When I was a child, I knew a man named Johnny Blidburgh. In the mid-1960s, he was the track patrolman on the Curry to Gold Creek section. He lived at Curry House, which was where the freight crews would stop for dinner or to overnight when they went dead. (“Going dead” means that the worker has reached his mandatory rest period after working 11 hours and 59 minutes.) Curry House had a cook then named Phoebe. I wish I had a photo of Phoebe…and most of all, I wish that I had a photo of Johnny.
Johnny Blidburgh was a confirmed bachelor and a bit of a misogynist, but none of that mattered, because he was also one of the finest people I have ever known. He had a gift for storytelling, wild, sandy hair and a smile that lit up the house…and when he smiled, his blue eyes would twinkle like the North Star. When he was young, he had visited Australia and talked about that at every possible opportunity. I think that he had loved a woman as well, and that she had shattered his heart. He always had a wistful sadness about him that lurked behind those twinkling blue eyes…but he never talked about Her, not really. I knew, though…I could tell, even though I was only about seven years old when we first met Johnny.
Phoebe (the cook at Curry House, ten miles south of the homestead) and Johnny had an amicable war going between them. I think they both secretly liked each other, but neither would admit it. Johnny’s eating habits drove poor Phoebe right up the wall…he would mix all of his food together; salad, meat, potatoes, dessert – you name it – and Phoebe would hit the roof. She would always castigate Johnny for mixing his food like that and Johnny’s response was that it all went in the same place, didn’t it? Of course, Phoebe could never argue with that point, so Johnny nearly always won the day…but as I said, I think they really liked each other.
Our house became one of Johnny’s frequent stops on his track patrol, and whenever he could, he would set his gascar off the rails and come up to the house for coffee and to talk. How he loved to talk…I sat and listened to him for hours and hours. I adored him and he loved me (and my siblings, of course).
Then I graduated high school and went to work in Anchorage. I had heard that Johnny had had an accident with his gascar sometime between 1974-1975. The gascar had derailed, and Johnny was thrown out and dragged along the ties. He lost an eyeball and had to have a glass eye put in. It watered all the time and he was very self-conscious about it. At that time, the railroad had a mandatory retirement age, and Johnny didn’t want to retire. He was transferred down to Tunnel section and allowed to walk the tunnels to report on conditions. The tunnels are prone to ice buildup during the winter months, and the ice often freezes so thick on the tunnel walls that freight and passenger trains are unable to squeeze through. Section crews then have to go out and break the ice off the walls and lay burn barrels full of charcoal briquettes to thaw the ice on the tracks. This is a constant problem; hence the need for someone to keep an eye on tunnel conditions. Still, it was a step down from the freedom of patrolling the tracks in a gascar, and Johnny hated it – and his disability.
The last time I saw Johnny Blidburgh was that summer of 1976. I worked two jobs that summer – the first was in the office of U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, and the second was in room service at the Hilton Hotel. Johnny and I met for lunch and had a wonderful visit. He seemed to mostly be his usual self, but there was something that just wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know what it was. He did tell me about his job walking the tunnels on Tunnel section, and I knew that he didn’t like it…but I didn’t know until later that the railroad had a mandatory retirement age. All he had was his job – I don’t believe he had any living relatives. Losing his job was a blow that the couldn’t bear…but I didn’t know then what he had planned to do.
Johnny had talked about Australia for years and how much he loved it, and he would talk about the Aborigines and their ways. One of their customs is to go walkabout – to just set off on a journey, not knowing if they would ever make it back from the trip. Once he knew that the railroad wasn’t going to budge from their position of forcing him into retirement, I believe that Johnny made up his mind to go walkabout…and never return.
Of course, I didn’t know for sure what had happened to him. We heard rumors that he had in fact just gone for a hike and never returned, but no one ever knew for certain. He just disappeared, and I was left to mourn and wonder for years what had become of my dear friend.
Just yesterday I learned that my worst fears were confirmed. I belong to a Facebook group called Alaska Railroad Railfans, and I noticed a post by a man named Ed Rosek. He posted a group of photos from his time working on Tunnel section crew…so I was curious and I asked him if he knew of a man called Johnny Blidburgh. To my surprise, Ed replied that he did indeed know Johnny; in fact, they had been coworkers on Tunnel section in 1976. The conversation thread is below:
Deborah Lovel Bryner: Ed Rosek , did you ever hear tell of Johnny Blidburgh? He used to work Tunnel section, at the end of his life.About the mid-1970s.
Ed Rosek: Yes Deborah, I worked with him in 1976 when I first arrived at Tunnel section. He was older and has some deficits from a work accident. He was going to be retired by the ARR and he didn’t want to go. He came to me and told me one day–it was nice meeting me, and that he was going for a hike. It was our day off, up on the mountain. I didn’t think anything of it, though I knew he was unhappy about retiring. Well he went for a hike and we never saw him again. I don’t recall if they sent a search party or not. Ross Verco, our foreman, said he knew Johnny well, and that he went away to die. Not sure whether or not that was it, but that’s pretty much the general consensus.
Deborah Lovel Bryner: Ed, I knew him very well. He used to work at Curry as the track patrolman. He had a running war going with Phoebe, the woman who worked back then as a cook for the freight crews who had to go dead at Curry…I think they really liked each other, but Johnny loved to poke the bear. Johnny used to stop by our house at Sherman (Mile 258.3) and sit there, telling stories and drinking coffee by the gallon. He loved Australia and if I remember right, he had visited there at some point. He only loved one woman that I knew of, and I think she broke his heart quite badly. He used to say, with a twinkle in those famous blue eyes, “Women, God love ’em!” and he would shake his head. He loved all of the Lovel kids and I think I was his favorite. I adored him. I had heard the same about him as you related – that he had gone walkabout because the Railroad wanted to force him into retirement after his accident. He had been on track patrol on the Curry – Gold Creek section and his gascar derailed. Apparently he was dragged and as a result, he lost his eye, which was the reason he was sent down to Tunnel. The last time I saw him was the summer of 1976 when I was working at the Hilton in Room Service. We went to lunch and he told me stories, the way he did….and then I never saw him again. I miss him. He was one of a kind…generous, sweet, intelligent…and funny.
Dave Reintsma (another ex-railroader): Oh my god you guys bring back so many memories. I remember Johnny being pissed they were making him go. I worked at Portage then. He said he made them an offer to fix up the place at Grandview and let him stay there and he’d keep the switches clean for the winter and they said no. Frank Withey at Portage said he loved Australia and that kept him going in the winters and to keep his mind of how crazy Ross and Marcine were getting, staying in Tunnel so long. I loved that place.
Ed Rosek: Deborah, wow, that’s a wonderful and sad story.
Now I know for sure that my dear friend Johnny Blidburgh did indeed go walkabout to die. He’s dead. He’s really dead. That faint thread of hope that I nursed these past forty-two years is no more, because now I know for sure…and I mourn all over again for the loss of my friend. Johnny, I hardly knew ye…and I don’t even have a photo of you….
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, the theme of which is “Share a photo and the story behind it.” As always, FTSF is hosted by the ever-amazing Kristi Rieger Campbell of Finding Ninee (https://findingninee.com/), and the lovely Kenya Johnson of Sporadically Yours (https://www.kenyagjohnson.com/).