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Cabooses To Cabovers – Missin’ The 70s!

I needed a new heel for my shoe, so I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt which was the style at the time…” – Grandpa Simpson.

…and we liked it! Getting another year older makes one think back, and when I think back I think of random things that were better when I was a kid. Like tying onions on one’s belt. And I’m not talking about obvious things, like pop hit radio or being able to call a girl a girl without risking a long lecture about gender fluidity, I’m talking about the inobvious things that have faded away with time. Three examples…

Cabovers. When I was a little kid, I loved big trucks. And most tractor-trailers were headed up by a type of diesel truck that was called a “cabover”. They were called that because the cab sat over the engine. Big, square, flat-fronted trucks. Peterbilt, Kenworth, GM, International, you name it. These rigs moved everything everywhere. When I was about five, my dad and I went to a car show and they had a Chevy one on display… a Titan 90, I think it was called (much like the one illustrated above). I got to go up – way up – and sit in the cab. Cool, what! 10-4 good buddy, what could be cooler than driving around the country in one of these, I thought, looking down – way down – on the crowd below. Well, turns out many things could be, but the design still looks cool. But makes one turn around and stare these days on rare occasions you see one. Kind of like a Hummer with a Biden sticker on it.

As much as little guys like me thought they looked cool, and you got a good look at the road ahead with one, they lost their other advantages soon after my hop up into one. First, riding right over the engine apparently made for a real rough ride, even with the driver’s seat on shock absorbers. And, to access the engine… well, that was a bit of a chore. You had to flip the entire cab up at a 90-degree angle to get at it. This doubtlessly took some effort to do and wasn’t good for the cup of coffee you might have beside the seat in that cab. And, in a crash, there was no buffer between driver and wreck. The type of truck you see today has it all over the cabover design, with the long hood hosting the engine and keeping the driver a good ten feet away from danger. The real reason the trucks changed though was not so much safety or comfort as government red tape.

For many years, the U.S. and Canada had strict regulations on the maximum length of a truck they’d allow on highways. Many of those regulations were set in the growth period immediately following WWII, when 24-foot trailers were common. When the truck back suddenly grew to 40′, freight companies were strapped to get clearance to run them. Cabovers shaved a good few feet off the total length, and allowed them to use the new, more efficient longer-trailers. But by the Reagan era, many of those restrictions were relaxed or removed altogether. Witness today’s commonplace, behemoth 54′ trailers. Witness the chaos they cause trying to get around a tight corner designed in the 1940s when a 30′ long Sears delivery van was the biggest vehicle. With the lack of size limitations, there was no longer a need to sacrifice driver comfort and maintenance ease and the long hood style took over. Peterbilt last built a cabover design in 2009. Japan and much of the EU still have tight regulations on truck length mind you, so foreign markets still boast quite a few new models of the old cabover design.

If the stuff wasn’t being moved on the roads, it was on the rails. And a train had a caboose. Another thing I miss.

I always loved trains as a kid. I grew up near a very busy CP Rail line that took cars from a huge GM factory nearby to everywhere, and brought in the parts they needed, as well as moved along everything else that was on the go between Detroit and Montreal, via Toronto. I spent many an idle hour in the park near us watching trains scoot by. The caboose went by and it was the end of the train. Simple. Most across North America were painted red, but the CP painted theirs a bright yellow-orange (a few other companies used different colors too; Union Pacific had yellow ones, Burlington Northern green, for example.) There’d be people inside the caboose, and as one local columnist put it recently, it seemed like their only function was to look out and wave at kids.

They actually had other jobs too of course. As Trains magazine point out, at one time many trains had crews of upto five people. They couldn’t all fit in the locomotive cab, besides which there was an advantage to having people bringing up the rear. They could look out and watch for problems ahead in the train – potential derailing cars, hobos jumping aboard – and there’d be people to change a switch back once the train had passed. To change from one track to another, the train goes over a switch, which moves the wheels smoothly to an adjacent track. Much of the time, it needs to go back to its original position to let the next train sail on through. Having a guy (for seldom were the workers women) back there to do so saved time over having one walk all the way back from the engine up front, do it, then walk back. The cabooses often even had a bed and kitchenette, because it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to make the run from say St. Louis to Denver by themselves.

Technology and economics took over and by the ’80s, were making the caboose irrelevant. Many switches became remote-controlled. Electronics were able to detect problems with the brakes or slipping wheels better than a man looking hundreds of yards ahead could. More trains were unit trains, meaning they ran straight through with a long load, not stopping at individual industries to pick up one car here, drop off a boxcar there. That required less manpower. Unions got shorter shifts and more crew changes, reducing need for overnight accommodations. A little device called an EOT – End of Train device – became available that would take electronic readings and flash a tail light in place of a whole 40-foot long, metal caboose with staff inside. By the ’90s, cabooses were largely a thing of nostalgia films and toys… remarkably most children still seem to know what they are somehow and like them attached to their toy trains.

Toy trains perhaps played with in the living room. And that brings me to the third thing this Granpa Simpson is nagging about – mid-century modern, ’60s and ’70s furniture! Like the era, it was a mix of the old and the new; wood and velvet, metal and velour. Straight lines were fine for stereo cabinets or end tables but, I presume they figured, people weren’t rigid (except for ‘the man!’) so why should they sit on square furniture? When I was growing up, we had a great big plush yellow sofa, with rounded arms, and a rounded back. But the piece de resistance was “the lounge.” The lounge was the fave of my dad and I, a contoured, velour-covered mustard yellow soft chaise lounge with a built in pillow for one’s head. Yellow was big in furniture when I was a kid. I wish we had photos of us enjoying it; more I wish we still had it to enjoy!

This chair was the way to watch TV in comfort, not quite as lazy-seeming as lying around in bed, but all the comfort of a sunny day at poolside and then some! It was the perfect place to park one’s own “caboose” at the end of a long day carting an onion around on one’s belt!

Recent explorations by me have suggested the lounge was a product of a company called Pearsall which specialized in things of that sort. Unfortunately, recent explorations also suggest no one in the family know whatever happened to ours. Used ones still abound online… and cost an amount similar to the price of a new pickup that would be required to bring it home!