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Railroaders' Nostalgia > Practical Jokes - 4

Date: 04/01/20 19:05
Practical Jokes - 4
Author: TAW

There are other innovative ways to play practical jokes.
There was a B&OCT towerman, let’s call him R, a smart guy who eventually became a train dispatcher, who had an outgoing personality and sense of humor. He could come up with jokes about anything happening on the railroad.
I was second trick chief. The trick man was H, another guy who took life kind of lightly at times (but not always, like R). When a tower reported a train ready to go, H had a habit of replying Go with him.
Every afternoon, there was a second Q delivery, the meat run. The first was a big, heavy carload freight train. There were three of them a day. The regular Q delivery shoved out at 22nd Street, then pulled north to Robey Street. Unlike some of the other railroads, the Q kept crews on duty for a full shift every shift, even if the last 15 minutes was spent moving the engine down the tieup track a few carlengths. They had no incentive to get over the road. We always had to figure that when the Q was ready, it would be a long, painful move involving stalling at least once, then moving at less than walking speed to Wood Street (switches into Robey yard).
The meat run was perishable and forwarder traffic (Acme Fast Freight, Western Carloading, Superior Fast Freight, etc.), usually a dozen sometimes around 20 cars. That didn’t make them faster. They could manage to stall pulling west at 16th Street after shoving east of the bridge from the Air Line. Once they got going, you’d have to chalk the wheels to see if they were moving as they were on the way to Wood Street.
One afternoon, R was at 16th Street and told H he had the Q for Wood Street. H said the usual Go with him. A while later, R’s voice came from the dispatcher phone loudspeaker: Wood Street, Q in the clear. H automatically put the OS on the sheet and said Why didn’t the conductor call me himself? R said, He’s here, I’ll put him on the phone. H replied Why is he there? He should be at Wood Street, to which R Replied, He is. I am too. You told me to go with him, so I did.
One afternoon, R triggered an elaborate scheme that had to take some time to orchestrate.
The story takes a little background information. Every tower had at least two types of phone circuit. Most towers did not have what we called a city phone, the dial phone of the outside world. The dispatcher phone was a party line owned and controlled by the dispatcher. It had no purpose other than conducting the dispatcher’s business. To contact the dispatcher, the person listened to be sure that he was not interrupting, then announced his location. When the dispatcher acknowledged the location, the person would then identify himself or his train and make his request or give his information. Nobody had the ability to ring another party except the dispatcher. Each tower had a selector set that could be activated by the dispatcher to ring a bell at that tower.
The other primary phone circuit was the block phone. The block phone was for conversation among the towers or between lineside phones and towers. There were several separate block phone circuits so that it would not be saturated with traffic. Lineside phones were in booths or in boxes on a pole along the line near switches or signals, generally at places that also had a dispatcher phone. The block phones at those locations were used by train crews to reach a tower.  All of the towers between and including 16th Street and 75th Street were on a single block phone circuit.
Each phone on a block circuit had a hand crank generator that would put high (ringing) voltage on the line. Each tower had a code of long and short rings assigned to it. Some towers had the block phone connected to the boom or scissors mic and speaker or headset on the desk through a switch or plug box. There might be a hand crank for ringing, mounted on or under the desk, or a key on the communication switch box to ring by putting ringing voltage on the line at each key press. The strength/loudness of the ring was affected by the ringing voltage. Slowly cranking fast would result in a stronger ring than turning the crank slowly. The ringing voltage power supply at towers that had it could vary, affecting the strength/loudness of the bell.
To call a tower, one would ring that tower’s combination of long and short rings and wait for an answer. Towermen would often reply with a short ring, called ringing off, to signify that they were on the line. That way, the person calling would not need to keep the phone earpiece close to his ear. The sound of ringing voltage on the line could be very loud, so ringing off was a courtesy.
Like the subtle differences in the way an operator sent Morse code, there were subtle differences in the way that each operator rang the block phone. Once you got to know them, you knew how it was by the sound of the ringing. The various block phone circuits along the line were available to the dispatcher through the plug box on the desk. There were also different-sounding bells at the dispatcher desk for each circuit. One could, knowing the traffic and the operators, follow the progress of a train along the line by listening to the block phone bells, who is calling whom when.
We didn’t consciously listen for the block phone bells, they were just there for subconscious awareness, like when the radio yard channel or another main line channel is on a separate monitor speaker and the dispatcher can pick out important information without listening for it.
One evening, in about the middle of second trick, after the mad rush of passenger time (No 7, No 6, and No 608 plus IC, Santa Fe, GM&O, and Wabash passenger trains at Ash Street, Brighton Park, and 75th Street – until about 530p) among the freight traffic and it was down to deliveries for the remaining evening connections and perishables out of Wood Street and CPT, R told H  the C&O House job was ready to go to Rockwell. The House job left the C&O Rockwell Yard on the Belt, adjacent to 75th Street, late in the morning, worked the freight house near Grand Central Station, and returned to Rockwell in the afternoon. H said Go with him. R picked out an opportunity to spring the trick when there was no conflict and the phantom train he was about to run could sail right along.
R rang Western Ave as usual to tell him the next train was the (phantom) house job. A few minutes later OS Bridge…. The phantom house job was on the road. Soon, there was the distinctive high voltage ring of Western Ave calling Ash Street and Brighton Park. In the real world, the house job would be starting through 14th Street Jct. Minutes later: OS Western. Brighton Park rang 49th Street. The phantom house job was coming across the GM&O diamond. Then OS Brighton. The distinctive ring of the regular 49th Street operator called 75th Street. A few minutes later: OS 49. Finally, 10 minutes later, OS 75. After H responded awright, R asked H if that engine sounded familiar. Yeah, it does. R asked What left here behind No 6? Finding it on the sheet, he realized that he was had. The operator at 75 told him, you just ran an invisible train and did a fine job.


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