Riding in the Head End of the ‘Builder’ – Part 2

Engineer Bob Kolkman was constantly tugging at a lever that blows the whistle. Even though this was a rural area, there were a lot of grade crossings, some paved, but mostly dirt roads crossing the tracks. He blew the whistle — the traditional long-long-short-long — at each and every one even though, from our elevated vantage point we could all see that there were no cars or trucks anywhere in sight. “You do it every time,” he said. “No exceptions, ever.”

Every engineer worries about hitting someone at one of these crossings. Kolkman said it hadn’t happened to him, but many of his buddies have had to deal with it. It’s a terrible experience, he said, and there’s almost nothing an engineer can do to prevent it. It simply takes too damn long to stop a train. And an automobile doesn’t stand a chance in a collision with a moving train. “It’s like running over a mailbox with your family car,” he said.

Another hour went by quickly and we were rattling along through farming country, with the pungent odor of manure coming and going as we passed fields that had recently been fertilized. After one particularly fragrant moment, Kolkman grinned and said, “Around here we say that’s the smell of money.”

Leaving Wisconsin Dells, the Empire Builder swung more toward the west, heading almost into the setting sun. Next came Tomah and La Crosse. Then we were in Minnesota, running along the Mississippi River in the gathering darkness.

A freight train approached and Kolkman switched off the Builder’s powerful headlight until the two engines passed, then flipped it on again so he could visually inspect our side of the freight, looking for any sign of dragging equipment, or a wheel or bearing problem. The radio in the cab crackled and we heard the voice of the freight train’s engineer: “Looking good this side, Amtrak.” “Thank you, sir,” Kolkman responded, “Good run-by for you, too. Have a safe trip.”

Twenty minutes later, the Empire Builder eased to a stop at Winona, Minnesota, and my head end ride was over. Bob Kolkman would continue to St. Paul where the next engineer would be boarding. Craig Willett was unsure how Amtrak planned to get him back to Milwaukee, but seemed unconcerned.

We shook hands, and I extracted a promise that they should let me know if either of them ever got to Hawaii, and climbed down out of the cab. The twin diesels were well off the Winona station’s platform and my shoes crunched on the gravel ballast as I headed back to my sleeping car.

Later, after dinner and a hot shower, I remember lying in bed as the black outlines of trees flashed by outside the darkened compartment. We’d left Bob Kolkman behind us at St. Paul, but the new engineer was methodically performing the same routine. And, in my mind’s eye, I was now able to visualize very clearly what was going on up there in the lead locomotive.

I don’t know if it was true of girls at the time, but when I was growing up — probably 10 years old or so — most boys my age wanted to be a locomotive engineer when we grew up. Next to being a big league ballplayer, we thought that would be the best job in the world … the most glamorous and the most fun.

And I’ll tell you what … we were right.