Memories of the old BR 38

Memories of the old BR 38

By Roger Heid


It was late afternoon in September of 1956. I had just turned 13, a month before. It was pretty hot for this time in the year. School had just let us out, for that day. There was a bunch of us students piled on the station platform, waiting for the 5.08 pm train to take us home. My destination was about 14 Kilometers to the North, following a single track branch line, with three stops in between. There was even a tunnel halfway along the trip. It usually took about 20-30 seconds to go through it.

Finally, the train approached the platform. There was this BR 38, a big black menacing monster, edging its way into the station, pulling a baggage car and six ‘Thunderbox’ passenger cars. The BR38 noisily came to screeching halt, right in front of me. I had chosen the right spot along the platform. I was set on giving her a closer look. She was an imposing sight. All kinds of mysterious chugging and hissing noises emanated from almost every spot of her seemingly complex innards.


This train, the 5.08 pm, would usually sit and wait for the southbound train, about 10 minutes or so, before it could proceed. This gave me plenty of time to take a closer look at this beast. The engineer climbed down from his lofty position in the cab. With a shiny oil can in his hands, and he started to lubricate various points along the rods and wheels. I gawked my eyeballs out. I needed to learn how to lubricate a steam engine. Even at the risk of being a pest, I followed him every step he took, right at his heels. You see, during those days, I often thought about becoming a railroad engineer.

Suddenly, the engineer pulled me aside. He yelled that I should not stand so close to the engine. A second or so later, I found why. There came this huge cloud of steam, accompanied by a banshee like scream. Frightening! A large part of the platform was immediately engulfed in this cloud for a few seconds.

When the cloud cleared the engineer resumed his task. I followed him every step on the way. I dared to remark that this engine is a 4-C-0 type. He glared at me and nodded. I further dared to ask why there was a gap between the second and third drive axle. He stared at me, puzzlement written all over his rugged face which was adorned by patches of sweaty soot.

“Gee, I don’t really know. I guess it was designed that way, just like the American Moguls were designed that way”, he said. I nodded in utter agreement, pretending I knew all about American Moguls.

“Can I blow the whistle, please?”

“No, not now, boy. Maybe when we take off.”

My heart started to pound. Maybe this engineer was the friendly type, after all. A previous attempt of mine to get warm with a BR 44 engineer wound up to be a catastrophe. To this day, I still wonder why he did not eat me alive.

Lucky for me, my hopes were not disappointed. I had struck the jack pot. He yanked me up into the cabin. The stoker just grinned, an impish look on his sooty face. He reached up to some hook and handed me a well worn, greasy engineer’s cap. It sure had character. I promptly put on my head. Then I heard the station master toot his whistle. Time to take off !! The engineer pulled on some long lever causing the engine to huff and puff and to slowly move ahead. Then he pointed to an iron ring on a chain dangling from the cab ceiling.


“Pull this down for about three seconds, let go and pull again for a short moment”, he shouted.

I reached and pulled with all my strength. The whistle shrieked a long and short burst. Wow!!! I briefly thought I was going to faint. Naw, I told myself. Engineers do not faint. No way!! Fainting is no option in this game. I had managed to get thus far. It was time for me to stand my ground.

“Not bad. It did not exactly sound like me, but it was close enough. Not bad, at all. Try it again just when we enter the tunnel, will you. Now relax. Don’t touch anything and stay away from the fire door. Don’t block the stoker’s path.”

I cannot describe how I felt. I remember I was shaking, just a little; well, actually quite a bit. I started to sweat profusely. Boy, was it hot in that cabin. I did not mind, though. An engineer must be willing to endure these hardships. I knew I needed to toughen up. I was an engineer now, you know. Anxiously, I awaited the tunnel approach.

“Now !!”, the engineer yelled.

I did my thing, flawlessly, I thought.

“That was a lot better, boy. You will make a good engineer, some day.”

Pride is not the right word to describe my feelings. In fact, I still don’t how to describe this. Elation is an understatement, at best. Maybe, it was just a dream and I would wake up from it shortly, the alarm clock rattling my cage as it usually did. No, the wretched sound of the clock did not occur. This was for real, indeed.

The rest of this journey went by way too quickly. I had another chance to blow the whistle, by which time it had become old routine. The engineer had nothing to say; he just nodded, expressing his approval. At my destination, I climbed off the cabin having been prompted to keep the hat. Wow!! The Station Master stared at me, seemingly in disbelieve. Then he grinned from ear to ear.

“Roger, I am glad you helped to bring her in safely. Now go home and take bath”, he muttered.

There was a mirror in the Station Lobby. At first, I had a hard time to recognize myself. That yellow shirt of mine was not yellow anymore, nor were my tan pants tan anymore. My face was a mess. It looked like a mixture of a swamp thing and some strange creature from outer space. But I was very proud, nevertheless. The hat looked great on my head, I thought. It made me look like an old pro. So I thought. It probably looked ridiculous. I duly ignored the strange looks I got from a number of passengers milling around in the lobby. Little did they know. They had no idea what it meant to be a railroad engineer. I proceeded to walk home, ignoring the looks I got from multiple pedestrians. They certainly would not understand, anyway.

As I came close to the house where I lived, I happened to run across a neighbor lady.

“My dear Lord, Roger, what happened to you, for Heaven’s Sakes?”

”Nothing really, I drove a BR 38 from school to home. That’s all. No big deal.” I tried to give my voice a sense of maturity and experience. Most likely, I sounded more like a newborn piglet. That’s hard to say, after all these years.

“Whatever a BR 38 is, you better go home and take a bath.” Her facial expression was new to me. I had never seen her before looking like that. I could care less. I knew who and what I was, anyhow.

Once at home, my mom threw a fit, blowing several of her gaskets. Eventually she calmed down some. She sternly insisted I go and take a bath. But before she let me in the house, she took me to the backyard and hosed me down. In the spirit of a tough railroad engineer, I heroically endured this procedure. Not that I had a choice in the matter. I urged her not to wash my hat. The next day, I had to recover it from the trash can and hide it. It took almost a year to convince her that the hat needed to remain in its state. I don’t think she ever understood. She just condoned it, I think.

A couple weeks later, again using the 5.08 pm, I met the same engineer/stoker team manning the same BR 38. I was invited aboard, but I had to decline due to me wearing some of my better clothes because of a school event, and the fact that I did not have my hat with me. I also wanted to avoid the possibility of my mom cranking me through her meat grinder.

Instead, we arranged a date on which I would wear my sloppy clothes, have my hat and let my mom know ahead of time. I did not want her to completely blow all her gaskets. The second journey went flawlessly. I was an experienced engineer, at least in my opinion. I did not care about anyone else’s.

A Maerklin BR 38 was included in my Christmas wish list. However, this wish did not materialize until last year (2012). Occasionally, reminiscing the days of youth, I run my BR 38, pulling one each baggage car and six each ‘Thunderboxes’.  Amazingly enough, I don’t need to take a bath afterwards. I wonder why that is.





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