The man in the tower

by Bill Pearson

The “humps” were a big deal in Galesburg, Illinois, my home town. Galesburg is located on the main railroad line from Chicago to Denver, and ultimately the West Coast. Today the railroad is known as BNSF - Burlington Northern Santa Fe. When I was a kid, Galesburg was on two main lines from Chicago to the west, a rarity for a town of 25,000 people. The CB&Q - Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy - and the Santa Fe both ran through the heart of the little farm town.

Galesburg was chosen by the CB&Q to be the location for a major freight yard between Chicago and the West Coast, and that meant inclusion of a humps. A humps is nothing more than a small hill with a railroad track going over the top of it. It might be a small hill, but it performs a very major function. It’s called humps sorting.

Freight trains come into the yards and drop off the cars that are headed somewhere other than where those trains are going. Switch engines come along and collect those cars – a nice big long line of them, then back them up to the top of the little hill. As the cars go over the humps they are uncoupled from the other cars, and roll down the slope until shunted onto a siding where a train is being formed for a specific destination. Simply put, trains are built this way and then depart Galesburg in all directions.

Back in the day we would ride our bikes from the north side of town to the south side to sit next to the fence and watch the cars rolling downhill at about one mile an hour, and we would listen for the “bump.” The bump would occur after the car got switched onto a siding and coupled with the other cars waiting there. It was a rolling bump and it would occur as the car would roll into the others, compressing the line of cars together, and then the line would decompress, stretching back out again to the extent the couplings would allow. When the cars were cut loose at the top of the hill, we would make bets on which track they would end up on. It was ridiculous because we really couldn’t see what track they ended up on. So we bet on anything just to be doing something. None of us had any money anyway. All we had with us was the nickel we brought along for the pop stop at Charlston’s on the way home. It was Bruce, Mike, Mike, little Dickie and me. We all lived within a block of each other and we loved our trips to the humps, which often lasted an entire afternoon. I never fully understood why mom was so happy to give me my nickel for pop.

The key to the humps was The Man in the Tower. Someone had to have the master plan. Someone had to know where the trains on all the sidings were going and then deliver the message to the men running around out there throwing all the switches. It was all manually controlled back then. Somehow The Man in the Tower had to send a message out to all the minions throwing switches. We never could figure out how that was getting done. We believed they could build at least 15 to 20 trains at a time, which meant that there were a lot of cars rolling downhill at once, each one heading for its own special track but none of them knowing which track was theirs. We decided The Man in the Tower had some special powers because there was too much going on at the same time for one man to control. We’d count hundreds, thousands of cars rolling down hill on an afternoon.

It worked like this: The first switch was thrown and the first car slid off down the right or left track. Then that first switch had to be thrown back immediately because the second car had to go straight through the first switch and take the fourth track to the left and then the third right. Switchmen ran around like crazy out there. It appeared to be a madhouse. Still, the cars kept on coming feeding into this spider web of track running out into the yards. Sometimes we’d see a car out in the middle of nowhere, just rolling along its merry way and wonder if that one had escaped the system and had found the way to freedom. The mysteries were abundant.

We sat by the fence in silence watching freight cars rolling downhill all alone. They didn’t know where they were going, didn’t know what track they would end up on, and they were totally clueless as to what car they would hook up with for a long journey to somewhere. Sometimes two cars would be cut loose together and the first of us to notice would utter the word “friends.” Somehow it made us feel better to see two cars going downhill together, for neither of them had to go into the unknown all alone.

We sat by the fence and counted the bumps. Men were running around throwing switches one way and then throwing them back the other way and all the while the cars continued to rumble along. The cars didn’t know where they were going, but the Man in the Tower did. Often we’d laugh when a switchman tripped over the tracks and fell down with the effort to make way for the next car.

We knew there was a Man in the Tower because sometimes we would happen to see him climb the 19 steps to what looked like a little “out-house” sitting on stilts. Our group was silent, even reverent, whenever we saw the man climbing the steps. He demanded respect and so we stood. After all, he was The Man in the Tower.

Today’s little building does not sit on stilts. It is a small, nondescript, concrete-block edifice sitting next to the track at the top of the hill. All the switches are thrown from in there, computerized for sure. Most importantly, the modern little building has a bathroom. Back in the day we just figured there was a hole in the floor of that tower on stilts. After all, even The Man in the Tower had to take care of business. One day little Dickie mumbled “maybe he doesn’t have to.” We didn’t know what to think of that idea.

We would stand for the culmination of another wonderful day. It was a fitting benediction. Out of nowhere a long train of cabooses would appear, backing slowly up the hill. This was the signal that the trains were all built because, once the caboose bump was heard, that train was ready to role. Have you noticed that nowadays most freight trains have no caboose? What’s that all about anyway? It’s not right. There must be a caboose to enable another person, not the engineer, to sit and watch all the cars of the train going down the track in front. After all, the engineer is also looking forward at where the train is going. He can’t be looking backwards, watching the train, because that is the job of the man in the caboose. Let me assure you that on my HO layout in the basement, no freight train ever left the yards without a proper caboose.

Once we would hear the last of the cabooses bump, it was all done. The mission was complete. The job was over. Ah, the wonder of it all! There was nothing like an afternoon with the sun shining, good friends, lying sweaty in the weeds, freight cars rolling downhill, counting the bumps, and the prospect of a pop at Charlston’s.

The poet Carl Sandburg grew up over there, where he could watch the action in the humps from the attic of his home. Boy, was he born in the right place. Many years later I learned that he wrote the following: “I am an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going but I am on my way.” Those words found their way into a movie called Paint Your Wagon, and immortalized in a song sung by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.

I wonder if Sandburg wrote those words while thinking about railroad freight cars rolling downhill, mindlessly rolling along without any plan as to where they were going. Like so many of us rolling aimlessly, hoping for someone to throw a switch that would put us on the right track.

The early years of a life can be much like that. We don’t know where we are going because most all the switches are thrown for us by someone else. We don’t give much thought to things like marriage, raising kids, and finding out who we really are so that we can pursue all the passions that are deep inside of us. We learn about these things as we wander down the track of our life pursuing first, most likely, all of the goals that the world and our culture have set in front of us. And how often do we say to ourselves later on, “Wow. If I would’ve known it was going to turn out like this, I certainly would have done it differently.”

A lifetime has passed since the boys gathered at the fence a few feet away from the humps. I think of Bruce and Mike and Dickie and wonder what track they were switched to. I recently re-connected with some old college friends. I think this connection happened because The Man in the Tower saw that it was time. After all, He can see the whole field and knows there is something I can provide these old friends and vice-versa. As we get older and reflect on the past, we realize how good it is to share the highs and the lows, the many errors made and wonder how in the world we made it this far. We learned it’s ok to chuckle over mistakes. Sometimes we laugh really hard at ourselves and enjoy it.

At this stage in my life I have learned that The Man in the Tower loves me and wants what is best for me. Think of that. He treasures me no matter the sidetracks I have taken along the way. Why didn’t I understand that years ago? Perhaps there was no time.

So after all the humps I have been over and after all the switches thrown this way and that, I feel certain that The Man in the Tower coupled me to the right train. Wonder of wonders, I know where it is going. Age clarifies a great deal; a bit of wisdom here, improved vision there. My grandpa used to say, “When you get to be my age, you might even know a thing or two.”