CN Pensioners Associations, Inc.

Eyes Open Mouth Shut

 by Gordon W. Burton

 I graduated from high school in June 1943 at seventeen years. The war was raging in Europe and the Pacific. I had lost my interest in formal education and was looking for something to do until the army wanted me. According to the recruitment officer they didn't want me until I was at least eighteen and a half because they couldn't send a person overseas before age nineteen. My father was a steam locomotive engineer and I had met many of his railroader friends and was intrigued by their tales of good runs, bad runs and runs that were saved from disaster by the, 'nick of time' efforts or inspiration of a crew member.

 Dad solved the problem. He put in a good word for me with an extra gang foreman and I was hired as an oiler and bucket operator on a steam ditcher. This job came to a sudden and violent end when our machine derailed and toppled into a 30-foot fill just outside of Luscar. I was saved from death because, through more good luck than smarts, I chose to leap to the right side rather than the left. Had I picked the wrong side, the wreck crew would have been lifting the 40-ton machine off me when they arrived many hours later. It would have been messy because the crushing weight plus the hot water and steam from broken pipes would not have left anything recognizable to send home for burial. As an example my heavy wool Siwash sweater, mother had knitted for me, was stored in a seat box, when the wreckage cooled I found it in the debris. The sweater formerly extra large had been hot steamed to a size that would nicely fit a small three year old, the steam shrunk my horse hide gloves so much they would have been a tight fit for that three year old. I wasn't the only one that felt slightly queasy looking at them.

 In the nineteen forties there were no career counselors employed to mitigate alleged subliminal fears or grief. Dispatching hoards of counselors to every disaster had not yet been practiced in the early forties; had it the battlefields of World War Two might have been cluttered with non-combatants. The cure for trauma in the forties time was to suck it up thank your lucky stars and get on with life. Consequently I, without any loss of time, was put to work in the Calder Roundhouse. The Roundhouse was desperately short of workers since so many young men were in the military. I soon found myself surrounded by massive steam locomotives, sizzling, buzzing and thumping as they waited seemingly impatiently for their next run. Since my rather short resume included experience on a steam-powered machine it seemed logical to the boss to assign me to building the fires and taking care of all the steam engines already fired-up. The person on that job was referred to as the light-man and I soon found out it was the toughest job on the roundhouse. It entailed not only shoveling uncountable tons of coal but also included the awesome responsibility of ensuring none of these monsters would blow up through lack of water over the crown sheet because of my neglect. I had been informed that there was enough power in one of these up to pressure boilers, should it be released all at once as an explosion, to damage its surroundings for half a mile in every direction. Or as one old timer told me there was enough power in one of these boilers to blast itself a mile straight up. Needless to say at seventeen with those vivid pictures in my mind there was no neglect of responsibilities on my part. As my dad frequently put it, "Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut." A philosophy that mostly prevailed throughout my railroad career except I must admit in later years the closed mouth creed was not always applied.

 After a year in the shops I enlisted. I learned Canada had lost so many Engineers in deadly battles that even with my limited qualifications I was to be trained as a Royal Canadian Engineer. Our advanced training included learning to use explosives to blast bridges, make tank traps, to clear minefields and defuse tank and antipersonnel mines. All of this training came with the constant reminder that carelessness or inattention in the field meant loss of life or at the least many body parts.

 Now what has all this got to do with a broken rail you may begin to wonder? On discharge I was hired as a locomotive fireman on steam engines. On or about January 1947, I was working a way-freight switcher job that ran between Tofield and Wainwright. In those days Tofield was a very busy place with spurs and a number of grain elevators. Also a coalmine on the outskirts had to have loads switched out and empties spotted every day. We had finished most of our work and were sitting in the siding to clear the transcontinental passenger Number One. The conductor and trainmen were in the caboose checking lists and lining up further work.

 I happened to glance down from the cab window and noticed what looked like two rail joints only three feet or so apart. I wondered why they would use such a short piece of rail on high-speed main line track and got down off the engine to investigate. The snow was up to the ball of the rail and as I brushed it away I saw the rail had splintered and the piece was sitting unattached to the foot of the rail. I knew it would fall out at the first shock of an engine wheel leaving a three-foot gap in the rail.

 I shouted to the engineer," We have a broken rail." He threw me the flagging kit, as Number One was just about due out of the next station east. I looked to the east and saw in the distance the section foreman and his crew coming toward me on their motorized track car and I ran toward them shouting that we had a broken rail. The Foreman reversed his track car and ran his flagman out to stop the passenger train. On his return the crew fashioned a temporary repair by spiking in a support for the section of rail and the passenger train was allowed to proceed over the repair at ten miles per hour.

 The section foreman joined us a few minutes later while our entire crew was having coffee in the caboose. He thanked me for discovering the broken rail explaining that he had not checked the rail between switches before heading east as we were switching the spurs in that area. He confirmed the passenger train hitting that broken rail at a track speed of between sixty and seventy miles per hour would cause a derailment of the engine and most of the cars. It would have caused injuries even deaths among the passengers. The station building just west of the derailment that housed the agent and operators would have been destroyed. No one put into words that sitting on the engine in the adjacent track beside the broken rail we were as vulnerable to death and injury as were the passengers and crew on the speeding train.

 The engineer informed the section foreman that he would be making a recommendation for merit marks for me for finding the broken rail. The foreman said if it was reported and I got merit marks he would probably get fired for missing the broken rail. I said forget the merit marks I have no desire to see a man get fired after all I was merely living by the first half of my fathers creed, "Keep your eyes and ears open "