Wednesday, February 26, 2014

War Stories - Episode 6: "Highball! way or another..."

Fall 1978. Columbus Ohio. Buckeye Yard.

Finally!  I get to ride a train!

Part of our assignment as trainees was to follow a locomotive through normal maintenance at our shop location and then ride it on it's next assignment.  Fabulous!

A GE U23B came into the shop for an annual inspection and I decided to follow it.  I went around with the inspector as he wrote up the items that needed attention while it was shopped.  The list included the regular items like changing the oil filters and air filters as well as a dozen or so small broke/fix items.

I dutifully followed this locomotive each shift it was in the shop, coming it at least once a shift to see what progress had been made.  First shift, they got most of the big items. Second shift, almost nothing.  Third shift - around 1 AM, nearly nothing more, but miraculously, by 7 AM the next morning, it was all done and ready to hit the road.

A quick check showed that this engine had been "papered", as they called it.  That is, they didn't really do all the work, they just signed off on it.  Clearly, they needed the engine and weren't going to let it be held hostage for a missing air compressor shaft guard bolt or such.  Out the door it went, ready or not!

The locomotive was called for a turn job to Collinwood.  The Columbus crew was supposed to take it up to Collinwood overnight and then a new crew was to bring it back the next day.  Along the way, it would drop off and pick up blocks of cars at various yards.  Kind of a third rate road freight or travelling road switcher.

My locomotive was the trailing locomotive in the consist and this was back in the caboose era, so there was a locomotive engineer and head end brakeman in the lead engine cab, and a conductor in the caboose.  I rode the cab of "my" locomotive.  We departed Buckeye at dusk, getting a green "highball" and proceeded up the aptly-named Scottslawn Secondary.  First stop, the Scotts fertilizer factory.

We came to a stop outside the factory and started switching.  It took quite a while.  After a while I found out why.  Our head end brakeman came bounding into my locomotive cab.  He might have been a couple years older than me and was pretty outgoing.  "Hey, man,  Want to smoke some hash?  I got plenty!"

Wow.  Welcome to the railroad.  I had no idea.  Rule G anyone?  Apparently not. This had not been covered in our training!  What do I do now?

Now, going through college in the 1970s, it was pretty much impossible not to come in contact with drinking and drugs.  The drinking was pretty much legal as the drinking age was 18 back then.  Drugs were a bit more hidden, but you didn't have to look too hard.  Believe it or not, I was only the very occasional drinker and completely abstained from drugs.  Just not interested - although I knew lots of kids who were!  But, I never expected to find someone "putting the high in highball" at work!

Geez.  My very first freight train ride and I wind up with Mr. Pothead.  I politely declined and hoped he'd get back to work so we could get on the way.  We eventually did, making the move from the Scottslawn onto the Big Four at Ridgeway Ohio, managing a steady 50 mph all the way into Marion where our crew outlawed - apparently a regular occurrence. There was no relief crew in sight, so I bailed with the inbound crew, walked into town and caught a Greyhound back to Columbus.

Now, if it had been 2014 and not 1978, this whole incident would have been a big mess for everyone.  As an officer of the company, I would have had explicit training and a no-way-around-it requirement to take the guy out of service and have him tested, etc, etc.  But, this was 1978.  Times were different and, as it turns out, this was a not-as-rare-as-it-should-be event.  I later heard and read plenty of stories about drinking and drugs on the railroad and there was lots of looking the other way and covering up, as long as the work got done.  However, it all came to a tragic and overdue end nine years later in 1987 at Chase Maryland.

The tolerant, "look the other way", culture has been totally replaced with a "one strike and you get help, two strikes and you're gone" policy.  Drugs and drinking while on duty are at near zero levels - an we are all safer for it.

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