Stairs fascinated me. From my earliest memories, I loved to climb stairs, and was one of those kids to whom property and ownership didn’t mean a thing. If stairs were there, I climbed up them. Nobody stopped me, because it wasn’t often that I found any stairs to climb. Our house didn’t have stairs, and neither did the homes of any of my friends.
I clearly remember one time before I started school, when I was at a railway station with Mum, waiting for a train. In those days there was a signal box at most stations, manned by a signalman, who had to climb this long flight of stairs to reach the room where the levers were, and to change them as required so that the trains ran on the right tracks. The spectacular view he enjoyed from this vantage point appealed to me, but the idea of confronting the man did not.
On this particular day, I was climbing up those stairs, but only the first dozen or so. I had no wish to encounter the signalman. Mum told me to go right to the top and talk to the man. Oh no! I wasn’t about to do any such thing! Climbing stairs was one thing, encountering somebody at the top was not on my agenda.
Suddenly the door to the highly-elevated room opened, and there was the signalman, dressed in his Railway uniform of black trousers and jacket and cap, and there was this little terrified brat near the bottom of the stairs, inching her way backwards down them. The signalman was an improvement on most of the men I had come across before. He actually smiled at me and invited me to come up and view his signal box. I looked at Mum and she was smiling too, and telling me to “go on!”
I got up those stairs in record time, and entered the magic room that was full of big metal levers, some facing one way and some another. You could see for miles up there. I was totally enraptured, and it got even better when the signalman had to change something, and he thrust one of the levers from its current position to face the other way. I wanted him to change some others, but apparently that would result in a disaster. The signalman explained to me that if he moved any other levers, it might derail the train.
I knew about trains being derailed. Trains were a part of my childhood, my father was an engine driver, and even at a young age I knew better than to wish a derailment on anyone.
In hindsight, I don’t believe the signalman had any business letting a child into the signal box. Engine drivers also had no business letting kids ride in the engine, but most of them did. I never rode in the engine of my father’s train. I was much older than four years before I summoned up the courage to get in an engine, and by that time my father had left the Railways.
The other area of the Railways that provided something for me to climb was the water tower. This was a very tall structure from which the engine driver and his fireman had to fill the engine tanks with water to create the steam that drove the engine. Most of the local kids climbed up that long ladder sooner or later. I climbed up it when I was about 8, and it was really scary looking down to the ground from that height. When the steam trains were phased out in favour of diesel-powered trains, the water towers went too.
I don’t have any photos of either water towers or signal boxes, so I found a picture of each on the internet, both New Zealand pictures, which closely resemble the ones from my childhood. I think it’s fair to say that these structures appeared much larger when viewed through a child’s eyes than they would if I could see them today.