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Mack Williams column: Stopped for water

I start this week’s column off with a plea, similar to that made by a disobedient child to his parents. In this case, the disobedient kid is “me,” and the parents are “you,” the reader. After having done a couple (or was it “several”) columns about the Norfolk and Western J-class 611, I had said it would probably be a long while before future writing about it; but to paraphrase Brittany Spears: “Oops, I’ve done it again!”

Well, this is different! (also said by pleading, misbehaving children).

I stopped by Food Lion on Thursday, Feb. 11, an “off the clock” day from work, to get a bottle of wine as birthday present for friend and colleague of the Danville Science Center, Ben Capozzi.

After I arrived at the Science Center’s main building, another friend and colleague, Brian Buchanan, told me Ben was working across the way at the Danville train station/natural history museum where I work when I’m on the schedule.

As I started to head over, Brian said: “Did you see what’s parked on the tracks?” Looking over toward the station area, I said “No.” Brian replied: “The 611, further on down the tracks.” When I looked southward about a quarter of a mile, my eyes were met with that particular “marooneness” associated with the old “Norfolk and Western Railway” (in this case a very “shiny” maroon).

I suddenly remembered brother Joe telling me several days prior that the 611 would be returning to Spencer for some work, but he didn’t know when.

Brian said the engine was taking on water, and if I hurried, I could drive down to that next crossing in time to see it before it left.

I said: “No, I’m going to go ahead and walk,” handing Brian Ben’s bottle of wine and saying: “Please look after Ben’s wine for me until I get back, at which time I’ll give it to him.”

As I set out, I did experience a “twinge” of conscience at having temporarily abandoned friendship for an “inanimate thing,” but a “thing” with detectable, audible “pulse,” even at that distance.

My brother Joe runs for exercise, and I’m capable of a fast walk; so I figured I could make it there to see the 611 before its departure, following its “water break.”

When school children visit the science museum and ask their teacher if they can “take on water” from the lobby water fountain, the teacher gives each one a “count to five,” at which time they are to relinquish fountain control to the child next in line. Although Brian said the 611 had been there for about an hour, I somehow, instinctively knew that its “1-5 count” had not yet been completed.

If I had driven, I would have watched traffic with its attendant signs, those things taking attention away from what I was on my way to see.

Just as before, the 611 was on the horizon and getting nearer, but this time, my feet were narrowing the distance instead of its wheels.

Just like its wheels, though, my feet were passing over rails, crossties, granite roadbed, discarded, rusty railroad spikes, and other assorted, unidentifiable, pieces of rusted, railroad “flotsam and jetsam.”

You may wonder about using an aquatically-associated word “flotsam and jetsam” with the terrestrial, forgotten, metal odds and ends associated with the railroad; but the word “caboose” does come from the German “Kabhuse,” meaning: “a small cabin on a ship’s deck.”

Earlier in the day, I had skipped my exercise walk due to the cold, but it didn’t seem to bother me as I made my almost striding way (as much as possible, with rails, crossties, etc.) to the great “maroon engine.” Perhaps it was due to the sudden “driving” mixture of adrenaline and steam within my veins.

I arrived just in time to see the 611 “finish its drink,” as it sat there, “breathing” slowly. Then about five minutes later, it’s bell began to ring and steam began pouring from the sides (measured steam, of course) producing a powerful, high pitched “s,” drowning out all other sound (even seeming to momentarily interfere with the brain’s workings (mine, not the engineer’s; he’s used to it).

As the pitch of that steaming “s” lowered, and the stack began to belch smoke, I watched as “The Spirit of Roanoke” sounded it’s melancholy whistle, steaming southward over once “Southern Railway” steel to a town whose name fits those alliterative “s’s” quite nicely, as does the adjacent county seat.

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