LUCKY GARVIN: Way On Back In The Day

Lucky Garvin

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Each afternoon, my father-in-law and I watch a movie. He especially likes westerns; they take him back and jog loose long-forgotten memories of his younger days. Example: Cowboys sitting around drinking coffee. Sonny remembers how coffee was brewed back then, before percolators and pods. “Just pour a handful or two of ground coffee into the pot, bring it to a boil, and there’s your coffee.”

But the grounds? “That’s how they did it. I remember my grandpa pouring a mug of coffee and I watched the grounds floating around on top. Just the way it was.” Maybe the swallowed grounds added a caffeine-punch to the brew…?

‘Sonny’ – now 93 years-old – worked many years on what was then the Norfolk & Western railroad, and has a good working knowledge of the early days of railroading. So, it should come as no surprise that the westerns which feature early railroading are his particular favorites.

Example: He would look at a steam engine running along the track, and say, “Coal’ or ‘Wood’. Steam engines had a boiler full of water. They needed a constant feeding of wood or coal to heat the water to produce the steam to run the train. I asked him how he knew which fuel; he answered, “Look at the smoke.” White meant wood burning; black smoke meant coal.

How did they bend rails when the track had to curve? “Bon fires. Put the tie in the middle of the fire, get it red-hot; bend it to what you need.”

Once we watched as ‘gandy-dancers’ [railroad workers] were laying new track. One fellow grabbed a spike, set it and began hammering away. Sonny snorted, “That’s wrong. There was a fellow called a ‘shaker’ who had to hold the spike until it set in the tie.” [Many broken fingers there, I expect.] The word ‘shaker’ was borrowed from men who tunneled through rock by hand. He was the one who held the bit while another hit it with a sledge hammer. [Yeah,  fingers…] Every strike or two, the shaker would twist the bit to free chunks of rock from the hole.

Peculiar to the railway was the hammer for driving spikes. It was much more narrow than a typical sledge hammer, cone-shaped on each side, tapering on one side of the head to a 1 ½” diameter striking surface, the other side smaller, about one inch. The larger end was called a ‘nickel’, the smaller a ‘dime’. The old-timers could always spot a rookie who had to use the larger diameter end [in hopes of hitting the spike now and then] while the seasoned workers, now sure of their aim, would distain to use any but the ‘dime’ surface of the hammer. [Point of honor, don’t you see?}

To carry out his responsibilities as a station master in those early days, Sonny had to learn telegraphy. It was of course the primary means of communicating back then although the stations also had telephones.  It struck me as redundant that they would employ both technologies. So I asked him about the phones. “Couldn’t hear on the damned things!” It seems static and poor transmission rendered the new-fangled devices unreliable. But Americans seemed to anticipate if they were patient enough, telephonic communication would improve. Thus, telephones and telegraphs often co-existed early on.

According to Sonny, the telegraph was much like a party line in the early days of telephones.  ‘Party line’ meant if you picked up the phone to make a call, you might hear a conversation already in progress. Propriety dictated that you would politely hang up, try again later when the line was free.

In a similar sense, in the rail station, anytime a message was being sent anywhere – not necessarily to you – your telegraph could be heard tapping in the background. In larger work locations, the noise of the telegraph was nearly non-stop. But then, since there were no ‘rings’ emanating from the telegraph, how did you know – amidst all that clicking – that the message was indeed for you?

Each telegraph location – railroad or business – had an identifier code. Suppose your code was ABC [rendered in dots and dashes, of course].  The station master had to train his ears to pick that particular code out of all the other mechanical chattering. If you were too busy to take the message, you could either ignore it [in which case the sender could try again later] or tap a two-letter code telling the sender you would reply when you could. When you were able, you would tap out your code, as well as that of the recipient. When you were transmitting or receiving, you could turn up the volume with a device called an ‘oscillator’.

So, at my age, do I still watch westerns? Yup. Everyday. And I learn a lot, too!

PS: As amazing as it sounds, Sonny can still repeat the whole Morse code from memory

PPS: –.  —,  …—  -.-. -.-. -.–!  Means: Go, Sonny!

Lucky Garvin