The deep rumbling that shook Marty Fennelly awake began at 1:55 a.m., one minute past the Night Owl’s scheduled arrival time at the train station just down the block from his parents’ little grey clapboard cottage.
“Not bad for a 54-minute trip,” he thought, reviewing all the potential difficulties that could have delayed the aging engine that pulled eight creaky old cars on their last journey of the day from Penn Station New York to his town, and eventually to a siding near Bay Head. There they’d receive a cursory cleaning, and occasionally the removal of a sleeping passenger who had missed their stop, before lumbering northward for the millionth time at 4:49 a.m.
Not that Marty had been asleep for very long. It was Friday night, and he didn’t have to get up for school at the crack of dawn. So he did what he did most Friday nights. Actually, most every night; furtively listening to the National Panasonic transistor radio secreted under his pillow, well into the wee hours.
The talk shows were his favorites. He didn’t completely understand the topics that the hosts and their guests were yakking about, but he got that there was a world out there far different from the one he and his family lived in. The world he was desperate to escape from, even if only for an hour or two in the dead of night.
His listening habits rarely varied; John Henry Falk, Barry Gray, Barry Farber and, if he was in the mood to pull an all-nighter, Long John Nebel. The edgy Nebel was Marty’s favorite by far, and he was hard-pressed to recall a show that didn’t have at least one guest who claimed to have been a passenger on a UFO.
He had decided to give Nebel a pass tonight and had just started to drift off when the arrival of the Night Owl dragged him back to consciousness. Based on past experience, that meant it would be 20 minutes or so before he could even think of going back to sleep, as Marty began to imagine the scene that he knew was unfolding under the glare of floodlights a few yards from the grade crossing.
For he had witnessed a similar scene in daylight every chance he got, and it never ceased to mesmerize him. His father had explained what was happening the first time he and Marty were attempting to cross the tracks on their way to the post office and were blocked by closed gates, flashing lights and a clanging bell.
Marty’s dad had hurriedly shepherded Marty down the asphalt path alongside Track 2 to a spot where they had a clear view of what was about to take place. His dad explained that the electrification of the New York to Bay Head line ended at their little town. That meant that the 475,000 pound GG1 workhorses of the Pennsylvania Railroad would turn into inert hulks of iron and steel if they ventured just a few hundred feet farther down the track.
The solution? An equally monstrous diesel powered engine would be swapped in to complete the southbound journey. The engine produced a house-shaking rumble and roar, and the Night Owl awoke any and all light sleepers within range who lacked the common sense to invest in a pair of earplugs.
The railroad allowed 20 minutes for the changeover regardless of the weather or season of the year, a ridiculously short time considering what had to be accomplished. First, the tangle of hoses and cables that fed the cars’ life-support systems was disconnected from the engine. This was accomplished by a burly worker in well-worn grease-stained coveralls and sporting grease stains on every exposed part of his body.
Using an assortment of giant sized wrenches and a special hammer with a metal handle and a steel head wrapped in heavy leather, he managed to complete his work in close quarters with surprising agility and amazing speed.
Next, the huge claw-like coupling that held engine and lead car together was released. The track worker scrambled out of harm’s way, the GG1 was banished to a siding, and its diesel replacement was finessed ever so gently into position.
Marty wondered how such a huge rumbling smoke-belching mechanical beast could be maneuvered so delicately, inching back until its coupling mated with the coupling of the lead car and giving it just enough of a bump to securely join the two. Then the track worker did his decoupling routine in reverse and the nearly one and a half hour southbound journey resumed.
One day, having witnessed this show at least dozen times and being awed by it every time as only an eleven-year-old could, Marty finally worked up the courage to ask the worker on duty if he could lend a hand. “Sorry son, much too risky for a young lad,” he was told in a not unkind tone, “and not just because of the train.”
The worker pointed his wrench down the line to the shallow drainage trough that ran between the tracks. It was then that Marty noticed the large furry creatures scurrying about, their red-rimmed eyes occasionally gazing a bit too boldly his way. From that day on Marty kept his distance, and had a new-found respect for the people who did this dirty, dangerous, and, as far as he was concerned, pretty amazing job.
That was the whole show in a nutshell when the Night Owl made its run, but Marty knew that there was an added bit of business that took place only when the train was packed with homebound commuters, as he had often witnessed when delivering The Citizen, his town’s weekly newspaper, to Swoboda’s Tavern late Thursday afternoon.
Those unwilling or unable to buy a membership in the Jersey Shore Commuter’s Club, whose main perk was access to the JSCC’s private bar car, could take advantage of the 20 minute respite to avail themselves of the libations offered by Swoboda’s.
His bar conveniently located trackside, its front door facing Broadway and back door facing the tracks, Stan Swoboda had learned long ago that, with a bit of organization and smart choreography, there was gold to be mined from the bored and thirsty long-distance commuters who by this stage of the journey had drained the contents of the cans and bottles of adult beverages they had purchased in Penn Station and were now in dire need of another round.
Stan was happy to oblige. In an alcohol fueled equivalent of the precision drill that would soon be taking place on the tracks outside, he and his helpers filled the contents of a sleeve of plastic cups with three ice cubes and a precise measure of brown liquid and lined up cans of ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon on the mahogany topped bar. Evenly spaced cups and cans soon stretched down the bar in parallel rows straight enough to pass a military inspection.
Thanks to years of practice and prompted by the rush hour arrival times posted on the wall, the completion of their tasks was precisely timed to occur as the shrill sound of the whistle and the hiss of brakes proclaimed the arrival of the next train.
The commuters knew the drill as well, some daring to hop off the train long before it came to a full stop and making a beeline for Swoboda’s. Surprisingly good natured and orderly, each patron picked up their selection (or two) and headed, cash in hand, for the ancient brass register where the proprietor held court.
More than a few consumed their cup of brown liquid between pickup and payment, reserving their can of Pabst (there were no hipsters to call it PBR in those days), discretely camouflaged within a brown paper bag supplied by a grinning Stan, as a chaser to be savored on the train.
That long-running performance wouldn’t resume until Monday afternoon, a sleepy-eyed Marty mused, just as he heard the sequence of mechanical jolts rippling down the length of the train signifying that the engine swap was complete. The Night Owl was once again on the move. The switch took just sixteen minutes tonight, a record, at least for as long as Marty had been keeping track.
“Man-O-Manischewitz, I gotta get some shuteye or I’ll be in for it in the morning,” Marty, yawning, thought to himself as the sound of the southbound train faded into the hot, humid New Jersey night. But instead of rolling over and giving in to the drowsiness that was pulling him toward a few precious hours of sleep, he reached under his pillow and clicked on the Panasonic as quietly as he could.
But, try as he might, no matter how gingerly he rotated the tuner, the voices of Falk, Gray and Farber were nowhere to be heard. Instead of civilized discussions on noteworthy events of the day, his ears were assaulted with screaming, swearing and shouting matches the like of which he had never heard before.
“Who are these morons?” he asked himself. Fighting the feelings of revulsion and outright nausea that were beginning to overtake him, he forced himself to listen to a succession of cringe-inducing programs long enough to catch the names of these bloviating boobs. Limbaugh. Hannity. Ingraham. Beck. Levin. Schlessinger.
“Oh my God!” he screamed. “Where did everybody go? What’s happened to the world? I just turned away for 20 minutes and…”
Suddenly Marty was aware of a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. “Wake up, Mr. Fennelly,” a soothing voice cooed in his ear. “You must have been having a nightmare. Hah! I see you were due for your injection an hour ago, but the night duty nurse took ill and had to leave early.
“I’ll take care of that right this minute,” the voice assured him, deftly finding the vein and administering the shot with one well-practiced motion. “You’re going to be fine now Mr. Fennelly, no worries.”
Marty reached for the radio dial as a feeling of utter calm washed through him. No worries, indeed. “I wonder if Nebel will be talking to the guy who spent his 300th birthday on Venus?” he whispered over the distant D-Sharp wail of a Leslie A-200-156 air horn, a horn that could only belong to one train, and that only he could hear. “How cool would that be…”
George Point is a freelance writer, playwright, and producer and presenter of Book Talk!, heard on WDVR FM in Hunterdon County. Point lives and works in Lawrenceville. He has served for the second time this year as a reader for U.S. 1’s Summer Fiction issue.