Train Of Thought

Entry by: rclayr

17th July 2015
Railroad Man
My father was a railroad man. That isn’t a particularly startling statement, but there was a time when to say such a thing was to define who I was, who we were as a family. To be a railroad man was to be something special in a community, especially when the community was a railroad town. I grew up in a railroad town, and my father was a railroad man.
In the western environs of the United States, a peculiar phenomenon is that small towns along major highways are almost consistently thirty miles apart. This isn’t something a lot of today’s motorists notice, since they are whizzing by at 70+ miles per hour, comfortably skirting around many if not most of these tiny bergs that sprung up over a century ago out of the prairie, flourished, and died when urbanization conquered the agrarian lifestyle of America and absconded with the best of its people, hauling them away to much less rewarding and less fulfilling lives elsewhere. But if one is astute, one notices this consistency of distance between them and might wonder why.
The answer is simple: Thirty miles was about as far as a steam-driven leviathan could travel without having to stop for water. The term given these railroad towns was “whistle stops,” meaning that they were places where trains would sound their whistles—long-short, long-short, long-short—as they approached grade crossings, making huge amounts of noise as they ground to a halt, steel-on-steel, and then soughed and sighed in smoking, steaming impatience, while the crew added more water to their boilers and they could then blow themselves into movement once more for another thirty-mile run. Usually, this is where a depot—and then a town—would be built. In addition, in the early days of telegraphy, thirty miles was about as far as an electronic telegraph signal could travel without having to be received and retransmitted to some more distant destination. Hence, the thirty-mile rule applies throughout the US. Anything shorter was called a “milk-run.”
The locomotives and the trains they pulled were an inexorable part of the landscape; the noise they made signaled arrivals and departures from the outside world. They brought mail and produce, people and animals, all kinds of freight when they came, and took it all away as they went. They were part of everyday life for two centuries. In a way, they still are, but they’ve lost their romance. Now, trains are drawn by diesel-powered, electric engines. There’s no hissing steam, no billowing stack of black smoke, comparatively little noise, and not much in the way of whistles and bells. The romance is gone.
My father started working a local rail line in 1936, the same year he finished high school. His elder brother, my namesake, was already working for the line, and he probably got him the job. It was a good job; in those years of the Great Depression, it was a great job. The work was hard, the hours were long, and the future wasn’t much, really. But it was steady, and the union was strong and protective. He was able to buy a new Ford after only two years’ of work for the railroad.
Except for the years when he was in the army, overseas, fighting Nazism in Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany, doing his bit as a corporal in the combat engineers, he worked for the railroad most all of his life. He didn’t have to join the army, by the way. Being a railroad man meant he was protected from conscription, that he were doing “essential war work.” But he enlisted, anyway. He was gone nearly three years. He was wounded, had malaria, won five bronze stars and a Purple Heart, and saw and did things he never wanted to talk about. He came back changed, and when he died at age 66 of a combination of heart problems and neurological ailments, it was probably because of his wartime experience. He told me he never regretted going. It was his duty. He also told me that he had no respect for others who should have gone and didn’t. But when my turn came many years later and it appeared I would have to serve in combat, he also told me he didn’t want me to go. “I didn’t go through that so you would have to go through this,” he said. I didn’t have to go, as it turned out; he was relieved.
He also didn’t want me to be a railroad man. I could have been. There was a “legacy” program, whereby the son of an employee would go to the top of the list for any opening. He told me I was going to go to college and get a job using my head, not my hands. “I’ll be damned if you’ll spend your life working on the goddamn railroad,” he said.
But he was proud of being a railroad man, even so. When he returned from the war and married my mother and had two sons, he traveled some eighty-five miles to the nearest large town—we thought it was a “city”—and opened a charge account in a large department store. Charge accounts were very new then, and not many people qualified for them. When he filled out the application and wrote down his annual salary, he told me, the clerk behind the desk asked him to wait; she then went and brought out the store manager to shake his hand and thank him for his business. He liked to tell that story. It illustrated the pride he had in being a railroad man.
The railroad kept my father away from home a lot. He missed Christmases, Thanksgiving Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, neighborhood parties and picnics, other things everyone did and where other fathers were always there. The line he worked for was a small subsidiary of a larger railroad. The town we lived in was a junction, and he would have to work to switch rail cars around to make up new trains to make the run to a junction with another rail line some 114 miles away. He would be gone for three days at a time. “Three-on, Three-off” was his schedule. It didn’t vary. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, heat or flood, ill or well. He never took a sick day and had two weeks’ vacation every year. We had one of the first private telephone lines in our community. Railroad men had to have a phone so the dispatcher could call the crews and tell them when their trains were coming in. Many a day he had to stay at home by the phone waiting for the call when he might have preferred to be at some family function.
When he came home from “three-on,” often having slept a few hours here and there in a caboose (called “a shack” in railroad parlance), he would be dirty and greasy. He would smell of metal and leather, oil and smoke, stale coffee and tobacco. He always wore overalls to work, over a soft-collar shirt and a tie, with a flat striped hat, a red kerchief, and high lace-up workboots. He was not a big man—only five-six—but he seemed like a giant when he came through the door. He would be so tired sometimes, all he could do was bathe, eat, and go to bed. Much of my childhood was spent tip-toeing around and whispering so he could sleep. We knew that when he awoke, we would “do something.” And we usually did.
My father claimed that he “hated the goddamn railroad.” But as I grew older, I noticed that we never passed a train that didn’t capture his attention, never walked past a rail museum he didn’t want to go into. He liked to talk about how much he hated the old steam locomotives and how much he admired the diesel engines, but I noticed that when a steamer would scream through our town before they become utterly obsolete, he would stop and listen for the whistle.
I also remember going with him to the depot to pick up his check. I recall the sound of the telegraph tick-ticking in the dispatcher’s office, seeing the long wooden benches where passengers waited for trains, watching the postman sorting mail into bags to be deposited on hooks strategically placed trackside near rural post offices where the trains didn’t stop, looking into the baggage room and seeing the redcaps smoking, waiting for the next arrival. I remember hearing him talk of the work with other railroad men. I learned railroad terms early and found out about hot-boxes and buckles and dead-heading, knew what a clogged cut and a safety siding were, and knew his pain when some poor soul wandered out on the tracks in front of a locomotive that would take two miles to stop. I heard of men who died working for the railroad, of those who lost fingers and hands, feet and legs, who fell in between the cars as they raced along the dead-man’s planks and jumped from one to the other while the train hurtled along at sixty miles per hour. I also heard about hobos and bums, about frozen switches and jammed brakes. I knew about lanterns and signals and understood the difference between grades and gates. A railroad was a world of its own, and all the dangers and pleasures of life lay along its steel rails.
One of the first rhymes I ever leaned was this: “Railroad Crossing/Look out for the Cars/Can You Spell That/Without Any Rs?”
My mother, of course, was a railroad man’s wife. Because he would finish his “three-on” at any time of the day or night, she was attuned to the sound of trains arriving some mile or so from our home. No matter what the hour, when she heard that whistle—and later, the horn of the engines—she would rise from her chair or her bed, and she’d make him a supper. Three in the morning or three in the afternoon. It didn’t matter. It was never a small supper. It would usually have steak or chicken and gravy, potatoes, vegetables, fresh-made bread, and pie or cake for dessert, often with ice cream. My father loved nothing more than ice cream. He would come in, bathe, dress for bed—even if it was the middle off the afternoon—eat, smoke a cigarette, then go to sleep for several hours. My mother never failed to have a hot meal for him when he came in.
Sometimes, she said that the when she heard that whistle, it was like he was calling her. The six blasts—long-short, long-short, long-short—always signaled that the train was approaching the main crossing. She said it was like hearing, “Come-on, Paul-ine.” It was her call to duty, in a way.
When I was young, I would lie awake at night and listen to the trains coming through our town. We were, as I said, a junction, and there were two major lines that intersected there and passenger lines, as well. There was a large switching yard and a round-house and a Y. We could hear the trains working all day and all night, banging and crashing together as cars were moved here and there. Train noises were part of my town’s culture. But I never could hear my father’s train, distinguish it from the others. My mother always could. When I asked her about it later in my life, she said, “None of them said, ‘Com-on, Paul-ine. Come-on!’”
My father’s health did not sustain him for as long as it should have. He suffered from migraines and “nerves.” That was the war, I’m sure, although I’m also sure that those cholesterol-laden, butter slathered meals, and sugary desserts didn’t help. He didn’t drink alcohol—it wasn’t a moral or religious thing with him; he said he just got enough of that when he was overseas—but he did smoke—a lot—so do I. When he was in his late fifties, he developed diabetes. It ran in his family, so it wasn’t entirely