My parents were dairy farmers at Crediton (Eungella) on the great dividing range west of Mackay Queensland and moved into the Mackay township in 1955 after my father suffered a horse accident during a cyclone when herding ion the milking cows. His story can be read in his diaries held on both our site and the Mackay library.
On one occasion I recall welcoming friends off the Sunlander passenger train at Mackay Railway Station and watching this beautiful gleaming blue and white diesel engine pull to a stop and my heart was sold. I recall at primary school at North Mackay State loving the page in the text book where the Sunlander was pictured.
When our family relocated to Canberra in 1960 and settled there, mainly to give their kids the best education they could provide, I dreamed of becoming as train driver and although my heart was set on it, my mother required of me to do a trade or continue on at school. There was much disharmony.
Finally my father stepped into this ongoing tussle and said to give the lad his heart, and so I relocated to Goulburn in July 1967 at sixteen and a half, to commence as a trainee engineman on the New South Wales Government Railways in the Roundhouse. My parents drove me to Goulburn on the Sunday and we found a boarding house and in that boarding house was a senior fireman Terry Ryan, who years later became my Best Man.
The duties of a trainee engineman in the roundhosue was whatever the Head Cleaner gave each person (the trainee enginemen) to do. This included operating the turn table, allowing the locomotives, both steam and diesel in and out of their 'roads' in the roundhouse. It meant cleaning the cabins of the locomotives along with going in to the engine pits and oiling the rod spots.
It mean cleaning the headlights, even cleaning the external panels of the diesels, walking the length of the incoming and outgoing lines, picking up rubbish, and one of the most important jobs, assisting the head Shed Fireman refuelling the diesels. Filling the steam engine tenders with coal lay with specific people further away from the roundhouse.
The age start to attend the Acting Fireman's School was seventeen and a half, and the following school after May 1968 I attended in Goulburn learning the Safe Working procedures for when breakdowns occur, the rail signals, and the practical aspects of both steam and diesel preparation. It happened that I did well at the Acting Fireman School and the inspector noted how very keen I was. Yes, that was true! I loved it.
First steam trip
So it was that after the Acting Fireman School each of the trainee engineman having passed the qualifying examination, had two weeks experience out on the road, and the first of these was with the inspector accompanying the new lad on the trip.
My first trip was on a 36 Class 'pig' steam engine running from Goulburn to Moss Vale early evening and first preparing the engine from the round house. The preparation work for the 36 class steam engine was as I'd done many times before, we ran out of the depot and down to the South Yard where we attached to our all station stop freighter.
Off we went, out of the South Yard, through Goulburn station platform, and off on my first steam engine journey. As the driver sat on the left of the locomotive cabin, the fireman fired left handed from the right side of the cabin, one foot on the engine and one foot on the tender wagon. Balancing became a bit of a learnt art.
Once the fire had set, the fireman (that was me) kept an eye on it along with the level of water in the water gauge keeping that topped up as the steam was generated from the heat to the boiler. Running along wasn't that difficult, I kept the coal up to the fire, carefully placing the coal from one corner of the fire box to the other and to the far end of the fire box. The fire box door was closed unless firing and this was controlled by a foot press, so it became the norm to gather the coal on the shovel, then the fire box door foot press (which opened the fire box door) and there upon placing the coal where needed for the fire spread.
We shunted at every siding along the way and finally reached Moss Vale at 9.30pm in the evening, where we stowed the engine for the next crew to take over taking another train back to Goulburn later that evening. I was a steam engine fireman. I under stood the rudiments of keeping a fire up an d maintaining the water in the boiler by turning on and off the injector.
Then it the barracks for a well deserved sleep that night after a shower, some supper and a snack from the tucker box. The next morning, Day 2, we were awoken by the 'call boy' to work a train back to Goulburn so after a hearty breakfast from the tucker box, we found ourselves on another all stop freighter and this time our engine was a 42 Class diesel.
I had experienced my test by fire with the 36 Class steam engine. This reminds the Footplate Padre that the Scriptures speak of this same Test of Fire in our lives as we're challenged by the Gospel message when facing difficult questions in our lives. These are often moral questions, ethical questions, practical questions and every day questions.
How we handle those issues as followers of Christ becomes the test of fire.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html