Angela left Friday for a women’s retreat with some of the ladies from church. Unlike me in my reluctance to join in the reindeer games of the tribe of menfolk, my wife is actually inclined to participate in what other women in her world are doing and she really looks forward to the twice annual getaways to Whidbey Island, which leave Mara and I blinking worriedly like orphaned quail. She left a plate of freshly baked cookies, which now mirrors the desperate faces of two people missing Mommy. And it’s only Saturday afternoon.
Actually, I exaggerate. Mara and I have learned to make the most of these occasions. And Angela left us some pea soup.
Today Mara and I decided to go in search of trains. Real ones. Big, working diesel engines. We always see at least one train when we go to Carkeek Park to hike in the woods, play in the playground or mess about on the beach. That was our first destination. It was a chilly day and there were many clouds, but there were also these patches of blue sky, which permitted cascades of sunlight to bless into the world herebelow, momentarily lighting up part of the green bluff between Ballard and Edmonds, as though picking through the foliage to find the best fall color.
We found the usual (and always surprising) number of rocks that look stunning at the water’s edge and not so stunning at home. We also found a small but entire periwinkle shell. It is rare to find one that is not broken, and the only other time we found whole ones, they were occupied by very crabby tenants. Naturally, we brought it home.
But we did not find any trains. Oddly, not a single one came in the hour and a half we were there. But not to worry; we had other tracks up our sleeve, so we headed south. We stopped for blueberry pancakes and biscuits and gravy at a pancake house that we didn’t even know existed, and which was a delightful surprise to stumble on for big breakfastheads like us, and which I’m not going to describe because Angela might read this and Mara and I are planning to take her there as a surprise.
After brunch we motored south across the Fifteenth Avenue Bridge in Ballard and got off at Emerson, then hooked into the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad industrial labyrinth that sprawls between Emerson and Dravus and centers around a large roundhouse. NO TRESSPASSING signs were posted. I hadn’t really expected that we would be able to drive right up and get out of the car and climb onto locomotives, but I thought there might be someone around in a hardhat that might be kind to a dad and kid out appreciating the railroad. At the very least I figured that some fast talking might prevent me being made to “taste dirt” by Homeland Security and my child being handed over to CPS before we could have a looksee.
I should pause to note that my appreciation of large, exhaust-belching behemoths of the Industrial Age, the age I blame for many of society’s present ills, is mysterious to me and possibly hypocritical. I know that the railroad barons were crooks, and that the issuing of huge grants of land to railroads in the service of “Manifest Destiny” (don’t get me started) helped create many land-use problems that endure today. And locomotives are thoroughly unsustainable — they don’t, after all, burn corn oil.* Still, I just love trains. I think it has something to do with the way they go. Running on tracks parallel to but just beyond our world of cars automatically gives even the grimiest and noisiest of them the aspect of friendly guardians. You glimpse them from the back seat of your parents’ Ford Galaxy 500 as a child, a smudge of rusting metal between buildings or trees, and you sense the slow movement through an intuitive analysis of distances and positionings that accounts for your forward motion and the speed at which buildings and trees appear to be moving past you. Or suddenly they are running alongside the car, full throttle, and you wonder how something so huge as a freight train could have sneaked up on you like that in the middle of Nebraska.
The roundhouse was curled with its back to us, so we couldn’t see the turntable, and I was leery about nosing around on a property whose owners forbade tresspassing clearly and explicitly and in writing. But a sign saying that “all visitors must check in at the office –>” seemed to suggest that visitors were not unheard of, which was a tick in the plus column. We found the office and went in. A woman in an orange vest and a man sat behind a counter, just like at a dentist’s office. There was a monitor in the corner that showed what was going on out in the yard from a camera way up on some pole; lines of tracks, some with hoppers or tank cars on them, stretched away in the distance; the orange and black locomotives of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (now officially shortened to “BNSF” — the KFC of over-the-rails commerce) sat with their headlights on, but nothing much moved. Three burly guys in orange vests and white hardhats stood in front of the counter talking to the two admins. One of these, an elderly guy with silvery beard and moustache, saw Mara walking in next to me and said, “here’s the new employee.” Mara slid behind my legs.
While the five concluded their business I picked her up in my arms and held her and pointed to the locomotive I could see through the window in the door between the office and the roundhouse proper. I imagine the people who work here don’t call it a roundhouse, even though it has the classic roundhouse shape and function. They probably say “shed” or “shop” or something.
Presently the man behind the counter asked if I needed something. I uttered my hope that we might get close to the turntable or some of the locomotives, though we knew everyone must be very busy.
“Closer than you are right now?” he said, and scrunched his face to indicate that was unlikely. Silverhair, who seemed quite gamesome, said to Scrunchy, “You want me to give them a tour?”
“They’re not PPE’d,” said Scrunchy. I recognized the acronym, and said “oh, we’d need personal protection equipment, right?”
“I could give ‘em mine,” said Silverhair.
Lady seemed about to go for this, but Scrunchy worried it down by the weight of the rules. By way of concession, he said we could go through the door and stand just inside it. “They’re bringing one in right now.”
I thanked them and carried Mara through the metal door just in time to see number 1573, an orange and black hood unit, pull into the far-rightmost of six bays that this part of the roundhouse held. We missed the shop door opening and closing, and it was a good fifty feet away off to the right, so we only really saw the front of it glide forward and stop.
There were five locomotives in this portion of the roundhouse, four hood units and a switcher. The switcher and two of the hood units had the orange and black paint scheme of the new BNSF. One of the other large engines was liveried in Burlington Northern’s old green and white, and the last wore the blue and yellow of the old Santa Fe line. The floor where we stood was elevated above the tracks and the locomotives came forward in a slot or bay that allowed maintenance workers to walk around them at the level of the doors and platforms. A staircase in front of us, its metal rails painted yellow, led down to the basement, which, if we could have visited it, would have been a strange place of nothing but large wheels and fuel tanks. Above us, metal beams suspended from the cieling held what I took to be winches and hooks for moving large generators and stuff around. I don’t know if winches are really involved or if generators are among the items hoisted around in this place, but I’m out of my element here. The word “generator” is the only noun I can think of that sounds heavy and industrial and like something a diesel engine might have as a major part. Similarly, when I open my box of words for painting the picture of heavy industrial work being done, there aren’t many words in it besides “winch”. Sad, but there it is. I stand in a cavernous room chock full of real objects that do real stuff and have no language to describe what I see. For all I knew, every item in here had a specialized name like Pulasky. I had my camera with me but didn’t even want to ask if I could snap a picture, lest the admins begin to wonder if I was really a clever OSHA inspector, bringing the kid along as a ruse.
The air had a slight haze and the place had the flinty smell of a smithy — metal and fire, or rather greasy parts and electrical sparks. I asked Mara what she smelled, hoping that by activating a conscious olfactory registration she might be able to remember this event all her life. Me holding her. The brightly colored locomotives. The hardhats. When she’s sixty-five and I’m a hundred and eight or gone, she’ll have this vivid memory and say “My dad must have taken me to a roundhouse.”
“Smoke,” she said.
Mara didn’t want to leave. We took it in for awhile. One young man in overalls (and his PPE, of course) worked in darkness in the cab of the green and white locomotive directly in front of us. His flashlight bobbed around. After about ten minutes we walked back into the office and asked where we might go to see the trains moving around. Scrunchy was doubtful. For one thing — he moved a joystick or some keyboard keys and the view on the monitor panned around the yard — there wasn’t much going on. One shift was just coming off and another going on. For another, “they” had been “tightening up” around here with “stuff like that”, meaning we were officially unwelcome to poke around.
I said I understood, but couldn’t help asking, “if we’d brought our PPE, could we have had a tour?” referring to what Silverhair had said earlier.
“He’s supposed to be doing some work,” replied Scrunchy with amusement. “The guys that volunteer for one thing are usually trying to get out of doing something else.”
We quit the BNSF property and drove back out onto Emerson, but we circled the switchyard along various back alleys. At one point we got out and stood on a bridge watching an orange-clad work crew spread some gravel that was being deposited at the north end of the yard. I was surprised how little security there was in some areas. On the unfenced western edge of the yard, right next to a dead end road that anyone can access, a line of locomotives stood with their engines running. We could have heisted them and been halfway to Kalama before anyone knew about it.
I haven’t given up on the idea of wrangling a tour of the roundhouse for Mara someday. It has to be possible. I’m sure that high-level railroad functionaries’ kids get to ride locomotives right onto the turntable. But I learned today that it might be a good idea to carry a vest and hardhat for me and small versions for Mara in the car. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to say, “Oh the PPE is no problem, we’ve got our own. We’ll be right back. Come on Mara, let’s go get our helmets on. We’re going to have a tour!”
*I’m not positive this is true. In fact as soon as I wrote it a memory, perhaps a phantom one created just now, seemed to worm into my head of an article about trains that run on corn-based ethanol (and anyway, cf. Hamlet, Horatio, heaven and earth).