Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 12

Henry Fowler

When the block in front of W11 South was clear and the light on the signal bridge showed green, engineer Henry Fowler opened up. Used as I was to being pulled by a locomotive way up ahead, it was a new sensation to be pushed silently into the night, the sounds of the Consolidation seeming to come from some other train. We gradually got up to about thirty five miles an hour, but that seemed to be about it.

The three of us sat in the caboose cupola staring into the darkness after the headlight. Levi, identifying the grade crossings, would toot our little air horn, and then Fowler would blow for them with the locomotive whistle. There wasn't anything else for us to do, and we quickly fell into conversation.

It had already struck me that Levi was an articulate and friendly young man, and it wasn't long before we discovered that he was a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, majoring in biology. It even turned out that he and Cindy had had one of the same biology professors, a man named Fuhringer. She volunteered,

"I always had the feeling that what he really wanted was to get a woman in his lab, give her chloroform, and disect her."

Levi replied,

"He's not bad when you get to know him. He doesn't like students much, but he's nice to his dog. He told me that I was tolerable because I didn't belong to a fraternity and wasn't on the football team."

"Well, I just got expelled. Would he think better of me for that?"

Most people aren't used to having relative strangers cheerfully tell them of their expulsion, but Levi hardly missed a beat as he replied,

"Yes, I'm almost sure he'd put that down to your credit. Everyone wanted me to go to medical school and be a doctor. Fuhringer congratulated me when I took a job on the railway instead."

Cindy asked him why he had done so. He replied,

"A lot of it has to do with being black. If I became any sort of professional person, I'd have to go to the south and practice in a black community. That's all right in itself, but I'd automatically be expected to be a leader, and everyone would want me to set a good example for young folks, and so on."

"Are you like me and likely to set a bad example?"

Levi seemed to like being teased in this way, and replied,

"I'm afraid I can't claim to be a person who'd do things that are interesting enough to lead other people very far astray. But I don't want to be either a leader or a follower in any important sense."

I was fascinated to learn that the GER was attracting people with that outlook, and asked,

"Of course, on the railway orders are coming down from rank to rank all the time. I gather you don't count that as leading and following."

"Not at my rank. I'm instructed to switch cars and toot the horn, but, pyschologically speaking, only a tiny part of me is under someone's else's control. And, when I give instructions, I don't expect anything more."

As if to illustrate his words, Levi tooted for another grade crossing. It was indeed simple. There were definite rules for tooting, and there was a good and obvious reason for those rules. No one would have to undergo moral conflicts in order to obey them. I suppose that Cindy and I must both have realized that she and I would be operating in an area which wasn't nearly so clearly marked out, and in which there would be leaders and followers.

Before we could discuss the matter further, we came to the small town of Pittsfield Junction, where our first delivery was to be made. The siding came off a right hand facing-point, and it served a lumber company. It had apparently snuck up on Levi while we were talking, and we were almost past it when he tooted three times. Fowler braked hard, almost knocking us sprawling as we climbed down from the cupola to the floor of the caboose. I then jumped to the ground from the steps while we were still rolling, Cindy and Levi landing right after me.

Fowler stopped before Cindy could signal him to do so. In fact, the whole operation of dropping the caboose on the main line, backing up past the switch, throwing the switch, dropping the car on the siding, backing off the siding, throwing the switch, and coming back to the caboose proceeded almost automatically. Cindy and I ran back and forth frantically, she giving the correct signals, but Fowler and Levi managed everything between them. In any case, the process had taken about half as long as it would have on any other railway.

Rolling south with dawn breaking in the east, we found some cups, and I poured coffee from the thermos I had brought. No one seemed to worry overmuch about the cleanliness of the cups, and we drank standing, keeping a lookout from the lower windows of the caboose. After we had settled on our procedure for the next stop, I asked Levi,

"Why aren't they using the stardard signals in the Ann Arbor yard?"

"They don't do hardly anything the standard way there. They just do what they've always done."

Levi stated casually that, in line with his general outlook, he had made no attempt to get the old employees of the Ann Arbor to change their ways. As he said,

"It wouldn't be that hard for them to learn to give the new signals, but, to them, it's a big thing."

It was implicit that big things were things he didn't mess with. It turned out that it was Fowler, contrary to what we had previously seen, who often attempted to get white men twice his age to follow the rules. Levi explained,

"Henry's only been out of the fields for about a year, and he's had four promotions, which is extremely good. He's an ambitious man, much more than I, and he wants everything to be done the right way."

I replied frankly,

"I could hardly communicate with him at all."

"Well, there's so much difference in background. He and the Ann Arbor men hardly speak the same language. I have such a peculiar background myself that I can understand both sides."

Cindy asked,

"Can't you interpret between them?"

"I don't want to. If they could understand each other, there'd be even more trouble than there is."

The underlying problem was simply that Fowler out-ranked men with years of railway experience. On the few occasions when matters were clarified, they would frankly disobey him. Most of the time, they either didn't understand him or pretended not to. I wondered why Major Howison hadn't backed Fowler up, but didn't want to ask directly. A little later, Levi remarked,

"Occasionally the major makes a fuss, but the men obey him for the rest of the day and then go back to what they were doing. I think he's afraid that they'll strike."

I said nothing, but was becoming increasingly convinced that we would have problems until we replaced almost all of the traditional railwaymen in the system.

We later climbed to the cupola, seating ourselves, as before, on the bench which faced forward toward the little windows. Levi, on the other side of Cindy, admitted that he had been surprised to find himself working with a young lady, but had preferred almost any company to that of the Ann Arbor veterans.

We arrived at the next siding in the discouraging early daylight of the northern midwest. So far, we were making good time, and there was no hint of trouble.

This siding was for a metal-working factory on the left side of the line, and it was one we had to back into. Since Fowler had run the entire train past the switch, we had to run hard to get back into position to do any good. Levi let me throw the switch while he and Cindy went on ahead. As I ran after them, I heard a man screaming,

"Why didn't the other train pick up my fucking cars?"

I gathered that he was the foreman at the plant, and as I drew near, I could see him, large, loud, and uncouth, as he stood on the loading dock. Just beyond him were the freight cars that he had evidently wanted to be picked up. He had been yelling at Levi, who now replied,

"If you'd put in your order, W12 would have picked them up fifteen minutes ago."

"Are you callin me liar, boy? I'll break your head."

Levi was a cool-headed young man, but he looked extremely displeased. Moreover, while he wasn't particularly large, I guessed that he might settle things with the foreman if goaded beyond a certain point. It was probably fortunate that, when I arrived, the foreman turned his wrath on me.

The situation was certainly awkward enough. If we didn't pick up the five cars the foreman was so exercised about, the cars we were dropping off would block them in. On the other hand, if we didn't quickly drop the new cars and take off down the line, we would be in grave danger of falling hopelessly behind schedule. That, in turn, could mess us the next series of A trains. Our schedule was drawn too tightly for this sort of mishap.

The decision to be made was really too important to be left to a brand new second lieutenant. But, by the same token, it was far too great for a sergeant to take on his own. I therefore ran back to ask Fowler what to do.

Fowler, without any hesitation at all, decided to pick up the cars. We then swung immediately into action. The minute the train backed down on the five cars and coupled up, Fowler yanked hard at the manual reverse lever and opened the throttle wide. The Consolidation, right beside and above me as I started for the main line switch, spun its drivers with the rods flying and pounding in an alarming and threatening way. Fowler then hit the sand valve. As the grains, impelled by air pressure, hit the rails and, bouncing, stung my hand, the drivers caught. The engine lunged, jerking the couplers violently all the way down the train. Fowler was obviously in a mood of angry desperation.

It took a lot of switching to get the train in the right order, and we did well to hold the delay to ten minutes. Back again in the caboose as we accelerated down the main, it seemed just possible that we might clear the line for A14.

Just before Milan, the southern Michigan plain is broken by a stream of moderate size that winds back and forth through swamps. We picked up some speed on the gentle grade leading down to the stream, probably hitting about forty, and then boomed hollowly through a long trestle. There was enough light to give the river a cold silvery look, and I knew that it would take more than the temperature to keep the duck hunters out of the half flooded reeds on the other side. Looking back toward the engine, I saw large volumes of smoke and steam bursting out of the top and sides of the trestle. Fowler and his fireman were obviously preparing for a grade.

We burst through what there was of Milan, bellowing and diverting the children on their way to school. Thankfully, they stayed clear of the track at the grade crossings. However, I did see several children dart away as we approached, the infallible sign that they had put pennies on the rail.

The hills south of Milan weren't high, and the grade was moderate, but I knew that the Consolidation was over-worked, even before the addition of the five cars. We lost speed perceptibly on the first rising curve, and, when the curve was reversed and the grade slightly increased, the exhaust blasts of the engine, still strong, became clearly distinguishable from one another. Levi said,

"It's those extra cars."

I could easily imagine them, probably loaded with steel, dragging back.

We almost made the summit, but the exhaust blasts became, not only further apart, but less strident. Steam pressure was dropping, and it wasn't long before Fowler had to stop. We piled out of the caboose and went back to find him swearing as he helped the fireman stoke.

There are some people whose strength lies in their ill humor. Henry Fowler was such a man. If the old engine ever got to the summit, it would do so to the accompaniment of a hail of curses and a volley of kicks to the firebox door.

One of the problems was created by the obsolete steam injector hissing angrily just below the cab as it forced water from the tender into the boiler. Newer engines had feedwater heaters, but the water now being injected was almost freezing, thus lowering the overall boiler temperature. There was no help for it. The water level in the boiler had dropped almost to the danger point, and, besides, we needed more water to produce steam in the necessary quantities.

As time passed, the tension mounted. It was almost as if there was a danger that we would be rammed by A14 as it highballed north. Of course, if we were still on the line, A14 would be stopped by an automatic block signal. However, the enormity of stopping A14 and the twelve freights following it, and very likely a good deal else, had taken such a prominent place in all our minds that we acted and thought very much as we would have under pressure of an imminent collision.

The working pressure was 210 pounds per square inch, but, when the guage reached 195, Fowler suddenly uttered what I took to be an obscenity and said that we were going. I jumped down, and we ran for the caboose as he opened the regulator. There was no spinning this time, and couplers and springs began to creak very slowly as we passed the freight cars. When we reached the caboose, it might have been moving at one or two miles an hour. The exhausts from the engine didn't sound terribly good, and, of course, steam pressure would be dropping, perhaps already down to 185. On the other hand, we could see the track ahead as it gently levelled.

We were still accelerating, perhaps up to five miles an hour, when the caboose reached the summit. After that, we, and the cars following us, began to pull the train forward. Once on the downgrade, Fowler could throttle back and build up some steam, particularly if the fireman didn't have to pump much more cold water into the boiler.

Once down the grade and on the level, we were approaching our normal speed. However, we were late. Levi broke the silence we had been keeping, probably in sympathy for the engine.

"We can't possibly complete the switching and get to Dundee before A14."

Cindy asked what we were going to do, but neither Levi nor I had any idea.

I didn't much like Henry Fowler. He wasn't very friendly, and wasn't particularly gracious to his subordinates. On the other side, he had a sure steady hand on throttle, brake, and cut-off, and I doubted that anyone, including John Henry, could have gotten any more out of that tired old engine. Fowler's future progress would really depend on the way he handled the sort of operational crisis which was now looming.

I half expected Fowler to skip the last delivery, some six miles before the B point at Dundee, and run for the shelter of the small yard there. We might just make it without delaying A14, and, while we'd be breaking our commitment to deliver daily to one feed mill, it would be better than the alternative. It also occurred to me that, while the whole train couldn't fit on any single industrial siding, Fowler might be able to use two or three, and thus get off the line. The owners of those sidings might not be pleased, but they might be understanding.

Instead, we made the last delivery, a tail end one, just as it was beginning to snow. Having gotten our two cars spotted in what must have been close to record time, we hit the main at 0844, barely six minutes before A14 was due to arrive in Dundee. Needless to say, the Consolidation didn't have a chance of making six miles in six minutes. I was resigned to the inevitable when we stopped after only a short distance. Levi understood if I didn't. It turned out that there was a loop, unused for years, which led off to a town called Calumet, and then rejoined the main at Dundee. Levi explained to us what Fowler must have in mind.

I thought the problem had been solved until I jumped down to see the decayed state of the branch line. Overgrown in many places, it straggled off into the now desolate landscape, giving the observer the strong impression that it might simply end in the middle of a field.

The switch giving access to it was rusted in place, and Levi soon found that he couldn't move the lever. Cindy and I helped, but we still couldn't lift it off the ground. Just then, Henry Fowler came running up wielding a shovel like a man possessed. I thought he was going to brain us with it, and pulled Cindy away. He instead placed the shovel half way under the end of the switch lever, so that it operated as an additional lever, and gave a mighty heave.

When the switch lever shot up, I first thought he had broken it off. But then I saw that the points had moved half way across. There was then an awful moment when it looked as if the switch might be stuck half open and half closed. However, Fowler and Levi, between them, managed to get the lever down to the ground on the other side. Fowler then dropped the shovel and ran back to the engine. As he went, he shouted at Cindy,

"Get aboard and let Levi re-set the switch for the main."

He left little doubt as to who he trusted and who he wanted out of the way.

It was exactly 0850 when Fowler started up. Levi and I remained by the switch to restore it for the main line with the understanding that the train, once on the branch, would wait for us. As Fowler whistled and started, we could hear another whistle in the distance. It might possibly have been a train on the light-duty New York Central branch which crossed our line in Dundee, but it was much more likely that it was A14, right on time, ripping through the town toward us.

A short distance beyond the switch, on the Dundee side, there was a small stream running athwart both lines. The main line crossed the water, and the soft ground flanking it, on a couple of stone arches with stone piers sunk into the ground. The branch, diverging to the south, crossed where the stream was a bit wider and marshier by means of a timber bridge supported by piles, the track some four feet above the water level.

Although the tall grass, now bending in the wind and being dusted with snow, obscured the rails in some places, the caboose was pushed through them readily enough on to the bridge. When it was part way across, I noticed Cindy leaning from the platform and looking down and back. She then began shouting at us, but we couldn't hear.

It couldn't have taken her more than a second or two to dive inside, pick up her lantern, and return to the rear platform. She had the lantern on red, and was moving it urgently up and down. By this time, the engine was just even with us, and I could see Fowler staring ahead at the signal she was giving.

I was by then sure that Cindy was a level-headed girl. It looked as if she thought that the bridge was unsafe. Undoubtedly, after years of disuse, there had been some creaks and groans and other unsettling noises as the cars crossed. I could indeed see them swaying slightly from side to side as they rolled slowly along.

On the other hand, Cindy had no experience of railways. She had no idea how bad track could be and still support a train as long as it went slowly. I have seen track with twisted rails that hardly made a pretense of being parallel, but which could still be used for switching operations.

My immediate reaction was to jump back enough so that I could see whether we could clear the main without getting the weight of the engine on the bridge. It appeared, however, that the extra five cars we had picked up again made the difference. We'd foul the switch and the main if the engine was stopped short of the bridge. I made no attempt to communicate with Fowler.

With A14 about to show its smoke any minute, Fowler continued on in disobediance of Cindy's signal. On the other hand, he evidently took it seriously enough to give the Consolidation full throttle, probably with the hope that he could get across the bridge quickly before anything let go.

At that moment, the fireman, who had been on Fowler's side looking past him, prepared to jump. He was almost in the act of it when a strong arm reached back, caught him, and thrust him roughly back into the cab. While the fireman wasn't needed just to cross the bridge, it looked as if Fowler was in no mood to permit defections. It was also at that moment that I heard Levi behind me. He was calling,

"No, Henry, stop!"

It was the voice and tone of a young man who had just graduated from a major university in science. He had arrived at his conclusion carefully, and he thought it important to state his result. While he was excited and spoke loudly and forcefully, it wasn't quite a cry of passion. If Fowler ever heard Levi, he showed no sign of it.

The engine did pick up speed, but, of course, it was impossible to accelerate the train very much in such a short distance. There was a lot of noise from the bridge when the engine pounded on to it. Some supporting members could be heard cracking. The engine did list to the right, the side from which Levi and I were watching, but it also seemed to be getting across.

I was just about to let go my breath when, with a sudden crack, the whole engine seemed instantly to drop. There was no teetering, just a sudden movement. It was the most shocking thing I had ever seen. There was the engine, steam shooting out in all directions, on its side with its nose in the far bank and its cab in the stream. I was completely immobilized for a moment or two. I then heard a noise near me. The cars had cleared the switch, and Levi was restoring it for the main. Without thinking, I put the lock back on it. Then, we both ran for the stream. It was just possible to wade across, but, with the cold water at my waist, progress was both very painful and excruciatingly slow.

Cindy was there before us, half wading and half swimming, with steam erupting all around her. Mercifully, the boiler didn't explode. It wasn't a high-pressure boiler to begin with, and it had apparently cracked open in enough places to release steam without exploding. On the other hand, those jets of super-heated steam, some coming up out of the water, could be deadly enough in themselves. I managed to say to Levi,

"Get Cindy away from the engine."

He made no reply but went struggling through the water ahead of me.

When the main members on the right side of the bridge had collapsed and dropped into the water, the engine had dropped directly, rotating ninety degrees, and had pulled the tender after it. The tender had broken away from the first box car, and, once the air hose was severed, the train brakes had gone on immediately. That first car was now hovering over the abyss. It had stopped with its rear truck on unbroken track, but the front one had gone off the edge and dropped into the creek, leaving the car teetering with the front part of its body projecting over what was left of the bridge and tilting to the right. To avoid wading under it, we made a slight detour to the right, probably not enough to have saved us if the car had tipped over.

The cab was almost entirely under water, and the left side of it was scrunched against the tender, so as to allow no upward escape. The only way to get in or out was under water. To make matters worse, great quantities of super- heated steam came out of the gap between engine and tender, blowing huge deadly bubbles in the water. The little window on the side of the cab was also erupting steam, and was, in any case, too small to get through.

As I was surveying the situation, Cindy, who had backed away a few feet to a relatively safe position, suddenly ducked under the water. I later found out that she was an expert swimmer and diver, long practiced in the cold water of northern Lake Michigan. The cab, which had been compressed sideways, was lying in about five feet of water, and Cindy managed to get right down to the bottom, underneath the steam. The first time, she was able to reach in to the cab with one arm, but found nothing. When she came back up for air, Levi and I prevented her from going back down for a minute.

She struggled wordlessly, and, when the steam abated, we let her go again, this time standing by the cab ourselves and reaching down to touch her. She reached in farther, but still found nothing.

By this time, we were all convinced that any man in the cab would be dead, and we climbed up on the exposed side of the tender to survey the stream. It was just deep enough so that a man with injuries, or in a panic, might drown. We could see nothing but the black surface of the water, flowing slowly between banks, and then rippling over some shallows a little distance away. Cindy pointed to the shallows and said,

"Even a drowned body would fetch up and be exposed there."

The cold was intense, but we all had on layers of wool which still protected us. The excitement had also done its part, and I didn't begin to feel really cold until I heard A14 come along the main line at a good clip, probably fifty or so. The fireman on that engine must have seen the wreck immediately, and, as the train approached, it slowed with a great noise of brakes.

The engine stopped just past the switch, and the engineer and fireman, both young men, came running. They stopped at the water's edge, and I was sure that they took us for the crew from the wrecked engine, whose only problem was how to get ashore without getting back into the cold water. When I shouted over and explained the situation, they rushed back to their own tender and got tools, a heavy two-handed hammer and a pick.

After they had waded out and climbed up to us, we got to work. There was still steam coming out of the cab, but it was ordinary steam produced when water came in contact with the hot coals in the firebox, not the more dangerous variety produced by the super-heater flues.

Starting from the cab window, it wasn't very difficult to shatter the bolts and rivets, and to pry off the sheet steel, only a bit heavier than that of a car. We had just begun to do so when I heard more wrenching noises. The box car which had been teetering now crashed, surprisingly slowly, on to the back of the tender. No one was near to being under it, but Cindy, standing on the front of the tender, was bounced off into the water.

I suppose it could have been dangerous. The water was over her head in some places, and it isn't easy for even a good swimmer to swim when encumbered with shoes and heavy clothing. In any case, I had been yearning to do something heroic. I dove from the cab, and it turned out that that was dangerous.

My head and shoulders hadn't previously been under, and, in addition to losing my glasses, I managed to swallow a good deal of water. Choking when I came to the surface, I lost my footing, fell, swallowed some more water, and got tangled in the weeds that grew from the bottom. Then, I seem to have gotten to a deeper spot. It might not actually have been over my head, but I was much too panic-stricken to get a good footing and get myself upright. It was then that the young lady I had been trying to save saved me.

When I was set on my pins and maneuvered toward the shore, I was still gagging and choking, and, as it seemed to me, making loud braying noises. We had to wade through some extremely cold mud on the way out, and, standing on the bank, I must have looked quite pitiable. The engineer from A14, a first lieutenant, ordered us,

"Go over to the engine and get next to the firebox. We'll be done here in a minute."

We had hardly done so when we looked back and saw them as they lowered the bodies of Henry Fowler and the fireman to the water, and then pulled them, partly floating, to the shore. The landscape was now mostly white, and it seemed an odd end for a young man from the fields of Mississippi.

The engineer found a partly empty box car and threw the door open. Levi carried Fowler's body across the open ground and placed it carefully within. The engineer of A14 and his fireman loaded the other body aboard and slammed the door with a great crash. As they trotted up to us, the gray smoke of A15 was just visible, and apparently stationary, a half mile or so behind us. When the engineer sprang up, he said to us,

"They were scalded to death before they had a chance to drown. It must've been quick."

No one said anything. We all knew that steam locomotives were dangerous, and that this wouldn't be the last such accident.

Five in the cab was quite a crowd, and it would have been worse if the fireman had been required to stoke. However, the engine, a fairly new Mikado, had a mechanical stoker, thus allowing us to remain right by the fire door. Levi, Cindy, and I huddled together for warmth. There was plenty of heat up front, but the cab, being open at the back, allowed the snow to flurry around us. Thus, roasting on one side and freezing on the other, we constantly changed positions and tried to keep our balance as the engine got up to speed.

We had held up several trains at the point of the wreck, but did manage to make up some time. I was sure that our new engineer would have liked to carry on to Detroit without stopping, but he seemed to take pity on us. He might also not have liked having dead bodies in one of his box cars.

We thus came to Ann Arbor with a fast run-up and a fairly abrupt stop right in front of the station. Some men working there were commandeered, and were told to put the bodies on a freight wagon. They didn't have much warning, and there were many exclamations, but the Mikado was getting under way even before Howison came rushing out on to the platform. I explained things to him briefly, not without enjoying his reaction. Before he could say very much, Cindy and I made haste to our car a few hundred yards away.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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