Save Cornwells Heights
Labor Day, A Tribute
Monday, September 5, 2005
Contentious discourse is suspended for the day. Please see the previous Thursday’s edition and associated archives for information about the battle to save Cornwells Heights as an Amtrak station stop. The next major edition of this page, back on topic, is due out Tuesday.
I once knew a man who was born in a log cabin. He led a life that was full and did many great things. Among these was that once he held ten thousand tons of hurtling steel on his finger – tapping.
Born in 1899, raised on a farm and accustomed to receiving a single piece of candy for his childhood Christmases, the end of his formal education – as was customary of that time and place – was eighth grade. And then there came the trains. In his world, there was nothing mightier than the trains.
At a rural whistle stop near the family farm, he apprenticed in telegraphy. At 19, he was the station telegrapher, charged with sending and receiving the tapped messages that kept the trains moving and, more importantly, kept the trains apart. He began his work even as Pershing’s doughboys were returning home from Chateau Thiery and Belleau Wood, and he knew the price of a mistake then. He was proud in his later years to say that, at least on his watch, all the trains passed safely and well, and fathers and sons came home.
Automobiles helped bring an end to his railroad days, and he retired from AT&T in 1964, after more than thirty years of service, and two sick days. As an old man, his eyes always brightened at the sound of tapping, whether faux or genuine, when telegraphy scenes were portrayed on TV. He always knew the real from the fake, and kept some old telegraphy keys around for practice and demonstration. No boy scout, however well versed in Morse code, could ever keep up with the raucous, pattering blur of sounds he made. I certainly couldn’t. Only other old, professional telegraphers, I believe, could. I never met another.
A few days after I fired off the first two letters to politicians in my current attempt to prevent Amtrak’s imminent Cornwells Heights shutdown, I was getting off the train at Cornwells Heights when I heard a fellow passenger in line ahead of me say, “I hear it’s your last day. Good luck,” and shake the conductor’s hand. I can’t say that I knew the conductor well, but I knew he had checked my ticket perhaps hundreds of times, and of all the Amtrak regulars, it had struck me that he somehow come closest, in his own way, to reminding me of the old telegrapher I once knew. I shook his hand, wished him well, and walked away very grateful to have shared in the last ride of a retiring train man. I was lost in memories all the way home.
There seems to be something important, something that’s well worth the honoring on Labor Day, that creeps into the souls of men who make steel ride on steel. Though trains may not fly, still they crawl the earth as giants day and night – much as they did in the time of the old telegrapher – and remain the mightiest conveyances of man. We still need them, perhaps now more than ever.
Goodbye, Gerry. Thanks for making your last ride, and one of my thousands, so memorable.
The station at Tyner is no more, and the railroad’s all but gone. I thank the old telegrapher for teaching me so young what pride in work and duty and country meant to him and should mean to me, and what it is that trains and the railroads they ride upon, steel on steel, will always mean to men. His name was Russell Booth. He was my grandfather.
– Rick Booth