Monday, December 29, 2014


Steel Monsters

By Ada Brownell

When I was a kid, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s main line lay between me and school. No crossing arms barred me from danger--just noisy clanging and big red eyeballs flashing. Then every hoof of the massive engine’s horsepower pounded by.
I hated trains. Somebody told me if you stand too close, you’ll be sucked under.
Then I grew up. An agent-telegrapher chose me for his wife and I made friends with the monsters. Les’s job caused us to roam Colorado like the trains, and we moved 12 times the first three years of our marriage. But it was an adventure.
We lived in a log cabin at Pando, on top of Colorado’s Tennessee Pass across the highway from Camp Hale. One soldier jumped off the train with his duffle bag and checked out the place.
“Mountains this way. Mountains that way. Mountains over there and over here. The only way out of this place is up!”
When we moved to Minturn, our house rested in a mountain’s niche above the depot. Les worked evenings, so near suppertime I grabbed a sled, hiked up the canyon, slid all the way to the depot and delivered his meal.
In Malta, a smelter town near Leadville, Colo., a boxcar with a “lean-to” became our home. Relatives visited overnight and after lights were out, my little niece shakily asked, “Is a train going to take us away?”
In Avon, Colo., we lived in the depot next to the tracks. Often the click of the telegraph “bug” echoed into our living room carrying a message in dots and dashes. I knew trains probably approached from the East and West on the one set of tracks. Les quickly transcribed the Morse message, tied it in twine, attached it to a long Y stick, and ran outside.
A few minutes later, a massive monster clothed in the gold and black Rio Grande cape streaked toward the depot. Les stood beside the tracks, his clothes flapping in the breeze as he extended the Y stick.
The engineer leaned out, stuck his arm through the loop of twine, read the message and pulled the train into the next siding. 
Finally, we bought a beautiful mobile home. A 40-foot canvas awning covered our patio.
We were not far from the tracks and one day sparks from a “hot box”, a boxcar with a stuck wheel, ignited a nearby trestle bridge. Sparks from the fire burned a hole in our awning, but more serious, train traffic stopped until the trestle was rebuilt.
Our mobile house ended up in two-mile-high Leadville and winter snows showed no mercy. Before Les left for a temporary job in Texas creek, he said, “Leave the bathtub water running to prevent freezing.”
One frosty night, I took a relaxing bath. I was tucked in bed when my mother-in-law, who lived with us, flushed the toilet. I woke to a sucking sound and remembered I turned the water off.
Fearing broken pipes, I threw my fake-fur coat over my nightie, pulled on snow boots, grabbed a fusee-torch, matches, a broom and ventured into the darkness.
I swept a path, then a tunnel through the deep snow and crawled to the pipes.
Bummer! I got the matches wet!
I backed out and headed for the door. My bare hand stuck to the frosty knob. When I got my hand free, the door wouldn’t open. The deep snow on the roof was melting, dribbled down, and the door froze shut.
I rang the doorbell and prayed. My mother-in-law pushed and I pulled until with a crunch the door opened.
Next time, I dressed warmly, left the door open a crack, kept my matches dry and succeeded in my mission. The next day, I discovered the temperature dipped to 30 degrees below zero.
Soon Centralized Traffic Control closed many depots. Teletype and later, computers, nudged telegraph into history.

But still the monsters crawl over our nation, bringing food, fuel and merchandise. I hope the handsome monsters never become extinct.