Tuesday, March 4, 2014

War Stories - Episode 9: "Not dead yet..."

..but maybe I should be?  Or, at least somewhat mangled?

This story has little to do with "Spamalot".  It's more about "just plain stupid."

John Wayne once said, "Life is hard.  Life is harder if you're stupid."

Maybe this should be called "Wayne's Law".  If so, a corollary would be, "Railroad shops are dangerous.  They are especially dangerous if you are stupid."

I am occasionally stupid.  But, I am still here.  Maybe I'm lucky?

One morning in the Fall of 1978....

I was a Mechanical Department Trainee in Columbus Ohio, Buckeye Yard.  It was a small shop with two tracks that could hold six locomotives at a time.  It was typical of the small locomotive shops built during the period when the New York Central was rapidly modernizing in the 1960s.  This shop was one of the last built, constructed during the Penn Central era when former NYC and PRR facilities in Columbus were consolidated just to the west of the Intestate loop around the city and just north of I-70.

At one end of one track, there was a small drop-table.  A drop-table is what you use when you want change out a bad wheelset or traction motor on a locomotive.  Bigger shops have larger drop tables where they can drop an entire truck out from under the locomotive, but Buckeye only had a small, one axle one.

The drop table existed in a pit and was moved up and down by a motors powering a screw-jack arrangement for up and down and another motor with screw-jack handling left and right.  You could lower the offending motor/wheel combo, move it off to the side, and raise it back to floor level again, position the new combo and reverse the process.  The pit itself was about 10 feet deep and had the machinery exposed.  Normally, when not in use, it was cordoned off with posts and chain.  There was even a cover for the pit for times when it wasn't being used.  It fit into cutouts, about 10" square in the edge of the opening with matching feet on the cover.  But it was always in use, so the cover was almost never put it place.

Most days, there was at least one locomotive at Buckeye that needed a traction motor dropped and replaced.  For some reason - probably to do with the general friendliness of the personnel - I found myself hanging out at the drop table quite often.  The ex-PC guys weren't very accomplished since their shop didn't do much more than running repairs - Altoona and Collinwood took care of the heavy work, but the were friendly.  The ex-EL guys were very accomplished.  They came from the EL backshop in Marion.  They tended to have a chip on their shoulder and an attitude that came from having an unwanted 50 mile commute each day.  Changing motor/wheel combos was pretty simple work.

The hours at the shop were 7:00 to 3:00 for first shift.  7:00 AM was hard for me.  I had trouble with 9:00 classes in college.  A recurring nightmare for many is the one where you are having a test, but you don't know it and walk into the class unprepared.  That wasn't a nightmare for me.  It happened.  Strength of Materials, I think. I decided that I could learn the material from the book and just had to show up in class occasionally to find out when the tests were.  I procrastinated a bit too much and wound up, (luckily?) walking into class on test day. By sheer luck, perseverance, a solid shot of adrenaline and it being open book, I managed a 75 on it.  Salvaged a B in the course.  "Life is harder if you are stupid"?  Yup.

Anyway, I was managing to arrive each day at work by 7:00, but I wasn't always "all I could be."  I hit the morning meeting, found out they'd be doing a combo changeout that morning and  headed out to the drop table a waited for the action to start.  I was in my usual morning daydream/stupor as the other guys showed up.  As I turned to face them, one foot fell into one of the cut-outs for the cover.  I spun toward the pit, lost my balance and fell.


Would up sitting on the edge of the pit with both feet dangling in space.  Adrenaline flowing, heart pounding and a bit confused  But perfectly safe.  The only thing wounded was my pride.

What a dope. Life IS harder when you're stupid.  But, sometimes you get a second chance....

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