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The Elkville Check Chuck

January 16, 2010

I was working on the extra board as an Amtrak conductor out of Carbondale, Illinois, in 2004 and 2005. My scheduled day off was at mid-week, which usually meant that I had until Saturday or Sunday before I would get called out on a run.

There was one minor drawback to this schedule: our paychecks came by train Thursday evening on “The Illini” from Chicago. This meant that either I would have to wait to get mine the next time I worked or I would have to make a special trip down to the Carbondale Amtrak station. One evening a solution to this minor dilemma came to me: have the conductor toss my check off the train. I was living in Elkville, after all, and the train passed a block and a half from my house. This became a fairly standard operation.

Most Thursday evenings would find me sitting at home, either reading or watching television. The conductor on “The Illini” at the time was a fellow named T.T. Pleasants; a jovial man I had known since about the time he first came to work out of Carbondale in 1988. He had darn near watched me grow up.

About the time the train was due to leave Centralia, I would give T.T. a call on the cell phone.

“Howdy, T.T.”

“Hey Kid!”

T.T. called just about everyone kid.

“You want to do the Elkville check chuck?”

“Why, certainly.”

After enquiring as to the train’s state of tardiness, I would get back to whatever I happened to be doing.

On top of the refrigerator in the kitchen, I had a scanner tuned into the railroad’s radio frequency. Two miles north of Elkville in the little town of Dowell was a hotbox detector, and I would keep an ear open for its announcement that “The Illini’s” arrival was imminent.

“I. C. railroad, equipment defect detector. Mile 2-9-3 point 5.”

I would jump up and head out the door, grabbing my bicycle and heading trackside. As I did, I could hear the locomotive blowing its horn for the crossing just north of town. As I wheeled into the parking lot alongside the track, the crossing gates at both of the Elkville crossings would be coming to life. The loud blaring of the horn would accompany the blinding headlights as the train popped out of the trees to the north, and the engine would flash past. Four cars to the rear, a green light would fly out of the top half of the Dutch doors; T.T. always wrapped my check around a light stick, which was a much appreciated aid to finding the check in the train’s wake.

As the train faded into the distance, I grabbed my check and stuffed it in my pocket. A minute later I would be back at my apartment, and doing whatever I had happened to be doing a few minutes before.

Another edition of the Elkville Check Chuck was in the books.

The Board Street crossing in Elkville, Illinois, at sunset.


Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

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