Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Doc Watson in Travel Town

It’s funny what things your memory may log in without asking your permission. For example, in mine there’s a mental snapshot of Doc Watson laying his hands on the driving wheel of a huge old locomotive in an outdoor museum in Los Angles. It reminds me of a teenager caressing a muscle car.

This was 1964 or 1965, and we were in Travel Town, in Griffith Park, where they display twenty or so steam and electric engines, cabooses, rolling stock, tenders and other things railroad. I knew squat about these items, but Doc quickly found his way to the biggest locomotive there. Please do not ask me how. Feel? Radar? You tell me.

Anyway, there he was, feeling two huge driving wheels all over, shaking his head like he was doubting what his touch was telling him. “My God, son, these-un’s are almost six foot eight inches in diameter,” he said, with the middle-distance gaze that told you he was concentrating. He patted and poked around in the wheel’s housing pretty carefully for several minutes, occasionally stopping and standing very still, as if listening for a very, very quiet sound, e.g., the sound of yourself thinking. Then, suddenly, he took off on a walk-around of the Gargantua, feeling, gauging, arm-spanning, with me in tow, trying to “process” what he’d already dumbed down for me.

“See, son, the smaller the wheels, the more low-end torque you got, like first gear in a car. Good for hauling freight and going over hills, but you’ll never have much top-end speed. With bigger wheels you’re gonna have less power in your lower rpm’s─that’s revolutions per minute, Al─”

“I know. Thanks a lot.”

“Just checkin’ son─but the train’ll go like grease through a goose, especially on the flats, so you can get your passengers there on time. Y’all don’t want to disappoint your passengers, now, do you?”

Omigod, a quiz already? I thought. “Um, no, I sure don’t,” I said.

We slowed down as we reached the big driving wheels at the rear of the engine. Doc felt around for the iron steps you climb to get to the engineer’s cab, pulled himself up and motioned me to follow. I knew I was in for a crash course in railroading. It’s all good. Doc Watson’s nothing if not a great entertainer, even to a crowd of one.

It didn’t daunt him a bit that most of the neat things on an control panel had been stripped long ago.

“These gauges here,” he said, touching a couple of small protruding iron arms, “mighta told the engineer how big a head o’ steam he had right then, and how much he could expect to have in about half a minute. Then he’d of yelled something to the fireman, who would have been in the cab with him, and maybe he have yelled something to the guys actually stoking the fire. Or he might have taken over for the engineer for a little while so the engineer could take a break. That was part of the fireman’s job, y’see.” All the time he was moving around the cab, at least looking like he knew what he was doing. He could have fooled me.

We climbed down from the cab and finished our walk-around of the rest of the train, inspecting the tender, a passenger car and the caboose.

When I had a chance I looked at some of the signs they had at each exhibit, and, no surprise, Doc would have answered almost all the questions in the “Iron Horses of the Something or Other” category on Jeopardy if he’d have been asked them.

“You hungry, Al?” he said as we walked back to car.

“Always,” I said.

There’s a short cobbled strip of open-air shops in downtown Los Angeles, Olvera Street, a little bit of old Mexico (yeah, right), but surprisingly charming and fun, even for non-tourists. It’s really not that far from Travel Town if you know the right freeways to take. I didn’t, at least on that day, and we got there about 45 minutes later. We were both hungry, and under that kind of pressure we got a dozen taquitos chili verde between us. Delicious, but a bad idea, since Doc was trying to lose an ulcer, a bitch on the road. He would pay later, though ultimately he was able to make peace with his stomach in a famous delicatessen in the Jewish section of town, but later for that.

In the meantime, the taquito fallout would take a couple of hours to set in, and we went to the bandstand at one end of the street, which is why I wanted to go downtown in the first place.

The bandstand in the Plaza de Los Angeles (supposedly the birthplace of the city) is pretty big and has, what I thought at the time, unique acoustic properties that Doc might have found interesting, if they really were unique. The covered part of the bandstand has posts that if you face them and whisper another person facing a post directly opposite the first one can hear perfectly clearly, even though the whisperer and whisperee are fifty feet away from each other. It was creepy but cool and I figured Doc would nut out over it, given his interest in and curiosity about natural phenomena.

But, in fact, the effect was not one-of-a-kind, and Doc was almost successful in convincing me hadn’t ever seen (he used the words “see” or “seen” the same way sighted people did) it before. Once he decided I wasn’t hurt by not being the first person to show it to him, he explained how it worked. Fascinating, but, in fact, I was a little hurt. Doc and I had an intimate relationship. It always thrilled me a little to present him with something that, well, thrilled him, and this time I didn’t come up to snuff. But I got over it. It’s all good. We went back to my house, the place he was staying at for the week he was in L.A. and played railroad songs until the taquitos made their comeback in Doc’s duodenum.

One-liner notes:

Gene Bensen, co-leader of the Bensen-Scott Big Band, to his lead alto man,  who’d just taken a breathtakingly fast 48-bar solo: “Listen, pal, I hope you don’t think you’re getting paid by the note.”

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