Thursday, February 03, 2005

Gear: Railroad Brakeman's Lantern

railroad brakeman's lantern
I've written before about my "gear," impractical little items that I pick up, often for a song— items generally of no real practical use. But items that are just plain cool. Hyacinths for the soul, if you will.

Another piece of "gear" I've got is my railroad brakeman's lantern. Big, sturdy metal thing. Handle is a big circular plastic-coated metal loop. Two light bulbs in a metal cage underneath, one of the bulbs recessed back in a sort of parabolic dealie to cast more focused light, the other to cast a more diffuse light— you can turn on one bulb or the other by sliding the switch to either side. And of course this lantern is powered, as a good lantern should be, by one of those big, heavy, blocky lantern batteries.

On top of the lantern it reads:

Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.
No 31-C

And in a circle around that: The Adams & Westlake Co., Chicago - Elkhart - New York.

The top also bears the warning: CAUTION - Remove Battery When Dead.

I keep my railroad brakeman's lantern underneath my nightstand, just in case I need light in the middle of the night. There is no flashlight half as cool (well, except maybe for a MagLite™, but that's a story for another time).

Ran across this piece of gear about ten years ago when I was living in north central Illinois. I'd gotten on a Jack Kerouac jag, was buying up and reading every one of his novels I could find. One of the many things in Kerouac that intrigued me was how his friend, Neal Cassady, had worked as a railroad brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. So when I walked into this second-hand shop one day and found an actual working railroad brakeman's lantern sitting there...

In his short story "October in the Railroad Earth," Kerouac wrote of getting up and getting ready to go work on the railroad:
My little room at 6 in the comfy dawn (at 4:30) and before me all that time, that fresh-eyed time for a little coffee to boil water on my hot plate, throw some coffee in, stir it, French style, slowly carefully pour it in my white tin cup, throw sugar in... my breakfast ready at about 6:45 and as I eat already I'm dreaming to go piece by piece and by the time the last dish is washed in the little sink at the boiling hotwater tap and I'm taking my lastquick slug of coffee and quickly rinsing the cup in the hot water spout and rushing to dry it and plop it in its place by the hot plate and the brown carton in which all the groceries sit tightly wrapped in brown paper, I'm already picking up my brakeman's lantern from where it's been hanging on the door handle and my tattered timetable's long been in my backpocket folded and ready to go, everything tight, keys, timetable, lantern, knife, handkerchief, wallet, comb, railroad keys, change and myself. I put the light out on the sad dab mad grub little diving room and hustle out into the fog of the flow...
Yeah. That lantern's got any flashlight beat all hollow.



Post a Comment

<< Home