The Camaraderie of Working on the Railroad
I STOOD on the high school steps, watching my classmates disperse after the graduation ceremony. I knew some would work in their families' businesses in the village. Some would continue farming the rolling dairy country of New York State. A fortunate few would leave to continue their education at college. None of this was possible for me. The following morning, I left our farm for New York City.
My first job was in one of the small towns north of the city on the bank of the Hudson River. I was told to report to the ``cripple yard.'' Later I learned that, in railroad language, a cripple is a disabled car or one that has jumped the track.
The yard was a siding between the main line of the New York Central Railroad and NY Route 9, which follow the Hudson River north out of the city. A number of narrowly spaced tracks provided a parking place for passenger and freight cars in need of repair. Some of the cars were from other companies - the Erie, the Lackawanna, or the Santa Fe - names that had the lure of distant places. The words ``Route of the Phoebe Snow,'' stenciled in large flowing letters on the side of freight cars, evoked visions of geese flying over infinite prairie. Here was the promise of travel and adventure I had dreamed of as I plodded through endless farm chores.
A drab building housed the manager's office and locker room. From an indifferent clerk, I received a social-security number, a membership card for the Brotherhood of Railwaymen's Union, and a pass that gave me limited free travel by rail. I was assigned to a crew of two other laborers. An eight-hour day seemed trifling to the burden of never-ending work on the farm. Leisure time and generous wages allowed me to pursue a frivolous adolescence, long postponed.
A work force of roughly 25 men was divided into laborers, helpers, mechanics, and engineers. The union was powerful and contentious. I was cautioned to do only what I was told to do and not to finished a job too quickly - ``killing the job.'' The tactic was to create or prolong work. The men were no fools; when the work was done, they would be laid off.
We envied the engineers and mechanics when the steam crane was sent out onto the main track to rescue a crippled car. They were on call after hours, on weekends or holidays, and their discomfort was generously paid for at rates of time-and-a-half. The right of overtime was jealously guarded; laborers and helpers rarely went along.
Often cars were brought in needing new wheels. A brake shoe would lock, preventing the wheels from turning. Friction from passing along the track over a great distance produced sparks and ground a flat spot on the wheels. The cars were jacked up with manual ratchet jacks. When the trucks were rolled out, the steam crane lifted the wheels away and brought back a new pair.
Jake, the head laborer, had a world-weary Teutonic aura, a face of gray stubble over wrinkled leather. The rumor was that he had lost a fortune in the 1929 crash. He spoke little, and few jokes were directed at him. To me he was distant, old-world, and fatherly.
Sam, young Sam, was tall and awkward like a colt, dark and handsomely Italian. Newly married, he took a lot of ribbing from the men. Working with me as my senior, he assumed a heavy air of responsibility, explaining the obvious, but his solemnity quickly evaporated into high jinks. Sam regaled everyone we met with a patter of nonsense and plotted mischief. Anyone who casually laid his work gloves down might return to find them nailed to the floor of the box car.
Much of farm work is solitary, but in the yard, I learned that working together can bring an intimacy. As a group, men can be petty, course, and profane; they can be dangerous, but more often they are generous and eager to help the young and pass on hard-won skills they possess. Most men entertain and confide personal dreams of something better.
When the noon whistle blew, we assembled to eat our bag lunches in the locker room. I read books that I found in the box cars, usually westerns. Old Sam shuffled about, keeping the office and locker room tidy, putting in time before retirement. A kindly Santa Claus with bushy white eyebrows, he spoke with a soft Italian accent. He never ate lunch when we did; he was lonely and was happier to spend the time talking. After I had been working for some months, he shuffled over and stood before me. There was a humorous light in his eye as he spoke. ``You know, Joe he's always reada the book. Someday he's gonna be a priest!'' I joined in the rough laughter, but Sam's gentle observation made me aware of a barrier. I saw through their eyes that learning was priesthood, perhaps unattainable.
The steam era was waning, though still evident. I experienced its full power one day as I stood on a steel bridge over a switching yard. Three steam locomotives approached and rumbled beneath me simultaneously. The proximity of weight and power was intimidating. The warm dense smoke from their stacks obscured my vibrating perch in an opalescent cloud. Heat, a smell of oil, a hiss of steam, a metallic clunking, grunting, and sucking came from what seemed a living presence that elicited awe. But for all its power and bluster, when a steam engine leaves its track, it becomes a cripple. A system of highways, roads, and airports was in place to accommodate faster more flexible means of transportation.
The Korean War interrupted and ended my railway career.
After many years, I returned to visit the cripple yard. The names and faces of the men remained so animate in my mind that I expected that I might see them as they were, frozen in my time. But they had their own dreams, their own time. I could only approximate where the cripple yard had been in a descending curve, beneath the smooth black asphalt of the new Route 9 where it follows the broad Hudson River north.