December 2, 2017– our wedding day.
Mel, our photographer, was taking shots of us at the depot, when we heard the blast of a train horn. We had hoped a train would come and had seen one sitting down the track. Now we knew it was coming towards us.
We hurried in our finery down to the platform beside the tracks. As the train roared up, Mel’s lens caught us standing together and the conductor in the back ground. He opened his window and thrust his arms out with a thumbs up. As the engine thumped closer, we leaned closer and kissed and the horn on Engine 6983 blasted across Elkhart in celebration. As the train thundered by, the conductor leaned his head out, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted his congratulations.
“Look at this!” Mel said as the train continued to clatter past.
How neat would it be to find the conductor whose shadowy form filled the open window!
“What if he’s creepy?” someone asked. But I felt sure that someone who celebrated a random wedding would be a pleasant person.
I called and messaged Norfolk Southern. I called and emailed the Elkhart train yard. Both said they could not help me. Friends who knew railroad people thought they could help but to no avail. Other friends tagged experts they were sure could solve the mystery. Everyone wished us luck, and I heard that the photo circulated at the trainyard. But no one recognized the man in the window.
“Did you ever find the conductor?” Nettie asked us the night I enjoyed her angel food cake.
“No,” I sighed. “I ran out of leads. Different people thought they could help, but then they told me it was too far back to access the records.”
One day when Marnell and I were out driving together, we stopped at the toy train shop. Perhaps? But the owner was baffled as well.
“You might try an online forum,” he said.
Well, I didn’t know where to look for a forum, but one evening last week when I was home alone, I began to investigate. My searching lead me to Trains magazine, and then to their Facebook page with 81,000 followers. I sent a message to them, with the photo, and a description of the mystery.
The next morning, I received a skeptical reply. It’s a long shot, they said, but go ahead and post it on our page.
I posted it, but as a visitor to the page, my post dropped into an obscure back page of guest posts which hardly anyone seemed to notice. Still I replied to the magazine and told them that I had posted it.
About five minutes later I received a message from Trains. They had posted it, they said, to their main page.
This was progress. Throughout the day, I checked the post. People commented on it, liked it, and shared it. A few people tagged other people, just as they had done in the spring when I posted it on my personal page. Someone said that my use of the word “conductor” was funny. Another person expressed gratitude that the distracted couple was not standing ON the tracks. Still another said of the conductor on the photo: What’s he yelling, “I’ll slow down, hop on fast, it’s your last chance….”
By late afternoon, it had been shared perhaps 40 times and received a couple of hundred likes. But it was beginning to feel sadly familiar. People thought it was interesting. People wished us success. People thought they knew people who might know.
But no one knew.
Then, I found a brief comment with a name: Brett Fisher.
Do you mean that’s the name of the conductor? I asked, and the person said, yes.
About that time I noticed I had missed a Facebook message request from Chris Seyer. He was an engineer with Norfolk Southern. He had seen the Trains magazine story. He had searched the old records.
And he had found the unfindable information! His name was, per the records, Brett Fisher, and the train had been traveling to Peru, Indiana.
I searched “Brett Fisher” and “Norfolk Southern” on Facebook and found a match. A man named Brett Fisher from Knox, Indiana had posted a Norfolk Southern job opportunity in 2016. Marnell agreed that it seemed like a good possibility that he was the man, so I sent him a message with the photo.
“That is most definitely me,” he said.
Marnell and I congratulated each other on finally finding him. I planned how I would send him a photo and write a blog.
But, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be so much better to give him the photo in person? I had always hoped if we found the conductor that we could also meet him.
I wasn’t sure that Marnell would agree, since we were in the throes of preparing for VBS and a long trip to Pickle Lake. However, I asked him anyway.
“Maybe,” I said, “I could send him a message and see if he’s home on Sunday. Then we could go see him before or after church Sunday night?”
To my relief, Marnell was interested as well. (I guess I shouldn’t have worried that he would be opposed to meeting someone new.)
I sent Brett a message and he was interested too!
He would work until 6 that day he said, and then go to church, but we were welcome to come to church with him or meet him after that.
With the change in time zones, we decided to go to our own service and then drive to Knox.
We met at Brett’s church and got him to sign his name on our photo, as well as giving him a photo. Brett then invited us in to his table (meaning one of the ones he normally frequents), a place called Christo’s which made soups from scratch.
He told us the difference between a conductor and an engineer, and how you could become an engineer. He told us how some of the older engineers have hearing problems from the long years on the railroad, and about the tiny box-like bathrooms in the nose of the engines, cold in winter and hot in summer and not always clean. He told us about throwing switches by hand, and putting a train together.
“Sometimes the train is all put together and we just get on and go. Other times we get there and they tell us, ‘your train is on this track, this track, and this track, and your engines are over here.'”
As I ate lemon rice soup and brownie sundae (both exceptional!) courtesy of the conductor, he told us about the sunset over Sandusky Bay on the way to Cleaveland. He told us about seeing 14 bald eagles on one trip and watching a bald eagle fly with the train. He told us about the tracks close to Cleveland that are the same ones they used to take President Lincoln’s body around the country after he was shot.
He told us about winter and “cutting the ice” with a 200,000 pound engine, and having it lift off the track because it wasn’t heavy enough. He told us about rail cars on fresh snow, so silent he had almost been hit by one. He told about trains one to two miles long backed up on the track, waiting to enter the Elkhart rail yard and stopping road traffic because they didn’t fit between the crossings. He told us how all the cars brake automatically if an air hose breaks, and how he has to walk the train to find the broken hose, walking on the slanted, rocky side. He told us how train hitchhikers climb into box cars and coal cars for a free ride and then flip valves so the train will stop and they can get off.
“We see a lot of strange things,” Brett told us. “We literally get paid to look out the window. On your wedding day, we were waiting for a green light. We finally got it, but we have a speed limit going around that curve, so we weren’t going too fast. Usually at the Elkhart station there are just a few Amish staring back at us. I told my engineer, ‘There’s a wedding!'”
Of course, Brett had no idea we had been searching for him. But before I sent him the message, he had received a phone call. Chris Seyer, the engineer who had “found the unfindable”, contacted Brett’s union representative, who in turn had contacted Brett, with a crazy question:
Had he seen a wedding on December 2 in Elkhart when he was on Engine 6983?
Yes, he had, and he remembered it quite well! He remembered hoping he didn’t ruin it for those people! What if they were waiting for two hours for the perfect picture and then he messed it up by opening the window?
“I felt bad, and then I didn’t think anything of it until I got the message. It’s nice to be included in other people’s lives and not know it, and then know it,” said Conductor Fisher. “This was a nice memory and I’m happy to be concreted into such a momentous day for you two.”
Thanks to Mel of MG3 Photography for letting us run down the platform for a picture with the train, and for capturing a timeless shot! Thanks to Trains magazine for posting to their main page. Thanks to Engineer Chris Seyer for solving our mystery. And thanks to Conductor Brett Fisher for celebrating our wedding day!
Now for the second time, Brett Fisher is in the photo. If you come to our house, you’ll see his signature on the photo, just below the photo of himself in the conductor’s window.
As I type this, we are at the US – Canadian border. Next week I hope to update about our time in Pickle Lake.