The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 11 (March 1, 1929)
The Loco Motive.
When the Serpent asked little Cain what he was going to be when he grew up, Cain concealed a ribstone pippin under his toga and answered without hesitation, “Injin-driver, Mr. Serp.”
But is it recorded that Adam encouraged the infant Cain's ambition? On the contrary, the indications are that he was adam-ant in his opposition and that he booked the boy back to the farm.
From the days of Cain and Abel to these times of strain and babel young Cains have been assuring old serpents that they hope, when they come to years of disrespect, to achieve their ambition, “in loco parentis,” which, translated freely, means driving an engine without the old man's consent.
But how many of these engineers-in-the-egg (so to speak) answer the roll-call at the hatching?
It has been said (with little truth) that telegraph boys are the young of postmen. If this be so, where are the young of engine-drivers? Strangled at birth, horrified reader, their loco motives literally wrung out of them, like whisky dregs from a Scotsman's whiskers. There are some of course who, through sheer grit, or cinders (whichever you will), have achieved their ambition to frivol about under the hind-quarters of a locomotive—quiescent, with an oil can in one hand and a hard-boiled luncheon egg in the other; but we of the great majority—having failed to connect with the foot-plate—must needs be content with the footpath, and still contemplate that colossal collation of combustiveness, the steam engine, with the fishy eye of wonder.
There is something so feverishly palpitating, so pantingly portentious, about an engine with oily sweat dripping down its sides and its heels steaming. It looks as if it might throw up its tail and gallop round the yard breathing fire and soot. It is an out-size black stallion—with its ears back.
But there are Scots, even, who would rather drive an engine than a bargain. Fortunate is the child who is born with pure engine-driver's blood coursing darkly through his veins.
But even we of thwarted ambition have our memories to support us in the twilight of our blighted lives. The Sunday-school bun-baiting banquets in which we were implicated, in the days before we cultivated a misplaced eye-brow on our upper lip and dabbled in matrimony, is an instance. Two hundred youthful misprints of humanity, fermenting like a tub of homebrew, each with the gastronomic potentialities of a diabetic hyena, had a mug lashed round his neck. There were tin mugs; enamel mugs; china mugs, branded indelibly with “For Harold”; purloined moustache cups; and discarded examples of the potter's art from the kitchen dresser—all swinging clashing and jingling like the impedimenta of a galloping pie cart.page 50
And the hats! We recollect the boy with the hunted look in his eye and the rabbit teeth who tempted Providence with a sailor thatch-cover bearing the device “H.M.S. Terrible.” on the band; how it took unto itself the wings of a dove and was claimed by the telegraph wires. We have painful memories of the pseudo sun-hat that mother constructed out of half a yard of bucram and an old sheet, but which proved to be without form and void, like an unbaked pie crust. We recollect the straw hats which took on the semblance of mangled dog biscuits at the end of the day. There were hats to burn, to bowl, to batter, and to use as nosebags at the feast.
It seemed but yesterday when we all formed up in double column and—headed by the superintendent in a long black coat, streamline whiskers, and a bun hat—set off on the long trek to the railway station—for there were no tram-cars to speak of in those days.
Ah!. The emotional uplift engendered by the spectacle of the two horse-expresses which rattled ahead of us, loaded with milk cans; suggestive looking hampers, and fruit cases; how we cheered them and how the inspiring sight imbued us with fresh vigour. How our spirits soared as we neared the railway station, and how they crashed when we heard a shrill blast from the engine. Despair! The train had gone without us. The ranks wavered, broke, and disintegrated into a wild charge which swept the superintendent's feet from under him and converted his hat into something resembling a mess of pottage. How the lady teachers screamed and tried to run, with their long skirts leg-roping them at every little leap. How, once aboard the train, we all stuck our heads out of the windows and made unfriendly noises at a rival picnic across the platform.
Oh, what a day!
The lemonade tub persists in our memory. We were not children—we were unfillable receptacles for liquid refreshment. We remember how the tub was placed under a tap. The suspicion still lurks that it was placed so with felonious intent. Sodden as we were, we noticed that the flavour of lemons became decreasingly distinctive as the day wore to a close.
Then the races! When the superintendent removed his long black coat and displayed a pair of braces of a passionate hue. Somehow the fact that he wore braces reduced him to zero in our estimation—made him one of the boys. I fear that we treated him accordingly until he was obliged to conceal the stigma of human frailty beneath his coat.
And the lollie scrambles! The clashing of mugs as we all got down to it, and the spectacle of devastation in the crockery department when we rose again—only handles swaying on their captive tapes, and a litter of fragments on the grass.
The girls! How we pelted them with bits of bun when we had become surfeited with that staple viand of Sunday-school riots.
The fights down in the scrub, and the boy with the large stiff collar who (to all intents and purposes), fell into the creek, and crawled out looking like a drowned chameleon with a limp ruffle.page 51
Last, the homecoming, when we wrestled on the floor of the carriage, swung back and forth on the luggage racks, threw the girls' bunches of clematis out of the windows, and finished the day with tooth-ache—and other aches unspecified.
Ah! Memory, Memory!
Skinny, a comrade of our mug and bun days, suffers from engine trouble in the mental uptake. His grey matter is in no way defective, but his locomotive has left his mental tender fifteen years behind the march of progress. In other words, he has never grown up. Were it not that he fears the ridicule of his wife and his wife's children, he would still lash a pannikin round his neck and line up for the annual Sunday-school fracas. The conventialities, however, force him to seek adventure through other channels.
Skinny is what might be described as a “Garratt” engine on an A.B. wheelbase. Although he could almost test his weight on the grocer's scales, sags a bit in the middle, and wants relining and stiffening, his looking-glass invariably reflects, on his mental retina, the image of Hercules choking a pantechnicon, or some such fearsome pterodactyl. He is overproof optimism north of the æsophagus, and cuts his physical shortcoming dead in the street. In fact it might be said that he has divorced himself abaft the mizzen.
In the autumn of 1919 (as all the best adventure stories begin), Skinny placed his feet on the linoleum after three weeks of incarceration in his four-poster, and ignoring the corrugations in the upper reaches of his main trunk, and the fact that his head was floating three feet above his body, prepared to go forth and repair the family fortunes.
On a board before an employment registry bureau he read:—
Boy for pickles; must be strong.
Married couple; cook and do for themselves.
Refined young lady to wash.
Man to ride round sheep
The last appealed to Skinny. He was no centaur, but he could ride in a fashion. He thought that the job sounded romantically biblical—a “while-shepherds-tend their flocks-at night” sort of occupation.
“What you will have to do,” explained the job merchant inside, “is to trot round the paddocks, raising up any foundered sheep you find from the horizontal to the vertical. It's simply an errand of mercy.”
“I see,” said Skinny. “The job is really sheep-raising or lifting.”
“The terms are not synonomous,” said the professor of toil. “Sheep-raising is a legitimate occupation, but sheep-lifting—like shoplifting—brings its own reward—usually three years without the option.”
In due course the train dropped Skinny at Otane. The boss was scheduled to meet him with a car. Darkness was not far off and it had been raining. Otane was as devoid of cars as a Jewish banquet hail is of bacon rinds.
“Stranded,” muttered Skinny, and tossed up his last sixpence. It fell “heads,” and he bought a beer with it. Then he took a mental option on a nesting place under a hedge—and left the rest to Hoyle. He visioned himself indulging in some night travel by sleeper.
Shortly, however, a car drew up at the station and a figure strode down the platform, glancing to left and right. It glanced through Skinny the first time, but finding nothing more human in the vicinity, glanced at him incredulously.
“You're not the man for Waimana?” it said.
“I am,” said Skinny.
You am—er—I mean are,” said the boss of Waimana. He repeated “You are.”
“I am,” said Skinny.
“O-h-h-h,” said the boss, and Skinny felt that he had been slighted.page 52
“Well if you are, shove that into the car.”
He indicated a sack of potatoes which stood about fourteen hands high and weighed about as much as Skinny and his eldest child combined.
It is a moot point whether Skinny carried the potatoes or whether the potatoes carried Skinny.
The boss gave the new hand a searching look, put in the clutch, and they bounded off the leash, so to speak. It was an open car and an open road—with knobs on. They touched “forty” most of the time and grazed mortal dissolution all the time. Skinny spent a good deal of time in the ether and the rest in locating the upholstery. He lost his hat in the first half mile, but hesitated to dampen the boss's enthusiasm by speaking about it.
Waimana possessed, among other live stock, the most complete private collection of Scots immigrants extant. The only words Skinny ever heard them utter were: “Fifteen twa, fifteen fower, and w-a-a-n f'r his kn-o-o-o-b.” They chanted this ritual night after night, while the cribbage board groaned beneath their horny fingers, and five million moths played with death about the lighted candles.
During the day the immigrants were as communicative as petrified lizards. Skinny enjoyed the first few days—except when the boss gave him one of his searching glances.
The nights were not so good. His chamber seemed to have been selected as an amphitheatre for a rodent's rodeo; his chaff mattress was a jumping-off place for lepidoptera; he had no pillow and only one blanket; and his only recreation was to lie in bed and study “The Storming of Sebastapool”; “The Coronation of Queen Victoria”; “President Kruger on the War Path”; “The Relief of Ladysmith”; and “The Big Frost of '84,” delineated in engravings, pasted on the wall.
After Skinny had enjoyed three days of sheep-raising the blow fell. Somehow he had suspected a catch in the business, and when the boss said, “Well men, the thresher will be here to-morrow,” he knew that the catch had been snipped. Suddenly those innocent-looking oat stacks that he had seen in the home paddock became a silent menace.
Skinny swayed on the top of a stack, forking up stooks while the mice raced up and down his calves and perspiration dripped into his boots. His back was dislocated in ten places, and every dislocation creaked when he moved. He reflected dully that a Prime Minister once received a telegram notifying him of his election to parliament, on a haystack. Skinny prayed that someone might bring him a telegram, a cablegram, a radiogram, a summons, an injunction, even a death warrant would not be unwelcome—anything to get him removed from the top of that stack.page 53
Oh, relief indescribable! The engine had broken down. Skinny promptly followed suit, and lay pantingly on his stomach, heedless of the mice that frolicked among his vertebrae, He wished that the engine had blown up instead of breaking down. Subsequently it went out of action four times, which was thirty-six times too few.
Skinny had read effusions touching on the joys of harvesting. Harvest moons, golden grain, happy harvest laughter—he decided that such things were the vain vapourings of poets and paperhangers.
For lunch he took nothing but large draughts of oxygen.
When the last stook had disappeared into the interior of the thresher, Skinny returned to “Little Caledonia” in the bottom of the dray, mixed up with a heap of fencing wire and hay forks—a beaten man.
When, next morning, the boss fixed what was left of Skinny with a searching look, Skinny said, “It's all right, I've resigned. As far as I'm concerned the call of the land is mere static; if ever I go harvesting again it will be under an anaesthetic, and the only riding round I will do from now on will be on a hurdygurdy.”