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Held for Orders by Frank H. Spearman
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Held for Orders (1901)

by Frank H. Spearman

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Frank Spearman (1859-1936) was a western Nebraska banker whose clientele included a large percentage of railroad employees. According to Johnson and Hazlitt (Short Lines: A collection of Classic American Railroad Stories) Spearman had "a gift for listening and near-perfect recall" and many of his short stories were based on conversations he had with his clients. He published four books - two short story collections (The Nerve of Foley - 1901, Held for Orders - 1901) and two novels (The Daughter of a Magnate - 1903, and Whispering Smith - 1906). Whispering Smith was made into a movie (twice 1915 and again in 1926).

Held for Orders - Tales of Railroad Life is the second of his two short story collections. The titles of the stories carry the theme of the subtitle. The Switchman's Story (Shockley), The Wiper's Story (How McGrath got an Engine), The Roadmaster's Story (The Spider Water), The Striker's Story (McTerza), The Despatcher's Story (The Last Order), The Nightman's Story (Bullhead), The Master Mechanic's Story (Delaroo), The Operator's Story (De Molay Four), The Trainmaster's Story (Of the Old Guard), and The Yellow Mail Story (Jimmy the Wind). The last, too, was made into a movie in 1927.

Each of the stories focuses on the adventures/misadventures of an individual in a certain situation. Shockley is a switchman with a past and a strong sense of right and wrong, McGrath an engine wiper confronted with a near suicidal situation, Hailey the Roadmaster fighting to bridge an unbridgeable river.. and so on. If you have ever read a good first person account of working on the railroad (Brownie the Boomer, Railroadman, Boomer, etc.) you can't help but notice how the dialogue, word pictures, and stories ring true. Like the horse racing scenes in the books by Dick Francis it is evident that many of the events in Spearman's stories are adaptations of events described to him by his clientele. Each story is different and all are well crafted and fast paced.

In addition to providing vivid word pictures Spearman also shares Tom Clancy's ability to give you the sense of an individual's worth/background/reason for being with a minimum expenditure of words on the page. A good example is his description of Shockley's first day on the job. " While [Callahan] stood at the window he...saw the new yard master flirt his hand at the engineer, and swing up on the footboard. But the swing - it made Callahan's heart warm to him. Not the lubberly jump of the hoboes that had worried the life out of him all summer, even when the cattlemen didn't bother. It was the swing of the sailor into the shrouds, of the Cossack into the saddle, of the yacht into the wind. It was like falling down or falling up or falling on - the grace of a mastery of gravitation - that was Shockley's swing on the footboard of the yard engine as it shot snorting past him. "He's all right," muttered Callahan. It was enough."

I've read all of Spearman's works. I think his forte is the short story and I think Held for Orders is simply the best collection of railroad fiction I've ever read. If you enjoy fiction I would highly recommend this book for your consideration. ( )
  alco261 | Aug 27, 2010 |
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He's rather a bad lot, I guess,"wrote Bucks to Callahan, "but I am satisfied of one thing-you can't run that yard with a Sunday-school superintendent.
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"If there was confusion on the runaway train, there was terror and more below it. As the spectre flitted past Pringle station, five miles down the valley, the agent caught a glimpse of the sallow face of the wiper at the cab window, and saw the drivers whirling backward. He rushed to his key and called the Medicine Bend despatcher. With a tattoo like a drum-roll the despatcher in turn called Soda Springs, ten miles blow Pringle, where Number Sixteen, the up-passenger, was then due. He rattled on with his heart in his fingers, and answer came on the instant. Then an order flashed into Soda Springs; ***To No. 16*** Take Soda Springs siding quick. ***Extra 240 West has lost control of the train.*** DI.*** There never was such a bubbling at Soda Springs as that bubbling. The operator tore up the platform like a hawk in a chicken yard. Men never scattered so quick as when Number Sixteen began screaming and wheezing and backing for the clear."
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