(Editor's Note: Our columnist Rose Moore presents this Father's Day classic as a tribute to her own father and to fathers everywhere, whatever their occupations.)
From his tender years, my father was a steam-age railroad man. When his own father died in 1918 in the Great Influenza Pandemic, my father dropped from school and lied about his age to take a job on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. From that point, as I saw it, his history was conjoined with the mighty B&O.
This Mother of Railroads, the "railroad man's railroad," would become our family's bread and butter. It had grown up with our country and was responsible for a number of firsts.
It was the first to use a "wagon" (prototype of the freight car); the first to build a passenger and freight station; the first to use an iron boxcar (forerunner of present steel cars); the first to test electric-powered locomotives; the first to introduce the domed-glass observation coach, the eight-wheel passenger coach, the air-conditioned coach and the individual reclining seat...
It was the major federal military transport-in the Civil War and bore a large part of the transportation burden during World War II. And, as the "King of Coal Carriers," it was the largest transporter of this most important energy source that fueled the trains themselves and accounted for half the cargo tonnage of the line.
IRONICALLY, IN THE years after 1925 when most other railroads were rushing to convert to diesel, the historically-innovative B&O lagged behind. By 1945, steam still outnumbered diesels on the B&0. It was only after V-J day that the biting sound of the diesel horn began to take its place beside the wanderlust-producing song of the steam whistle.
My father, whose railroad work began long before the diesel, was a steam man through and through. But he had a practical side as well. One day as we talked about the B&O, he grudgingly admitted that diesel had to be the future for his beloved B&O.
Diesel was far-and-away a money saver in maintenance and fuel costs, and it could achieve full power quickly from a cold engine (while steam needed at least an hour)... Diesel's high horsepower at low speeds allowed faster starts and improved schedules... The diesel locomotive's low center of gravity made it possible to negotiate curves at faster speeds... It was easier on tracks and rail beds....
It could carry more cars, and its electric motors could be reversed for braking... And engineers who were required to operate both types of engines ultimately admitted that steam-versus-diesel was like Ford-versus-Cadillac---a definite step up.
STILL, MANY AN old steam man like my brakeman father did not go happily into the diesel age. My father may have nodded to the diesel's practicality, but like the Old West cattle rancher's attitude toward intruding sheep men, he never really grew to like the brash behemoth. He said he didn't like the diesel smell or the bone-jarring vibrations. He said the diesel didn't have the sound or character of steam. And dirt and grit be damned, he said, he loved the sooty clouds that boiled out like thunderheads from stacks of old steam locomotives as they forged their way across the landscape. Clearly, diesel couldn't win my father's love; it simply wasn't steam!
In the year before he died, realizing that his railroad was finally and fully committed to the diesel and was steadily doing away with steam, Dad arranged for my elder sister and myself to travel on the railroad alone. We would ride by free pass (a special perk for railroad families), and best of all, our train would be pulled by one of the few steam engines still operating on our route. We would be riding with a bit of history, and I could hardly wait!
My sister and I were teenagers. Through a promise to my father by the railroad people, we were treated like imprisoned royalty; the B&O was our devoted chaperon. If that was a blow to my sense of adventure, it wasn't my only disappointment. I felt betrayed when I learned that "due to circumstances" our train would be pulled by diesel, not by steam. We had waited far too long for our adventure with the faithful steam horse of my father's time.
WITHIN SIX MONTHS, my father too was gone. I had heard him speak of dangers in his brakeman's job. He knew of railroad brakemen who had fallen underneath the wheels of a train to instant death or invalidism; there was nothing in between. But when Dad died on the job, it would not be by such brutality, but of a heart attack.
One cold and rainy February night, he was called out on a coal run to New Castle. The engine would be diesel, I heard him tell my mother sourly; and he dreaded going out.
Near West Farmington, he told the engineer he didn't feel well; the words were barely spoken, and he was gone from us. That fact, however, would remain unknown to us for several hours while his body lay on the cold floor of the engine, which continued on to Chardon to the coroner, who would sign the death certificate.
I'd heard my father say from time to time, there could be a certain dignity in going in your prime and with your boots on, and that's how he was taken. Though I was just 14, I found an unexpected comfort in the knowledge that he had been allowed such dignity.
But in my heart I wished that he had spent his final moments on a steaming locomotive, roaring down the rails to something new, with familiar grit and smoke and chug-chug-chug and the mournful wail of a steam-age locomotive whistle.
That would have been the best, most fitting way for my father, a loyal steam-age railroad man, to be carried from this world.
(Our columnist Rose Moore has often said her love for news work was born early, from her childhood conversations with her father, who always found the daily news to be intriguing. Rose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).