By Liliana Castillo: CNJ staff writer
Each month a group of retired and current railroaders get together to keep up the family feeling their group shares.
The third Thursday of every month, the National Association of Veteran and Retired Railway Employees holds a potluck at Baxter-Curren Senior Center so that railroaders can come and talk shop.
Men and women who worked for, or whose spouse worked for, the railroad sat at long tables lining Baxter-Curren’s meeting hall. The group chatted about how much the railroad has changed, accidents that happened, and exchanged anecdotes about their days with the railroad.
Roy Thornton worked for the railroad for 38 years as an engineer, from 1960-1998. He recalled how he got his nickname “Thunder.”
“Even the road crews knew me as Thunder. I don’t even think they knew my real name,” Thornton said, with a guttural chuckle. “I got that name because I knew how to make a caboose rattle.”
Thornton told of a day where he was heading south in a rainstorm and didn’t know how long it would be until the rain cleared. He said while going over a hill, he would close the throttle and let the caboose run into the car before it which made a loud noise.
“They said, if the lightning won’t get you, the Thunder will. After that it stuck.”
Jane Sharp worked for the railroad for 25 years in the yard office. She recalled numerous stories about railroad men telling jokes, but one about another yard office clerk stuck out in her mind.
Her name was Joy and she came to work with homemade chocolate-covered peanuts.
“This was before candy machines, you see,” Sharp said.
Railroad men would come through her office and eat her candy. Joy devised a way to stop them.
“She took some garlic pods, dipped them in chocolate ex-lax and filled a Chiclet box with Feen-A-Mints. She would say ‘You want something for your breath? Have a mint.’ Needless to say, she didn’t have anyone messing with her candy anymore.”
Another railroader, Bill Lee, remembered seeing many celebrities on the trains.
“Trains were the main mode of travel, so celebrities would take the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. And the train would have to stop to take on new supplies for the diner cars. On any given day, you’d see Gregory Peck,” Lee said.
Though Lee never approached a celebrity, he said the switchboard operators always let everyone know which celebrities were on board each day.
Wanda Riley stood by her husband John during his 40 years with the railroad. Even though John died five years ago, the memories of how much he loved his work stay with her.
“John was very dedicated to his job. He loved the railroad. When he retired, he’d tell me he wished he’d never retired,” Riley recalled.
“The prettiest music you can hear is those steam whistles. I love it.