? Reaching the Overland in the gravel parking lot, BL reasoned that maybe it wasn’t something so severe that he might lose his job. But what could it be?
Leaving the parking lot, he drove down the street the several blocks to the Roanoke Terminal, just east of the N&W Station near the city market area. Along this end of Campbell Avenue there were several small cafes where he could get a cup of coffee for a nickel and prepare himself best he could for his meeting.
He opened the door to the small café, busy serving breakfast to workers from offices up the street, and found an empty seat at the counter.
“What’ll you have this morning, Mister?”asked the man behind the counter, burley in appearance and wearing a greasy white apron and cap.
“Coffee, please,” replied BL as he got comfortable on the counter stool. Moments later a steaming hot mug of coffee was placed before him.
“That’ll be a nickel, Mister!” said the man. ‘Here’s cream and sugar.”
BL placed a nickel on the counter and contemplated the steaming cup of coffee, reached over to the little cream pitcher and added some, followed by a teaspoon of sugar. Checking his watch, it was already 7:20. A newspaper remained on the counter next to him, so he picked it up and started reading it. As he quickly fanned through the newspaper, his eye caught on an advertisement for Lionel Electric Trains. Maybe this is something for Hampton or Little BL to think about for Christmas, which is just around the corner.
After sipping the coffee, and reading the front page of the newspaper, he checked his watch. Abruptly, he got up from the counter stool and walked out the door toward the Roanoke Terminal Building.
This was the first time in many years that he had been called to the Terminal or to see the Trainmaster for that matter. He knew from the handbook that the Trainmaster was a direct link to the Superintendent and that the Trainmaster exercised the general supervision of employees in trains, railyards, and station services for the Division. In fact, the trainmaster set the rules and made sure that all employees for the Division had passed the prescribed examinations. In this instance, Mr. Lowry, as the Roanoke Terminal Trainmaster had the same authority as the General Trainmaster for the N&W railroad.
BL checked his watch and noted that it was now 7:46. Better to arrive early than miss the appointed time-“under no circumstances be late to an appointment” was BL’s mantra.
Checking the marquee directory by the front door, BL found the trainmaster’s office listed on the second floor and proceeded to the stairs, but wondered what was next.
On the second floor he found a larger counter with a scheduling board prominently displaying all train numbers operating this day. Terminal Dispatchers were busy making adjustments, closing out trains and tracking delays and repairs to the line. BL approached the counter.
“I’m here to see Mr. Lowry,’ said BL as best he could, trying to get the busy dispatchers’ attention.
One of the dispatchers with a green eye shade and gold-rimmed glasses stopped his scribing on the schedule board and turned to respond,” What are you here for?”
“ I have an appointment at 8:00 to see the trainmaster,” replied BL in a raised voice, irritated that neither of the dispatchers were paying any attention to his appointment.
“Oh, uh, Mr. Lowry’s office is down the hall on the left-but let me see if he is available-who are you?” asked the dispatcher.
“I am BL Deyerle, engineer from the 5th Street Yard,” replied BL in a quieter, less-stressed manner, now that he had gotten their attention. The other dispatcher kept posting the schedule board uninterrupted.
Momentarily, the dispatcher returned, saying “Mr. Deyerle, right this way to Mr. Lowry’s office.” He turned and headed down the long hallway.
Lowry was sitting at his, with a small window facing the N&W Shop yards. He was a man in his mid forties with glasses, a trimmed mustache, a style that was very popular. His felt had was hanging from the coat rack in the corner of the room.
“Sit down, Mr. Deyerle,” said Lowry, “I needed to see you first thing this morning because Dr. Barrett was by my office on Friday about a medical report about you.”
“Dr. Barrett has seen me twice about my thyroid condition,” said B.L, pointing to the swelling of his throat.
“Well, Dr. Barrett wants you to move to a temporary assignment training new engineers until you are cleared back on duty,” said Lowry. “You will start down here in the East Yard and work with Mr. Halliday, my trainer.”
“Just like that?” replied BL. “Are you sure that’s what you want me to do?”
“Mr. Deyerle, you are coming up on twenty years with the railroad and you have a lot of experience as a fireman and an Engineer,” stated Lowry. “After all, you’ll be on day shift and you will work your own schedule. We have a lot new engineers to train and this works out well for you and the railroad.”
“When did you want me to start, Mr. Lowry?” asked BL as he sat there wondering why this was happening. All his life he had been the one to be the leader on the rails as an engineer. When he was first assigned to railyard work, he missed the work of moving multiple carloads of coal and hauling the load to Roanoke from Bluefield, West Virginia. He had made the switch to yard engineer and while it was repetitive work, he at least got home at a regular hour, not missing days away from the family waiting to pick up a train at all hours and pushing the load to the Roanoke railyards.
“How about this afternoon, Mr. Deyerle?” said Lowry as he handed an introduction note to BL. “ Take that along with you to Mr. Halliday’s office downstairs.”
“I appreciate your concern and your support, Mr. Lowry,” said BL as he got up from the chair and stepped out the doorway.
Descending the stairs, BL followed the room numbers to Mr. Halliday’s first floor office, knocked and was told to enter.
“You’re Mr. Halliday, I presume?” said BL to the man behind the desk.
“Yes I am,” replied Mr. Halliday. “What can I do for you?” replied Halliday.
“I just saw Mr. Lowry,” said BL as he handed Halliday the note from Lowry. “He said that you would be using me for instructing some new engineers.”
Looking quickly at the note, Halliday acknowledged BL, “Oh, yeah, Mr. Deyerle, you have a lot of experience in freights and railyards…do you think you’d be able to show some of our new engineers how to run a steam engine safely?”
“Yes sir, Id’ love the opportunity to do that, Mr. Halliday,” responded BL.