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Steam Power

Lead Summary

When my father was a young man, he worked as a longshoreman. I remember how he used to tell us stories of working on the docks, of how the older fellows called him "Hollywood," because he was young and good looking, and of how, in time, working hard beside them, he became one of them.

As a child, I remember that they would sometimes stop by and sit on our front stoop and trade stories with my father about the old days, when men lost their life and limbs loading cargo onto the big ships down at the waterfront.

One of my father's favorite stories was about the loading of the last steam locomotive to be shipped to the Orient.

My father was one of many men who held onto the huge ropes that guided the engine and held it steady as it was lowered into the ship's hold.

The event made the news of its day, and one of the newspaper photographers who covered it, later returned and gave each of the many longshoremen a photograph of them posing with the huge locomotive just before it was lowered into the ship's hold.

Many years later, my father gave the photo to me. It now hangs framed, in a special place on the back wall of Greg's shop.

So, I suppose that it is no wonder that I love steam engines. I suppose that it is no wonder that I drop whatever it is that I really should be doing, taking honey off the hives, canning tomatoes, or even weeding, and eagerly head up to the antique machinery show, thoughts of my father in tow.

Greg and I walked the grounds each day. Of course, we stopped to chat with folks we knew; and of course, we dined on fine fair food, but mostly we stood in awe before the old machines.

I felt mesmerized by the slow turn of their flywheels. I felt lulled by the rhythmic, glistening glide of the pistons. I breathed in the dark scent of their oil-infused smoke. You would have thought I was inhaling the finest floral perfume. And I waited for each night, almost holding my breath with anticipation, for the spark show to begin.

This year, not one, or even two, but four of the large steam tractors lined up side by side. Two smaller, quarter-scale models were also set up, off to the edge of the field.

As dusk fell, the engineers and their crews set the long belts to the drive wheels and began to stoke their fire boxes. As they opened the fire box doors, their sweat-streaked faces stood out in red silhouette against the dark of the evening.

Greg and I set up our folding chairs as close as we could without getting in their way. And then the show began.

First one, and then another, and then all six engines were sending a fountain of brilliant red sparks high into the night sky. The sparks started out slow and then built up in intensity and finally billowed up into the sky, only to fall in a shower back down on the tractor roofs.

The roofs seemed outlined in a red silhouette of embers that marked the location the machine below. A few sparks even lay dimly burning on the rain damp ground, reminding me of a constellation of glowing embers in the night grass.

I could have watched forever; but one by one, the engineers slowed their fire-fed boilers down, and sounded the last whistle of the evening. We watched as one of the large machines rolled across the night ground, back over to the other side of the show.

One fellow walked ahead with a flashlight. Two others hung back, one on each side of the huge machine, shining lights on the ground ahead. We stood in awe as it rolled almost silently past, off into the night.

As I watched, I wondered what had become of that last steam locomotive that my father had helped lower into the ship's hold to send off to the Orient. I wondered what became of the many other steam machines that used to power our world.

In the great scheme of things, it really was not all that long ago.

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at

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