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Edition #232  October 15, 2014

It Should Have Been Me, Half a Century Ago. . .

Photographer: Miko Kranjec

                                                                                   Photo by Miko Kranjec

It Should Have Been Me, Half a Century Ago. . .

The year was 1958 - I know this, as it was soon after my father and my mother have divorced and my mother and I moved to our new flat very close to the Ljubljana Main station. As the eleven years old kid I was grown enough to roam freely around my new neighborhood and explore it. And, for a young and curious boy there was a lot to see - in the next street there was the old city power plant with hand pushed mining carts for transporting the ashes to the dump site, while a block further, right next to the station, was the city gasworks where every few minutes the elevator cart loaded with coal was climbing toward the top of the tall tower. But, the most attractive for the trains loving boy was of course the station itself. At that time - this was still the era of Yugoslavia - the Yugoslav Railways (J) were almost 100% steam operated, with the exception of two short stretches of electrified tracks from Postojna to Seana and from Pivka to Reka. Both were the legacy of the Italians between two-wars occupation and Mussolini's efforts to modernize pre-WW2 Italy.

At every given moment of the day there was at least dozen or more steam locomotives of every size and wheel arrangement on the ready tracks at the station engine houses. There were small 0-8-0 engines, built still in the 1890s, USATC class S100 0-6-0T Vulcans and Porters, Austria and Hungary built 4-6-0s, 4-8-0s, 2-8-0s, 2-10-0s, 2-6-2Ts, 2-8-2Ts, and at the top of my favorites' list, mighty for a small boy, ex Deutsche Reichsbahn (DRB) class 58, ex Prussian class G-12 three-cylinder 2-10-0s, infamous DRB class 52 2-10-0 "Kriegslokomotiven", and those Borsig locomotives that Yugoslavia got from Germany as the WW1 war reparation - class 06 Mikados and class 30 Decapods. There was so much action to watch - locomotives were coming, the grates were cleaned and the ashes dumped into the pit, the tenders were filled with coal and water, and then the engines were either parked on the ready tracks or sent back to the yards. Not a single dull moment for the amazed boy.

This was also the time when many international expresses called at Ljubljana: Ostende to Athens and Istanbul Tauern Express, Dortmund to Athens Hellas Express, Vienna to Reka Balkan Express, to name just few, and crme de la crme of all, Paris - Istanbul Simplon Orient Express. All these expresses, plus most of the domestic expresses and fast trains were handled by those Borsig 2-8-2 locomotives. Few inches lower and about 8' shorter than PRR K4 Pacifics, mainly because of the shorter tender and somewhat smaller cab and grate, they were nonetheless mighty beasts for eleven years old kid.

I still remember, as vividly as if it had happened yesterday, myself standing one evening on the platform between the tracks 5 and 6, right beneath the cab of one of those Mikados. It was No. 06-018, coupled to the evening fast train to Maribor. High above me, in the dimly lit cab, the fireman was turning the valves of the feedwater injector, resulting in the splash of a hot water dangerously close to my feet and followed by the cloud of steam. The engineer, holding the tall oil can with the long spout, was walking along the drivers, touching here and there the driving mechanism, oiling it, and tightening the various screws and oil caps with the awkward, forged two-prong key. Suddenly the activity in the cab was heightened to the new level.  Flashing red light illuminated the windows and what of the cab innards I could see from the eight feet below. Shhhk-swoosh, shhhk-swoosh, shhhk-swhoosh sound of the shoveling went on for quite some time, then it stopped, and the fireman appeared again in the cab window.

The engineer had now finished the oiling and checking the mechanism and he was returning back to the cab. Clad in the sooty and oily black dungarees, with the black leather shielded cap on the head, and with the bushy black mustaches, he was quite a frightening creature. He stopped couple of feet from of me, bended slightly to bring his face with the deep, soot filled creases closer to my already scared one, and looked sharply and solemnly into my wide opened eyes. For a moment, as long as an eternity to me, he was watching me. Then his white teeth appeared through the smile of his lips, and he asked me: "Hey kid, would you like to see inside of the cab?" I gulped the lump in my throat, but there was no voice coming out, so I just nodded. He smiled again, grabbed me with his black, shovel-like hands, yelled to the fireman to open the cab door, and rose me almost to the cab height. I grabbed the greasy handrails and another pair of the black hands pulled me into the hot and dark innards. The engineer climbed into the cab too, put the oil can onto the shelf, tore two big chunks of the cotton wool and gave one to me. Only then I realized how dirty my hands are.

A quick lesson of the cab fittings and their functions followed: throttle, reverse gear, firebox doors, feedwater valves, water glasses, pressure gauges, brake valves. I was swallowing all this with the wide opened eyes, ears, and mouth, almost forgetting to breath. Then the fireman started to stoke the locomotive again, and I was shocked by the intense heat coming through the firebox doors from the almost white-hot inside. Yet at that very moment my only wish, the greatest one in my young life, was to ride with these two guys.

"You wanna be engineer?" came the question past the white teeth and bushy mustaches on the smiling, grimy engineer's face, when the fireman finally closed the firebox doors and saved me from the inferno coming through. Obviously my thoughts were written all over my face. Overwhelmed with the whole experience I was only able to nod enthusiastically. And yes, at this very moment I decided firmly - when I grow up I'll be the engineer. Climbing down the cab stairs, grabbing firmly the greasy handrails and thinking how I will climb back one day, little I knew how different path my life will take. Still, in that very moment my blood was poisoned and the railroad remained in my heart and my minds till this very day.

Now fast forward the time half century and few years ahead. It is early in June of 2014, and I and my eleven years old grandson Jordan are in the cab of Borsig Mikado - what a coincidence - No. 06-018. Yes, in the very same cab I was dreaming to become the engineer half a century earlier! Only three locomotives of this type were saved, and only this one is still operating. Carefully and lovingly preserved it now hauls the Slovenian Railways' (S) museum train, operating every summer weekend on the Bohinj or Transalpina line between Bled and Nova Gorica. Between these rides she is often fired and used at some special occasions for other rides. This June Saturday, as a one of the various public events accompanying the Days of S, she was hauling the special train for the children and their parents from Ljubljana to Celje and back.

Like all other events of the Days of S, I was covering this trip too, and of course I took the youngest of my grandchildren, an avid railfan, with me. Being the friend of the crew, I asked them if we could ride part of the journey in the cab. There was a minor problem as riding in the cab were also two fireman rookies, learning the art of firing the steam locomotive, but we came to an agreement that one of them will leave the cab at Zidani Most and make the room for us on the final leg of the trip to Celje.

Indeed, during the short servicing stop there we climbed to the cab, and while I was watching Jordan as he wipes the grease from his palms with the cotton wool, the whole scene of me inside this same cab 56 years ago rolled past my eyes. We got the highball, the engineer turned few times the reverse gear wheel, released the brakes, opened the throttle, and soon we were running at speed along the Savinja River on the double track Southern line toward Celje. Standing firmly on the rocking floor and leaning out of the cab behind the engineer, with the wind tousling wildly his hair, Jordan was proudly waving everybody at the trackside. Thrilled with what the countless boys, past and present, would give who knows what for it, Jordan was savoring every moment of it. Standing behind him, I was enjoying in his excitement, while one thought was all the time on my mind - it should be me, half a century ago....

Miko Kranjec

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Revised: 09/13/14 12:44:27 -0400