Sunday, February 20, 2022

Manatee The Railyard Toreador vs. East Altoona Hump

Baron Bayonet The Bull-Sticker and Lil' Shorty Longhorn had no business being friends. As his hobo name should indicate, Baron Bayonet was a world-renowned master of the bull ring, stabber of bovine foes from Barcelona to Mexico City. Rather, he would have been world-renowned for the above, were the above not utterly false, but after a hard decade of life along the rails, fantasy was his only true home. He carried his late father's Army bayonet blade from the Great War, now thoroughly rusted and affixed to a stick he found that was astonishingly rifle-shaped. And he told many a tale of his bull ring conquests - all completely fabricated but compelling, and with just enough detail to sound real to the average hobo.

Lil' Shorty Longhorn was indeed short - a mere five-foot two, on tip-toes, but he was feisty, and wore a helmet adorned with an enormous pair of steer horns curling outward nearly two feet to the left and to the right. The helmet was so heavy that he had devised a way to connect it to a makeshift steel harness that fit over his shoulders and extended down to the middle of his back, where a belt was used to secure it to his torso. Most of the time, he just dragged the whole contraption and the headgear behind him. But not today. Today was a day to wear the horns.

Baron and Lil' Shorty had been friends since the moment they met-- okay, not that moment, for in that moment Baron lunged at Lil' Shorty with his trusty bayonet, intending only to give the appearance of stabbing at the diminutive long-horned hobo. But he slipped, and fell into the little man, only failing to stab him because his blade was intercepted by the thick leather belt that held that ridiculous harness in place. A brief scuffle ensued, during which Baron Bayonet apologized profusely, and attempted to explain that it had been an accident, while incurring several impressive defensive longhorn wounds on his hands and forearms. A few moments later, having each realized that the other was completely loony, they were friends. That was 1931, eight years ago - about two years into each man's hobo life. They had been inseparable ever since, hopping trains and working odd jobs when they could, getting into and out of scrapes of all kinds. Surviving.

Today, the oddly-named pair of hoboes was late, hurrying down 6th street on the Juniata side of East Altoona, toward the westbound Pennsylvania Railroad hump and Homer tower. "Hurry up, Shorty," Baron Bayonet shouted from several paces ahead of his longhorn friend. "It's already started - we're missing it!"

"I told you we didn't have time to hit up that church for a handout," Lil' Shorty struggled breathlessly to say.

Baron slowed a bit, allowing Shorty to close the gap between them but not quite to catch up. He thought letting the little guy catch up would sap him of the necessary sense of urgency. "I new it was a gamble, but a hot meal is not your average handout. God bless those Presbyterians. Now come on - we're missing it! Can't you just carry those horns?"

"Not today. Not for Manatee. Gotta wear 'em for the great railyard toreador," Shorty panted. "And whaddaya mean, 'we're missing it?' You can't even see the hump from here."

"I can hear it," Baron declared. "I hear humping. There is definitely humping happening down there, right now. Hurry up!"

Lil' Shorty knew he needed every breath he could get his lungs on, just to keep running, but he couldn't help but laugh. He gestured as if to apologetically tip his horned helmet in the direction of a pair of alarmed-looking women strolling up the sidewalk toward him. They had clearly heard Baron's announcement about the humping, although that was not the cause of their alarm. They gave Shorty a wide berth, scurrying out into the street to avoid his great horns.

"Do be careful with those things, sir," one of them admonished as he clattered past. "You'll put someone's eye out!"

"Oh, yes, sorry," Shorty said sheepishly as he continued down the hill toward the rail yard. He was finally able to rejoin Baron at the end of the block, where a bit of traffic had held him up. "You know," he said breathlessly, "it's a good thing this is a railroad town, or that business about 'I hear humping' would have a totally different meaning."

"Ha. I'm sure you're right."

"And it's Sunday - you could get locked up, talkin' like that."

"These folks know I was talking about pushing train cars over the hump and into the classification yard."

"Well, sure, but that bit about how you could hear it. What does that even mean? Oh wait - I hear it, too!"

Moments later, they reached their destination, an important and oddly magical place in railroading. Trains die and are reborn at the hump. A string of rail cars is pushed over a small hill, and single cars or groups of several at a time are uncoupled as they crest the hump. Then, gravity takes them downhill over a series of switches, sorting them onto about 20 tracks, thus rearranging them into numerous new trains, bound eventually for equally-numerous final destinations. The signature sounds that Baron Bayonet and Lil' Shorty had heard were the pneumatically-powered speed retarders - sections of track with steel brakes that slow the passing rail cars - and the distant banging together of the cars, down in the yard.

Not Altoona, but you get the idea. Pushing coal hoppers over the hump at Cumberland in 1992. Photo by Joe

"There he is," Baron observed aloud, his voice equal parts childlike excitement and an abiding reverence. He had seen Manatee The Railyard Toreador once before, in Elkhart, Indiana - but that was a few months before he had met Lil' Shorty Longhorn. Shorty had never seen Manatee, but for over eight years he had heard all about him. He was a living hobo legend, and now there he was - not fifty yards from Shorty and Baron.

"Wow..." they chorused. 

"The only hobo crazier than we are," Baron added.

A few car-lengths downhill from the hump, a tall and sturdy-looking hobo dressed head-to-toe in black and cranberry-colored rags danced among the switches, where the lead came over and branched from one to four tracks. He brandished a patchwork cape of burlap, stained bright red with the juice of holly berries. "Toro, toro!" he barked, olĂ©-ing the cars past him and onward down the hill. He moved back and forth across the tracks with a studied precision, stepping over rails and ties and switch motors and waving his cape as train cars hissed past, often narrowly missing him. He did this with a graceful elegance the average hobo was wholly unaccustomed to witnessing - especially given the terrain underfoot. 

Manatee The Railyard Toreador had been doing some approximation of this performance for fifteen years, since before most yards had mechanical retarders. The act was even riskier back then, as there were some yards where brakemen actually rode the cars halfway down the hill, slowing them with the steel brake wheels and hopping off, at which point they would come back up the hill, sometimes stopping to punch Manatee in the face. But his reputation grew, and he really wasn't causing any trouble, and there developed an unspoken understanding that if he were ever to be killed during his act, it would be no fault of the railroad, and he'd just be buried at the edge of the yard and forgotten.

Lil' Shorty wiped a tear from his eye. "It's just... so beautiful. Look at him go! He moves like a dancer. It's like the cars are hypnotized. See how they follow the cape. They look as if they would go right back up the hill, should he wave them that way."

"Truly a wonder to behold," Baron Bayonet The Bull-Sticker sighed. "Marvelous."

A half-hour more of magic and artistry, and the show was over. Manatee The Railyard Toreador's foot landed just wrong on a piece of ballast, sending it under a rail where it became stuck just long enough to hold the amazing showman in the lethal path of a pair of livestock cars. With a sickening serious of thumps, he was knocked over and run over and more than killed. 

Baron and Lil' Shorty and some railroad employees who had gathered on the hump to watch the show stood for a moment in disbelief, then in sadness - some of them in silent prayer. 

Manatee was buried at the edge of the yard, near the bank of the Juniata River. But he was not forgotten.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Resolutely Resolving To Do This And That

Feeling oh so cavalier, and it shows!

As evidenced by the fact that it's February 6th (happy Waitangi Day, New Zealand) and I haven't publicly shared a single New Year's resolution, I am feeling a bit cavalier about it, this time. Why? Dunno, exactly. I think it's partly because I've been struggling with a bout of the galloping lazies, lately. I like that phrasing, because galloping is inherently not lazy, and I'm nothing if not silly. Also - and this may come as a surprise to you (it sure shocked me to no end) - some people don't enjoy hearing about other people's New Year's resolutions. Apparently, it can induce the same bored response one experiences when someone tries to tell you about this dream they had. Hence, my tendency to either RESOLVE NOTHING, or to give you UNABASHEDLY GOOFY NONSENSE.

So. What will it be, this year? Let's keep typing and see...

  • Here's a normal-sounding one that to me is utterly hilarious, to get the ball rolling: I WILL WRITE 52 BLOG POSTS IN 2022. Hahahahaha! This is number two, and we're over five weeks in. Never say never, I suppose.
  • I resolve to finally do something about getting my 2013 novel to see the light of day. I know some of you would really like it. Yes, this is a recurring resolution, and that makes me sad. I said last year I'd find an editor and/or agent and give it a shot, blah blah blah. At this point, I'll settle for a beta reader or two...
  • I will beat my all-time high score on "Yar's Revenge." Pretty sure I have that written down somewhere.
  • I will finish writing back stories for all 700 of John Hodgman's HOBOES (800, if you have the paperback edition). HAHAHAHAHAHA that's just ridiculous!
  • I will get to my target weight. This one feels like a bit of a cheat, because I am a mere four pounds away - but I have been about four pounds away for well over a year. 
  • As the world at large and America in particular has clearly demonstrated its intention to continue burning, I will toast marshmallows. I haven't looked for them at my busted-ass grocery store, though. They probably haven't had them in months.
  • Two words: Holophonor lessons. Only a couple of people in the whole universe know how to play it - and they're not very good!
  • Play it, Fry!
  • I resolve that in 2022, I will find out if my friend Godfrey Ozzenbarq III (not his real name) is still alive. I haven't heard from him in months, and I'm starting to fear the worst.
  • I'm gonna use my 20% off Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon - hopefully on an item from Beyond. Do they have lava lamps. I'll have to check...
  • They don't. Well, they have one kind of knock-off-looking one. That's okay - I'll find something. Maybe a doormat that says "GO AWAY!" I wonder if they have those. Hang on...
  • They do! Several different designs, actually. Woo-hoo! Count it!
  • I resolve to go figure.
  • I resolutely resolve to NOT find out what the hell "Wordle" is. 
Seriously WTF is that? It's nonsense!
  • I WILL FIND MY EBN-OZN T-SHIRT. This year, for sure... 
There. That all sounds pretty doable, right? What are some of your resolutions for 2022? No, no - don't actually *tell* me. Just, like, think about 'em, or something. And join me next time, when we might actually get back into to hobo weirdness.