THE DEATH OF A RAILROADING MAN
Sad news. I just heard that an old Chicago buddy of mine, Dave Van Pelt, died last month. He was recovering from heart surgery, doing well, when something inexplicable went wrong and he died in his sleep. He’s survived by his wife, another old Chicago buddy, Rita Bakunin.
Damn! I can’t believe it. The man was so solid, such a rock, I thought he’d live to be 100. He stood over six feet tall, broad as a barrel and most of it muscle. He always wore his curly black beard trimmed to four inches, and his magnificent mane of smooth black hair hung down to his waist when he didn’t braid it up. All the women in the Chicago branch of the IWW envied him that hair.
He worked for the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, as a switchman at the 93rd Street tower – the last, and biggest, of the manual switching towers in the city. Pulling those big switching levers took amazing muscle, and he had it to spare.
He understood mechanics like nobody else in the union branch, and whenever one of the office’s odd and antique pieces of equipment went bonkers, he was the man we called in. I remember him repairing our ancient address-plate maker (made in 1893 as treadle-operated, updated to a motor sometime around World War Two), pulling handfuls of oily dust-bunnies out of the motor and greasing the gears, and getting to work like new – all in half an hour’s work, during which time he filled all the available ashtrays with the butts of his homemade cigarettes. (He was a tobacco connoisseur, and only smoked Three Castles thread-cut pipe tobacco hand-rolled in Zig-Zag rice-straw papers.) I remember that as he stood up and brushed off his hands, he commented: “Remember, you guys: you’ve got to clean these old machines at least one every war.”
He was also a member of our psychic research group, and it turned out that he had psychic ability of an unusual kind. He had telekinetic talent in spades, but he could only apply it to machinery. He’d made his desk in the switching tower an altar to Athena; he had a poster of her pinned to the wall above, an antique oil lantern on the desk as his altar-candle, a beer-stein for his chalice, an incense-burner that usually burned Frankincense, and a pentacle made from an old engine-gear. He used the altar, he said, to “keep the gremlins in line” – and it must have worked, because he ran that tower perfectly when nobody else could.
Of course, his Paganism included his own ribald sense of humor. Once while on the way to work – he preferred the night shift because it left him plenty of time to read his beloved Science Fiction books – he saw that the weather threatened rain, so he prayed to Thor: “Just let me get to the tower with a dry ass.” Well, the rain started falling as he got off the bus near the tower, but the wind blew strongly from the east – which happened to be the direction he was walking in – so by the time he got to the tower he was soaked top and bottom, front and sides, but… his ass was dry.
One night when the usually-scheduled 100-car Burlington-Northern freight train (he called it the “Burli-Q”, as in “burlesque”) stalled in the middle of his yard’s intersection, he got annoyed enough at it to yell: “You f*ckin’ Q! You should be struck by lightning!” Sure enough, a second later a lightning-bolt struck the engine and shorted out all its electronics. The delivery man from the roundhouse, who happened to be in the tower with him at the time, got very wide-eyed, crossed himself, hurried away, and began spreading the legend that Dave was a “Brujo”. That might not have been a mistake.
I remember the time the union’s contract ended and negotiations for the new contract were stalled. The company wanted to cut down on the number of maintainers – the mechanics et al who maintain the tracks, trains, switches, etc. in good running order – and the union, knowing full well how dangerous all that big fast equipment can be, wasn’t having any of that. Negotiations remained deadlocked right up to the hour the old contract ended. Hearing about this, as his shift came to a finish right before the end of the contract, Dave did a special magickal ceremony: he summoned all the gremlins in the tower and made them line up in their invisible ranks, and gave them a lecture. “The guy coming in this morning to replace me,” he announced, “Is a scab. All the crap I wouldn’t let you pull on me, have fun doing to him.” Then he took down and rolled up the picture of Athena, collected his gear off the desk and stuffed it in a duffelbag, leaving the altar bare – and thus removing Athena’s protection from his tower. Just as he was pulling on his coat – a big navy wool pea-jacket – he heard the morning-shift man’s (the scab’s) footstep on the bottom stair of the tower. An instant later a 20-pound maul, which had been hanging peacefully in its brackets all the time Dave had worked there, fell off the wall and knocked a hole in the floor. Seeing that the gremlins were already at work, Dave hastily got out of there and went straight home.
The bosses signed the new contract within 24 hours. Yes, the new contract kept the same number of maintainers.
Of course, when he went back to work Dave re-dedicated the tower and called the gremlins back into line, but by then his legend on the B. & O. railroad had grown to epic proportions.
Yes, Dave deserved that. He also deserved a lot more years of life, dammit. I’ll miss him.