West Babylon The “Whistle Ceremony,”: Late 1940's - 1950's
In the late forties, I started spending the summer months at an Uncle’s bungalow in
In short time, I became
acquainted with George Basch (see below) who worked as a crossing watchman Monday
thru Friday (in timetable language, Daily ex Sat & Sun) on 2nd
trick (3 PM-11PM). George was a bachelor at the time and was an avid
railfan – mostly by riding trains throughout the
It wasn’t long before I found myself hanging-out with George at the green and yellow shanty that was his home for eight hours a day. As each train would pass, he would tell me the name of the engineer. He could tell who the engineer was on an approaching steam powered train by the way the whistle was “played.” This could also be done on the MP-54 and MP-70 MU’s, but not as melodious as a steam whistle. However, there was an exception to this by way of an engineer named Andy Post. He could play an air whistle like no other.
As was custom, Andy would approach this crossing on his eastbound trip at about 9:15 PM each weekday night. His train would trip the bell circuit in the shanty just after passing the
During the rest of the year, I lived in Jackson Heights. After having been formally introduced to Andy, I would often be invited to ride the cab from
Other times, I would get off the train at Babylon and walk back the one mile to the Great East Neck Road crossing and visit with George for an hour, then return to Jamaica with him (“riding on his Pass”) on a Speonk-Jamaica train leaving Babylon at approximately 11:30 PM via the Central Branch. This trip was steam powered until the C-Liners were put into service in 1950. Later, I would be taught how to flag the crossing at
The “whistle ceremony,” that I described earlier, almost had dire consequences one night. I mentioned that George would blink his flashlight at the approaching train that Andy was operating; however, he would not start his blinking until he was sure that Andy was the engineer – this being determined by the whistle performance. If it was the normal two longs, a short and a long, George of course would not display the flashlight because it was assumed that an extra-board engineer was running the train. One night, as we were on the way to Babylon (I planned to get off at Babylon and visit with George – and ride with him on his pass back to Jamaica), Andy and his conductor, Roy Swanson, thought it would be a good idea to play a joke on George – just blow the regular crossing signal – then I would walk to the crossing from Babylon – and surprise my buddy. As we passed the crossing, all was quiet, no blinking flashlight – we fooled George – and laughed heartily.
As I walked up to the shanty in the dim light of a street lamp, I quickly realized that the shadow that I called out to was NOT George. It was a short man with a heavy Italian accent – and not at all friendly. He informed me that George had marked-off sick, no further conversation – and for good reason. The railroad was very strict about visitors at crossings – a distraction to the crossing watchman. Apparently, this extra man was cognizant of this rule and did not want to test it. So, here I am in West Babylon with fifty-cents in my pocket and my only chance of getting back to
I recall that I had a rolled-up newspaper in my back pocket. As Andy started blowing for the crossing, I started waving the paper as I stood under that light – and the headlight of the train started to illuminate me. The more I waved the rolled-up paper, the more creative my friend Andy became with the whistle. The train has by now accelerated to about 45-50 MPH and as the front of the train passes me, Andy realized that I was actually signaling him to stop. In a shower of sparks, the brakes are applied and I start running along the ballast toward the front of the train – which finally stopped. In my excitement, I ran all the way to the first car – never thinking to climb aboard the train at the first step well with an open-trap - further delaying the train. (As a historical comment, the traps were stowed-up and the doors were open running between low platform stations).
All I can recall was my shouting up to the cab, “George wasn’t
there, he wasn’t there!” When I finally climbed
aboard, I never heard so many expletive-deleted phrases coming out of
the mouth of my friend Andy and his conductor Roy. After I was
“invited” out of the cab,
After I finished explaining my actions,
I never heard George make mention of that event – I truly believe he was never told of it. All these exciting things happening at his crossing, while he is home sick.
P.S. The photo depicts the crossing in the story. I was waving my folded newspaper just out of the frame (left side) - at night of course.
LIRR Eastbound at Little Neck: "Joe, I'm putting you to work!": 1951
I remember a New Years Eve when I was seventeen. I was out riding with
some of my buddies one night on a MU trip. I got on the eastbound train at
Little Neck. The crew complement was one trainman short on a six-car MP-54
train - obviously "New Year's Eve" sickness. We departed PW
somewhere around 9:00 PM expecting a light load.
It had started to sleet, then snow about fifteen minutes before we left PW. I was riding in the cab and, with the engineer, remarked how quickly the snow was starting to accumulate. By the time we got to the Manhasset Viaduct, visibility became so bad that we could not see the road below the viaduct. The conductor quickly realized we were in trouble - just he and the trainman/brakeman working a six-car train with a sudden deluge of passengers materializing beginning at Great Neck.
The conductor came to the cab and said, "Joe, I'm putting you to
work!" He gave me a set of door keys and positioned me between the
fifth and sixth cars - reviewed with me the procedure of the engineer's
key position for door-locked position for high level platforms and that
the doors would be released to be left open between Little Neck and
Douglaston (low platforms). He also reminded me to switch sides at
Aurbandale. It was at about this location that the conductor signaled the
engineer to run a reduced speed due to the enormous workload of working a
six-car train with two people (obviously, I didn't get involved in that
phase - just operated the doors).
"Hooked on the Rail"
It was a Friday night in the summer of 1950. I was visiting with the crossing watchman (George Basch). It was almost time for his shift to come to an end and he was anxiously waiting for his relief to arrive. The man that he was waiting for, drove to his assignment at this crossing and usually arrived at 10:50 PM, ten minutes early. This gave George time to get to
He was given a ride on occasion by a local resident - or rode "side-saddle" on the bar of my
What stands out most clearly - in my recollecting this event - is Tony's 1937 Chevy spinning its wheels in reverse and going no where, a ten-car double-decker accelerating toward the crossing, my dear friend George in a state of complete panic - and me grabbing a lighted lantern off the hook on the wall of the shanty and running westward down the right-of-way. As I swung the lantern, I was gratified to hear the two "shorts" of the whistle indicating acknowledgment of my signal as the train began braking. In a few short moments, it slowed to a walk, came along side of me and stopped. The engineer (Fred "Freddie" Crabbe) was a little surprised to see me standing there with the lantern - obviously not the crossing watchman, although we had met once or twice. I quickly explained that there was an automobile "hooked" on the outside rail and that the vehicle belonged to a railroad employee. He told me to get on the bottom step and hold on to the grab-iron, he then slowly advanced toward the crossing. In a moment, it was discovered that Tony and George had succeeded in getting the bumper unhooked and clear of the rail.
Freddie, who was a big man - square-jawed and all, starting "ragging" on George and as much as accused George of staging the whole thing - because - as he then offered; "Well dammit, since I'm stopped and you need to get to the station, you might as well climb-up here, and be quick about it!" As Freddie lifted the trap and George scrambled up the steps. The engineer gave me a big grin and said "good job kid" as he gave "two" on the whistle and resumed the final mile of his trip to
I visited with Tony for a few minutes afterwards. He told me that he and George were able to lift the car sufficiently to get the bumper guard to clear the rail - and remove the car from blocking the track. As we talked, he said he noticed me start toward the train with the lantern - and heard the whistle acknowledgment - and suddenly George realized that he needed to get that train stopped (this before they had unhooked the bumper guard). Tony said that my George went right back into panic mode - for the second time in as many minutes - Tony told George that Joe was already doing that.
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During the same period of time as the "Hooked Rail" incident and the "Whistle Ceremony," another "happening" took place at that same crossing, with the same players - and no one was injured, nor were any trains flagged to a stop. I was once again riding with Andy Post and his conductor Roy Swanson. We had the MP-70 double-deckers - and would return to
So, I got off the train and purchased a birthday card at a drug store a half block south of the station. Andy suggested that I also attempt to obtain an empty cigar box - I found one somewhere - and of course some gift wrapping paper as well as Scotch Tape. He told me not to worry about a gift, he and the crew would come up with something - I thought that a little strange. While I was doing the errands, the train crew went through the train that they just brought to Babylon and picked up every piece of trash they could find - half-smoked cigars, stepped-on cigarette butts, part of a newspaper, and a small bouquet of almost dead roses. Of course, the empty cigar box became the gift box and the "items" picked up by the crew became the gifts. I must confess that whoever it was that wrapped the box and tied the ribbon did a commendable job - with the birthday card also placed inside the box.
The plan was this: as we approached the crossing, Andy would slow to about 20 MPH, Roy would trigger the fireman's-side door to open and I would have the honor to yell "Happy Birthday George" and toss the gift-wrapped box toward him and the shanty which was located adjacent to the #2 track. Also lending festivity to this occasion, Andy provided the music with his "whistle concerto." Yes, the same streetlight that I mentioned in "Whistle Ceremony" illuminated George's face enough for us to see shear delight in our remembering his birthday.
As we proceeded toward
I can't recall what the three of us did to smooth him over - but we did and our friendships prevailed over the years. We would all share other interesting events - but never again gift-wrapped.
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1948 Chrysler C-Liner?
My friend George Basch was really a good man - friendly, generous, very railroad knowledgeable and did his job well - and was quite liked. However, people liked to tease him with practical jokes.
At the time the FM C-Liner CPA20-5's were being introduced, a local
resident that utilized the Great East neck Road crossing frequently
acquired a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country convertible. No, this was
not a mini-van. The 1948 version was a two-door convertible with wood
side paneling - in the fashion of the station wagons of that era - real
wood. The thing that made this T & C different was the air horn that
the owner had installed on the left-front fender, a real true-to-life
air horn that had it's supply of air provided by a compressor located in
As a side note, the circuit board I’ve been referring to was a metal electrical box that had four sets of amber lights – two lights in a vertical position – one set representing each track (Central Branch was bi-directional). When the circuit was activated, the bells inside the box sounded in a steady telephone-like ring, and the two lights representing the track on which the move was taking place would go out. The reason the lights displayed in the ‘on’ position was for fail/safe considerations – a failed light would turn off. If the normal display was in the off position – and the bulb failed – who would know?
It took George about a week or so to discover who it was that was blowing for the crossing. Our friend with the “C-Liner” came to a stop at the stop sign on Railroad Avenue which paralleled the tracks. As he pulled away, he let go with a blast on the “duck” and George grabbed his small hand shovel – used to feed his pot-belly stove with coal during cold weather - and commenced to run after the phony wannabe locomotive. He didn’t catch him; however, a L.I.R.R. police officer did catch him a few days later and cited him for disorderly conduct among other charges. He did not do that any more – at least in
I am convinced the reason for the grade crossing elimination project at Great East Neck Road was due to incidents that I have described.