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A LONG NIGHT AT SF TOWER, WITH CHARLIE DISPATCHING

All through my high school years, I was a dedicated Erie Lackawanna fan. My area of specialization was interlocking towers. There were two towers within bicycle distance of my home in East Rutherford, NJ, and most of the other New York Division towers were accessible by commuter train. I got to know tower operators the hard way -- by barging up into their offices and asking to see what goes on. Despite the rules against unauthorized personnel in working areas, some operators accommodated me, and a few even tolerated my return visits.

Thus, by my junior year, I was being trained in the fine art of interlocking tower operation. Some of my best contacts were at "SF" Tower in Suffern, New York. Suffern had a storage yard for commuter trains out of Hoboken, along with the Hillburn freight yard serving the big Ford auto plant in Mahwah (closed in 1983). The Piermont Branch (the original Erie main line from 1851) joined the main at "SF", and furthermore, the two main tracks from the west became four tracks to the east. In sum, SF could be quite a hot spot at times, with road freights setting off and picking up blocks of cars, commuter trains needing to get in and out of their own yard, switch engines shuttling cars in various directions, and a few passenger and freight runs bound for Port Jervis simply looking for a green signal and a through-lined set of switches. The operator also had to hand up train orders, collect waybills, report to the Hoboken dispatcher, work around the needs of signal and track maintainers, and make sure that various other bits of information got through to the right people at the right time.

By the time I was ready to graduate in 1971, I was an "old hand" at SF. One operator, a good soul who must remain nameless, expressed his confidence in me one fine morning by telling me that he was going out to get some coffee, and that freight New York 100, the EL's premier hotshot from Chicago, was due in about 15 minutes. He nonchalantly told me to put 100 through on track 4 and OS him (report him by) to the dispatcher. By the time that my friend had returned, the job was done.

Indeed, it was fun being a "play employee". But I wanted to try my hand with the real thing. I was headed for college in the fall, but I knew that the EL used college students as summer relief operators. I was already acquainted with George Wright, the Assistant Chief Dispatcher in Hoboken, so one fine morning just after graduation I made my case to him for a job. At first, Mr. Wright's answer was "no, we already have enough summer help". But I kept on asking, and to my surprise, in early July the answer was "OK, go over and get your physical". I was assigned to qualify at DB, a sort-of backwater junction and drawbridge located along the Greenwood Lake branch. Again, I already knew some of the men at DB and knew how the interlocking worked, so it didn't take long for me to qualify (although a young trainmaster did call my bluff in regard to my understanding of train orders; luckily, he sat me down and explained exactly what train orders are and exactly how to write and deliver them, a lesson that served me well). My first day of work at DB went quite smoothly. I was ready to get out to the main line.

Mr. Wright agreed with this notion, and soon I was "posting" for qualification at "SF". Home turf, I thought. Over the course of a week, I ran the morning and evening rush hours, took some train orders, and was judged fit to handle SF Tower. In my pride, I didn't stay to observe the goings on during the night. With no passenger trains to get in the way, I assumed that the freight work would be relatively easy, just like a Sunday afternoon shift. Of course, pride always goeth before a fall.

Not that I wasn't warned. One of the swing-shift operators told me that the midnight (3rd trick) had its own quirks, and that the regular dispatcher, a Mr. Charlie Howells, had his own way of doing things. But how deeply could such a warning sink into the head of a newly-hired 18-year old at 10 AM on a warm summer day? No, the only antidote for youthful naivete is experience.

That antidote came soon enough. One day after Mr. Nolan, the local trainmaster, opined that I was qualified to work SF, I received my first assignment: cover third trick SF for a few nights. On that afternoon, I recalled the comment that I had heard about third-trick happenings in Suffern. It was too late to go and watch, but I did resolve to arrive early that night and make sure that I was familiar with everything moving (or not moving) before the second trick man headed for home. Although the 3rd trick didn't officially start until 11 PM, I got there at 10. The afternoon man, Tony Verlezza, stayed for a while and explained to me what was in the wind. I was even rewarded for my diligence by the passing behind F7's of the westbound Cannonball, a short-lived EL-N&W freight run to St. Louis. By 1971, seeing F-units running alone on hot freights was an extremely rare sight on the EL. Unfortunately, the 18-car consist which allowed the power control office to put its trust in those veterans was a harbinger of the Cannonball's (and the EL's) ultimate failure as a modern transportation service.

Just before 11PM, Mr. Verlezza let New York 99, the westbound counterpart to EL flagship New York 100, follow the Cannonball. Luckily for the EL, the 99 trains to Chicago were still running heavy. By 11, Mr. Verlezza was headed for home, NY-99's caboose markers had disappeared into the dark, and I was settling in beneath a 60-watt bulb hanging over the desk. I was trying to keep my daytime confidence, but down in my stomach I knew it was a lie. I could hear in my headphone the voice of Charlie, speaking to another tower. He sounded professional but brusque, no-nonsense. Before long, the buzzer for the dispatcher's line went off and it was time for us to get acquainted. He asked me who I was, and I told him. He didn't seem very thrilled at the idea of working with a newly qualified man (if you could call me a man at that point), but he got on with business: there was an eastbound caboose hop coming that had to go into the Hillburn freight yard just west of the tower. Since there were two freights stopped some miles to the east working at Ridgewood Junction, one on each of the two eastbound tracks, Charlie wanted me to tell this eastbound crew to enter the yard from the hand-thrown switch west of the tower, versus coming down to the power switches at the tower and backing in. That was because the two eastbound tracks were considered "blocked" such that the freights at Ridgewood could backup without permission if they needed to.

Unfortunately, at that point I was distracted by a switching move off of the Piermont Branch where a seemingly faulty signal required me to fill out paperwork allowing the engine to pass a stop signal. (Only later did I find out that you had to give that signal lever a certain kick with your foot to make it work). So, the eastbound job sauntered up to the mainline signal, expecting to be let down onto eastbound track 2 to be backed into the freight yard. When I called "JY" (the call letters for the dispatcher's office) to announce the eastbound's arrival, Charlie asked me where he was. I said "main track 2 at the signal". Charlie got quite upset. "Main two? I told you to have him go in up at Hillburn!!!" I mumbled something about misunderstanding his orders while trying to untangle the yard move, and Charlie just said "have Stocker [Bob Stocker, the freight's conductor] get on the phone with me". Well, the conductor walked into the tower, and I explained the predicament. Even though his train was just a caboose hop, they couldn't back up to the Hillburn hand switch due to a following freight train, and theoretically couldn't go east due to the "block" protecting the freights ahead at Ridgewood. I told him that I failed to inform him to take the hand switch because of my yard engine distraction and because I wasn't really sure just what Mr. Howells had told me (I did recall hearing him say something about a track 2, but only later did I realize that he was talking about Hillburn Yard 2, not Main 2). Anyway, Mr. Stocker was sympathetic, and told Mr. Howells that I was going to let his train go past the tower to back in; he acknowledged the "block" to protect the freights ahead, but reasoned that those trains were at least 8 miles away, and his train was but 3 engines and a caboose. Charlie objected, but for practicality's sake he soon gave in. In a few minutes, the yard engine was on its way home, Mr. Stocker's engines were backing past the tower, and Mr. Howells gruffly took my OS time report for those moves.

It was about 1 AM by then. Not a good start to the evening, but there was still much to do, so I didn't brood over it. Within the next 5 hours, I had gotten 4 freights through, some making set-offs, some moving right past. At about 5:30AM, EL's CX-99 was coming west on its usual schedule. CX-99 was an all-trailer train run exclusively for United Parcel Service, and arguably had even more importance and prestige than NY-99. Mr. Howells wanted to take no chances. He buzzed me just after CX-99 had left Croxton Yard, and asked me very specifically if I had the route lined properly. Then he told me to get up, pull the signal level to clear the block and tell him if it was working properly. I did that, to his satisfaction. A little while later, I OS'ed CX-99, and all seemed well. In another 90 minutes, Jimmy Watson, the first trick man, would lift the burden off my shoulder.

But for now, two other freights were converging upon SF from opposite directions in another dance of time, space and circumstance. A turn job from the NYS&W interchange yard at "BT" Coalberg Jct. (Saddle Brook) was working its way west, while the hot Second NY-100 was rolling past Newburgh Jct. fourteen miles to the west. The westbound turn job needed to pick some cars up from the Hillburn freight yard, while Second 100 needed to get out of the way of the early commuter rush hour (already the first morning commuter train had left Suffern for Hoboken, and others were waiting to start their runs at Waldwick, a few miles to the east). Charlie was planning to have me give Second 100 train orders to run east on westbound track 3 to Ridgewood, then on westbound Bergen County Line track 1 all the way to the Hackensack River bridge and entrance to Croxton Yard in Secaucus. That would keep Second 100 out of the way of all commuter trains.

Unfortunately, Charlie didn't tell me of his plans until Second 100 was almost "on the light" (close enough to trigger the approach light on the track circuit panel in the tower). Just a few minutes before, the westbound turn job had arrived on track 3. Since the crew had started out of Port Jervis some 8 hours before, they were anxious for a breakfast break. So, upon their arrival, they did not ask for permission to go for breakfast; they asserted their intentions, and awaited my challenge. Unfortunately, I wasn't familiar with crew-dispatcher politics, and I accepted their statement without question. Well, the sun was coming up, but the ghost of the night was not gone yet. Charlie had his second blow-up with me; "why did you let that crew go to eat, I need that track for Second 100 !!!!" As I listened, he told Waldwick Tower and Ridgewood Tower to cancel the 19 order he was about to give (and was about to tell me of). With disgust in his voice, he told me to put Second 100 down eastbound track 4. He told Ridgewood to hold 100 once it arrived until the Waldwick commuter local had went east on the Bergen County Line, then cross him over to the westbound Bergen County track and give him a train order (Ridgewood's track layout wouldn't allow both moves simultaneously). I OS'ed Second 100 and Charlie just grumbled "OK". I listened to the wire and heard Charlie getting Ridgewood and "HX" Tower (at Secaucus) ready for that order. The first trick man, Russ Robinson, had just come on at HX. Russ was an old-timer who went back to pre-merger Erie days with Charlie. However I also knew Russ from my bicycle-adventure days, and I liked him. And I continued to like him after I heard Charlie complaining to him about me that morning. Russ's reply was "you sure it's not bad dispatching?"

Well, Second 100 had about a 10 minute wait at Ridgewood that morning. Jimmie Watson soon walked through the door at SF, a little rumpled and heavy-eyed, yet to me appearing for all the world to be the Cavalry coming over the hill. I handed the desk chair over to him, but stayed a while to explain what happened. A few days later, Jimmy said that he had heard from another operator that whatever happened that night really wasn't my fault, and that nothing much really happened anyway. No one was hurt, no cars left the rails, and the trains got through, albeit with some delay in two instances. Another young operator at Suffern who regularly worked the third trick later on told me that Charlie always "reams" a new operator; his own first night was no exception. But after a while, Charlie wasn't so bad, perhaps was even your friend. I had occasion to work with Charlie numerous other times, and found out that the regular third trick operator was right. Charlie wasn't so bad, once you got to know him.

A few years later, just before the EL was taken over by Conrail, I did get to meet Mr. Howells in person, right at his "West End Dispatcher" post. He vaguely remembered me, and when I said that he was a little bit rough on my first night with him, Charlie good-naturedly said "well, you deserved it, didn't you?" I smiled and nodded a bit. I was finally ready for a higher level of truth. I had much yet to learn that night, especially about assuming too much and being too sure of ones self.

Another 12 years later, I rode a Metro-North RDC car from Suffern to Port Jervis and struck up a conversation with the engineer, a former EL freight man named Willie Wright. He told me that Charlie had passed away, but before that had retired from Conrail and moved to Florida, where he and his wife ran a motel. He had named it "Howells Junction", a play between his own last name and a busy junction on the former Erie main line. Mr. Wright's RDC bounced along past the sites of long-gone towers where Mr. Howells had once worked, including MQ at Campbell Hall, FX at Graham, and BC at Port Jervis. I couldn't help but have a good thought for Charlie, someone who helped an 18 year old suburban boy one summer night become something a bit closer to a railroad man.


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