"Want to go for a ride, Jonathan?" asked Dad.
"Nah" I answered.
"I'm going to the Turner depot to pick up a package."
"I'm coming! Wait for me!"
I wasn't about to miss a trip to the depot so I could see my friend Mr. Russell, the lightning slinger, known to most people as the telegrapher. Dad and I hopped into his Model A Ford.
At the depot, I could hear the clicking of the telegraph. The chattering of the telegraph was sweet music to my ears. I always wondered how Mr. Russell could understand all those dots and dashes. They came so fast, it seemed to me to be a blur.
Dad got the package and headed out the door. "Let's go, Jonathan." But I was so busy watching Mr. Russell tapping out a message that I didn't hear my father.
"Huh! Oh, I'm coming."
A week had gone by, and my father hadn't made any trips to the Turner depot. That was too long for me to wait any longer, so I grabbed my bike and raced down to the station.
"Hi, Jonathan," said Mr. Russell. "Where's your dad?"
"I rode my bike today." The telegraph came alive, clicking and clacking. "How do you know what the message is, Mr. Russell?" I asked.
"It's American Morse code," answered Mr. Russell. "If you listen closely, you can hear the short dots and longer dashes. Here, I have a little Morse code book you can have."
"Thank you, Mr. Russell." I spent most of the afternoon hanging around with Mr. Russell. He had thinning black hair, brown eyes, and a friendly smile. Although he was a big man, he always wore clothes that made him look like a fine gentleman.
When I got home, I studied the Morse code book like I was studying for the most important test of my life.
From then on, I didn't wait for my father to take me to the depot. I went as often as I could.
"Mr. Russell," I said one morning, "could you help me figure out what all those dots and dashes mean?"
"Okay!" said Mr. Russell. "If you help me clean the waiting room, I'll teach you American Morse code."
Once we finished cleaning, Mr. Russell said, "Give me a minute. I have to take some medicine. My indigestion's been acting up lately."
I sat down at the oak telegrapher's desk. Through the windows I had a good view of the track in both directions. I was amazed by how much clutter filled the old office. Some of the stuff looked like it had been there since the railroad was built.
"Okay, I'm ready," said Mr. Russell. "I'll tap out the alphabet on my telegraph practice set while you follow along using the book I gave you."
B: . . .
C: . . .
I helped Mr. Russell with chores around the depot, and he continued to teach me.
A few weeks later, Mr. Russell said, "Jonathan, I could use your help loading these packages and baggage onto the baggage carts. Then, how about I start teaching you some numbers?"
"Sure," I said.
When we finished loading the baggage, Mr. Russell took out his telegraph practice set and began tapping out the numbers:
1: . .
2: . . . .
3: . . . .
One Saturday, Mr. Russell said, "When the next message comes in, see if you can understand any of the letters or numbers."
The telegraph came alive. I struggled to follow along. But I could only get bits and pieces: T
3. "That doesn't make any sense," I said.
Mr. Russell chuckled. "It takes time. Keep on listening and writing down as much as you can."
One day I asked Mr. Russell, "How did you get interested in telegraphy?"
"I was just like you when I was about your age. I started hanging around the depot and became friends with the telegrapher. I was fascinated that the messages could be sent so fast over long distances. And it was like a connection to a faraway world that I'd only read about or heard on the radio. The telegrapher taught me the same way I'm teaching you."
The coal smoke from the passing trains often filled the office with a lingering smell that seemed to last a long time. On one wall hung a big clock. Exact timekeeping is vital to keeping the railroad running safely Mr. Russell told me. On the opposite wall was a calendar with a nice picture of a new steam engine.
I practiced listening and writing down what I could for the next few months. Whenever the telegraph tapped out its message, I tried my best to understand the meaning. More than once, I threw my pencil down and walked away. To me, the messages were only a jumble of letters and numbers.
One day, Mr. Russell scared me when he suddenly clutched his chest and groaned.
"Are you okay, Mr. Russell?"
"I'm okay. It's just indigestion."
I learned more and more. The day came when I understood an entire message:
"No. 7 Engine 1928 meet No. 348 Engine No. 1920 at Newton. No. 348 takes siding at Newton." Then I watched Mr. Russell pull the signal lever. This caused the semaphore to display a yellow light on the train-order signal, which let the engineer know there was an order for him to pick up from the depot.
"Jonathan, don't ever touch this signal lever," said Mr. Russell. "If a wrong signal is displayed, it could cause a train wreck. You understand?"
One afternoon, I heard Mr. Russell groan loudly. Then he clutched his chest and fell forward onto the desk. I couldn't wake him up. The telegraph came alive. I snatched a pencil and piece of paper and started writing as fast as I could.
E M E R G E N C Y
S T O P T H E W E S T B O U N D
W E S T B O U N D T A K E S I D I N G A T T U R N E R
D O Y O U C O P Y
Mr. Russell had told me to never touch the signal lever, but if I didn't, there could be a train wreck. Nobody else was there. What should I do? After some hesitation, I pulled the lever to display the red board, a red light, on the semaphore.
Moments later the westbound freight train stopped at the depot. I showed the message to the conductor. But he said, "I don't take orders from a child. Where's Mr. Russell?"
"Something's wrong with him," I said. "He groaned and slumped over his desk, and I can't wake him up. Please, listen to me! I know I copied the message right."
"I'm not doing anything until I find out what's going on here," said the conductor. He had the brakeman go fetch Doc Hollaway.
We both heard the whistle from way off to the west.
"All right," said the conductor to the engineer, "get the train into the siding, until we straighten out what's going on here." Just as the switch was thrown back for the main line, I heard a train whistling for the Davis Street crossing. That meant the train would be roaring through in about ten seconds.
After the eastbound passenger train rumbled past, the conductor said, "Son, you've prevented a major disaster from happening. I just want to say thank you."
"You're welcome," I said.
"I used to be a telegrapher," said the conductor. "I'll telegraph the dispatcher and get this all sorted out. Why don't you go see how Mr. Russell is doing?"
After a few minutes, Doc Hollaway said, "He suffered a mild heart attack, but he'll be all right."
"Glad to hear that," said the conductor. "I found out what happened: At the last depot my westbound freight train passed, it received orders meant for a train following behind it. If my train wasn't stopped at Turner, it would have had a cornfield meet, two trains crashing head-on, with the eastbound passenger train."
My career as a telegrapher was over-for now.
Gary Newall moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina in 1993. Living in Cary, his day job is repairing Kodak photo printers, while most of his spare time is devoted to writing stories for children. He's a member of the SCBWI. Gary's inspiration for stories involving railroads comes from more than forty years of fascination with trains. His dream, which he knows will come to pass, is to make a living as a writer.