Grandaddy Fischer


Part 2

Henry Fischer Sr. worked in the L & N Roundhouse, in Decatur, Alabama. A roundhouse was a “C”-shaped, semi-circular, brick building, with a large opening on one side with several concentric train tracks following around the circular tracks. The roundhouse was a very large structure and was the steam engine repair shop. All the maintenance crews were there to work on the trains and keep them running. Now, at that time, about 1923, trains were like airplanes today. They were the only mass transport besides trolly cars, and the roundhouse was like a hangar for planes. That’s where repairs and routine maintenance was done. To alert the crews that a train was coming in, since each crew was responsible for several different engines, the engineer, like a pilot today, would have his own steam-whistle blast. For example, 3 long toots and one short, would be the signal for Bob’s engine, and those men would get ready for that engine. Four longs would be another engineers signal and so forth. The engineers became friends with the crews who worked on their trains. Just like pilots do today. Those crews saved lives by keeping the trains in good safe condition. Henry became good friends with one engineer. They visited each other, swapped yarns and jokes, and so on.

One morning this engineer pulled into the roundhouse, near tears. Henry asked him what was wrong, and he said late last evening he hit a car on the railroad crossing and killed the driver. The police were investigating, and there was sure to be a law suit, trial and maybe criminal charges. Grandad consoled him, and checked the engine over, finding it safe and undamaged by the wreck. From week-to-week Grandad would get updates on what was happening. It seems that the law suit for “wrongful death” against the L&N, was for negligence of the engineer or the signalman. On every train-track crossing there was a small building with glass windows, and a door. In it sat a signalman with a clock, the train schedule, a lantern, fuel and matches. Every so often, he would consult the schedule to see when the next train would come by. Just before, he would make sure the lantern had enough fuel, light the wick and step out onto the roadway, and wave the lantern back and forth parallel to the tracks to warn automobiles that a train was coming. This was before the wig-wag gates that come down to block the roads. But there was a question about this particular signalman. He had been reprimanded by the company for sleeping on the job and for drinking alcohol.

The company lawyers interviewed the signalman and the engineer, and told them to answer all their questions truthfully and not to volunteer anything unasked. They asked the signalman if he was swinging the lantern, and he said yes, he was. Then they asked the engineer if he saw the signalman swinging the lantern, and he said he did. The engineer’s word was beyond reproach. He was an honest, upstanding Christian man. The signalman, not so much.

Eventually they had to face a deposition from the family’s attorneys. The engineer told my grandfather he was worried and afraid. Grandaddy told him to tell the truth, and he would be just fine. But he wasn’t so sure. In those days, before the Union came in, the railroads would “black list” people who got them into trouble, and a man lost his life on their tracks. Well, the deposition took place, and once again the engineer was asked if the signalman was swinging his lantern and did the engineer see him doing so. “Yes, he was and yes I did,” swore the engineer. Finally, months later a day before the trial Grandad spoke with the engineer, and he was very nervous and almost sick to his stomach over having to testify. Grandaddy told him to tell the truth and quit worrying.

The trial came and went, and the L&N was found harmless. The next time Grandad saw his friend, he slapped him on the back and congratulated him. He said, “Now don’t you feel foolish? Why were you so worried?” The engineer said, “Henry, I told the truth. I had to answer their questions truthfully like the Ten Commandments say, but I was so afraid they were going to ask me if that lantern was lit.”

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