"The Wondering Jew"
Jul. 28, 2002 - 22:53 MDT
THE WONDERING JEW
Workin' On The Railroad
Going back sixty some years ago I began working at the freight house of a railroad. In the forties we had not come too far from the cowboy days, World War One days, and the days when railroads were the main form of transportation for both cargo and people.
I started out in the freight dock pushing a hand truck moving freight about. It was summer and I had a set of muscles to develop, as a newbie I didn't have the ones I needed. I sweat, not perspired, but salty, steaming, dripping sweat. I was holding my own pretty well too.
I was asked to come into the office and be a patrolman. Never did figure out why it was me who was asked. Funny title but in a way it had something in it of patrolling. I worked at night, so carried my pad and a big flashlight with me. I would get on a bike and go check the seals on each box car after a train would come in, write the numbers down on my pad and turn the sheets in at the office. Pretty nice work in the summer time but when winter came all the operations were difficult and numbing, the seals often would be iced, my bike was not a tricycle, so was iffy to navigate and too far to walk, my fingers became frozen sausages to all intents and purposes. The other half of my duties which were part of my bike-a-thon was to take and pick up waybills at the four other freight houses as well as taking papers to the telegraph office on the second floor of the Union Station, on shift there would also be X trips to the yard office with switch orders etc., about a mile round trip.
They must have liked my work and attendance because I was brought into clerk-hood. That was the days of Comptometers and there were three or four ladies operating those fancy adding machines, several billing clerks who frantically typed out bills. That was daytime work. For a short time I was demurrage clerk until the Switch Desk came open at night. I guess that was my destiny as I was a pretty fair typist, so to work.
It was a complicated environment on that job. We switch clerks were required to read each day the new government regulations on movement of freight before we could start work. There be a switch order typed for the movement of each car to be switched. Sometimes the switch order was for switching the car to one of the other railroads or to switch it into a train going east on the other railroad the freight house served. No car moved without a switch order. The rest of the night I would be answering the phone, typing switch orders as fast as I could type and sending the patrolman on his errands.
I don't know when the freight house was built, probably the late 1800's, sturdy with windows high up to the ceiling, steam radiators clanking in the wintertime. The desks looked as if they came out of Noah's Ark and the ancient swivel chairs had casters that might roll once in a while. The switch desk did have a good chair with good casters. Telephones were there, the old ones, but they worked. When they switched the box cars in and out beside the freight house it was noisy and the lights swayed, the floor wiggled a bit too. The railroad still ran many narrow guage routes in the mountains then also which required freight to be off loaded from the wide gage cars into narrow gage rolling stock.
Finally they put me upstairs next to the diversion clerk to work for the OS&D (over, short and damaged) man tracing the movement of freight to determine where damages had occurred. It was a complicated process which required me to go often into the record storage room. My six feet of height didn't help there as my head would bang the rafters in part of the room. It was intensely interesting to me. It made me feel like a sleuth and was overjoyed when I successfully traced a shipment.
It was fascinating work, so many different things to remember and try to speed myself up doing or improve the process.
I felt that it would be my life work, thinking that not all the veterans would return from the war and there would be a place for me yet. Seems like it became known that all the men from there were surviving according to wives or fathers and from postcards and letters to the freight house.
Then the war was over and knowing the men would be coming back to their jobs, I resigned in order to beat other folk who would be in the same position as I and also hunting work.
The snapper ? I found work quickly, decently paying too. I was on my way to lunch one day when I ran into a man from the uptown headquarter offices who said, "We wondered why you quit, we were going to bring you uptown." Oh well, you can't go back in time.
Still though there are the memories of the smell of steam and coal smoke, hot oil and grease, squealing wheels, checking seals between lines of boxcars, the crowded Union Station full of soldiers going somewhere. The clickety clack of the telegraph office. Still memories come back to me of when I was Workin' On The Railroad . . . . . . .0 comments so far