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FILTHY ENGINE NO MATCH FOR CLEAN TEAM

Last year, they painted a barn in an hour. The year before, they cleaned an entire home in 10 minutes.

Yesterday, 100 Varsity Contractors executives tackled Engine 618 - 135 tons of grease- and soot-covered iron that has been in storage for two years. Total elapsed time: 75 minutes.Engine 618 is the workhorse of the newly established Heber Valley Historic Railroad. The 1904 steam engine caught the eye of Don Aslett, chairman of Pocatello-based Varsity Contractors, when he decided to hold the company's annual convention at the Homestead in nearby Midway. The Varsity executives have a tradition of taking on a local cleaning project as part of every convention. Armed with bottles of degreaser, wire brushes and rags, the maintenance specialists swarmed over the engine. "The Varsity cleaners will take a piece of the train home with them. The last time I cleaned 618, it took months for the carbon and grease to wear out of my skin," said engineer Craig Drury, who has maintained the engine since it came to Heber in 1970.

Though they are serious about cleaning, the Varsity crew is known for the unusual contests held in conjunction with their annual convention. These run the gamut from janitor rodeos, fashion shows and operas to "custodial art" shows. Thursday's grease mustache contest turned into a grease fight, but mailboxes fashioned out of cleaning equipment will be on display at the Homestead through Saturday.

Aslett, the company's founder, is a legend in the cleaning business, having written several books on the subject, but he prefers the title "cleaner" to author or chairman. He established Varsity while attending Idaho State University in 1957. Today he employees 1,700 "cleaners" in 16 states and boasts the largest cleaning library and cleaning museum in the world.

"The people who are here today are from all walks of life and levels of education. They have chucked their egos for rewarding, well-paying careers as cleaners. This is truly the world's oldest profession and one we'll all have to get better at if we're going to save our planet. Who'd want to do something else when you can be a cleaner?" Aslett asked.

The Heber Valley Historic Railroad is a non-profit state-owned business and replaces the Heber Creeper, which closed two years ago.

Ken McConnell, chairman of the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Authority, promises the train will be running this spring, with better things planned for the future.

"To begin with, we will be experimenting with different length trips and entertainment. Long-term plans include a small village with melodrama theater and museum where visitors will be able to have an authentic turn-of-the-century experience," McConnell said.