In Railroading, A 'Highball' Means You're Good To Go
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We end this hour with our latest bit of Trade Lingo. We've asked you to send us terms of the trade - interesting phrases or expressions from your line of work. And today we'll hear from Jerry Murry of Santa Rosa, California. A longtime railroad man with Southern Pacific; he retired after 31 years - mostly on the clerical side. He told me his first job with the railroad in 1965 was as a mud hop, walking the rails, verifying the train cars.
Do you remember what your starting pay was?
JERRY MURRY: Oh, yeah. It was a whopping big $1.45 an hour.
BLOCK: And Jerry Murry told me about one of his favorite words from the tracks.
MURRY: Highball is one word.
BLOCK: And what's highball in the world of railroading?
MURRY: I'm sure, you know, like, I've been gone since 1994. But I would bet my next pension check that highball is still used every day. What it means is the train is authorized to leave the station.
BLOCK: And what does it come from?
MURRY: You know if you Google it, you get two different definitions. But one doesn't make any sense at all. The one that I was told - and I'm assuming is the correct one - is that back in the 1800s, prior to the time of electricity and radios and whatnot, you had to get a signal to the engineer that he's OK to leave. And they had a telegrapher at both ends. And his job was of course to give the authorization to leave and give them their paperwork and whatever they needed. When the trainmaster or yardmaster said it's OK for that train to leave now - there was a big red ball that on kind of like a flagpole - and he would run that ball up and they could see it from even, you know, half-a-mile, quarter-mile away. So when they raised the red ball up into the sky, that was called the highball. And he was able to leave at that time.
BLOCK: So that would be your signal?
MURRY: Yep. If you're listening in on a train conversation with the scanner, that's what you'll hear. You'll hear extra 86-56, highball your train. And that means you can leave town and feel fairly safe about it.
BLOCK: Fairly safe.
BLOCK: Would you ever say, like, I'm waiting on a highball?
MURRY: I've never heard that. Some have told me - and I don't have any proof of this, but someone told me that the highball drink was named after that, and that was why the early models of the highball would have a cherry in them.
BLOCK: Could be.
MURRY: I don't know if that's true or not. That's just what I was told by the old-timers when I hired out.
BLOCK: It's a pretty good story.
MURRY: (Laughter) I like it.
BLOCK: (Laughter) Why not make it true, right?
MURRY: Yeah, right.
BLOCK: Well, Jerry Murry, thanks so much for talking to us with your Trade Lingo today.
MURRY: I was glad to do it. It was a pleasure talking to you.
BLOCK: That's Jerry Murry, retired railroad man from Santa Rosa, California. We've heard from a lot of you with Trade Lingo. And we'd love to get some more. You can reach us on Twitter and Facebook. We're @NPRATC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.