Friday, November 30, 2012

Canadian Railroad Thrillogy

I’m on one of my periodic “I Love Canada” jags. I just picked out my Christmas present: a Saskatchewan Roughriders toque. I’m making plans to visit my wife’s aunt in Kingston, Ontario, despite the fact that she lives in a convent and I wouldn’t actually be able to see her, though I will definitely wear my Saskatchewan Roughriders toque when I go[1]. I read the Canadian news first in my Google News feed, ahead of even the latest Lindsay Lohan news borrowed from TMZ.[2]

I think one of the reasons for my latest I Love Canada jag is that I watched the Grey Cup last weekend. Everyone who sees this column on a regular basis – shout-out to Sparky, the reader who puts the “one” in “everyone” – knows I have an unhealthy love for the Canadian Football League. It’s Division I-AA pro football, stripped of the artifice and hype and pretention and inflated everything, from egos to biceps to nosebleed-section ticket prices to the stentorian tones of Kevin Harlan.

Players are getting paid relative peanuts in the CFL but it’s not the burlesque football of the arena league, and there are enough fun rule differences to make it something other than just minor-league NFL product.[3] I don’t know who decided to let just about everyone go in motion before the snap, but I’m guessing Angelo “King Kong” Mosca left the rulebook with Groucho Marx for a couple of minutes, and when he came back from pounding on Joe Kapp the section outlawing motion before the snap was gone, three timeouts a half were whittled down to one, and someone had crossed out the two-minute warning and written in “three-minute warning.”

The combination of these rules changes and the lack of eight-minute TV timeouts is exhilarating. Games move at an Oregonian pace driven by short (but dynamic) quarterbacks airing it out to shorter (but dynamic) wide receivers, everyone goes home entertained, and no one cares that the team you played this week was the team you played two weeks ago because it’s an eight-team league, a 16-game season, and the Labatt’s is relatively cheap, by Canadian standards.

The Grey Cup is especially fun. It has some of the traditions of the Stanley Cup with some of the trappings of the Super Bowl, all for the price of a bleacher seat at Petco Park, and it’s even money that three-quarters of the Grey Cup games will be played or extreme cold and/or snow.[4] 

This year’s game was the 100th Grey Cup. I shudder to think of what the United States will do when the 100th Super Bowl rolls around. Fold over itself, drool at the mouth and babble incoherently is my guess, and that's just ESPN. I'm also thinking Gussie Busch XII's head is going to explode and the remnants of Joe Buck are going to pop out.

Not so much Canada. They put out a coin and put the trophy on a train (more on that later), but basically the 100th Grey Cup meant more Mounties and more bilingual announcements – two of the necessary evils that go along with being a CFL fan.[5]

I loved the game, though. It was like Brett Favre leading the Vikings to a Super Bowl win in 2009, only without a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty in the conference final. Toronto nose tackle Adriano Belli (who looks exactly like John L. Sullivan) was ejected for putting an arm-bar on Calgary center (centre) John Gott.[6] A Don Nottingham clone named Chad Kackert had almost 200 yards in total offense[7]. Ahmad Carroll was whistled for defensive holding at a crucial point in the game. The halftime show consisted of a nearly dead Gordon Lightfoot, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber, and they booed Bieber with a sincere lustiness that American football fans would never have turned on Madonna. And the home team won.

I mention this because today’s Handful O’Landfill takes us to the exotic country of Belize, where we pay a visit to the reclusive zillionaire John MacAfee, his weapons and blue pacifier. No, we’re in Canada, looking at trains.

I love trains and I love Canada, so naturally I love Canadian trains. I spent a week on Canadian trains in my younger years, watching the Canadian Rockies pass by my bedroom window, dining on the prairie semi-al-fresco, subsisting on dried fruit and sausage, running sprints on the depot platform in Medicine Hat, steering clear of the native drunks in Prince George, B.C., hanging out of the vestibule watching the salmon run orange on the Fraser River alongside the Pacific Great Eastern tracks south of Quesnel, and coming face-to-face with an elk on a mountain trail outside of Banff.

So you can imagine how I felt in 1992 when I received a set of 76 Railfan Canada ’92 cards. Trading cards of trains? In a box? Yeah, that’s woodpulp heaven to me.

Well, no. The cards came up short of heaven – Peyton Manning short instead of Snoop Lion short, but short. They’re not a bad product taken at their face, though they do a number on the whole power-beauty-and-majesty-of-trains thing. These are the non-action photos – the head shots, if you will, only with no airbrushing. 1967 Topps Garry Roggenburk, anyone?[8]

The backs bristle with statistics: model number, horsepower, number built, number remaining, special features. That’s not a bad thing; if you’re moved enough by Canadian trains to buy 76 Railfan Canada cards, this is just the information you’re looking for. Railfan Canada resisted the urge to go all holofoil and die-cut, and the result is a better, more honest product.

A more honest product without any real market, unfortunately. Looking at the demographic requisites, the ideal buyer of Railfan Canada ’92 cards would have to love A) Canada, B) trains, and C) head shots, in that order. He would have to get off on the squiggly-lined logo of the Ontario Northland, the diamond of the Northern Alberta, and the whatzit of the Greater Winnipeg Water District.[9] He would also have to afford the $28 ($CDN) for the set.

He would have to be me, in other words. And while Railfan Canada hit the target from a marketing standpoint – I wound up with the set – selling to an audience of one isn’t exactly the pathway to the Hamptons.

As often happens, Railfan Canada ’92 cards promised the moon and delivered a Moon Pie. That’s not bad; it’s just less. But as the CFL proves, less can be quite wonderful indeed.

I mentioned this earlier, but as part of the Grey Cup's 100th anniversary the CFL put the trophy on a special train and sent it barnstorming across the country, so fans in remote locales like Kelowna and Kenora and Moose Jaw could get up-close with one of their national treasures.

I love Canada.

[1] And will consequently get beaten up by the tough old nun who bounces at the door and happens to be a Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan.
[2] And I’m constantly amazed at how little Canadian news Google has on a daily basis. Canada is the third-largest country in the world, and less news comes out of there weekly than comes out of North Korea on the half-hour -- and they're working on a 60-year news embargo. Canada's national obsession goes on strike, and the only thing Google talks about is the price of mining stocks. Maybe the entire country is under a gag order, or maybe they really are that phlegmatic.
[3] For instance, I would a thousand times rather watch the CFL than the short-lived World League of American Football. You’ve read about my experiences in getting to Wembley Stadium to see the inaugural World Bowl, but you’ve never heard my impressions of the game. Here you go: It was like a peewee hockey game after the Stanley Cup playoffs. Stan Gelbaugh moved like he was encased in gelatin and being eaten by a wasp.
[4] Which is why the league’s two most temperate cities, Vancouver and Toronto, play in domes.
[5] Among the others: Extra points are “converts,” touchdowns are “major scores,” defense is “defence,” and Ahmad Carroll is still allowed to play despite grabbing heaping handfuls of CFL jersey on every freaking pass.
[6] Hey, John L. would have arm-barred the dude, too.
[7] Or “offence,” as they put it up there.
[8] I can totally relate to the whole head-shot train-shot thing. My brother takes pictures of trains obsessively, and has for 40 years, and because he’s an engineer and not an artist, the less motion the better. He has dragged me through countless shabby quasi-industrial neighborhoods, past the unmarked warehouses of the Russian Mafia, down innumerable oily roads paved with the ground-up bones of Teamsters, and past scores of “We Shoot Trespassers” signs so he could take pictures of grimy, stationary diesel-powered boxes, knowing full well he could have hung out in some better (or at least more scenic) environ and seen it roll past 15 minutes hence. His (pre-digital) slide library exceeds 20,000, so that’s a whole lot of talking to railroad detectives that smell like creosote. I always thought shooting trains when they weren’t moving was cheating, like tackling the quarterback while he’s standing on the sidelines.

[9] Did I mention I wrote to all these railroads when I was about 14, asking for whatever free stuff they wanted to send me – and they all ponied up? In case I haven’t said this before, thank you, Greater Winnipeg Water District. May all your pipes forever run free.

1 comment:

  1. interesting post - I actually have the complete sets of Railfan 92, Railfan 93 and Railfan 94. Well almost - It seems I am missing card #1 from all sets of 76. So I am left to wonder if they made one? Or perhaps it is a chacklist of some kind? If you have a card #1 from your set I would sure like to see it :) thanks