“Do you have a penny from the years when you were a boy?” Mark asked Dan as he placed two coffee drinks and doughnuts on the table.
The tall man shook his head. “I don’t keep a lot of pennies,” he admitted.
All the same, he reached for his wallet in the inside pocket of his red and white coat, and to his surprise, a single penny—Copper—tumbled out amidst other money.
“You’re in luck.” He turned Copper over to Mark, who held it to the light to read the year of its production. It was not as old as the man.
Dan removed the lid on his cup. The red baseball cap he was wearing backwards gave him a more youthful appearance than his sixty-something years of age.
“I just keep a few pennies for fixing things.” This was not a surprise. Mark was familiar with Dan’s expertise as a mechanic, and had heard a story or two of his unique uses for pennies. Mark’s black jacket was in sharp contrast to the orangey-gold walls of the café. The green table top that held their drinks was speckled with tiny black dots, and hollowed out on the dusty pink backrest of their chairs the word Robin’s in cursive letters
“What is the most unusual thing you have fixed with a penny?” the younger man asked Dan. Delighted by his rapt audience Dan answered without hesitation, “The locomotive.” He went on to describe a day in 1997 when he worked as a machinist on the engine of the Canadian National (CN) railway.
The CN is not just Canada’s only transcontinental railway company. Spanning the Atlantic coast in Nova Scotia to the Pacific coast in British Columbia (BC), the CN offers integrated transportation services: rail, intermodal, trucking, freight forwarding, warehousing, and distribution. It also serves fourteen states in the USA, and links not only the east and the west but the Gulf Coast as well.1
The locomotive is the railway vehicle that provides the motive capability for the train. It is powered by diesel which flows through fuel lines connected to injectors. The engine was a 16-cylinder motor that was propelled by sixteen injectors. Each injector had two fuel lines connected to it, giving a total of thirty-two fuel lines.
Each injector also had a nozzle at the tip which controlled the flow of the pressurized diesel. On that day, the nozzle of one of the sixteen injectors was broken. Instead of a managed flow though a thin hole, the injector was gushing a larger quantity of unwanted fuel into the locomotive through its wider, broken nozzle. As the automotive mechanic, Dan’s job was to provide emergency back-up in acute situations, and on that evening, he had to plug the leak. A routine enough job on any day.
The train had left the station in BC and was on its way to its next major stop in Winnipeg, then to its destination in Montreal. All was well as it passed through Alberta, but well into Saskatchewan, the crew on board phoned the station at Melville to say there was a bad fuel leak.
The nozzle must be replaced, or at minimum, the fuel lines must be plugged. If they were plugged the diesel would not flow and the injector would not be flooded.
A quick search revealed that no replacement plugs were housed in Melville, but the necessary part was available at the Winnipeg station in Manitoba. Only at certain terminals in BC, Winnipeg, and Montreal was train maintenance performed, and parts readily accessible. There was no way to get a plug to Melville that night. The leaking injector could not be repaired.
“I was asked to do a temporary fix so the train could get to Winnipeg, but there were no spare units to fix it with,” Dan reminisced. “So I got creative.”
“What did you do?” Mark’s curiosity was heightening. He knew it was well over 400 kilometres to the station in Winnipeg, from Melville, the smallest city in the province of Saskatchewan, located on its eastern side.
“The circumference of the fuel lines was the same size as a penny, so I unscrewed the nozzle cap of the faulty injector and placed a penny in each fuel line.”
“Did they really fit?” Mark sounded a bit breathless.
“Oh yeah, and then I screwed the cap back in place,” Dan explained breezily. “The pennies plugged the lines and the fuel could not flow into the injector.”
“How could the engine run if the fuel was shut off?” Mark did not quite understand. Dan, who was a bit hard of hearing, asked Mark to repeat the question. As he did, Mark studied Copper as if trying to gauge the diameter of the fuel lines.
Dan explained that the other fifteen injectors were still intact, and could provide enough diesel to move the locomotive.
“I asked the crew to get the injector repaired when they arrived in Winnipeg, and remove the pennies,” he continued, scratching the grey stubble on his cheek before sipping his coffee.
Swallowing the warm beverage, the mechanic stated that he gave the incident no more thought as trains were pulling up frequently at the CN station in Melville, and he was kept busy.
“Did the locomotive make it to Winnipeg?” Mark couldn’t wait for the end. His eyes were translucent pools of green as he drank in the details of this brave feat. His half-eaten doughnut lay cold in its white napkin, like Copper lying next to it.
“Not just to Winnipeg but to Montreal as well,” was the humble reply.
Seeing Mark’s quizzical expression, he added, “It was not until a few days later that I was called to my boss’s office.” Dan grinned. “There were two managers in the office and they were not smiling.”
Though not easily fazed, Dan admitted that he got a bit worried when he realized the ‘big boss’ from Montreal was on speakerphone.
“I had no idea why I was called in,” he shrugged. He had forgotten about his quick fix a couple days before.
It turned out that on arriving at Winnipeg, the locomotive seemed to be running well, so the crew shuttled it off to Montreal without performing any repairs to the injector. Dan’s two pennies set off for an additional two thousand kilometres on a train with one injector down and a full load of cargo on board.
The Montreal station was a maintenance site, and the locomotive went in for servicing when it arrived. Servicing included checking things like the air brakes, oil, and fuel lines. It was then that the penny plugs were discovered, and the little copper coins, dark and tarnished with diesel, had a black suspicion cast on them.
It didn’t take long for the Montreal office to trace the source of the pennies. This led to Dan’s being summoned before his bosses in the Melville office, and while he was not expecting a ‘thank you,’ neither was he prepared for the query: “Did you sabotage the locomotive?”
“I had to defend what had happened,” the former CN employee recalled. “I told them that there were no plugs available, and we needed to get the train to Winnipeg. I had called ahead to Winnipeg and the crew there verified that they would attend to plugging the fuel lines, or replacing the nozzle. I gave the lines my best shot and plugged the leak with the pennies as a temporary fix.”
In mechanic school Dan had learnt numerous quick fixes, and this one had paid off big time.
“Were you disciplined for the fix?” Mark had visions of grievances and time off work. Even a firing. Fortunately, there were no negative reprisals. Dan’s explanation rang true, and he joked that one of the bosses had shaken his head and said, “Either you are crazy or you are a genius, Dan.” Here the hero of the locomotive paused and sipped his creamy ‘double double’—coffee with two creams and two sugars.
“Did they shake your hand?” Mark asked.
Dan’s humorous reply was, “Not at all, and neither did they give me back my two cents.”
“Why didn’t the Winnipeg crew put in proper plugs?” Mark wanted to know.
Dan’s reply was speculative. “Maybe they did not want to have to explain the pennies, or maybe the locomotive was working as it should.” It was the most courageous story of a penny that Copper had heard, and wished that it was one of the tiny coins that had plugged the line and got the CN to safety. All the same Copper was proud to be a penny.
Proud to be Canadian. Proud of what Dan had done for the national carrier.
Mark was impressed and anxious to hear more, so he questioned the senior gentleman. “Will you miss the penny when it’s gone?”
“Not me.” The cheerful answer was surprising. “I think the penny became a nuisance around 1975 or so. I keep them in my car on the dash and it fills up so quickly. You can’t get anything in 2012 for a penny like we used to when I was a kid. But what I really use the penny for is fixing things.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Copper. A penny could be a hero or a nuisance, or maybe both at the same time depending on someone’s mood.
Mechanic Dan would miss the pennies primarily for their household uses. He recounted to Mark that, in bathrooms and kitchens, he had stopped the flow of water caused by broken lines using a penny to quench the gush. Later, the families would obtain the proper part and the plumber would do his job. He said he chose copper because it bends fairly easily.
“Have you used the penny on farm equipment?” Mark too was raised on a farm, and any advice would come in handy.
Dan leaned back, revealing the red and white checked shirt under his coat as his eyes lit up at another memory. He told of a part in a tractor that had become dislodged. It was the spring that held the clutch in place, and Dan was trying to put it back where it belonged. The heavy steel spring was resistant to pull, and could only be stretched a little. Dan had the idea that if something small was placed between the rings in the spring he would be able to stretch the stubborn steel.
What better to use than pennies! They were the right size and shape, and were available in the right quantities too. Painstakingly, Dan had placed penny after penny between the rings, moving on to another after he had stretched one to its max. Slowly the unyielding steel lengthened, and eventually he was able to clasp the hook into the latch.
“You just have to bend the coil when you’re finished and the pennies will tumble out.” He grinned again and his blue eyes crinkled half shut as he finished the story.
Mark had followed the explanation fully, and made a note to use that knowledge if he ever needed to stretch stiff springs. He asked if there were any more tips for using the penny on equipment.
Dan, who seemed to have the gift that keeps on giving, produced another chronicle. “Once at the farm a hydraulic line in a machine blew and it was letting out too much oil. We wanted to restrict the flow, and not having a washer of the right size, I drilled a hole in a penny and fitted it across the line. It worked perfectly and we never replaced it with another washer.” It seems stopping flows with pennies, be it water or oil, were Dan’s pet uses for the little coin.
“Isn’t it illegal to tamper with currency?” Mark felt sure that it was.
“Oh yes, now I know it is illegal, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to destroy the coins.” Dan laughed. “Nor should they place pennies on rail tracks so the train can flatten them.”
Copper felt exhilarated to be a penny. The little coin might not be necessary to trade, but it was still desirable for its shape and size, and that felt good.
This chapter is a tribute to “Dan” whose real name is Bob Lindsay. Bob passed away on April 26, 2020.
Little Copper Pennies: Celebrating the Life of the Canadian One-Cent piece 1858-2013
The Pennies in the Locomotive