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Dogs, guns and pies: All part of the job

Melvin G. "Mel" Trimble Sr., a colorful and loquacious character I got to know some years ago, had one of the more interesting and necessary jobs with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and with its successor company, Chessie System. It relied upon his powers of persuasion and absolute patience.

Mel, who was 89 and lived at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville, died late last month.

After graduating from City College in 1941, the South Baltimore native began his B&O career as a stenographer in its real estate department.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Mel returned to the B&O in 1946 and eventually was promoted to railroad real estate field agent. The work required him to travel throughout the system handling a wide variety of complicated property issues.

It was his job to handle sales, leases, title searches, and property purchases. At times, he was forced to walk the right of way to make sure there were no encroachments on railroad property.

He also oversaw property acquisitions needed for expansions of existing yards or building new ones, track extensions, or adding sidings to new industries that had located along the line.

Adding to the complicated nature of his work was the fact that it often didn't come with a long deadline attached to it.

"Even though they may have had common traits, no two were ever alike," he often said of his deals.

And only as a last resort, when negotiations stalled, did Mel bring up the dreaded word "condemnation."

He did this only to prime the pump when a less-than-willing, suspicious or greedy property owner saw only dollar signs when Mel arrived with the B&O's checkbook.

After retiring in 1982 from the Chessie System, he began writing his memoirs at the urging of Ray Lichty, a retired CSX vice president who edits "News & Notes," a publication of RABO, a B&O retirement organization.

Lichty and fellow editor Norm Murphy, who also worked in the real estate department with Mel, later combined the pieces and published a book, "Sites Insight: Stories of a Railroad Real Estate Agent," in 2009.

The job was not without professional liabilities, such as dogs who did not hesitate to display their large white teeth and follow up with a steady basso profundo growl designed to scare off the B&O man from Baltimore.

After losing a piece of a new overcoat to an angry dog, Mel perfected a technique when it came to dealing with agitated canines: sitting in his car and steadily blowing his horn until an owner showed up.

Occasionally, he'd find himself staring into the barrel of a shotgun, as happened at Volcano, W.Va., during a tunnel clearance project. Workers had acquired more land than had been contracted and paid for, and the owner took exception.

"As I approached the nearby dwelling, a large burly man appeared on his front porch and, with shotgun in hand, leveled it at me and shouted, 'Hold it right there, Buddy,'" wrote Mel, who added that such occurrences were not covered in the railroad real estate field representatives' manual.

Trying not to appear nervous, even though he was quivering in his shoes and dreaming of the family in Baltimore he might never see again, Mel shouted his name.

"Oh, yah, you are the guy who started this whole damn mess," the man responded.

The landowner was named Valentine, and Mel, summing up his last ounce of courage, said, "Come on, Mr. Valentine, have a heart and let me come in."

Valentine seemed to fall for this lame joke and invited the B&O man onto his porch.

While complaining angrily about what happened to his land and trees, Valentine only lowered the shotgun. Eventually, Mel finally agreed to write an additional check, and Valentine agreed to let the work go forward.

In another instance, when engineers had staked out the route for a spur to a coal company, the farmer who owned the land complained to Mel that his cow had damaged her udders on the surveyor's stakes.

"We called a veterinarian to examine his cow, resulting in a report of no physical evidence of damaged udders," wrote Mel.

When it came time for negotiations, the "damaged cow issue" didn't go away, so Mel included the cow in the price of the much-needed swath of land.

When the farmer's son gave him the cow with a rope around her neck, the farmer protested: "Hey, where are you going with my cow?"

Mel reminded the farmer that the cow was now the property of the B&O, and then asked his son if he would care for it. The son agreed, and he gave it to him.

Mel recalled another time, when high waters of the Ohio River near Ravenswood, W.Va., required raising the track level and the railroad needed land owned by Junior Caldwell, a farmer.

Mel's strategy was never to immediately launch into a business pitch but rather offer friendly banter about the local high school football team, that season's crops, the weather or how pretty the man's daughter was.

This time, he seized upon the pies that Caldwell's wife was busy baking in her kitchen. When a deal was struck, Caldwell summoned his wife.

"'Hey, woman, come over here and sign this paper.' I thought that was crude, but it was just the way some of these locals addressed their spouse," Mel wrote.

The deliberations concluded, Mrs. Caldwell poured Mel a big cup of coffee and placed three titanic pieces of pumpkin, blueberry and apple pie in front of him.

"I made such a fuss over the room-filled aroma that it was coming back to haunt me," he wrote.

Caldwell loomed over his guest and ordered him to get busy.

"Well, Trimble, you had better make a reasonable effort to devour most of that pie to physically confirm your interests," growled Caldwell.

"I thanked her; and driving away in the car, I remember saying to myself, 'Wow! What a filling lunch.'"

Mel would tell you that in the performance of his job, such things were considered routine, and not out of the ordinary.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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