Dad Worked The Railroad

railroadReally listen to people’s stories. Get the hell out of your own way and listen. Take down every word, everything that’s “messed up” or “doesn’t sound right”. Let there be awkward silence and open spaces. Let the person speak. You just write. Then step back. You’ll have something amazing and the piece will have, more or less, written itself. It’s the Shake-n-Bake of writing exercises and I stand by it every time. Tonight I interviewed my Dad.

We don’t have these conversations enough and, when we do, how much do we take away? What do we retain of any permanence? I put him on speaker and typed. Some parts of these stories I knew, others were completely new to me. To know history, especially family history, is to hear the stories and take them down directly and without shortcut. It’s a little hammer that knocks a chink out of the wall of impermanence. Dad turns 71 this year and I love all the remembered detail, the descriptions, the way he paused to spell out his doctor’s name specifically and to the letter.

I did this tonight for a project I’m doing with my high school English students. The idea of the project is for students to interview an older member of their families about a challenge that person has experienced and how he or she overcame that challenge. I’m providing the following transcript to my kids as an example and to help us become better editors.

All a really good editor is is someone who makes decisions, cuts and slices with discernment while, equally, keeping an ear open to the art of the story. And it’s a good thing the students are going to sharpen their editorial jack knives on this first because I would want to include it all. Every word feels essential.


How old were you when you started to work for the Colorado railroads and why did you take that particular job?

Well, I needed a job. I had just turned 18 and I graduated from high school and had turned 18 and I needed a job. I had been working at the state mental hospital washing pots and pans but this paid more. I was looking for a job that paid me enough to go to school.

So I needed the job to go to college. I thought, when I first got the job on the railroad, I thought I would save every penny. I saved some but not as much as I had planned to. Working on the railroad got me, in the summertime, got me easily through a full year of junior college. But once I transferred to Purdue, it only got me until about April.

When ran out of money in April what did you do?

I got a little money from mom and dad. They helped me with school but they couldn’t pay the whole thing. And this was before the era of student loans. So I worked during the summer and I went to school, you know, I worked the first two summers for the railroads and the summer before I started my junior year I worked at Procter & Gamble.

Then after my junior year I had a problem with physical chem. I could not understand the teacher. He was a Pakistani guy with a real thick accent and so everyone just dropped out. We just couldn’t understand him. Then I realized that they were teaching physical chemistry at the University of Colorado. So I went to the union hall and I told the guy I wanted a ticket for about 4 weeks of work and then I would go to class for the rest of the summer and study physical chemistry.

When I asked the guy at the union hall for a ticket he just looked at me and said, “You’re really trying me, aren’t you? You’re really trying me.” But he gave me the ticket.

A ticket was not a job. A ticket was a recommendation from the union that you were the next one eligible to work and so you’d take the ticket to the railroad and they would basically hire you. I got a ticket every summer and two tickets the summer that I met your mom. That guy always found a place for me.

No, wait. The summer I met your mom I didn’t work on the bridge gang, I just worked in Canyon City painting a depot.

What’s a depot?

A depot is where the train stops. There was a depot in Canyon City that needed painting. I don’t know what union gang was responsible for painting it but I got to painting for four weeks and then had five weeks off.

Were you a member of a union at that time?

Oh yeah. Yes. I was a member of the bridge and section gang. I think they actually hired for the Santa Fe line too, but most of the tracks were D&RGW.

What’s D&RGW?

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. It’s a little historic Colorado railroad. And yeah, I was a member of Local 702.

What was the hardest part about working for the railroad?

I don’t know. There was lots that was hard. The work was hard. The work was just backbreaking. And I don’t know how much you want to tell your kids this, but most of the gangs were Latino and they were doing it for a living. I was white and I was doing it to go to college. There were some hard feelings around that—race and social economic status. Because race—race is an issue. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, race is an issue.

These guys, they were making good money year round. I was doing it for the summer thinking I’d get an education and then go do something else. They kind of resented that; they thought I was not really respecting what they did. There were some fights but I mostly just tried to ignore it. I’d just smile and say yeah. They’d call me a butter and egg man.

What does that mean?

I don’t know. I guess it means that they thought I was a guy that had more than they did.

But mostly we just went out and did the work. It was hard and we were working out in the mountains where, unless there was a really bad problem, they would just shore it up during the wintertime and we’d go out and fix it in the summertime. That’s what we did. I was technically on the bridge gang and if we were out there and something needed to be done, we’d go ahead and do it. Uh, that created union squabbles because everyone wants to work and you only get paid if you work. If we did a job that only the section gang could do, that took work away from them.

How did that get decided?

By the foreman. The most important thing was to take care of things so the trains could go through. The trains were constantly running. You don’t shut down the tracks just to repair them, you got to work around the moving trains.

I worked on bridges and trellises and culverts. Mostly what we worked on were wooden trellises, no not trellises but uhhh… uh.. ha! I can’t remember the word. Um. I’ll tell you in a minute, it starts with a T.

What’s a trellis?

A trellis is a wooden structure that is supported every eight or ten feet by vertical pieces that go into the ground, the mud. A bridge spans a long distance. The Golden Gate Bridge spans a mile. A trellis is supported as you go along so water can go through it or under it but that’s about all.

But it’s not a trellis so don’t use that word.

What happened that time you threw that guy off the bridge?

Oh, we were in Alamosa and we were out on uh, oh I can’t think of the word… it was a long wooden structure that supported the rails over a swamp. His name was Alfanz. He and I were out there replacing a stringer.

What’s a stringer?

Stringers go parallel to the tracks, under the ties.

Anyway, for some reasons that have to do with physics and the Doppler shift, you can’t hear a diesel train coming. We didn’t have the authority to close the tracks, so we were out there working on it, Alfanz and I. Then I looked up and this train was barreling down and it was close. It was probably closer than I even remember.

What went through your mind at that moment?

That trestle did not have room for you to stand if that train went by. And there was no way to run as fast as the train could go. Well, I was gunna jump but I couldn’t just jump by myself so I ran about 6 feet and grabbed Alfanz and threw him off with me. We wound up in the mud and he came up swinging. He thought I had just thrown him off the bridge for no good reason. I just kept pointing up to the train and trying to dodge everything he was throwing at me with his fists. Then he realized there was a train there and he just ignored me and got up out of the mud. He cleaned himself off. He didn’t say anything more to me.

Later that afternoon we went back to the outfit cars we lived in. We were up on a trestle, that’s the word. Trestle trestle trestle. God, I haven’t used that word for years. Trestle. It’s not a trellis, it’s a trestle. Use the word trestle.

Anyway, we went back and got showers at the water car. It’s the kind of shower where you pull a string and all this water just gets dumped on you and that’s it. We lived in these abandoned train cars and one of them had been outfitted like that, for the showers.

Anyway, I only had one pair of shoes at the time and they were all full of mud. I had to try to get the mud off. The shoes had come off in the mud, the suction just pulled them right off, and it took me a long time to get them out of the mud. But they were all I had so I had to get them.

So I washed my shoes out and ate and the next morning, Alfanz came back from Alamosa where he lived. That morning I went like I always did to get my usual lunch package of bread and bologna and I would just shuffle them together like a deck of playing cards and that would be my lunch.

Anyway, Alfanz came up to me the next morning with this big paper bag and just said “Here.” I thought Jesus, he’s mad at me. It’s gunna be another fight. But I took the bag and it was the most amazing lunch you ever saw—sandwich, an apple or a banana, soda, chips. It had everything. He and his wife ran a Mexican deli in Alamosa. And the next day it was the same thing. “Here.”

I didn’t know if he would keep doing it so I didn’t quit buying the bologna and bread at first. But that went on for the rest of the summer. He just kept bringing me lunches. “Here.” That’s all he would say. And at the end of the summer, I met Alfanz’s wife. She asked, “Is Alfanz still giving you your lunches?” I said yes. And she said, “Alfanz is not very good at saying thank you.”

What was she like?

She was sweet. She realized I had helped him by throwing him off that bridge that day. And Alfanz and I the year before, we had been in a fight. It’s tough times, it’s hard. He and I had trouble the summer before and I don’t know why. He called me a butter and egg man or something. I can’t remember why we fought but we got into a fight.

What is your favorite memory of that time?

Oh I think the camaraderie among the men. And when we were out working we worked hard. My favorite part about that time was when we finally got settled down and the camaraderie and the spirit of working together. We were trying to get something done, get those stringers in place. That was hard work.

You know, one of the things I was concerned about when I threw Alfanz in the water was whether or not that stringer we had been putting in would hold. A freight train is an enormous amount of weight and we hadn’t finished it. I mean, we always have to keep working with the understanding that another train is going to come every hour or so, so our work is pretty much always ready for a train but not absolutely. Not for sure. We had it pretty much done but we weren’t completely done. So I was down there in the mud thinking I have trouble enough just being down here in the mud with Alfanz swinging at me. Now I’m gunna have a freight train on top of me in a minute!

Were there lots of fights?

It seemed like every summer since I was—since these guys were working on this gang year round and I would come just for the summer—it seemed like I always had to prove myself at the beginning of the summer. But you know working in a gang like that is pretty physical. It’s not all polite.

What do you mean?

Well it’s not like oh excuse me, you’re standing on my toe. They’d just hit you.

The other good part was that I made a lot of money. That job paid very well. Much better than I’d get at the state hospital or anywhere else. So that was a good thing. And the camaraderie was a good thing. And I really did want to go to college and it allowed me to go to college.

Why did you want to go to college so bad?

Because of my mom. My mom had emphasized it forever. She was a schoolteacher and education was an important thing for mom. That was an influence. You didn’t have a choice, you will go to college. It’s sort of like how we raised you.

Plus, I wanted to get out of Colorado. I wanted to go somewhere else. I wanted a fresh start or something like that. Mom and dad didn’t have the money to pay for out of state tuition so I had to work for it myself. The railroads were the best way to do that.

Pueblo, where I grew up, was kind of a tough place and you know I, I just wanted to get out and see the world. I wanted to see another part of the country and get to know other people.

At that time the Vietnam War was going on, right?

This is, let me think, ‘62 to ‘66 was when I was in college. We got amped up in the Vietnam war in ‘64, ‘68 was the Tet Offensive, and I was drafted in April of 1966.

I worked that summer for Procter & Gamble. I would have gone back and worked for the railroad, but I was becoming concerned about my resume and what it looked like. So then I worked for P & G for the summer. I was going to go to Columbia Law but I had been drafted. I did the physical and passed, of course. Everyone passed. They just wanted guys out there in Vietnam. I had been admitted to Columbia in November of ‘65 and they said to keep them apprised. I couldn’t matriculate—and I had to look up what matriculate meant—until I had the draft out of the way.

So then I went to Colorado and they said we want you to come here and we’ll give you a scholarship and a free ride on one condition—that you finish here, that you don’t go to Vietnam and then transfer out to Columbia or some other school. You’ll graduate from here, from us. So I finished my first year of law school and that summer I came out to California and worked for Hewlett Packard and at the end of the summer I found out I had detached retinas. That was in August.

In September I got called up. Course, I was flat on my back. There was no way I could go. The doctor said I would be safer in Vietnam. What he meant was I wish you were healthy enough to go to Vietnam.

Were you scared?

Oh yeah. I couldn’t go back to law school and I had detached retinas. They couldn’t understand why someone 20 years old would have detached retinas.

Why did you have detached retinas?

They don’t know for sure but the only way you could have that is from trauma and the only trauma I ever really had was from fighting.

Would you consider yourself a good fighter now?

Oh no, not now. I’m not a good fighter now but I was then—tall, with fast hands and long arms. Those are good features for a fighter.

I was at the Stanford Medical Center from August to December 1967. The technique that Dr. Flocks–that’s F-L-O-C-K-S–used on me was experimental. I had to sign a document to give him permission to use this experimental treatment on me. Fortunately he did it and it worked.

If not?

I don’t know. The technique was to put hollow silicon bands around my eyes and burn the sclera and if the retina was in that fluid when it hardened, it would be captured and held in place. Now this is routine, but at the time it was very experimental.

As you were healing in the hospital, you proposed to mom. Can you tell me that story?

Your mom and I had already talked about getting married during the summer when I was working for Hewlett Packard and healthy. But now I was on the other end of that spectrum. I wasn’t so healthy anymore.

I can’t remember where we were in terms of the operation, but I think they had finished the first eye and not the second. I was wearing glasses and they were all taped up but for a little hole in the center that was all I could see out of. That was so I wouldn’t move my eyes.

So I was lying out in the hospital bed and my friend Tom Canfield–that’s C-A-N-F-I-E-L-D–went over to Tiffany’s. He went and got the ring and brought it to me and with my eyes all bandaged up and my blue pajamas on I proposed to your mom. And I remember I thought to myself—I don’t want to marry anyone who’s crazy enough to marry me!

How did you go from being only able to afford one pair of shoes, to being able to buy a ring at Tiffany’s?

Well, the railroad. And working for Hewlett Packard. But I spent every dime I made that summer on that ring. It was fun.

Is there anything you want to tell me about this time in your life that you haven’t already shared?

Well, the thing that really made the job on the railroad work were the unions. Those guys took care of me—took care of us all. Everyone out there was a member of the union. There has always been trouble between the big railroads and the little guy, the union man, but the union itself was strong. They made sure we had what we needed, that we got work, that we were taken care of. The way the unions have been broken up today, it’s just not the same. That protection is gone.