Rapping at Brunswick

Posted by John Hankey
on Friday, March 23, 2018


I understood from the get-go that working at Brunswick might be a challenge.

            I was from Baltimore, a brand-new Fireman-Trainee, and according to custom and conventional wisdom, “lower than whales**t” in the pecking order.

John Schaefer, the Chief Clerk in the Road Foreman’s Office on the second floor of Camden Station in Baltimore (a B&O office for at least 123 years) had assigned me to begin my two weeks as an apprentice Hostler at Brunswick, Maryland.

            Riverside, the B&O’s locomotive terminal in Baltimore, was as different from Brunswick as night from day. In the early 1980s they were both ancient B&O facilities, but Brunswick was 80 or 100 rail miles west (depending on the route you took west) and on the edge of Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the Potomac River Valley. Brunswick was thoroughly Appalachian, in the best and worst senses.

            My grandfather was born in Brunswick, but started on the B&O in Baltimore. My Great Grandfather was born just outside what would become the B&O Division point of Brunswick, and started as an engine wiper there in 1895. My Great-Great Grandfather was a laborer on the B&O in Weverton, a few miles west. My Brunswick pedigree was in order. Of course, no one there knew that.

            So far as they could tell, I was merely another punk kid trying to learn the ropes—a liability and not a respected member of the team. Worse yet, I was a Wharf Rat, the term for Baltimore Division men out of Riverside. Over the years, too many of my colleagues in Engine Service out of Baltimore had revealed themselves to be shoemakers, sharpshooters, or in general, jerks.

            As an example, Brunswick had a few quirks. For a variety of reasons, the classic 120’ Bethlehem Twin Span turntable (so the builder’s plate proudly stated) would line up to permit passage of locomotives straight across when the control shanty was on the east end. But if the shanty was on the west end, there was a three inch misalignment of the rails at the west end of the table. Locomotives or Budd Cars in that case had to stop on the table and let the laborer or hostler adjust it to line the west end that critical three inches.

            One evening when I was working there, a hotshot Wharf Rat engineer was not interested in respecting the local deep knowledge or advice, and came sailing across the turntable without the necessary stop and adjustment.

            He didn’t get the two GP-40s stopped until the lead truck was on the ground and one wheel of the rear truck was likewise. It only took a half-hour to get the unit rerailed, but it was an object lesson. Railroading unfolded differently in Brunswick. The Baltimore folks often didn’t get it.

            New guys got tested. It could be a little mean at times, but I understood what was going on. I don’t know how things are out there anymore, but this was classic, old-fashioned railroading where you knew who you were working with and developed nuanced understandings of who you could trust, who you needed to trust and verify, and who you tried to avoid.

            The tests could be subtle. I figured out early that there were two kinds. The first seemed to be technical: Did you respect the rule book? Could you follow directions? Did you understand the technology? Could you solve problems? Did you show some evidence of grit?

            The second kinds of tests were more traditional. Could you take a practical joke? How did you respond in a tight spot? Would you cross craft lines and pitch in in to help when things got tense? Were you a jerk, a whiner, or a ***?

            Understanding that dynamic was immensely helpful at Brunswick, because I kept coming back. I enjoyed working there much more than at Riverside, even though it meant a 120 mile road commute or nights in the Engineer’s Bunkhouse across the street from the Roundhouse. At first, I don’t think the local folks really grasped that I was there by choice.

            Another tradition had to do with getting to know the men I worked with. I made my first day in Engine Service on a yard job at Mt. Clare in Baltimore with an Engineer named Mike Blevins. At first I thought he was just cranky and cross. Then I got to work with him more, and came to understand him as a fine Engineer, a good teacher (if you were interested in learning), and one Hell of a good guy.

            It was that way with Butch Godlove at Brunswick. His real name was Larry, but almost everyone in the terminal had a nickname. He was one of several Butches.

            He was an Operating Department machinist, which meant he was a general locomotive inspector/fixer/get-the-consist-ready-to-go lynchpin. We often worked the daylight shift together. Apparently, at first Butch thought I was a smart-ass kid who needed to be taken down a peg.

            There are a dozen ways to mildly sabotage a new Fireman/Hostler as he fires up a classic cold locomotive. The three main switches on the control panel could be in the wrong positions. Fuses could be pulled. Contactors could be wedged open. Layshafts could be blocked or fuel cut-off buttons diddled with.

            Butch was a merciless teacher. He knew in advance what locomotives Shop Foreman Ed Mullen scribbled onto a slip of paper for me to start and make ready for a trip, and he would set me up to fail. Or at least, to have to do some detective work and figure out what was not right.

I caught on pretty quickly, and understood clearly that this was a two-part test. I had to figure out what was wrong. And I had to let it all roll off like water from a duck. I was still a Wharf Rat on the wrong end of the Division.

            I’ll admit I was getting tired of being challenged when I happened to be in the vicinity of the Foreman’s Office at the east end of the roundhouse. I was within earshot, but not apparent to Butch, when Ed told him to start a GP-40 spotted on the fuel Rack at the west end of the roundhouse, across the turntable.

            I have no idea what my inspiration was, except that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I raced through the roundhouse the long way around, out of sight of Butch as he finally left Ed’s office and sauntered across the turntable. On the way, I picked up a wrench—the kind every locomotive carried as part of the tool kit to change air hoses.

            I apologize for the technical details. On GP-40-2s, the engine start button—the red button you push in to start the prime mover—was located next to the engine governor and layshaft at the front of the diesel, which actually was to the rear of the locomotive. It was inside the carbody several side doors in from the aft of the locomotive.

            I was in position on the opposite side of the locomotive when Butch climbed aboard, entered the cab, and set the locomotive up to be started. I faintly heard him open the electrical cabinet to throw the knife switch connecting the locomotive battery to the electrical system. I clearly heard him open the cab door on the right side of the locomotive (I was on the left), and open the doors at the governor/start switch.

            He turned the start switch left to the “purge” position, which began circulating fuel oil through the injector rack. Then he turned the start switch to the right, which energized the generator into a giant starter motor and slowly turned over the diesel engine for starting.

            That is when I began softly rapping with the wrench on the sheet metal of the carbody, in time with the slow engine revolutions. Butch immediately ceased trying to start the engine. This was an unexpected sound.

            Butch Godlove was a very good Machinist and knew that something was not right.

            He waited a few seconds and tried again, and I worked very hard to match my rapping with the rhythm of the engine. I recall starting faintly, then rapping harder on the side of the opposite door. Again he stopped.

            Butch tried once more, and I let the engine start before I furiously banged on the side of the locomotive as if the thing were coming apart. He shut it down quickly and I could hear his footsteps as he came around the aft end of the locomotive.

            I had planned my escape. As he rounded the corner, I was already at the left side at the rear of the cab (there were no door or steps there) climbing down and scampering away. I am sure I had dropped the wrench. Butch figured it all out pretty quickly, and I laid low for the rest of the shift.

            That turned out to be my graduation at Brunswick. Butch and I quickly became, if not good friends, then at least cordial colleagues who enjoyed working together. That was the way things worked then, and there. If you had any sense, you didn’t get mad or pissy—that was the Wharf Rat way.

            A year or so later on a hot afternoon, a shop electrician accosted me in the roundhouse. He asked if my name was Hankey, and I said yes. He said that his wife was a Hankey, and that we were kin.

            From that point forward, I was a Brunswick Boy. I don’t think I changed much, but the way I was treated at Brunswick certainly did. I wasn’t a Wharf Rat anymore. Those were my best years on the railroad.


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