Billy spits when he talks. All the time.
This is annoying. What’s amazing is that Billy cannot read nor write.
Billy works hard, almost as hard as Adolph. Billy and Adolph are the hardest working guys on the Norfolk and Western Railway section labor gang. A most unlikely pair, Billy is a white guy from just below the Ohio state line in West Virginia and Adolph is a black man from the east side of Cleveland. Adolph also cannot read nor write. Our boss, Leo Bobko, signs their paychecks for them.
After high school I was unsure if college was right for me. After an education at an all-boys Catholic High School, I was more than ready to get on with “living” my life. To test the waters, I enrolled in two classes at Cleveland State University. My grades after one semester? One “F” and one “C”. It appeared that college was not for me. At least it was clear that I should consider pursuing my livelihood elsewhere. Perhaps the beer drinking, partying, and chasing girls had something to do with my poor grades, but that thought never occurred to me. I decide to get a job.
My first job was at Republic Steel working in the hot mill. I was a “piler” on the ½ inch line. I love saying that, it sounds like some exotic occupation (it wasn’t). I worked the swing shift, one-week days, next week evenings, next week night shift and then back to days. Being in the hot mill, near glowing red steel, the job had an attractive element of danger. I often worked double shifts (16 hours) and overtime and the pay was great for a kid just out of high school. It was in the mill where I learned the value of steel lunch boxes. Nobody would say anything, but when you showed up that first week with your lunch in a paper bag, you would be sharing your lunch with the mill rats. Lesson learned and laughter from the old-timers.
Laid off after a few months, I went to work on the General Motors assembly line. My first assignment was to place steel bars in the headrests before they were filled with plastic foam. I then moved to stamping out trunk hinges. That job was enough to convince me to go back to college. I sold my 63 Chevy Impala to my sister, Elizabeth, and enrolled in Ohio University where two of my best childhood friends had already been attending for a year.
Enrolled as an architecture student, I made the Dean’s list that first year, a far cry from my performance at Cleveland State. Returning home for the summer, I needed a job and somehow landed one on the Norfolk and Western Railway. I cannot recall how I found out where to apply. Nevertheless, I applied and was given the job. It wasn’t a big interview, basically; Are you willing to work? Can you get here early in the morning? Two other young men also applied and started the same day as I.
That’s where I first met Billy, Adolph, and Leo. Rounding out that section labor gang was Jonsey, the assistant foreman, Tony (call me Anthony), the switch lantern attendant, and Roman, another laborer.
This collection of men provided me an education the likes of which I could never have gotten in college or elsewhere. I was in awe of the work ethic and abilities of both Billy and Adolph and perplexed as to why they couldn’t read nor write. Roman, from Eastern Europe, was a quiet observer and thoughtful worker. He didn’t say much but he was a presence to be acknowledged. Jonesy, a heavy black man, worked when Leo was around and then let us all rest as soon as Leo left. He had a deep laugh and relaxed attitude to life. Very relaxed! Tony was an adjunct to the section labor gang. He didn’t actually work with us but began each day at the workhouse complaining about his back and bragging that he had again woken up with a hard-on. He was in his sixties and this was important to him and a source of amusement to all of us.
My very first day on the job found us repairing a road crossing that led into “the flats” and the steel mills. Adolph is using a jackhammer to break up the concrete. A jackhammer combines a hammer and a chisel and is powered by compressed air. It’s an impressive piece of machinery and way ahead of the old pick and shovel routine. But it is loud, very loud. Anyone who has driven past a road construction site knows how deafening it can be. Adolph is not wearing ear protection or eye protection. He doesn’t “have to”. OSHA didn’t come into existence until a year later in 1970. The average human pain threshold for noise is 110 decibels, jackhammers operate at 130+ decibels. Adolph didn’t seem to notice. He was focused or, in addition to being unable to read or write, he may have been partially deaf.
The end of the hose attached to the jackhammer has a large heavy brass knob. This brass knob also has a safety chain. This chain is to prevent the hose from getting completely disconnected from the jackhammer should the connector fail or otherwise get disconnected. It works, that is if you actually connect it. Adolph didn’t connect it. The other end of the hose is connected to a large compressor that generates a lot of pressure. We’re talking a lot of pressure.
I am standing a bit away from where Adolph is working, scratching at the dirt with my shovel, clearing a spot here and there near the rails. At some point, the hose came loose from the jackhammer and started slithering along the ground, thrashing and popping up now and again like a brass cobra. If that brass connector hits your ankle or leg it is broken. If it hits you anywhere, you’re in a world of hurt! Dust and stones flying everywhere. The poor fellows who were nearby ran for their lives, I was in awe and a bit amused at the show. Leo got to the compressor and the danger passed. First day on the job, chock full of excitement!
Reporting for work the next morning, I learn that the two other young men who had hired on with me quit. I felt a touch of schadenfreude and was glad to be the only new “kid” on the gang. I internalized the event as some sort of railroad fraternity hazing and I was admitted and they were not.
Our Section Labor gang now had only six members; Adolph, Jonesy, Billy, Roman, Leo, and me. Again, Tony worked alone, walking up and down the switching yard filling the switch lanterns with oil and making sure the wicks were trimmed. From many years of bending over he had developed a hunchback and could not stand up straight. He was forever looking at the ground.
On June 22, 1969, sparks from a passing train ignited a fire in oil slicked debris floating on the Cuyahoga River. This was one of more than a dozen times the river had caught on fire. As the fiery mess floated down towards Lake Erie, with flames as high as five stories, it burned two railroad bridges that spanned the river. One of the bridges was owned by Norfolk and Western.
Once the fire had passed under the bridge and the fire was put out, we were the crew that had to rebuild the bridge. The heat had been so intense that the steel rails had been warped into a snakelike shape. The rails had to be removed and the ties beneath them had to be replaced as they were almost all turned to ashes. The end of each section of steel rail is joined to the next section with two pieces of steel called an angle irons, or fish plates. The angle iron, one on each side of the rail, is secured with four high-carbon steel bolts. Each angle iron weighs about 20-25 pounds.
To remove the angle irons, you have to remove the bolts connecting them. Billy went to work! He removed all four bolts but the angle irons wouldn’t come loose from the rail. The rail was so warped that they were stuck. Billy steps up with hammer in hand and swings away striking the rail on top! Sproing! The angle irons shoot out into the river in opposite directions like being shot from a catapult and the rail runs right up the inside of Billy’s leg tearing pants and flesh. Not a pretty sight and a painful scream with a West Virginia drawl. Billy’s off to the hospital and we have two hammers and other equipment in the river below.
Every morning, the six of us (sometimes with Tony) would leave the workhouse and head to the cart shack. The old railroad handcar, or pump trolley, that you see in cartoons where one fellow is on either side of a see-saw apparatus had been replaced by a motorized cart that propelled us down the track. The carts were still awfully small.
The cart was stored in a shack with tracks leading out that were perpendicular to and running right up to the main railroad track. Once Leo had confirmed that the main track was clear, we would open the shack doors and roll the cart up to the track. Then the six of us, three on each side, with a big heave-ho at the count of three, would lift the cart and place it on the tracks. Once on the tracks with the shack closed and locked up, we were off, sitting in the open air regardless of the weather, each of us lost in our own thoughts about the day ahead and what we might be working on that day. Leo was the only one who “drove”, but it’s not like it mattered, we were on the rails.
That was part of the enjoyment of the job, you never knew beforehand what you might be working on that day. One thing we knew for certain was that nothing would start until we stopped for coffee and hard rolls with butter. Make a picture in your mind. It’s unseasonably cool, there’s a slight drizzle, and your head hurts from the night just passed. In short, it’s not looking like a stellar day ahead. Then, like a hand out of heaven, you are given a hot cup of coffee and a big hard roll with a huge slab of butter! It’s the stuff of miracle cures. I can still taste it!
On another more pleasant morning, we went to work clearing weeds and brush along a crossing and a curve. Leo dropped us off with the scythes and machetes and then left us there with Jonesy as he went off to some other job. As soon as the cart was out of sight, Jonesy called for a break and we laid down in the weeds beside the track for a rest even though we hadn’t done much. Laying in those weeds, in the early morning and looking at the sky, life seemed large and promising.
Another day we had to repair a section of track where all the dirt and stone underneath the ties and rails had washed away in a flash flood. Jonesy was in charge again. He starts walking the tracks, straddling the rail above the spot where all the foundational stone is gone. The railroad ties were hanging in mid-air, four feet above the wash out, attached to the rails by spikes nailed into the tie plates. As I said, Jonesy was a big man. A few steps on the ties while straddling the rail and the plates give way, the tie falls and Jonesy lands full force with his groin hitting the rail. Another touch of schadenfreude. Arthur Schopenhauer said "To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is diabolic." We were on the diabolic side. We laughed and Jonesy screamed. It seemed that we had a good bit of screaming but this was offset by much larger amounts of laughter. Jonesy survived but he worked even slower after that.
Our foreman, Leo, was also a screamer and was not much for laughing or fooling around. He was an excellent foil for the rest of us. I believe he loved us like a father loves his foolish sons and who thinks that yelling is the best form of communication. He would curse and complain about how we worked and what we were doing but he always paid for the coffee and hard rolls. He was an old man for the railroad and had worked there a long time. He wasn’t fond of the brakemen or the engineers, who also worked the yard and who seemed to hold themselves up as “better than” the section labor guys. I think that’s why he loved us. We were like him. We were his boys, no matter how old. And perhaps, I was the baby brother to them all.
At the end of summer, I returned to Ohio University. During the winter break, I went back to working on the railroad to earn some cash. In the winter, when it snowed, the switch points had to be cleared so as to prevent a possible derailment. It’s not a desirable job as it means spending the entire day out in the elements. But it’s a perfect job for a young pyromaniac! I took the job without a moment’s hesitation. After a snowfall, I would start out with a can that had a long snout and was filed with flammable oil. I would light it and start walking the switching yard from one end to the other, stopping at every switch point and starting a fire between the switch points. The colder it was the more I poured the oil. I was all by myself, which suits my temperament to a tee, and I had fire! All day from one end of the switching yard to the other, it was a devil’s delight.
Our culture, for the most part, doesn’t entertain any real rites of passage into manhood (or into womanhood for that matter). Young men back then, and it would seem even more so today, have to essentially find their own bridge across and oftentimes with other young men who are as clueless as they. Fathers, uncles, and old men have traditionally been the guides but not so much anymore. Rites of passage these days are largely drawn from main stream culture/media and the results are not terribly inspiring. Too much macho, too little sensibility, and a much too small smattering of emotional IQ. It’s one thing to find your own way, it’s quite another to have guides who can show the way and help you avoid snares, dead ends and, God willing, stupid ideas.
For the most part, my right of passage into manhood was working on the section labor gang. As one of three young men to start, I was the only one to stay. I wasn’t big or strong but I was very much alone and wanting to belong. These fine men mocked me, laughed with me, shared with me, accepted me, and under it all, they let me know that I was, like them, a “railroad man”. They loved me in a way I never knew.
I can recall but a single face from my all my time at Republic Steel and General Motors. That face belongs to a young man my age whose story remains to be told. All the others I have forgotten. Perhaps it was the nature of the work itself in the mill and assembly line that made bonding with others difficult or impossible. Where I was part of a “gang” on the railroad, I was a cog on a wheel at the mill and the assembly line.
I found an openness working with these fine gentlemen on the Norfolk and Western Section Labor Gang. They were real to me (as in the verb “to be real”) and helped me to open up. They gave me new eyes by which to see. My world got bigger because of them. I found acceptance, the joy of hard labor, and the wisdom and love beneath the surface appearance of people. To be sure, Billy spit when he talked, but he spoke directly to me. He showed me how to hammer a spike into a railroad tie without hitting the rail itself a hundred times! Adolph showed me a kindness and acceptance as a “young man” that I had never known.
Once, while having lunch in a dark bar, I sat at the bar between Billy and Adolph. Adolph ordered shots and beers for the three of us, even though I was legally too young to drink whisky. The three of us raised our shot glasses and toasted the day. I will never forget those smiles on the faces of my two friends.
They are all dead and gone now. Like life itself, I moved on and they moved on. I never saw or talked with them again. I have a treasured switch lantern they gave me as a going away present. It stands on a stone pedestal in my front yard and lights up the night with its’ Fresnel lens beacon. I can see it from my window at night and it’s usually the last thing I see when I head upstairs to go to sleep.
The love, and I would not have called it love back then, they showed a young man beginning his journey into adulthood has stayed with me all these years. It shines as bright as the switch lantern and serves a similar purpose. I would, all too soon, need all the light and love I could find.
After winter break, I returned to college. Ohio University’s campus is divided by a railroad track that runs through the campus. I would cross these tracks on a regular basis going to and from class and, when lonely, sad, or otherwise “lost”, I would walk the tracks trying to collect my thoughts.
The Kent State shootings were a few months ahead in May, 1970. I would end my Ohio University education with a spent tear gas canister memento and a GPA of 1.2. The University would be closed. In June, 1970, I married the Queen of the 1968 Tipp City Mum Festival, a beautiful young woman and the only daughter of a Southern Ohio soy bean farmer. I would be a father by year’s end and loading fifty-pound bales of asbestos (mesothelioma be damned) into giant mixers at Foseco Chemical Company.
A switch had been thrown and I was heading down an entirely new track. The ties beneath me gave way and it would be almost twelve years before I really hit the ground.