"C'mon Harvey, let's hear it one last time," bellowed a man toting a beer can in his right hand, from the crowd packed into the smoke-filled train car.
"Rrrrockville," roared conductor Harvey Larrick as the throng of of well-wishers surrounding the tall, genial conductor applauded wildly aboard B&O train No. 53, bound from Union Station to Martinsburg, W.Va., heard Larrick call off their stop. Earlier this month, Larrick turned 61 and retired after working 32 years for the B&O, the last 26 of those as a passenger train conductor.
When Larrick boarded his train recently for the last run of his career, he was greeted by the train load of commuters who had planned a surprise party of make his final ride a memorable one.
Red, white and blue streamers criss-crossed the ceiling of the train car. There were beer, pretzels and a vanilla sheet cake complete with a miniature locomotive and bearing the inscription, "Congratulations Harvey Larrick retiring after 32 years on the B&O."
As the train chugged slowly out of Union Station, beer cans popped in tandem with the rocking train car. The cake was cut and Larrick was deluged with fans offering vigorous handshakes and warm embraces.
"We're going to miss you Harvey," a blond woman choked out between tears as she threw her arms around Larrick's sturdy shoulders.
Train commuters will admit they are a rare breed. They staunchly defend their curious attachment to the train, possissively guard their seats and keep a protective circle around their train friendships.
Larry Movshin of Gaithersburg said he and fellow commuters have found a sense of security in seeing Larrick each day. "When it's not your regular conductor you have the same feeling as when you were a kid and you'd get to school and find a substitute teacher."
Train commuters also believe the rest of the commuting world is a bit nuts for not having discovered, in their words, the only sensible way to commute. . . by train.
Eight years ago, train devotee Lorene F. Lemons of Silver Spring, founded the Alliance of Rail Citizens for Progress. The nonprofit group has been a strong voice in efforts to upgrade rail service.
Lemons and fellow alliance member Saul Snyder of Rockville planned Larrick's retirement party.
Train commuters say a big appeal is the service they receive from conductors, engineers and firemen.
"Where else (but on a train) can you have a happy face like that greet you in the morning?" asked Dick Knorpp of Gaithersburg, pointing to Larrick.
"Isn't this something," said Larrick, gazing around the car packed with passengers toasting him.
Larrick began working on the B&O in 1947 as a brakeman on a steam engine freight train.
A native of Camp Springs, he and his wife Elizabeth sold their home in 1975 to build a retirement place in West Virginia. For the past years, Larrick has resided Monday through Friday in the YMCA at Brunswick, Md. lLarrick and his crew leave the train there each day, and a new crew takes over to continue the trip to the train's destination in Martinsburg, W.Va.
Train conductors admit they live a rather solitary life.
Larrick begins his day at 6:55 a.m. in Brunswick and arrives at Union Station at 8:14 a.m. He does about 30 minutes of paperwork and is not expected to return to the station until 7:10 p.m., about 30 minutes before his train departs. His work day ends in Brunswick at 9:22 p.m.
Larrick, his fellow conductors, the train engineers and firemen spend the days in museums or relaxing in the rooms the B&O rents for each of them at a hotel within walking distance of the station.
While Larrick will not disclose what he earns, he said jokingly, "In 1942 I made $9.12 a day riding a steam engine from Washington to Philadelphia. Let's just say I make more in one day than I used to make in a month."
Larrick is as enamored of his passengers as they are of him.
"I bet I know at least half of them by their first name. A lot of people, if they didn't have a ticket I tell them to show it to me tomorrow. I trust them. My passengers have been my family."
Grinning, he tells a story of a man who apologizes for not having his monthly ticket, explaining it was eaten by his dog. Larrick, recalling the incident said, "I asked him, 'Mind bringing the dog tomorrow?" Larrick lets out a deep belly laugh which is shared by fellow conductors who have gathered as they do each day at the entrance to the train platform to swap stories and gaze at passengers.
Dressed handsomely in a navy blue suit and square hat, and with quarter-sized gold buttons bearing the B&O insignia on the lapels, the only thing this archetypal figure is missing is a gold pocketwatch.
"That went out 15 years ago," Larrick's fellow conductor, Burt Miskell, said laughing. "We're modern now." Conductors traded their pocketwatches for wristwatchers with large numbers and sweeping second hands.