To Err is Human – Cornfield Meet at Woodlawn

This anecdote came in a roundabout way through Bruce Chapman.  I have deleted some names to preserve the anonymity of the main characters. It illustrates some sloppy working which would not be tolerated today.

I had been mustered out of the Navy in October of 1945. I returned to Ottawa and checked in with Chief Despatcher Myles McKeown. When I entered the Chief's Office he was in conversation with Reggie Hayes the then Superintendent of the Ottawa Division. Reggie asked me straight out:

“Did you ever take a drink while you were in the navy?”

I couldn't help but smile and say:

“Sure I used to take my “Tot of Rum,” every day at eleven o’clock when “Up Spirits” was piped, while we were at sea.”

Mr. Hayes immediately gave me a lecture on how I must be governed with respect to spirits now that I was back in the employ of the CNR. “Six days thou shalt abstain but on your day off its okay to have a drink.” 

I was relieving as the third trick operator at Bank Street Yard (Ottawa). Norm Reynolds, NGR, was the night trick dispatcher on the West End.   Sometime in the early hours Norm had an eastward extra on the Beachburg Sub. getting close to Pembroke Junction (80 miles west of Ottawa Junction). A 3rd Class Westbound Mixed (#205) was scheduled to leave Ottawa (Bank Street) around 8:30 AM and ply its way westbound on the Beachburg sub. to Pembroke.

NGR issued a “31” (No. 27) to No 205 at Bank Street and a “19Y” to Extra 3448 East at Pembroke Junction which gave the eastbound right over the mixed.

I repeated the order before going off duty at 08:00 AM.  I showed the time I repeated the order but otherwise took no further action, except to transfer the order to the incoming operator.

In the operator's office at Bank Street there were three separately designated boards with spikes upon which to affix train orders, one board each for the Alexandria, the Renfrew and the Beachburg Subs.   I had clipped the “31” to one of the spikes on the Beachburg Board. I also drew the incoming operator’s attention to the “31”, which he acknowledged. Of course, the “31” was included in the operator's transfer which we both signed.

Merv Yabsley was the Chief's Clerk and I had a room at his place, so being tired, I was in bed sound asleep within the hour after being relieved.  Sometime after ten o’clock, Mrs. Yabsley knocked on my bedroom door and said that Mr. McKeown, the Chief Dispatcher wanted me on the phone.  I pulled on my trousers went down stairs, shook the marbles out of my head and answered the phone, not knowing what to expect.

Myles McKeown was quite excited and didn't mince any words. He said right off: “Did you transfer the 31 Order No. 27, addressed to No 205, to the day operator?” Without hesitation I said “You’re darn right I did,” and I drew his attention to the order as well. The phone went dead. Needless to say I didn't get too much more sleep that day, not knowing what the problem was and naturally being charged up with adrenalin.

A while after I asked Merv Yabsley what was going on. He said that there had been a cornfield meet on the Beachburg Sub. between No. 205 and an Eastbound Extra. Apparently no one was hurt so it couldn't have been too serious a mess.  I didn't get the details until a day or two later except to be told that the two trains had gotten stopped, drawbar to drawbar, somewhere between Malwood and Woodlawn.

I don't know what went on but somebody must have raised the question as to whether the Bank Street night operator (me) had transferred the “31” order to his relief.

“31” Order No 27 was never delivered to No 205. Moreover, NGR had issued a 19R Form “W” to No. 205 at Bank Street which said that all trains due at Ottawa Junction and Federal before 8:20 AM have arrived and left except Extra 3448.

The order was repeated and completed and delivered to No. 205 and he left town shortly thereafter.  Immediately after the two trains came within a hair of a head on collision the hogger on No. 205 hooked up the emergency phone and started screaming blue murder. Somebody was going to have to pay for this travesty and it wasn't going to be him!

I never did figure out why the “31” was missed altogether, nor why nobody on No. 205 asked any questions about the exception on the Form “W” No 32. There must have been some really sleepy or hung over people for everyone to screw up in that manner. 

To err is human, to forgive divine! After all, no one got hurt that time, did they?  Unless you wanna count hurt feelings!

The moral of the story is simple enough. "Trust no one, especially yourself."  We are all prone to err. It's human nature to do so. We all make mistakes because we are human and not robots.

Ottawa Central Railway, Spareboard, April 2008.

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