Saturday, March 14, 2015
March 14, 2015: Small Worlds and Coal Scoops
That friendly face smiling down belongs to Montana Rail Link engineer, Rich Curtis. Now retired, the photo was taken some years back up at Blossburg, Montana while Rich was still in helper service. He later got off the helpers and ended his career on the day switch in the Helena Yard.
I first met Rich back when I was given permission to ride the helpers over Mullan Pass for a series of articles I was doing. I have many regrets, one of them was things never quite worked out where one of the rides was with Rich.
I remember one day, while getting a few facts and figures from Road Foreman of Engines, Kern Kemmerer, Rich signed off duty and joined us in Kern's office. Kern offered to take us all to breakfast, so the three of us ended up over at the Helena Airport Terminal, a well known breakfast spot for locals. Rich and I were doing the usual back and forth "getting to know each other" conversation when a surprising common thread began to make itself known.
Finding out I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, Rich mentioned he'd spent a little time in the area at Fort Lewis when he was about to be discharged from the Army. Already knowing about my leaving the city life to go farming Rich mentioned that in the last months he was in, there was a program that allowed soldiers about to be discharged to job shadow various people in the private sector. Just for something different, he choose to ride around with a couple of veterinarians working out of the Olympia area back in about 1974.
The bite of omelet that was about to enter my mouth never made it that far.
Cleveland and Sands, I asked?
In fact yes, that is who it was.
I was still in the dark, but a faint light of recognition came across Rich.
Rich turned his attention to Kern and continued with his story. He told of a time when he went out with Dr. Sands to attend a sick cow belonging to a registered breeder just south of Olympia. In the process of working on this cow, "Sandy" (as we all called Dr. Sands) asked for a thermometer. Rich grabbed one from the bag, then promptly dropped it in the cow shit. As Rich recalled,
"The farmer had a herdsman, a young guy, kind of a smart ass. He gave me a bad time about dropping that thermometer."
He was now looking right at me.
Yep, that was me, and yes, I did recall that visit. As it turned out, Rich came out to the farm where I was working a couple more times before he was discharged. He went his way, I went mine, only to meet again some 35 years later in Helena, Montana.
A small world indeed.
From that time on, whenever I was in Helena, Rich was always on my list of people to visit. On one such visit, we were once again in Kern's office. It was right after my book on the Wellington Slide had been published. Rich was telling me how his great grandfather was a fireman on the Great Northern. He worked the helpers over Marias Pass to the north. In fact he still had the coal scoop he had used.
There's a funny story about that scoop, Rich went on. It seems when the engine crew had to "relieve" themselves the coal scoop served as the porto-potty. One time, his great grandfather found himself in just such a situation. Going out to the coal deck, he scooped a little coal dust into the shovel. The idea being, you then did your business in the carbon in the scoop, (carbon neutralizes odor), and when done a little extra coal is shoveled and the whole affair gets tossed into the firebox. A fool proof system, except, this one time, just as his great grandfather had gotten settled and was in the midst of his business, the engine lurched, great grandpa lost his balance, and sat right in the coal scoop.
Rich figured the hoghead and his great grandfather stayed on their sides of the cab the rest of the run.
Even though Rich is now retired, I still make a point of looking him up whenever I pass through Helena. And yes, the fact that both these stories share a somewhat "common theme" has not been lost on us.