Recently while having my ears lowered at a local shop, the barber commented 'Aren't you the author of the book 'Life On A Locomotive?'
Apparently he had recognized me from the photo on the cover of the book. With an enthusiasm seldom exhibited by the men of his profession, he added, 'You just gotta meet Billy Byrd.'
'Tell me what's so special about him?' 'Man, that fella has a passion for steam locomotives that won't quit.' That was all the introduction I needed. 'How can I contact him?' Hastily the barber placed his clippers on the counter and grabbed the telephone directory. Pointing to B.M. Byrd, 369 South Harrig St., he added 'Here's his address.'
Thanks to the friendly barber, Billy and I have shared a glorious week of steam, coal smoke and cinders.
Though a comparative stranger to your city, I believe Madisonville puts on the finest parades to be found anywhere. One of the biggest attractions is always the Billy Byrd Special. Smack dab in the middle of the pageantry, his steam powered tractor chugs along, black smoke belching from its stack and at frequent intervals that lonesome whistle can be heard all over town.
'Anyone can make noise with the air horn on a diesel,' says Billy, 'but it takes practice, skill and a lot of love to play a tune on a steam whistle.'
After putting his ancient toy away, Billy made several adjustments and walked up to the front end of the machine.
Like a cowboy stroking the neck of his favorite horse, Billy patted the side of the smoke box. Then with obvious nostalgia in his voice he said 'She may never grace the rails, but she does bring back precious memories of the days when I was at the throttle of 'the ole iron horse.'
Billy started his career with the scoop shovel, bailing coal on the old muzzle loaders (hand fired locomotives).
Now after his 35 years of railroading, he mounts up into the cab of L&N's sleek and powerful new diesels. The controls and the lighted instrument panel resemble the cockpit of a modern airplane. Almost everything is automated. Progress has taken over. With the ease of operation and the modern comforts, the engineer appears to have arrived.
But according to Billy Byrd, such logic ignores the experience of riding in the cab of a steam locomotive. Nothing compares with the thrill of watching the smoke trail back over the train while the music from the stack blends with the chime of the steam whistle. At this point, Billy's Tennessee twang begins to wax eloquent.
'Just to watch those side rods flash in the moonlight and feel those huge drivers clawing their way up a steep grade is a reward far greater than any pay check.'
I listened spellbound as he related some of his exciting experiences in the days when steam was king.
Enroute to Madisonville, I was passing through Marion, Ill. Purely by chance I spotted a steam locomotive standing by an old fashion red brick depot. People were crowding the platform. Why, I couldn't believe my eyes. Hastily I parked the car and ran over to the engine. By golly, she was a real honest to goodness steamer.
The sizzling pop valves and the black smoke rising from the stack made it evident that she was ready.
There were babes in arms, teenagers and a goodly number of senior citizens crowding the platform. Ice cream and popcorn were in abundance.
'Board' shouted a smartly uniformed conductor. Suddenly the milling mob seemed to be absorbed by the steel coaches. A long swing of the conductor's arm signaled a 'high ball' and the engineer answered with two short blasts of the whistle.
Amid the creaking of the brake rigging and the clunking of the couplers the now forgotten crack of the exhaust began to reverberate from adjacent buildings. Old Number 5 was leaving right on time. Heads began to pop out of every other window and arms were waving to the bystanders as though their destination was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, for me, Hugh Crane, president of the Crab Orchard and Egyptian Railroad, had just finished reading my book. Obviously, we shared a common love.
'Would you care to ride the engine on the next run?' he asked.
It took considerable self control to conceal my childish enthusiasm. Then with a mature and outwardly calm response, I accepted his gracious offer.
I rode in the fireman's seat and listened to the roar of the stack, all the while fighting to keep the cinders out of my mouth and eyes. But I loved every minute of it. Best of all, my wife seemed to really enjoy her comfortable seat back in the coaches.
After the close of the day, I met the whole team. These men, about 10 of them, had banded together, pooled their recourses and labored often without pay, just for the pure love of steam railroading.
The first two years were a struggle against terrific odds. But the tide is turning now and word from satisfied customers is bringing in tourists from hundreds of miles around. I determined to do everything possible to help the fellows.
I explained my feelings to Billy Byrd, hoping he would share my concern. His brown eyes began to sparkle and a huge grin spread until his round face just beamed. 'Man, what are we waiting for? Let's go.' And go we did.
Unknown to me, Billy Byrd's fame was well known to Hugh Crane. When I introduced him High insisted that Billy run Ole No. 5. In a short time Billy slipped into his overalls, jacket and gauntlet gloves. Pulling down on the bill of his cap, he climbed into the cab. In a matter of seconds his practiced eye scrutinized the gauges and located the controls.
Billy put her through her paces. I listened to him create that famous whipporwill sound in the chimed whistle. Just to watch the broad smile on that hog head's face was worth the 80 mile trip.
When Billy climbed off the engine, we all gathered at the lunch counter in the depot. It was chocolate sodas all around. Shortly the gal behind the soda fountain came out with a tray of the biggest sodas I every saw in my life, 12 inches tall, no less! The whole concoction was covered with whipped cream and topped with a big red cherry.
While devouring this choice delicacy, we were entertained by music from a player piano. The whole atmosphere took us back to the roaring 20's. All agreed we had had a great day and well be looking forward to our next ride on the Crab Orchard and Egyptian Railroad.
Wouldn't it be great for residdents of Madisonville to have an exclusive excursion with Billy Byrd at the throttle? I discussed the possibilities with Mrs. Byrd. Do you think Billy would cooperate? She kinda chuckled and said, 'Were there is smoke, there's fire and when you find a little steam mixed with it, you'll find Billy Byrd.