Sunday, January 25, 2015

January 25, 2015: Summer Mornings

I was one of those lucky kids that grew up in the city, but my grandparents had a farm.  It was located close enough to where we lived we regularly visited on week-ends.  As I grew older, I spent my entire summer vacation there, working.  It was a small dairy, so milking the cows and cleaning the barn were my regular chores.  There was also haying season where I bucked bales on our farm, as well as earning extra money haying for others.  It was a playground, a way to earn money for school clothes and a classroom where responsibility and work ethic was taught, all in one.
 The morning ritual was always the same.  I’d usually be awake by 5:30 or so, (“half past 5” in Grandpa’s time keeping lingo), but there was an unwritten rule, Grandpa got up first.  I’d hear him stir in their bedroom down the hall in the big old farmhouse.  He’d get on his clothes and then down the hall he would come, his ill-fitting slippers going “ker-flap, ker-flap” with each step.  Still in bed, thanks to his footwear, I followed his progress, descending the stairs, with a “ka-thump, ka-thump” added to the “ker-flap, ker-flap.”  Across the main floor he’d go, pausing briefly where I could hear a not so subtle three sharp taps.  He was checking the barometer that hung in the kitchen.  Not until the house shook with the slamming of the kitchen door and screen door did I jump from bed and begin my day.

I’d be right behind Grandpa.  Often he was just headed down the hill towards the barn when, with barn boots on, I’d bound off the back porch.  The sun was usually just cresting the eastern edge of the valley, it’s warm summer rays already chasing away the fresh early morning chill.  The night pasture would be in full light, the cows already up and taking a few mouthfuls of grass. 

Grandpa would go right for the barn and start measuring out the grain for each cow.  I would busy myself in the milk house, assembling the milking machines.  About the time I’d have the two bucket units ready for the barn, I’d hear Grandpa calling the cows.

“Come boss! Come boss!”
It was a sing-song call, with the two words slurred together.  More like “Caah-boss!  Caah-boss!”

The cows would lift their heads and perk their ears.  Knowing the routine, knowing their place, they would wait for the boss cow to begin walking towards the barn before they would then fall into line.

For so many years growing up, that’s how my summer mornings began.  Looking back now, I realize what a good life it was.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

January 18, 2015: The Last Train

It was the summer of 1976.  Janice and I had spent a week-end photographing trains crossing both the Milwaukee Road line across Snoqualmie Pass as well as the rival Burlington Northern's Cascade crossing, Stampede Pass.  The sun was high and we were on our way home.  As it turned out there was one more Milwaukee Road train coming westbound.  I had never photographed the Humpback snow shed on the west slope, so that became the goal for the last set of photos of the trip.

We made the hike up the hill with little time to spare.  Within a few minutes of setting up at the west end of the shed, we could hear the train dropping down the hill.

It turned out to be a trailer train "hotshot."  Unfortunately, even in 1976, few used the term "hotshot" and Milwaukee Road in the same sentence.  The evidence was there.  Ties were set on dirt more than ballast.  There were more slow orders due to bad track than clear running.  Earlier that day, while photographing a train at Hyak, a section man told me I should title the photo, "Where's this one going off?"  Yes, even in 1976 the Milwaukee Road in the west was on the downward slide.

Even as the trailers and caboose inched past, even with the evidence there, it never occurred to me all of this would disappear.  Railroads don't just cease to exist.  They merge then reappear in a different form, but a transcontinental doesn't just pull up stakes and leave.  Mainlines are revamped under new ownership, different colored engines roll across the routes, just like what happened to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern.  That was my point of reference in 1976.

I took the obligatory shot of the caboose rounding the bend.  Janice and I returned to the car and headed for home.  On that summer afternoon in 1976 that this was the final Milwaukee Road train I would ever photograph was the farthest thing from my mind.  A year later, we were starting our own farm causing me to enter a nearly 10 year moratorium on photography.  When time and circumstances allowed me to once again take up my camera a resume railfanning, the Milwaukee Road was gone forever.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

January 11, 2015: 150 Years

Take a close look at this photo.  If you ever wondered what 150 years looks like, well here you go.  This is the mill crew at Conway Feed.  Left to right you have Feush, 25 years, Moe nearly 35 years, Richie, over 35 years, myself, the junior, 20 years, and seated in the stolen office chair, the Wizard, with over 35 years. (Yes, I realize that adds up to 145, but at this stage are we really going to argue over 1 year per person?)

At the time this shot was taken, the Wizard was fully retired, and since then Richie is semi retired.  The challenge now for the 3 of us who are left and also fast approaching retirement is to pass on to whoever comes to replace us, the 150 years of collective knowledge we have tucked away in our heads.  How do you prepare the next in line for tens of thousands of varying situations we have each faced and solved in the course of this 150 years?  When the fan light goes out on Mill 1, it is a completely different sequence of steps to take to get it going, than if the same light goes out on Mill 2.  How do you pull off a "flying switch" from corn to barley to organic corn on the roller mill?  Then there's knowing where the various trucks are and planning ahead which loads of feed to put out, all the while Moe has the west fill going backwards for crumbles pre-grind. 

If this all has the sound of a foreign language, don't feel bad, it does.   I did to me when I first came up on the mill floor.  That's what 150 years accomplishes, learning inside and out, a different language.  It's the language spoken when your workplace, like it or hate it, becomes a part of you.

Of all the things I've done at Conway, this just might represent my crowning moment.  I was proud to be included in this photo of men I respect.  I was proud that these guys considered my 20 years good enough to be added to there's.  I was proud to think I was part of 150 years.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

January 6, 2015: That Little Shack

"Don't worry, " I told her.  "There's this little shack up there that has a heater."
That was the pitch I used one winter morning back when Janice and I were first married.  We were headed up to Stevens Pass for a little winter railfanning, and Janice, not a big fan of cold and snow was less than enthused.

It was early winter, 1974 and there wasn't much snow on the ground yet.  Back then you could park for any length of time in the chain-up area near Scenic, and take a trail up the side of the mountain to the West Scenic switch, where "that little shack" was located.  It was the perfect plan, Janice could stay warm in the shack while I hiked around the vicinity taking my photos.

The problem began when we first arrived.  "That little shack" was there.  The heater inside that was working the winter before was there. The power lines to the heater were there.  The "on-off" switch was there, but the fuses were not.  I did get a smile out Janice, but as you can see, it was one of those "You are going to so pay for this" kind of smile.  I believe I convinced Janice to railfan with me in the snow one other time, but it was under no pretenses that a warm "little shack" would be in the mix.

"That little shack" is still there 40 years later.  The heater is long gone, but I still occasionally take refuge inside. The view out the door isn't the best but sometimes it's nice to get out of the wind and just sit in a dry environment for a minute or two.

The subject of "that little shack" comes up now and again.  It's usually in the context of me trying to get Janice to do something a little dubious.  I always respond to her skepticism with a cheery, "Don't worry, there's this little shack....."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

January 1, 2015: Why Not Start at the Beginning?

Having completed the "Pic-a-Day" personal challenge in 2014, I thought I needed to actually step-up my game in some form for 2015.  I've settled on the "Essay of the Week."  I've been pretty slack on writing anything for years now, so it's time to force myself to get back at it.  But where to start?  Obvious answer, at the beginning.

The less than perfect photo you see here is my oldest surviving negative.  I have no exact date, but I'm guessing it is around 1966.  It was taken at the Northern Pacific "D-street" roundhouse in Tacoma with my first camera, a Kodak Brownie Starlite.  For those who remember, these cameras were pretty much all plastic and used 127 roll film.  I would have been 13 years old at the time.

Back then, I would wander the yards at Tacoma.  They were within walking distance of our house, and Mom and the Old Man had no issue with me just going down there by myself for the afternoon.  On their part, the railroaders didn't really care if some kid showed up and took pictures here, there and everywhere.  It was such a different time.  A much better time.

And so, this negative survives as a visual testament to those times.  The shop worker is a man named "Slim" Rasmussen who would be destined to become the mayor of Tacoma.  We see him going about his daily work, in this instance, pumping crank case oil into on old NP f-unit.

Photographs are a funny thing.  Were I to take a picture today that turned out this grainy, under exposed and lacking of detail, I'd be vastly disappointed.  Given nearly 50 years of age, suddenly this less than perfect image becomes one I treasure.