Your best will shine
Number 44 wasn’t always old. When he first rolled out of the shop, he was bright and shiny, ready to take on the steepest hills and the longest trains. His sister, 43, rolled out the same day, and the two of them made a proud pair.
The company he worked for had been building engines in that shop for over 50 years, and he was the finest steam locomotive they had ever made. Engine 44 was unlike any they had built before. But we’ll get to that later.
William, or Bill as everyone called him, was fresh out of train engineer school. He was excited to get such a new engine to drive. He and 44 were both new to the tracks, and together they became fast friends as they learned the rules of the rails.
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. 44 felt good to hear that sound, and knew that meant his wheels were rolling smooth and steady down the track. Bill loved that sound, too. He felt right at home behind the controls of such a beautiful machine.
44 needed coal to move. There was another very important person riding in the cab along with Bill. His job was to shovel coal from the car connected right behind 44, called a coal tender, through the heavy door next to Bill, and into 44’s boiler, or firebox. He’s called a fireman. The burning coal heated the water in 44’s huge tank hot enough to turn to steam and power 44’s wheels. Bill, the fireman, and 44 could travel anywhere in the country.
Gradually, 44 and Bill learned how to pull the long strings of cars, or wagons as they are sometimes called, usually with more than 100, filled to the top with coal. They had to be at just the right speed as they headed up the hills so that they could make it to the top and head down the other side. Going down those hills was just as tricky as going up, because 44 had to keep from speeding up too much.
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. 44 and Bill pulled all sorts of freight throughout the mountains they called home. The company’s yard, where 44 filled up with water and more coal, was halfway up the mountain. There were lots of other engines coming in and going out all day long, and sometimes well into the night. When they passed another train on two tracks that were right next to each other, 44 would always give a special toot of his horn if it was another engine from their own yard. Well, Bill pulled the chain, but 44 sent his steam through that whistle loud enough to be heard for miles.
Sometimes they would travel down the tracks to the lowlands to pick up an especially heavy train. Lots of other engines couldn’t handle the mountains very well, and 44 became known as the one to call. He could pull anything.
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Once a year, the engines from their yard held contests, a kind of festival that the public could come to. They could climb up onto the engines, blow the whistles, tour a caboose (that’s the car you always see at the end of a train), and watch as the the engines competed with each other for ribbons and special medals. That’s where 44 really shined.
For the first few years out of the shop, 44 and Bill didn’t do very well. They couldn’t quite beat some of the older engines pulling particularly heavy loads. Then Bill ran into one of the workers that built 44, and found out just how special 44 was.
You see, 44 was built just as new, stronger iron and steel became available. The company decided to fit one their locomotives with a boiler made of super strong steel, along with other improvements. 44 was that engine. They were going to test it out, see what it could do, possibly start building all their new engines with the new materials. 44 was to get a whole lot of special dials and controls to see how it compared with the older engines.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. Other companies started to get engines that ran on oil, called diesel engines. And building more steam locomotives that ran on coal just didn’t seem to make sense any more. 44 was the last engine to roll out of their shop. And since 44 wasn’t going to do any testing, he didn’t get the fancy gauges either. His controls looked just like all the other steam engines.
But the old shop workman told Bill that 44 was built to handle a lot more power than the engines that came before, including his sister, Engine 43. Without the new gauges, the engineer, Bill, couldn’t really know what was going on. 44 always felt like he had a lot more to give, but Bill never asked for it, never really pushed him.
So, when Bill was on a long run, deep in the mountains and far from the yard, he started to experiment a little. He had to let the fireman know about 44’s true nature, but swore him to secrecy. He started real slow, pushing 44 to just touch the red lines on the gauges. 44 acted like he didn’t notice. As far as he could tell, he was running just as comfortable and easy as he always had.
Bill began pushing 44 into the red zone. 44 felt invigorated. Further and further Bill went. The fireman was getting nervous, but Bill assured him 44 could handle it. As for 44, he began to feel like he’d been awakened from a long sleep. This was the kind of workout he’d always felt like he was made for. A hundred and fifty wagons of coal? That hill was easy!
Gradually, Bill learned the different – new – sounds coming from 44. Bill found out how far into the red zone he could go. 44 let him know if he began to feel uncomfortable, and Bill scratched a little line on the gauge for 44’s new red line – halfway into the old red zone.
Bill was careful not to use 44’s new power near the yard. He didn’t want the other engines, and their drivers, to get suspicious. He felt sure the company wouldn’t go for it, since, by this time, there were few people still around from the time when 44 was first designed.
But at the festivals… Ah, that’s where 44 could show off. There was so much hoopla and noise going on, that no one would notice 44 sounding a little different. The first year (after finding out), 44 started easy, pulling just enough to barely beat the reigning champion. Everyone was surprised, but it was so close they all thought the other engine was just having a bad day.
Each year that followed, 44 won by a little more. The other drivers didn’t know what was going on. They praised Bill for his handling of 44, and the smooth way the engine responded with Bill's hands on the controls. Soon, though, the other engines, and their drivers, started to wonder why they were competing at all.
So, Bill decided, along with 44, that he was going to be sick when the next festival came around; a little under-the-weather, as they say. He began to sit out several years in a row, and then come back with everyone cheering the special event of 44 competing again. It became a tradition. 44 got to show off every few years, and the other engines got to win ribbons the rest of the time.
As Bill got older, they started to call him Old Bill. Diesels started to replace the other steam engines, and, by extension, 44 became Old 44. Old Bill and 44 went out less and less.
Eventually, Old 44 was parked at the back of the yard; on the last piece of track, right next to the trees that surrounded the yard. It was pleasant and shady in the summer. Old 44 liked that because when he sat out in the hot sun all day, his boiler would get so hot that people wouldn’t even come to visit.
Every now and then they would park another old car next to Old 44. He liked that because they were good company. Box cars, coal tenders, mail cars, even an old Pullman joined the group. He had just enough space so he could see the other engines come and go. As a long-time part of the yard, he liked to keep in touch with what was going on.
Another benefit of being at the back of the yard, surrounded by other retired cars, was that kids from the town just down the road started checking him out. They’d climb aboard, pull the whistle chain (which was silent, of course, since there was no steam to set it off). Sometimes one of the yard bosses that didn’t like kids messing with things would hear them tootin’ and hollerin’, and shoo them away. But most of the yard bosses just let them play. Old 44 liked that, because they were a lot of fun to have around.
Bill had a boy of his own, who would sometimes bring Old Bill's lunch, then ride along for short trips. He was also named Bill, so they became Old Bill and Young Bill. He got to blow the whistle! Old Bill taught him all the special whistle signals, and sometimes let him control the throttle. Young Bill learned from the best. Old Bill taught him all the secrets of a good engineer. Like how to judge a turn so he wouldn’t be running so fast the cars might tip, a mistake Old Bill made only once when he was just starting out.
Young Bill learned the best way to approach a hill; when to push the throttle and when to take it easy. And most important, taught him how to slow the train, and how to bring it to a stop without squealing the wheels so loud you could hear them in the next county. Old 44 didn’t like that sound, either, because it could wear down his wheels real fast.
Of course, Old Bill told him about the secret steel boiler, and how to control it when you really needed the extra power. Young Bill had to promise not to tell anyone about it; no bragging about it at school because there were lots of railroad families in town, and it would find its way back to one of the other engineers. It would be just their secret.
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Young Bill grew to love the sounds of 44. And the whistle echoing through mountains was the most beautiful song in the world. He wanted to drive a train when he grew up. Especially Old 44.
After Young Bill finished high school, he did go to engineers’ school. He got a job at the same yard his father worked at, and made his first run on the day Old Bill retired. It wasn’t with Old 44, though. They weren’t using steam engines anymore, so he got to drive one of the new diesels. He didn’t forget about Old 44, though. Every so often he would climb over the other old cars, stand behind the controls, and dream about the sounds and smells Old 44 used to make.
At least once a year, he would sweep out the Old 44's cab, hose down the boiler, and carefully remove any bird’s nests that might have taken up residence.
One winter, a particularly cold winter, with lots of snow, Old 44 could tell that many of the diesels weren’t running as often as they usually did. He could see some of them returning to the yard absolutely covered with snow. They even dug out the old snow blower front end parked just a couple of rows away from him. Many of the engines would take a load down the mountain and then stay there for weeks at a time. It was getting a little lonely up in the yard.
Old 44 knew which of the mountain passes were likely snowed in. They had certainly given him a workout some winters past. A couple of times already this winter a diesel would pull in really late, having had a rough time getting through one of those tough passes. And at least once they had to send out another engine to pull it out. At times like these, Old 44 felt lucky to be sitting it out, safely tucked away in the back of the yard.
Then, one morning, he could tell something very unusual had happened. It seems one of the diesels hadn’t made it back to the yard at all. Everyone was running around trying to figure out what to do. They’d sent another diesel out to find it, but that one returned with nothing in tow. Turns out a passenger train had stopped in one of the tunnels the night before to wait out the blizzard. Well, that morning it couldn’t move!
The snow had blown in so thick, that the engineer couldn’t even see the end of the tunnel. And his wheels were frozen solid to the tracks. Everyone they could muster was sent out with shovels to clear the front of engine so another diesel could latch on and pull it out of the tunnel. Except, even with clear tracks in front of it, the passenger train wouldn’t budge, so the second diesel returned to the yard while they tried to figure out how to move that train.
The passenger train had enough fuel for the expected trip, and only enough food for one more day. The engine had been running all night long to keep everybody warm, and food and snacks were being served non–stop. But they were expecting at least one of those two things was going to run out sometime later that day. The yard staff made a frantic call for some specialized heavy equipment, but it wouldn’t arrive until the next day.
That’s when Bill, Young Bill, got a wild idea.
He knew that Old 44 had bested everyone in the pulling contests, even the diesels. No one was aware of why that was. No one knew about Old 44’s special equipment. Bill thought, if anyone could get that train moving, it was Old 44. And time was running out on the food and fuel.
Bill had to talk really fast to persuade the yard staff to give Old 44 a try. Bill had been taking care of Old 44 for several years, now. He made sure that he was clean and dry; nothing was allowed to clog up the pipes. And he would turn it over once a year just to make sure it still ran.
When they gave the okay, Bill had to act fast. To actually take Old 44 out on the rails, there were still a lot of things that had to be done.
First, he needed to recruit someone to shovel the coal. There just weren’t any of those guys around anymore. Luckily, one of the older guys had spent his first year in that position before moving on to diesels. And the coal tender attached to Old 44 still had enough coal to do the job.
Next, he had to get the boiler filled with water. The water tank they now had was no longer kept outside, so there shouldn’t be a problem with freezing.
And, of course, all the old cars in front of Old 44 had to be moved, along with the snow they were all buried in. And quickly!
Because everybody liked the idea of seeing Old 44 running again, Bill had no problem getting volunteers to pitch in.
Several hours later, Bill finally fired him up. Old 44 was thrilled to feel that steam pumping through him again. It had been many years since he was last out on the tracks, and he lost no time getting reacquainted with the sights, and sounds, and smells that had filled his life for all those decades working at what he knew how to do best.
Bill pulled the chain, just as he had done so many times growing up. Old 44 gave out a whoop with that whistle that no one had heard for a very long time. In fact, most of the others in the yard had never heard a sound like that. Old 44 was so proud. The whole place erupted in cheers as he slowly pulled out of the the yard, on to the tracks he knew so well, and headed up the mountain.
Everyone else piled into a car one of the diesels had moved out of the way, and followed Old 44 as he made his way to the the troublesome tunnel.
They used one of the turnarounds that were located here and there among the mountain routes to get Old 44 turned around so he could back up to the stuck passenger train.
When they reached the tunnel, some of the people waiting for help made remarks about how this old steam engine was supposed to do what a modern diesel couldn’t do. Bill reassured everyone he and Old 44 would give it their best try, and linked up to the stuck engine.
From the car following them came buckets and buckets of sand. Spreading sand on the tracks helped Old 44 get better traction. They recruited a couple more of the guys to help shovel the coal, because they were going to need everything Old 44 could put out.
When they were ready, and all the spectators had moved back, Bill started pushing the throttle.
Old 44 pulled. And tugged. The wheels started to squeal. People were covering their ears. Further and further Bill pushed the throttle. Old 44 was belching steam just as if he were pulling a hundred cars of coal.
Bill tried again.
Still, nothing moved.
Some of the yard staff said to wrap it up. People started to move back to the car they came in. And practically everyone had a dejected look on their face.
Bill yelled, “Wait!”
“I’ve got one more thing to try.”
He told the guys to put more sand on the tracks. Lots of sand. He told his coal guys to shovel more coal into the boiler. A lot more coal.
One of them took a look at the big pressure gauge, and saw it was already near the red line. He didn’t want to be shoveling coal when the whole thing exploded. They had all seen those old movies of exploding steam engines, and it’s not something you want to be anywhere near if it goes off.
Bill had to tell them something. He explained that there was something different about Old 44. That he knew he could take it. He’d seen his father push it half-way through the red zone, and Old 44 handled just fine.
Now, even Old 44 was getting a little anxious. He knew what he could do. He’d been there before. But it’s still a very different feeling when Old Bill would push him up there. Still, he wasn’t sure if he could still handle it. It had been a long time.
Bill finally convinced his firemen that he knew what he was doing, though one of them bowed out; wife and family, and all that.
The gauge hit the red line. Then past it. More coal, Bill yelled. Old 44 was starting to make sounds Bill hadn’t heard since he was a boy.
Up, up the gauge went. Old 44 was now in the middle of the red zone.
Bill yelled again for everyone to move back.
He pushed the throttle. No squealing yet.
Old 44 was straining to give it all he’s got.
Bill pushed it all the way forward.
What was that!?
It echoed through the mountains like the loudest lightning anyone had ever heard.
Old 44 checked himself. Nothing was broken as far as he could tell.
Then someone yelled, “IT MOVED!”
Another guy yelled, “It moved an inch!”
Bill kept his hand on the throttle and kept pushing.
“Two inches!” “Six inches!” “A foot!”
Now Bill could feel it. He was still moving, and still connected to the passenger train.
The crowd let out a tremendous cheer!
Bill yelled, “I ain’t gonna stop! Get that thing out of my way!”
Slowly, oh, so slowly he kept moving forward, while the crowd ran to to car they had ridden up in, and the diesel started backing up.
Now Bill pulled the chain. WHEEEEE! He kept pulling it. WHEEEEE! Then a couple of toots, and more WHEEEEE!
The diesel backed into the first siding it came to and moved out of the way.
Old 44 was now picking up speed, with all the snow on the passenger train blowing off in a gigantic white cloud.
Bill kept the whistle going as he moved through the turns and passes all the way back to the yard.
By then all the people that stayed there had come outside to see what the ruckus was. As Old 44 rounded the last curve, they too let out a cheer as they could see the passenger train right behind him.
Old 44 pulled into the yard, with his catch in tow, and was routed to the very front set of tracks.
When the diesel came in behind them, its horn went off as it pulled up right next to Old 44.
Everyone was whooping and hollering, and the passengers cheered as they left the train headed for the yard’s station.
Old 44 was the proudest he’d ever been. He knew he could do it, and he did. So proud.
After the passenger train had been disconnected, Old 44 expected to be moved back to his old spot. But this time, he was backed up to the very beginning of that first stretch of tracks. Right in front of the office.
As the other diesels came back to the yard, they too blew their horn as they passed Old 44. It was an honor Old 44 never would have expected.
Eventually they put up a fancy plaque next to Old 44 to tell everyone why he held that honorary position at the front of the yard. He got a brand new coat of paint, and every part of him shined like he’d just come out of shop. He was now content to spend the rest of life sitting right there. People would climb on board, and ring a bell they installed just so they could feel like they were driving Old 44.
You can see him there to this day. Proud and shiny. And he just might tell you the story of how he saved the train stuck in the mountains.
And if you’re quiet, real quiet, you can still hear Old 44's whistle echoing through the mountains.
About the author
I've got lots of stories in my head, but haven't written any of them down. This Doomsday contest is the first one (Peace Haven). I just wrote it last night.
Here's another one I just wrote down (Old 44). I don't know where it came from.