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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!

The Cat That Sold Train Tickets. It Was A Simpler Time.

The art and science of marketing fascinates me and I like visual arts as well. So corporate logos interest me; the things that go into making a public image that will sell a company’s products. Often there’s a lot more to them than first meets the eye. Many know for example, there’s an arrow in the Fed Ex logo in the negative space between the “E” and the “X”.

fedex

An arrow suggests moving quickly doesn’t it, and that’s what you want your package to do!

Cisco computer systems in based in San Francisco (as the name suggests) and if you look carefully at the lines above the name, they suggest the outline of the city’s most famous structure, the Golden Gate Bridge:

cisco

Toblerone chocolates are from Switzerland, so it’s no surprise they have a mountain in their logo. What is more surprising is that they are from Bern, Switzerland specifically and that means “bear.” And if you look closely at the mountain…

toblerone

Look at that bear walking in front of the mountain!

I like trains and cats too. Bet you think we’re getting near a Dr. Seuss story by now, don’t you. Actually we’re not. But there is an example of the three – trains, cats and corporate images – intersecting. No wonder I liked the Chessie System railroad so much.

Chessie was a 1970s railroad that resulted in the merger of two large railroads – the B&O and the C&O (yes, the same two you find in a Monopoly game) – and one short line, the Western Maryland RR. It ran freight trains all across the northeastern U.S. (and a single line cutting into southern Ontario in Canada for a few years) and while most of their competitors favored somewhat dull-looking black and white engines and brownish freight cars, Chessie sported lively navy blues and yellow. Their locomotives were neon yellow with an orange stripe and dark blue top, with the name in large, ever-so-’70s Bahama font on the side. They looked great running loads of coal through the Appalachians and even got a starring role in a music video, strangely enough (R.E.M.’s “Driver 8”).

chesloco

If you look closely though, the “C” in the Chessie System, you see the letter is sort of cut with a couple of points. Well, if you look closely and kind of squint, the “C” is holding the outline of a cat’s head and front paw. That cat is “Chessie.”

Chessie was a kitten that was used in the era when travel by train was the way to get around. Before air travel became cheap or readily available in most places, long trips were undertaken on the rails. And long before the government-sponsored Amtrak, various rail lines competed hard for the travel dollars and advertised extensively, using posters and ads showing the glamorous destinations mostly. The C&O were among the first railroads to get air conditioned cars, and somehow came across a picture by an Austrian artist. It showed a contented-looking kitten sleeping with its head partly covered in a pillow and one paw sticking out from the sheets. They bought the image for all of $5 and ran it in ads saying “sleep like a kitten and wake up fresh as a daisy” when traveling on their trains.

chessiekat

A picture of a sleeping kitty cat might not lure you into booking your next trip between New York and Chicago on a particular railroad, but it was a simpler time back in the 1930s. A couple of decades later, a sexy girl in a bikini might have been the ad attraction, now a multi-racial, multi-generational family laughing around a kitchen table together. But back then, people loved the ad and passenger numbers increased on the C&O after it was used. So popular was it they even published a calendar using the kitty the next year and sold thousands. Take that, Sports Illustrated models!

The mascot, or mas-cat, needed a name so they chose “Chessie”. After all, the “C” in C&O stood for Chesepeake, as in the bay. The O was Ohio, by the way. They ran more ads and, rather like some of our modern corporate spokespeople have (think Flo for Progressive) Chessie took on a life of her own. In time, she grew up, met a tomcat (“Peake”) and had her own kittens, “Nip” and “Tuck.” When WWII came up, Peake went off to war and Chessie stayed home selling War Bonds for the lads overseas. And cats overseas, as it were.

chessiewar

The cats remained popular mascots for years, but eventually passenger trains began to lose their lustre, and eventually were all taken over by one entity, Amtrak. C&O and the likes concentrated exclusively on freight traffic, which required less advertising in mainstream magazines. Chessie was more or less retired. Until the C&O and B&O, with their similar paint schemes and often parallel rail lines decided to merge. They formed the Chessie System railroad, and needing a new corporate image, they resurrected Chessie the cat, but only in the sillohuette superimposed on the large “C”.

chessie cab

The rail line was a favorite of photographers, model railroaders and apparently Michael Stipe of R.E.M., but as is the way with large corporations looking for efficiency, by the ’80s, they in turn had merged with another southeastern railroad, the Seaboard Coast Line to form a corporation unimaginatively called “CSX Transportation.” The company retains the Chessie colors but lacks the kitty design although they say officially Chessie the Cat is still their company mascot. However, repainting entire rosters of thousands of engines and boxcars isn’t always a transportation company’s top priority, if you keep your eyes open you might just spot ol’ Chessie rolling by at the level crossing now and then.

So there you have it – a time when a kitten was the “cat’s pyjamas” for a railroad. Not too important, but just an interesting little story of an America of days gone by.

Romance Of The Rails

I like trains.

Like most little boys, I grew up loving trains. Unlike many adults, and unlike most of the childhood things which amused me, I never lost the love of them. I like taking train trips, even if only half hour commuter trips, like watching those pull up to the platform, only feet away, don’t mind the delay caused by having to stop at a road crossing and wait for them to pass through carrying their cargoes of oil. Potash. Coal. Grain. Imported dollar store crap from China. Autos. You name it.

I grew up in Canada, only a couple of blocks from the CP Rail mainline between Toronto and Montreal. We could hear every train pass by; from the yard of my public school, we could see them chugging by behind the houses across the street.The line hauled new cars and pickups from the GM factories nearby to dealers here, there and everywhere, and in turn pulled in boxcars full of parts by the hundred, day in, day out.  By junior high, I was at a school right along the same rail line; for gym we’d often run cross-country right alongside the tracks. When a Detroit via Toronto freight rumbled by, I was a bit slower than usual… not that that mattered, I usually was bringing up the rear anyhow!

My dad and I had model trains, and had a big table in the spare room in the ’70s, put some track on it. We never did quite get the layout complete, and we had differing ideas of the types of trains we wanted on it. My dad loved vintage steam engines and toyish cars. I wanted diesels like I saw on the rails by our house, and authentic freight cars. It mattered little. It brought him and I together when I was a youth and tween, something not a whole lot of things did.

The appeal, I can’t completely explain. The power of them is overwhelming. The mystery too. What’s in that boxcar? How about that tanker? And where’s it going? The multitude of railroads and colors , at least when I was young was fascinating as well. While I stood and watched CP trains and their bright red engines (with red and white striped noses and an odd, oh-so-’70s black and white logo on the end of the long hoods) they’d pull along freight cars from everywhere. The rusty red boxcars of Santa Fe, Southern, Missouri Pacific. Yellow Union Pacific ones. The orange Illinois Central and bold yellow and blue Chessie System ones were particular favorites of mine. And the appeal of being able to buy realistic little 1/87th size miniatures of all them to have go round in the bedroom made it so much cooler still.

I was reminded of that a few weeks back when President George H.W. Bush died. His body was taken to its final resting place, at his library in College Station, Texas, by a train led by a locomotive painted in his honor. Union Pacific #4141 (number picked because he was the 41st president) wound its way along the rails from Houston for several hours, while people lined the streets and tracks, paying their respects for one last time. It was said to be very appropriate, even though no president since Eisenhower nearly five decades earlier had been carried to his funeral on the rails, because George Sr. was said to love trains, and particularly the big, western carrier, Union Pacific. They said they were honored to have that privilege and painted up the huge, 210 ton EMD locomotive in blue and silver tones to mimic Air Force One. This was in contrast to their normal locomotives which are bright yellow with red lettering.

It looked surprising, even for non-railfans who live in the southwest and see the yellow UP trains rumble by daily, but it wasn’t the first time railroads did something unusual with their paint schemes to honor the country.

Back in 1976, the U,S. was abuzz with patriotic fever inspired by the Bicentennial. And railroads, so much a part of the country’s 200 year history, decided to share that enthusiasm. A couple of years before, the Seaboard Coast Line, a railroad that primarily served East Coast cities from Chesapeake Bay south to Florida, noticed it had a General Electric engine (as a sidebar, it might surprise many that GE is one of the world’s biggest producers of diesel fuel burning locomotives) numbered 1776 and decided to gussy up its paint. In place of the normal mainly black and white paint the company used, it painted #1776 in a bright red, white and blue scheme with stars on the red and blue stripes and a large presidential seal fastened to the side. Soon others followed suit- Illinois Central (which kept the corporate orange and black on the nose but also had blue and red stripes on an otherwise white engine numbered 1776), Grand Trunk, Santa Fe… soon over 20 different rail lines had engines honoring the country and flag. Boston and Maine, a relatively small rail line, painted 9 diesels patriotic colors! Erie-Lackawanna painted an engine #3638 in their normal design but with red white and blue replacing their normal mainly gray, with a dull maroon stripe. They did that in 1976… even though later that year they went out of business and were “enveloped” by Conrail.

I’ve never met George W. Bush, needless to say, but I always figured I could always have a good talk with him because we both love baseball. Likewise, I never met his father, George H.W. I didn’t agree with all his policies while he was president, but I bet I would’ve liked chatting with him. He did, after all, love trains.