(top) the infamous hallway; note the fine drywall work on the left, and instructors Jim and Bill preparing to drag me back to class (inset) Cowboy Curte' (bottom) headed for the classroom; the G.M.'s office is on the second floor, left of the stairs; the building's roof collapsed in a snowstorm some years later

A Close Call at Wilmington

How my drywall skills saved Cowboy Curte's (and my own) job

One of my most fondly-remembered characters in my railroad career was “Cowboy Curte’ “, otherwise known as Curtis Staggs. I haven’t seen him since 1994, but still consider him a great friend.

I first struck up a conversation with him in Carrizozo, New Mexico SP ‘modules’ (company housing) in 1984. I soon found that he had almost gone to the Olympics as a boxer (losing the deciding match in a split decision); liked to drink as much as I; had a way with women that I (thankfully, in retrospect) lacked.

Curt and I spent many idle hour together in Ruidoso, east of Carrizozo, nearly passed out under a particular pool table in our favorite bar - sort of our own private cocktail lounge. Invariably at the conclusion of the nights activities, I and whomever else was along for the ride, would have to wait in the away-from-home-community-car while Curte’ crooned his goodnight to the woman (always gorgeous) whom he had attracted for the evening.

Fast-forwarding to 1992: After being away from the biz for six years, I hired out as a trainman with Amtrak, working on Caltrain, with the understanding that they’d make me an engineer ASAP. Who should I immediately run into? Curtis Staggs.

In the subsequent months, I frequently worked with him, which involved several trips to the carpet to explain to the boss that I had no idea why such-and-such female passenger was complaining about Curte'. In one memorable off-duty moment when we were dressed in our generic-transporation-looking Caltrain uniforms, Curt and I loudly pretended to be airline pilots so that he could impress the gal sitting at the bar next to him. Curt: Remember that time when we lost two engines over the Grand Canyon? Me: Jesus, how could I forget? Our 747 was below the canyon rim before we finally managed to pull-up! The guy next to me, who had spotted our Amtrak lapel pins, darn-near choked from laughing.

When Amtrak came through with my trip to engineer training in Wilmington, Delaware, Curte’ accompanied me. One night, at probably the only cowboy bar in Delaware, I idly asked how he managed to attract women so easily. Having a baby-face smile and a slow western drawl helped, but he had a special gift that I (thank the gods) lacked. Curte': Well Stud, the secret is to, first-off, touch a woman's nose... and he continued with a lenghthy discussion of theory and technique, concluding with a live demonstration that had four waitressses hovering around him - and totally ignoring me - in short order. I am not making this up.

One morning in engineer’s class, the instructor, Jim (I wish that I could remember his last name), decided to take us on a field trip downstairs, where an Amfleet car was parked, to go over some of the finer points of passenger car brakes, and such. Curt and I lingered in the upstairs hallway, heatedly engaged in a thumb-wrestling match.We had started the thumb-wrestling thing a few months before, and I had won the last sixteen contests in a row. Apparently all of those blows to his head in his boxing days had slowed him down. BAM! I nailed him again, and adding insult-to-injury, I was holding a cup of coffee in my other hand. This was more than Curt could take, and he summarily proceeded to give me a quite-unexpected shove, spilling my coffee. I gave him a massive response in kind, knocking him into, and partly through, the wall that separated us from the office of the general manager of the Wilmington electric locomotive shops (no small facility).

We quickly elected to join our group in the Amfleet car, but not soon enough. The G.M. launched himself out his door to deliver the inevitable what in the hell is going on and get the hell out of here!

Well, I thought that Curt and I had bought a train ticket home. We skulked down to the group, where I way-layed Jim with, “Jim, I think we have a problem.” I then proceeded to explain that Curtis Staggs had created a large divot in the wall. Now, at this juncture, I had Jim scored as a goody-goody Nazi, him formerly being a Marine and a SEPTA manager, and all. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The first thing out of his mouth was, “Did anyone see you?”

Jim, and our lead instructor, Bill Morecraft, later smoothed things out with the G.M. to the extent that he allowed me to come in and offer an apology. In the process of said mia culpa, I related that I was a pretty good drywall man and offered that I would be glad to fix our trespass, plus about fifty years-worth of other dings, in that ancient Pennsylvania Railroad hallway. The G.M. turned out to be an alright guy, and allowed that he should cut us some slack, since we had been away from our families for nearly six weeks. A few years later, the building's roof collapsed in a snowstorm, I was told.

Following simulator (a lawn chair and control stand located in front of a blurry, small TV screen) training at the Chicago Institute of Technology, Curte’ went to work running trains in Oakland, soon matriculating back to Southern Pacific, and I returned to Caltrain in San Jose, where I retired many years later, never to hear from him again. Where are you, Cowboy?

A Sad Postscript

Lately, I have found the sad answer to the above question: Cowboy Curte' is with the angels. Shortly after I wrote this piece, somebody forwarded a rumor to me that Curt was ill with cancer, but I was unable to track him down. He passed away in 2013.

- E. O. Gibson, 8-27-2018

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