The stoker - By Mizeta Moon

A belching smokestack filling the sky with coal smoke was the center of his world for years as he stoked roaring furnaces smelting ore into steel. His back was strong, and his arms bulged with muscles capable of scooping shovelfuls for hours without tiring. Sweat dripping from his brow as he fed the inferno was a symbol of the pride he took in his work. Lately however, what started as a sudden urge had become an increasing desire for change. Consequently, one payday morning he told the bossman he wouldn’t return as he’d made up his mind the night before that it was time to move on. Midday found him bidding adieu to his landlady and packing his few belongings into a sturdy valise and a canvas duffel. Evening came while he stood on a wooden platform waiting for a train. As the wheels clattered through the night, he slumbered on a bench in the third class car.

When he reached St. Louis, he treated himself to a hearty meal and a pint of whiskey before going round to the hiring hall. Aimless drifting would deplete his resources so working his way along his new path was mandatory. There was ample work for a physically strong man such as he. Barge loader, deckhand, warehouseman, or stoker on a paddle wheeler plying the Mississippi. There was also an opening as a fireman on the railroad if he wanted to go west. Life going up and down the river seemed to be yet another routine existence so he applied at the switching yards and was hired immediately.

The world became fascinating as he stoked the fires of a huffing beast surging through pristine grasslands, stately forests, and seemingly endless plains. The rhythm of his shovel merged with the hisses, roars, and steel on steel screeches into a symphony that filled his soul with joy. Idle moments found him clinging to the guard rail, watching their ascent over rolling hills, or crossing rivers on trestles built by similar men, toiling to build a nation. Omaha Nebraska was the hub for trains turning south into desert lands or continuing west into the mountains. He had a week to decide during a layover that found him resting rather than cavorting with gamblers and whores who were ubiquitous at every stop along the way. Saving money would afford him a better life wherever he ultimately landed.

The siren song of the west kept calling. Answering its enticement led to him experiencing the splendor of Oregon’s high desert before steaming into the absolute majesty of the Cascades and the Columbia Gorge. Snowcapped peaks rising into cerulean skies. Evergreens waving in the wind. Herds of elk observing their passing with little concern. Indians using fishing wheels to harvest glistening salmon from the broad shouldered river. His excitement rose as he began to realize this land could become his home. Rock climbing could be fun. Boating on silvery lakes. Hiking trails on misty mornings where moss and ferns created a special magic. The smell of wet bark, leaves, and flowers blending into a perfume to stimulate the senses.

For the next few years he was stationed in Portland. Traveling to the spectacular coast and the boundless beauty of the ocean, hauling lumber through the lush Willamette valley, and occasionally going long haul back to Omaha. Though the work was hard he relished every moment as something wonderful lay around every bend. His free time was spent exploring any twisting lane or footpath that beckoned or drinking beer with fellow pioneers. When it came time to retire, he was financially comfortable so he bought a small house in Hood River next to the tracks with a view of the river. There, he could sit on his porch, listening to the transition from steam to electric and diesel locomotives while hawks and eagles soared and the unceasing Columbia carved its path to the sea. When he died, the townsfolk buried him on a hill overlooking the town to give him an eternal view of the beauty he cherished. It was just reward for his labor.              

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