Switch Engine at Night
The firefly dance of the switchmen
talking with light:
Vertical lanternstreak printed on darkness
vivid, imperative:
"kick" sign.
The engineer widens the throttle,
wheels spin, sand spurts under them,
crash of couplers as slack runs out
cars lurch into motion.
Sharp, swift arc of a lantern:
stop sign.
Gloved hand smacks brake valve, sand valve and throttle,
howl of diesel subsides, air hisses,
one worn brake shoe screams.
Cut-off boxcars
black elephants trunk to tail in the darkness
walk quietly down a siding.
Slow, stupid, blind, they bump
tusk into rump
into a line of their brothers:
the crash echoes.
More lanternchalk on the blackboard of night:
this time a circle. The engine backs off,
grumbling and clanking.
The lanterns climb onto the footboards,
each dragging a switchman.

Paul J. Sampson
Paul J. Sampson ( still regrets leaving his job as a locomotive fireman on the Rock Island Line.

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