Railroads & Locomotives History An engineer’s life: How ‘Mad Dog’ got his name

An engineer’s life: How ‘Mad Dog’ got his name

By Michael Sawyer | May 15, 2023

| Last updated on June 27, 2023

A railroader by any other name would sound just as sweet

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What’s in a name?

picture of man with hat on
An engineer’s life featuring Michael Sawyer aka Mad Dog.

An engineer’s life: Nicknames have long been a part of railroading. This is the story of how I came to be called “Mad Dog.”

I hired out at Burlington Northern’s Auburn Yard in August of 1978. Unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t the only Michael Sawyer around those parts. One day, early in 1979, I received a call from the Interbay (Balmer Yard-Seattle) chief crew caller announcing I had won the bid on the Boeing switch. I replied in all innocence that I hadn’t put a bid in.

The chief started to get a little belligerent with me — he was not an easy man to deal with. I told him again I most assuredly didn’t put a bid in. Heck, I didn’t even know what the Boeing switch was.

As we went back and forth, I was getting a little hot under the collar. Gradually it came to me that I’d heard something about another Michael Sawyer on the railroad.

I had been working the switchman’s extra board at Auburn, Washington, getting out every eight hours, so when the chief caller woke me up early I wasn’t in a great mood.

By this time we were screaming at each other and, boom! I gave myself my own nickname.  I told him to flip his Rolodex over to Michael W. Sawyer, I was Michael D. Sawyer — “M.D. like ‘mad dog,’” I said. To this day I have no idea why I said that instead of “Milk Dud” or something. But Mad Dog I said and Mad Dog I was from then on.

A few years later I walked into the lunchroom at Balmer Yard. Michael W. Sawyer was sitting there, when another switchman looked up and said, “Michael Sawyer meet Michael Sawyer.” His family was from Everett and mine was from Auburn. There was no relation between us, it was just a coincidence. All I remember him saying was, “You must shoot a lot of photos.” I replied that I did.

To this day I wish I had said “Okay” to the chief caller and showed up to the Boeing job, with a twenty-year age difference. That would have been a fun and interesting day!

Why are nicknames often used by railroaders? A switch foreman told me using first names on the radio was a bad idea. Once, he said, two men named Dave were working as engineers in the same yard on the same radio channel. A switchman gave a signal to move over the radio and the wrong Dave moved — with unfortunate results.

Most railroaders end up with nicknames, some good, some not so good. I wasn’t the only one with the Mad Dog nickname although, to the best of my recollection, I was the only one who used it as a first name. A telegraph operator told me I hated being called Mad Dog at first. I laughed and said I had no recollection of that. In fact, I use my nickname on my business cards and have for years.

Once, while I was waiting to photograph a steam excursion, someone called, “Hey, Mike” I turned and answered, “What?” Another photographer gave me a puzzled look. I said, “Yes, I have a real name, my mother didn’t name me Mad Dog.” (I only recall her calling me Mad Dog once.)

Being a Mike was fun too. One day about five years ago, I was working Job 156 (a switch engine) as the regular engineer at Tacoma Yard. All three of us were named Mike. Our yardmaster, Virgil K. called needing information from a foreman, also named Mike. Being a tad mischievous, I picked up the radio as fast as I could and answered “What?” Virgil said, “No, not you!” Then the switch helper answered, “What?” Virgil wasn’t delighted with our wit. He muttered something I cannot put into writing here and called foreman Mike again, this time using his last name. It was a fun day!

If you like this behind the scenes column “An engineer’s life”, check out the “Beyond the byline” column under the “History” tab. It features many of Trains contributors and more.

One thought on “An engineer’s life: How ‘Mad Dog’ got his name

  1. My first real railroad job was as Assistant Trainmaster in Osawatomie KS on the Missouri Pacific (1979) – one day someone just casually said there goes “ScrapIron” – I was new to railroading and had no idea what that meant – I was informed “ScrapIron” was the name of an engineer and he had “issues” and I later I figured it out after I experienced his work on broken knuckles, pulled out drawbars and draft gear, and finally a brand new SD40 that “ScrapIron” had incorrectly attached the air hoses in a multi-unit consist – so when he applied the brakes and bailed off the independent brake the brakes did not bail off this new loco so he created 8″ flat spots on all the wheels before figuring it out. Never heard how much 6 destroyed brand-new multiturn locomotive axles cost us but it must have been more than a few $s. To his credit, I don’t think he had any derailments under his belt. Poor guy just had some train-handling challenges along with some basic bad luck. I don’t think he appreciated this nickname his peers gave him and I really couldn’t blame him.

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