UNION CITY, INDIANA.
'Better say 'Hello' to the Lord while you're up there, Harry,' shouted the voice of Jay Gould over the WOWO Fort Wayne mikes as the crowds whooped 'n hollered.
A pair o.' oily old overalls and red polka-dot cap, a well-smoked, straight-stemmed briar pipe and old Case No. 9 -that and a hill to climb and a crowd to thrill is all it takes for Harry Woodmansee to do his stuff. And, as one watches breathlessly from his earthbound position this daring engineer ascend upwards into the cloud-bedecked sky-blue yonder, he is not a little hard-pressed to wonder which is out-smoking the other Harry's old pipe or the stack o' old No. 9.
'Yes, I always git a little scared when I'm going up there - so many things can happen,' confided the hill-climbing Harry Woodmansee in his soft Michigan brogue as I queried him beside his puffing 12-horse Case, just descended from his heavenly sojourn that Sunday Afternoon.
It's always one of the main highlights of the day's agenda at the big Old-Time Threshers and Sawmillers Reunion on the Jim Whitby farm at Ft. Wayne, Ind. - the announcement that the veteran Harry Woodmansee is going to climb the steep incline, offering all the accoutrements and contraptions of a spinetingling extravaganza sufficient to send the crowds scurrying.
With Woodmansee, the climbing of the big hill at the throttle of a steam engine is just part of the daily dozen that an engineer of his capacity and know how goes through to keep the folks entertained. Yet, routine as it may become for even him at the numerous steam reunions throughout the midwest where he daily performs, each show has a different kind of incline, each day brings different kinds of weather, and Harry, his pipe and old No. 9 must be always in fine fettle to keep the folks happy and coming back, year after year.
But little wonder to me that the Woodmansee-Case performance always comes off on a high-note, as scheduled. For whatever the agenda calls for -whether it's plowing out in the field, throttling the governor on the big Ft.
Wayne sawmill where clock-like precision is the rule of thumb, or ascending the big hill - there's always a strict routine that precedes the action, often unnoticed by the average eye, which Harry performs to get him, his pipe and old No. 9 properly and adequately synchronized just prior to the big event. For long before the announcement of his performance is forthcoming, Ol' Harry, his pipe and red polka-dot cap can be seen somewhere up among the 'innards' of his engine, oil can in hand, lubricating, polishing, adjusting the vital parts of old No. 9. Because Harry Woodmansee is not just a so-called 'throttle-jerker and whistle-puller' in the popular notion of steam engine terminology. Rather, like the quiet, devoted type of railroad engineer, so much admired in years past, and as much a part of steam engine lore as the locomotive itself, Woodmansee almost caresses his beloved 12-horse Case with the same devotion and personal attachment as does a 4-H lad his prize pet calf. It if was indeed proper for an engineer to kiss his engine, Harry would do just that -- the love affair 'twixt man and engine having gone that far. But with boilers being hot, and with that pipe clamped in Harry's teeth -- we've yet to see it.
Harry got a funny feeling, next morning, when he awoke and read his own epitaph.
However, to stress the point further, one event remains noteworthy in my memory. Harold Gay had just begun making the announcement that plowing was to be done in the back field of the Old-Time Threshers and Sawmillers' reunion grounds. While the usual fanfare of whistle blowing and bell-ringing was calling the crowds to the main arena, the clatter of heavy chains and the snapping of hitches, the yelling of the men back and forth betwixt engines and gang plows - there was Ol' Harry up there quietly oiling up and giving engine talk to old No. 9, like a jockey about to enter a race with his favorite steed. In the midst of the fray the time arrived for Harry Woodmansee and old No. 9 to be hitched to the plows. Up to the very instant of taking off with the plows, Harry was all over the top of that boiler, adjusting this 'n that, thence back on the deck and down at the side then up again. Timing his performance to the second, Harry's hand was right where it should be and ready, while checking his draft, adjusting his quadrant and quietly giving orders and instructions to his fireman, Phil Liechty.
When the order came to pull the plows, Iron Man Harry Woodmansee merely eased the throttle, then gradually old Case No. 9 mustered all her twelve horsepower, and all twelve of those horses weer leaning against the load. The big tall stack belched its defiance against all the over-turning furrows of that hard, Hoosier land soil. Came the slight rise in the field, the exhaust slowed to a fearful steadiness, but old No. 9 kept right on going. Harry Woodmansee's Case never faltered. His thorough engineer's knowledge and devotion to duty was paying off in tractive effort that could well have been envied by those running much larger machines of locomotion. It was a thrill, not unlike seeing the steam passenger locomotive get under way with the evening express at the village depot.