Guest Columnist - John Ropa
When we first moved to the Tri States area, we were confounded by the weather. In spite of a plethora of robins, the achetypal harbingers, spring lasted only one or two days, to be followed by two more weeks of winter. Immediately after that, summer arrived. This was not the case where I came from. I knew that spring was here when I heard a train whistle. This happy, haunting sound came not from the Chicago Northwestern, but from Kiddieland, a local children's amusement park.
Because this was the year I turned 16 years old, I would soon be following in my older brothers' footsteps to take a job at the park. Unlike them, however, I was not going to be satisfied with running the Ferris wheel, nor was I content to get dizzy by walking the wrong way on the Merry Go Round. I was going to be the engineer on the train.
Even before school was out, I had made my intentions clear to the park manager. He said he was always happy to have a backup engineer because turnover was highest at that job. He said that he would train me.
The train was a beauty: It was sleek, black and oily with an old-time funnel smokestack that reached at least a foot over my head. When all the other rides were inactive, the train was loaded with adoring kids, each dreaming of a trip to Grandma's, the zoo or Keokuk. I was to be the revered engineer who always delivered them safely to their destinations.
My training was to be on the job. The park manager sat behind me on the tender as I squeezed into the engineer's seat. I shoveled some coal into the firebox and watched as the pressure gauge rose to the designated spot. As soon as the train was fully loaded, I was to toot the whistle, always the same pattern.
At his direction, I opened the throttle, a little too fast, causing the wheels to spin and the engine to emit bellows of smoke, ash and sparks which landed on my tee shirt with predictable results. Wincing with pain, I brushed off my shirt, which meant that I temporarily took my hand off the throttle. The train slowed to a crawl just as a car crossed the tracks no more than five feet ahead of me. "Where's the brakes?" I shouted. "There are no brakes," said the manager. "You just shift it into reverse and ease out the throttle."
The trip around the tracks was uneventful. As I approached the station, the manager told me to shift into reverse and ease out the throttle. "You'll need to activate the air brakes to keep the cars from banging into the engine," he said. I located the air brake handle, pulled it out and whiplashed about 30 passengers. As I disembarked, I felt a pain in my right foot. Apparently, I had rested my foot on the fire door and burned the sole off my shoe.
"I don't think this is going to work out," said the manager. I agreed. He offered me a job on the Ferris wheel, but I declined. When I got home after work, I could hear the Kiddieland whistle. It sure sounded good from a distance.
John Ropa retired after 20 years in the International Division of Abbott Laboratories. His e-mail address is J.Ropa@yahoo.com.