By James Murray
The question is this: As the sole performer in Praxis Theatre’s upcoming rail-inspired play Steel, how can I learn the requisite Canadian rail history without having to sift through Pierre Berton’s 496-page rail primer The Last Spike?
I’ve been listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy, but I’m afraid that only serves as a small dose of inspiration. Clearly, I need a more adventurous research project.
With that in mind, I called Derek Ridsdale – an old Ottawa Valley high school chum. (Those in the know call him “Uncle Ridsy”. It’s an inside joke, and only a marginally funny one at that. Take it or leave it.)
These days Uncle Ridsy is based in London, Ontario, and has been working for Canadian Pacific Railway for 13 years. His family are fourth-generation railway workers. Coincidentally, one of the characters I play in Steel, George, is a fourth-generation steel worker – “making history with 10,000 tons of steel.” As it turns out, the semi-fictional George and the very real Uncle Ridsy have much in common.
Here’s another charcteristic they share: when Uncle Ridsy’s name comes up in discussions among friends, his charismatic and energetic storytelling ability is the gravitas around which our reminisces orbit. When he has a tale that sufficiently excites his interest, Uncle Ridsy is prone to standing up and waving his arms wildly in the air, acting out each nuance of his story. Steel's George has been written with a similar delivery in mind.
This parallel and divine coincidence provided an amazing opportunity for me. So I phoned him up: “Uncle Ridsy? It’s Jimmy Murray!”
“I’m doing research for a role. Can I come see you in London so you can tell me stories about the railroad? Please. Uncle Ridsy?”
His response: “Sure buddy! C’mon out fuck! I’ll tell ya everything ya need to fuckin’ know fuck! I’ll take ya out to the yard, put a maul in yer hand, you can drive all the fuckin’ spikes ya want!”
So I did.
Booze and steaks
I meet Uncle Ridsy at Yorkdale Mall in north Toronto for lunch at The Pickle Barrel. We both order ruben sandwiches. His wife, Melissa happens to be working in the Greater Toronto Area that day so she picks us up.
It’s a pleasant 90-minute drive from Toronto to London, with the music of “Guided By Voices” and “Tapes ’n Tapes” playing loudly in the background – a view of sunshine reflecting off the snowbanks and frozen trees. I fall asleep.
I awake in the parking lot of a liquor store in downtown London. Uncle Ridsy is slapping my knee.
“We need booze and steaks!” he says.
We obtain the provisions and head out to their cozy, suburban home. He calls it ‘The Ranch’. I receive a warm welcome from Jack and Charlie – a chihuahua-maltese mutt and a well-fed tabby cat, respectively.
Uncle Risdy gives me a quick tour of the house before we get down to business with the tunes, the Tuborg and the steaks.
I pull out my photocopy of the Steel script and my Praxis Theatre notebook.
How to derail a train
“First things first,” I say, “what’s a section gang?”
Uncle Ridsy begins: “Yeah, yeah . . . they’re the nuts, bolts and rail boys. The train can damage the track at any time, eh? So they send the gang out to repair it.”
That is, out to repair that particular ‘section’ of track . . . hence the name “section” gangs.
“How do they repair the track and what tools do they use?”
Temperature, apparently, is the problem.
When the temperature drops to -30°C during our harsh Canadian winters, the rails shrink and the nuts, bolts and spikes can fly out, explains Uncle Ridsy. In the summer, when it gets as hot as +30°C, the rail can be damaged by heat kinks, which can derail a train. No problem, he says, the section gangs use specialty tools like track jacks, track wrenches, spike mauls and tamping bars.
This technical line of inquiry goes on for some time. My questions and his answers becoming more arbitrary as one topic leads to the next.
Wow. Did I ever not know anything about how the railroad works.
Under the volcano
He fills me in about the track bed and how it used to be made of molten lava, which is apparently really harmful to the environment. Now they use chipped limestone they get from a plant up in Beachville, Ontario.
We cover the yard crews, which consist of a brake man, a conductor and an engineer. Uncle Ridsy goes off on a tirade about how one guy can put a mile-long train together by himself using a remote control beltpac.
I learn about the different types of cars: hoppers, flatbeds and gondolas. We even stage a scene from the play so I can understand the basic physics behind how the cars actually attach: the big metal hooks are called ‘couplings’ and when they attach, they call it the ‘knuckle’.
The more I ask him to specify, the more I get out of him.
What the fuck is an S&C box?
The biggest challenge comes when he tries to elucidate the systematic procedures of the ‘Signals and Communications Dept.’ or S&C box, which is his current placement. He is a signalman, stationed in a small box or bungalow somewhere along the endless miles of track. The S&C box stores a multitude of current relays, a rectifier that converts alternate current (AC) to direct current (DC) and a bank of batteries.
It took Ridsy almost 13 years to learn how to operate this highly sophisticated control system, forgive me if I can’t go too deeply into it here.
Uncle Ridsy and the poem
My next set of questions pertain specifically to excerpts from the script. For this to work, poor Ridsy has to interpret the script’s poetic description of the signalman job:
“I tried to write freelance but they offered me steady money, tied to the nexus of ten thousand steel roads, calibrating signals: it’s a little glass box with a solenoid coil and when you run a current through it, it pushes against a spring and makes a connection: electric violence, caged, a thunderbolt bent double.”Boy do we ever sweat with this one. Uncle Ridsy fights like a pitbull trying to decipher this poem and the whole system for me. He’s madly scribbling diagrams all over my notebook and his phone bill. When we finally reach a slight level of satisfaction, he says, “Steak’s ready!”
We eat, drink, listen to some more fine music then cab down to Scott’s Corner Pub for a nightcap.
A broken knuckle
The next day Ridsy takes me on a all-access tour of the railyard.
I’m playing with all these 25 lb. tools and get a tour of an actual S&C box, at which point Uncle Ridsy gets all worked up again trying to explain the details of the various switches and levers. Then he shows me the car attachment devices: the coupling, hot shot and knuckle. It makes me think of a particularly grisly scene from the play . . . holy shit!
As we’re driving out, I see a broken knuckle on the ground.
“Stop,” I say, “I wanna grab that. That’d be perfect for the set!”
“Dude, it’ll rip through my fuckin’ car!” Uncle Ridsy says. “Weighs about 400 lb.!”
Are you on the bus or are you off the bus?
Ridsdale, Melissa and I top off the trip with dinner at a Vietnamese-Thai fusion place. I climb on the 8:30 pm Greyhound with a belly full of pad thai and pass out. It was 30 hours well spent.
As an actor trying to understand the inner workings of the Canadian rail system for a part, this trip to London helped immensely. It gives me insight into what the characters in the play are talking about and what they’re going through.
I’m sure Andrew Zadel would have been happy to fill in the blanks, but – you’ve heard – our playwright’s in the Congo.
Andrew. Come back. Your play misses you.