"Tales from the River" got started during a particularly long hotel stay in New Jersey in 1994. At that time, I was on a comic book jag. I never really got into the super hero genre however, and some of my favorite books were reprints of the old 50's horror comics. The cover of "Tales from the Crypt #7" featured a man trapped in a burial vault. I couldn't help but compare it to being stuck in a hotel.
Originally, I simply glued captions to a photocopy of the cover. However, an attempt to contact the copyright owner has only resulted in a deathly silence, so I re-drew this issue for the website.
"Tales" was an immediate sensation; my co-workers wasted no time it faxing it to division headquarters in Mount Laurel, NJ. I had no intention of doing more, but the periodical format caused some co-workers to speculate on when the next issue would come out.
If you'd like to see the original cover, simply do a web search for "Tales from the Crypt #7" (The reprint) or "Tales from the Crypt #23" (The original).
I went to engineer school in 1991, primarily out of fear of being furloughed. Brakemen were being eliminated, reducing train crew size from three to two men. The UTU local chairman felt that anybody who hired out after 1975 wouldn't have a job. Since I hired out in 1977, I figured that going to engineer school would be a prudent career move.
However, the company offered a buyout to its employees, which resulted in manpower shortages in the early nineties. To encourage us to work, Conrail ran a contest where one employee would win a Jeep Cherokee. The winner would be randomly chosen from those who met the attendance goals.
Interestingly enough, the winner ended up being from New Haven, CT, a location with primarily traveling switcher jobs with nights and weekends off. Personally, I think they should have made it a straight up contest; the person who worked the most days wins!
This issue was the first of many "Lyin'L" model train flyers which I usually posted around the holidays. I suppose a little background on each of the trains is in order, so here goes…
TV-204 was a southbound stack train that left Selkirk early in the evening. Normally you would have a smooth trip down the river where you would wait in Teaneck for hours until all the northbound trains had left. By the time you got going again it was usually around midnight, and had two or three drops (and sometimes a pick-up) to look forward to.
ALSE was a northbound Allentown-Selkirk freight train. Though it was usually a step-on job in Jersey, it was routed through the Hoboken “war zone”, where trains were often stopped and robbed. The grade was downhill going north, making it easy for people to pull pins on your train. There was even a gang that called themselves the “Conrail Boyz”!
TOMT was a southbound Toledo-Metuchen auto train. It carried auto racks and the 86-foot long auto parts boxcars. The slack on these cars increased the chances of air hose separations and broken knuckles.
OISE was the northbound Oak Island-Selkirk local freight. This was the train that was usually tasked with picking up cars at the locations named. Most aggravating was picking up empty auto racks at Bellman’s; these went ahead of loaded freight cars and needed to be swung over to another yard upon arrival in Selkirk.
The company instituted a “bridge jobs” program whereby injured employees would work “light duty” jobs. Like later “wage continuation” programs, it was presumably designed to stave off lawsuits by injured employees by keeping them on the payroll. Not a bad idea actually, but I still couldn’t resist the urge to poke fun at it. This issue was inspired by one co-worker whose duties closely approximated that of “Outbound Crew Expediter”
The company was actually a pretty progressive in its later years. They were paying quarterly safety bonuses and began working on the issues of rest. As one co-worker said years later: “All we did back then was complain, but we really had it pretty good”.
Originally, this issue featured a picture of a man on a medieval rack from the cover of “The Vault of Horror” #1. The original 50’s issue was #12. Hopefully, I can get permission to use it someday.
Shortly after the company introduced CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement), “EACQC” graffiti began appearing everywhere. It stood for “Eat a Cornrail Quality C---” and often included an anatomically correct graphic. I saw it neatly stenciled on the front of a track machine, and one guy even made t-shirts. Of course, when a trainmaster asked a t-shirt wearer what it stood for, the reply was: “Employees approve of Cornrail’s quality consciousness”.
Cornrail was cobbled together from six bankrupt railroads in 1976. Cost cutting was essential to its survival in the early years, and employees made the necessary sacrifices. Even after the size of a train crew had been whittled down from four to two, the desire to increase “shareholder value” continued.
One of their intentions was to reduce the company to its core main lines, the “Big X” as it were…
This was the first of several “News Bites” issues. This was a way to combine several unrelated issues that were too small to “make an issue of”. Kind of like a late-night talk show monologue..
I was able to contact John Derevlany the author of the National Lampoon article. While he granted me permission to use it, he cautioned me that whoever owned rights to the National Lampoon actually owned it.
Mr. Derevlany added that should the current owners contact me, he'd like me to remind them that they still owe him money.
Thomas the Tank Engine was at the peak of his popularity in the mid-nineties. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if Thomas (Or an engine like him) took a trip down the River Line.
“Flushed” was the term super poolers used when they got called to work “the Sewer Line”. There will be more on the super pool in issue 11.
The second news bites issue.
The Super Pool was an engineer’s pool that covered three routes: short to Syracuse, long to Buffalo and River Line to New Jersey. Since our pay was based on mileage, going to Buffalo paid about twice as much as going to either Syracuse or New Jersey. Needless to say, all the high seniority men went on the super pool or Buffalo regular jobs.
In addition to making less money, getting “flushed" down the River Line was more work. Unlike Buffalo or Syracuse, where most trains simply changed crews, the majority of trains terminated in New Jersey.
The super pool and attempts to abolish it led to more than one acrimonious union meeting. In addition, the big money provided an incentive for Buffalo engineers to move to Selkirk. The town of Ravena was jokingly referred to “Buffalo on the Hudson” because so many Buffalo engineers were staying in rooming houses there.
Worst of all, was the temptation for “sharpshooters” to “pull a fast one”. One phrase used by the ethically challenged was: “I’m here to make money, not friends!” Though I was nowhere near being able to hold the super pool, I couldn’t resist writing a “Tale” about “the tail that wagged the dog”. Not everyone appreciated it, and one union official testily told me that: “No, new members do not pay the same dues!”
In Jersey, we stayed at a Clarion hotel along with crews from Harrisburg. We referred to Harrisburg men as "Hammies", which is short for "Ham and Egger" Somehow, Harrisburg crews acquired a reputation for being cheap. Stories were told about them taking light bulbs, toilet paper etc. from the hotel rooms. Supposedly, one even cut the carpet out from beneath the bed.
Daphne's was the hotel restaurant at the Clarion. There was a young waitress there who treated Selkirk crews like kings. The salad bar was extra when you ordered a meal, and she wouldn't charge us. She for had no love for Hammies, however!
If I recall correctly, she eventually married a Selkirk engineer, who transferred to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Hopefully, they lived happily ever after!
The company magazine featured an article about the Harrisburg division. I don't remember exactly what the article was about, and I sold my "Inside Tracks" on Ebay years ago.
I had actually intended to record and establish the records listed, but alas, nobody responded with their stats!
This issue wins the prize for most reprints! I posted it every time we got a heavy snowfall. I memorized these songs, and conductors always seem to get annoyed when I sang "Let it Snow".
Generally, Selkirk did not often get heavy snowfalls; it was too far away from Lake Ontario for lake effect snow, and far enough away from the Atlantic to miss most Nor'easters.
Eventually, I'll write about my experiences with snow for the stories section.
Back in the seventies when I was a brakeman, I was rarely called to work the River Line. This was because swapping was a regular occurrence, and it took a bit of seniority to work there. In later years swapping was a rare occurrence; but not for some it seemed.
One night, when I was on a southbound train, l overheard the conductor's local chairman on the train ahead ask the dispatcher about a swap. I pushed the transmit button and said to no one in particular "Put 'em in the bag!" He immediately replied "Shut up!"
Well, he swapped and I didn't, which inspired this issue.
Celebrating the company's twentieth birthday with my twentieth issue. What could be more appropriate!
Tomass' second appearance was inspired by someone who pulled a fast one on me.
After I was called to work south, a crew was ordered to deadhead behind me. Their van showed up two hours late, and they made their time off duty time at the hotel the time they would have gotten there had the van not been late.
A a result, they were rested ahead of me and took the train we should have gotten with only six hours rest. Even when I confronted the guilty party, he insisted that he didn't violate the hours of service law.
There's an unwritten code that you don't rat on your fellow railroader. However, the code doesn't prohibit relating the story to your co-workers!
The company issued a smoking policy on May 1st, 1996. Naturally the outrage among smokers was tremendous! When it was one other smoker in a locomotive cab, I was usually OK. If my conductor asked: "Do you mind if I smoke?" I'd reply: "I don't care if you burst into flames!"
Though I suffered mightily when outnumbered by smokers. Once when deadheading home I was the only non-smoker in a van with seven people. The division 46 union meetings got pretty smoky too.
When I delivered this issue to the South Kearny yardmaster, I told him: "Here's some more information on the smoking policy." He began to curse me out until he noticed what I had.
On March 6th, 1996 a carload of propane in the classification yard was struck by another car rolling from the hump. The end of the car ruptured, igniting the propane. The car rocketed out of the class yard, past the east end and down the tracks for about a mile. Though just about everyone there that day thought they were goners, there were no injuries, which meant I could make an issue of it.
I haven't included the photos, but you should be able to do a web search for images of the "Krukenberg Rail Zeppelin" and "The Pride of the Central"
The bottom photo is a collage.
1996 was an eventful year, so I had a lot to write about: A propane car explosion, a rock slide that derailed a stack train sending containers into the Hudson River, the new smoking policy, a snowy winter, and the new 80MAC locomotives.
There was a particularly acrimonious union meeting in which somebody was nearly pushed out a window (Left drawing) Finally, a crew running the office car special ran through crossovers at too high a speed. (Right drawing)
This one was inspired by all the football parlays that were a common sight in crew rooms. Anyway, it's a historic snapshot of traffic on the River Line in June, 1996.
Next to railroads, my favorite historical subject is World War II. This issue was inspired by the book “Steel Rails to Victory” by Ron Ziel”, one of several books in my library covering both subjects. Since the author has died, I can’t find the publisher and some of the photo credits are foreign, getting permissions would be difficult if not impossible. Since this issue simply won’t work without the photos, I’m going to list the credits and hope for the best.
TOP LEFT: Russian officer on armored train checking track ahead. (Sovfoto)
TOP RIGHT: British army using a jeep to tow boxcars in India. (Indian Ministry of Defense)
MIDDLE LEFT: German soldier with “All the comforts of home” for his tour of duty in France. (National Archives)
MIDDLE RIGHT: German “track wolf” tearing up track in Italy. (National Archives)
BOTTOM: American troops on an anti-aircraft gondola in Italy. The car was originally a gift to Mussolini from Hitler. (Railroad Magazine)
This issue was inspired by the rule requiring us to wear safety glasses. At the time, I had a subscription to that famous dial-up internet service. Since they had a chat room just for railroaders, I thought I'd see what things were like on other roads.
Though many chafed at wearing safety glasses, I didn't mind, as I already wore glasses and the company picked up the tab for prescription safety glasses.
The rule against getting off moving equipment had already been around for many years. I remember that it was in effect back when I was a conductor. I was lectured three times in Kingston by the same track foreman. (Dropping cars in Kingston blocked road crossings, so getting off on the fly reduced the time the crossing was blocked.) I explained to him that I just came back from furlough (true) or that I forgot (not true). Anyway, he never wrote me up.
The fourth "News Bites" issue. The first paragraph refers to a program to encourage checking switch points before throwing the switch. A black hard-boiled egg was placed in the points; an uncracked egg could be redeemed for a prize
I posted this as I was going to work one night. Apparently, somebody lost no time in faxing it to division headquarters in Mount Laurel.
As we were passing under the Poughkeepsie bridge, the S.T.O. called my conductor on the radio. "Tell your engineer I passed the Test!" he said. He wasn't angry, in fact, he was one of my fans.
Of course, the announcement of the merger demanded an issue.
Or several issues as it turned out.
Typically, a new contract was bad news because we usually gave up something. The company would encourage the rank and file to vote for the new contract by offering them a lump-sum bribe (er, I mean bonus).
This was the Christmas 1996 issue. Apparently, I came up with a million dollar idea and didn't even know it. A few years after I wrote this, I saw an ad for the "Stadium Pal", which was basically the "Long Pool Potty". I wonder if the inventor got the idea from me?
Unlike the S.T.O aptitude test, I ever got any feedback from crew callers, but it's almost a certainty that somebody faxed it to the caller's office.
Another "News Bites" issue. The impending merger was still the big news, as well as changes in River Line regular jobs. It seems that Selkirk got the short end of the stick.
This issue was inspired by one of those generic items that appear on bulletin boards in offices everywhere. For more on the Titanic check out issue 111 on the "History" page
Ebonics was a name given to the speech of certain groups of people on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This inspired me to investigate the language used on the other end of the ladder.
All the quotes listed here were real quotes made by company officials. My translations might be a bit off, though!
The new banner referred to in the first paragraph was a large boulder that fell on the tracks. Originally, it included a photo from "Trains" magazine. Someday, I'd like to re-create it with models.
This issue was inspired by a photo in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Journal. It was a photo-op of the president of the BLE with the president of the United States (Wearing one of those striped hats that no engineer would be caught dead in).
I made the last trip of my career on the River Line on March 28, 1997, so I never had the privilege of staying at the Swan. However, several people insisted I should "make an issue of it", so I did.
Why did I never return? Things were slowing down, and I got bumped off the last regular River Line job I could hold. With a young boy and a baby at home, I decided to work the yard awhile. I assumed that I would be called for River Line jobs on my days off.
I was never called, and never thought about it. Qualifications expire after a year, and thirteen months later, I suddenly realized I was no longer qualified on the River Line.
A cherished Selkirk tradition was the "Quit" when working the East End puller jobs. A certain amount of quit was necessary to avoid getting overtime while the next shift sat around waiting for your engine. However, sometimes the quits would get out of hand (2 hours) and the company would crack down. This often led to puller crews "working safely".
This issue was inspired by one such incident. In this instance, the hump crews were being used to hook track, which some (myself included) resented. In addition, this one somehow made the papers, where a company spokesperson referred to us as "slackers". (More on that later.)
My personal record for a quit was four hours on December 24, 1978. I had gone to work on an 11:59PM puller during a "thundersnow" storm. The yardmaster sent us home around four AM Christmas morning. We had put together the most important trains by then , and the snow had slowed work to a crawl. After work, I jumped in my car and drove straight to my parents house, following a snowplow on the Thruway for 120 miles.!
A handful of Buffalo jobs were regular assignments. Because of the regular hours and higher rates of pay, these jobs were occupied by those with the highest seniority.
After being described as "slackers" in a local paper, the term became a favorite joke in Selkirk yard. The phrase "increase your commitment to the carrier" was actually used in an attendance letter sent to me (and others, I assume).
On March 28, 1997 I worked on the River Line for the last time. I had been bumped off the last regular job I could hold on the River Line. Rather than work a list or pool, I decided to work the yard for a while, as I had two young boys; five years old and four months old.
This issue was inspired by the Dr. Seuss books I was reading to my sons at the time, as well as a certain hump conductor who shall remain nameless. There was some speculation on who the Grump was, but I never told.
This issue is one of my personal favorites.
DR.SEUSS FUN FACTS
The book "Green Eggs and Ham" was written because Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) made a bet with his publisher that he could write a children's book using only fifty different words.
Theodor Geisel drew editorial cartoons for a small paper in New York during World War II, drawing Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo in that unmistakable Dr. Seuss style. Some of the cartoons have been reproduced in the book "Dr. Seuss Goes to War."
Though this never came to pass in our company, there was some speculation about it in the crew room grapevine.
On Halloween 1997, I brought a costume when I went to work on the afternoon humper. As I got out of my car, the tower conductor noticed I was dressed in black, and said on the round-robin intercom: "He's up to something!" I was dressed ss the "Slacker Hacker" and had a bag of 100 Grand bars to give out as "severance".
I went to the top of the tower to give the yardmaster his "severance", walking by the glass walled terminal superintendent's office. He was in there with two road foremen, and all three of them looked up at me. At that moment I assumed I was in trouble and had nothing to lose, so I went in and said: "Gentlemen, I'm here to discuss your future!" Fortunately for me, they thought it was hilarious. One road foreman went to his car and got a camera, so the moment was saved for posterity.
During my lunch break, I went to the GYO and handed out candy to the road crews. I felt like I was in a petting zoo with a handful of feed.
The Slacker Hacker never visited Selkirk again, but was to appear in many future issues. I can't help but think that if it weren't for the candy, I would have gotten in trouble.
When the first brakeman was eliminated in 1985, the contract established a productivity fund. For every job that ran short a man, money would be placed in the fund. The money was distributed annually to pre-1985 conductors and trainman in a lump sum.
Engineers did not share in this fund, and many were not happy about it. "I'm the lowest paid member of the crew!" was a common refrain. Though this had largely died down by the late nineties, I was still inspired to write about it.
As the number of pre-1985 employees shrank, the payments to the remaining ones increased. At the time my retirement, there was only one left! I lost my rights to the fund when I became an engineer. Had I stayed a conductor, I would have made a lot more money in my last few years. Still, I have no regrets.
This was the Christmas issue for 1997. The other "Holiday Classic"
included was "the Night Before Christmas on the Onion Specific", which is included on the "Stuff from Others" page.
In an effort to reduce fatigue, the company sent its employees a video entitled "Alertness Around the Clock". Since many of my co-workers claimed to have not watched it, I decided to write the "Cliff's Notes" summary.
Though largely met with cynicism, the video did provide useful information about sleep cycles.
I've always felt that the behavior of some of my co-workers would be good fodder for a soap opera or reality show. So the Newsweek story was too much to resist.
An influx of new hires inspired this issue. Though written with my usual tongue-in-cheek style, it contained useful information for new employees.
One day as my engine came to the top of the hump, I noticed a trainer with a group of his "ducklings". I leaned out the window with my arms open wide and yelled: "Welcome to Cornrail!"
Years later, I learned that, for a while, CS&M was actually handing this issue to new hires at their Atlanta training facility. I decided not to sue them; hopefully, they'll return the favor when they discover this web site!
I published this issue to make sure everybody knew about the upcoming vote on the super pool. It was a reprint of a list I wrote before I began "Tales From the River"
The nature of our jobs makes it difficult for railroaders to attend union meetings. The sparse attendance makes it possible for a determined few to get votes on unpopular issues to go their way.
Yes, there actually was a 23-volume report on the merger.
The volume numbers shown are real; the titles, of course, were made up!
Of course, I had to do one issue with the usual southern stereotypes...
I learned about the Microsoft puzzle from my sister-in-law, who works in IT.
You can find the answer to the puzzle on the "Stories" page.
More "updates" on the merger...
At the time, the Northern Southern had a reputation for strict discipline (as well as pooping in a bag). So the conventional wisdom was that we were being absorbed by the "good" railroad.
If I recall correctly the executive responsible for that reputation ended up working for CS&M.
This was basically a report on the December 1998 union meeting.
The Christmas issue for 1998 was all about the impending merger.
As a reward for being injury free, the company handed out denim jackets with leather "Zero Hero" patches. Reactions were mixed, as "Zero" inferred a negative connotation. However, I still have mine.
I finally got around to lampooning the SD80MAC's. The reason it took nearly two years is that I had another idea in mind; a parody of the poem "Casey at the Bat".
I though I about it for a long time, but never got very far:
The outlook wasn't hopeful for the BOSE crew that day.
With three hours left to work, and Selkirk miles away.
With one hundred fifty freight cars and six assorted stacks,
The engineer was nervous 'cause he had two 80MAC's.
Years ago, seasonal job changes were common. For instance, some conductors would work the yard in the summer, jumping on a road job in the winter to avoid working in snow. Others would make a seasonal jump from a road job to a yard job to enjoy sports such as bowling or golfing.
The ability to do this largely disappeared with the introduction of remote control on yard assignments. Conductors needed to be qualified, and the jobs for engineers simply disappeared.
Conductors and engineers have always been represented by two separate unions; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the United Transportation Union. At the time, there were talks about merging the two unions, which generated a bit of contention. Though it would seem logical for engineers and conductors to be represented by the same union, the merger never happened.
This is my first post-retirement issue. It's a story I wanted to tell about the "good ol' days" on the River Line; however, I never got around to it. Since it deals with events in the late eighties, I feel it belongs here.