Friday, January 15, 2010

The Great (Coal) Train Robbery

Ken was not a happy camper.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were 15 years old and had only a hazy idea of the legalities involved, and anyway, if no-one caught us we had got away with it and therefore were, by definition, innocent. Anyway, it was all Ken's idea.

I don't mean to suggest I was unwilling, far from it. I pretty much leaped at the suggestion we mosey on over to the smokeless fuel processing plant marshalling yards and take a close look at the coal wagons. It was winter and I found the reflection of the moon off the pools of solidified lime that dotted the landscape thereabouts quite evocative in the way only a 15 year old does. The Gothic Gloom of the place was a Lorelei Song to a moody teen and I went there often to think about life and stuff.

I was dead philosophical at that age.

Anyway, Ken and I had been kicking around the railway yards a couple of nights before and he had opined that the very acme of desirable memorabilia in his humble opinion was the heavy, oval cast-iron makers plates fastened to the right rear and front left corner timbers of each coal wagon. I took a look and was dubious.

"There's a hundred years or black tar and two ginormous carriage-bolts holding the thing in place" I noted. "Why on earth would you want something like that on your wall?"

"Idiot!" said Ken in that playful manner he had after we had been in each other's company for a couple of hours. "I'll use the gas torch in the school metalwork shop to burn all that crap off and repaint it first! If we can get the bolts out I reckon it'll prise off with a big screwdriver"

"The bolts are square, though", I said. "We'd need a big Stillson's pipe wrench to get those buggers out. Like the one me dad has hanging in the shed. He won't miss it for a couple of hours or so, and then there's the big World War I - era screwdriver in the toolbox. I'll use my duffel-bag and we can carry the plate to your house in it when we're done."

And so we had. At dead of night the next, er, night we stole into the yards, keeping well away from the highly illuminated part, and relieved one of the ten-foot long coal wagons of one of the two makers plates it bore. Ken was ecstatic at the haul and I was pumped with adrenalin as all criminals must be after their first "big job", and we gleefully made plans to repeat the process the next night.

During the day, news of The Big Job had somehow gotten to the ears of our mutual friend, Dave, who had insisted on being "in". We both shrugged and said "okay", but we had unwittingly made a mistake.

You see, Dave was An Adventurer in the making. He later went on to climb mountains, dive reefs and all sorts of other moderately daring stuff, but he was already taking himself Very Seriously when it came to capers. Well, we all did at that age, but Dave was...epic in his approach.

We were lulled into a false sense of security when he rendezvoused with us wearing black trainers, pants, pullover and woolen hat. He looked every bit the part. Indeed, he looked like he was going out to blow up railway lines and thus put yet another spanner into the well-oiled works of the filthy Bosche war machine that had run rampant over his beloved France in 1939 and abruptly ended his innocent adolescent life as a simple grape picker plunging him into a life of deadly intrigue, guns and high-explosives. Mon Dieu!

We stealthily made our way into the railway yards once again, Ken and I with the sure tread and wary eye of the seasoned coal-wagon burglar, Dave with...wait! Where was Dave?

Sometime between our reaching the ultra secret weak point in the smokeless fuel plant's security, known to those prosaic, stiff-necked Denizens of the Daylight Hours as "the level crossing on Blackberry Way" and our insertion into the high-risk area about two hundred yards from the day-bright Klieg lights illuminating the live part of the yards, Dave had slipped fully into character.

Once we spotted him it was easy to deduce that he had elected himself "Look-Out". He was running back and forth, diving periodically between wagons and then sticking his head out to check for observers, his shoes making the canyons of steel up ahead ring with the sound of scrunching gravel.

Ken did a little dance of annoyance, as did I, but we resolved to work further back down the trains of parked wagons so that we'd have a head start should Dave's "precautions" bring disaster.

We pulled off one maker's plate after about five minutes of unscrewing and levering, and moved on to a second. I should point out that the plates in question were, once the tar was burned off, beautiful items1, dating from well before World War II in some cases and that there were several different ones available. Ken knew the ones he wanted - no mere opportunistic thieves were we, but refined aesthetes with a discerning eye. Well, Ken was. I was just easily led2.

We did, however limit ourselves to only taking one of each pair when we selected the ones we wanted, partly because we didn't want to overly inconvenience the poor buggers in the maintenance shops, but mostly because being more than a foot over the long axis these things weighed a ton. What with the Stillson's pipe-wrench and the screwdriver, which appeared to have been machined out of depleted uranium despite being over 50 years old (no screws made after 1935 had slots wide enough for the blade I might add), I was in serious danger of having the bottom fall out of my duffel bag. Two was our limit that night if we were to avoid Explanations to parents3.

We were removing the second plate when Ken became aware that Dave was now leaping from wagon to wagon, clearly outlined against the sky. I also became aware of this around the same time, because Dave was good enough to stop right next to us and comment loudly that we should bring power tools the next time. Then he bounded off again into the night. I could see his gymnastic form as he occluded the light from the smokeless fuel processing plant itself. I think probably anyone could against that light, just by looking out of their kitchen window, and the nearest house was about a mile away.

"He's gonna get us caught!" snarled Ken.

"Where will we plug in the extension cords?" I asked, dubiously

"What?"

"For the power tools. It's a great idea, but I can't think where we'd get the juice from", I said

"Idiot! yelled Ken, quite forgetting in his indignation where we were and the perilous situation Dave had put us in vis-a-vis being rumbled with a bag full of cast iron swag. "Not only is there nowhere to plug in these power tools you pair want to bring in, the sodding things will make enough noise to raise the dead!"

"I hadn't thought of that" I admitted ruefully.

"Stealth!" howled Ken. "Stealth is the key to not getting caught!"

"Will you keep it down?" hissed a voice, unexpectedly coming from just overhead.

"Argh!" Yelled Ken.

"Argh!" I agreed.

We sat and caught our breath while Dave returned to his lonely, leaping vigil, then Ken said "I want one of those!"

"One of what?" I asked. I'd been looking into the lights again and couldn't see what he was pointing at.

"That. The destination board. I wannit."

I looked for a bit, and checked I wasn't going mad. "This?"

"Yes, that."

"But all it is is a block of wood with what looks like a mousetrap mounted on it. Why would you want that?"

"They put routing information slips under that spring clip. I want the thing."

I could see we were going to get nowhere unless I did what Ken wanted, so I took a look. The block of wood was held onto the wagon frame by two nuts. The bolts were either captive stud-type things, or were inserted from behind the frame and had domed heads, 'cos I couldn't find anything to grip that side of the frame. In order to remove the device, Ken would have to hold back the "mousetrap" waybill retainer, which swung down against a very strong spring, while I used Mr Stillsons on the nuts. Ken concurred and we got to work.

Now my part of the job was tedious but involved constant work, but Ken's was really just standing and holding back this mousetrap thing and he had time to get bored and start obsessing about Dave again.

"Look at that idiot! He's gonna get us caught. I mean it! We are gonna get caught because that twit thinks this is some sort of game."

The litany went on and on for the entire duration of the job. Indeed it went on a bit further. Ken was so caught up in his monologue that he was quite oblivious to my having removed both the nuts holding the device to the wagon frame. All that was holding it now was whatever environmental gunk had stuck the wood of the base to the wood of the frame.

"Ken, the nuts are off" I hissed. "Ken! I'm done! Ken!"

Which was, of course, the point at which the wood came away from the frame and snapped closed on his fingers with a mighty THWACK! that I was sure could be heard for miles.

It is at times such as this that the true mettle of a man is shown to the world. Ken was magnificent.

Well aware of the need for silence after the night of lax stealth protocols, yet having been dealt an injury of heroic, nay, super-heroic proportions, he was faced with a difficult decision. Not since Wiley Coyote had almost the very same thing happen to his paw during a particularly trying bout with the Road-Runner had one being been dealt such a hefty whack with such a thin piece of metal to such a delicate set of bones and tendons.

Doubling over yet somehow managing to show his face to the world at the same time, Ken puffed out his cheeks (both sets), drew back his lips in a terrifyingly wide grin and went for a hop around the shunting yards, all the while making a sound like a distant steam whistle with his nose while gnashing his teeth hard enough to flake enamel off them. I stood and watched admiringly from the shadows, while Dave, sheltering from possible detection in one of the wagons, offered the shouted opinion that Ken should be more circumspect in his fooling around.

Eventually Ken was able to regain control of his voluntary muscles and we made our way home to the sound of his fingers throbbing. Dave thought the evening had gone very well. I was less sanguine, but then I had been volunteered to carry the cast-iron swag. Fortunately, about half a mile from home, the bottom tore out of my duffel bag, which lightened the load drastically at the cost of waking up the entire neighbourhood. It was, we decided later,6 a good night, but not good enough to do again.

Not even on a bet.

  1. If you like that sort of thing
  2. M'lud
  3. To be avoided at all costs. We had taken great care not to worry them by telling them anything about our nocturnal quests, and there was no need to get them all excited over what was, when all was said and done, nothing really to speak of4
  4. Which is why neither Ken nor I have ever spoken of it5
  5. Until now
  6. Months later

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