June 2009 Issue
As a teen-ager working in the railyards one summer, the writer learned much more than train repair.
When I was 17, I scratched my name across a Norfolk & Western Railroad application, buckled on a tool belt, and went to work the Big Iron. While my friends flipped burgers, I rode with outlaws. That work shaped the man I became as much as anything ever did.
We are trying to be a nation that is pretty and green. That Cleveland — my Cleveland — was neither. The N&W repair track sat on an ash-colored rise alongside the Cuyahoga River. As the ’60s slid into the ’70s, the industrial boom still glowed. Freight trains rolled through town like an endless mechanized cattle drive. Inspectors stalked the railyards with yellow marking chalk, cutting stragglers from the herd. Damaged cars were hauled to the repair track, to be healed by wizards with wrenches and fire.
They were called car men, and they clambered across boxcar roofs like circus acrobats, then snaked beneath gondola cars like sideshow contortionists. I was a car man’s helper, hired to haul tools, tend an acetylene torch and not kill anyone in the process.
It was hard work — new hires were prone to leave in disgust or an ambulance — but I was glad to have it. I wanted a learning experience. I got Harvard with blunt objects.
Against that background my co-workers stood out. But they would have stood out on a carnival midway.
Chuck was the foreman, a big man with a voice that sounded like a bear being dragged down a gravel road. He prowled his kingdom, a refrigerator in a madras shirt, threatening to fire any man who died on his watch.
Tommy had come from Dixie to build Fords, but decided an assembly line was nothing but a prison without the chains. He sported a pompadour that never budged no matter how hard the wind blew. I believe it would have survived a tornado.
Jerry and Charlie were brothers. Jerry was silent as a grave marker, but Charlie filled the air with enough words for both of them, so it was all right. They were dating twin sisters, I recall.
White-haired Frank, our write-up man, dipped snuff and read the comic pages in the locker room every morning — out loud. I remember moon-faced Him, who was called nothing else, because he always referred to himself that way (“Him needs a pry bar,” or “Him hungry”). He was rumored to hail from either Mississippi or Massillon, but might just as well have come from Mars.
And there was Robert, a kind man who rode in from the suburbs, told tall tales, and was Michelangelo with a cutting torch.
If they had last names, I do not recall knowing them. If they had families, I do not remember them mentioning any. I know they worked like demons and cussed apologetically but expertly. With their tool belts riding low on their hips they were something to see, just coming up a road.
I admired them. I knew hard work — every man I knew worked. But these railroad men were not going meekly deaf in a machine shop, or rusting in place on an assembly line. They moved, meeting each day head-on, like a boxer striding into the ring.
Heck, I envied them. For them, life was an adventure story, and they were its authors. If you told me they rode to work on a whirlwind, I would have believed you.
They left in one.
They called it “going up the hill,” and I have never heard another direction sound as sinful. On Friday they would emerge from the changing room in white T-shirts and pressed Wrangler jeans and race off in Turtle Waxed
Malibus and GTOs to arm wrestle the deadlier sins.
Saloons dotted the area near the repair tracks. Inside, granny-haired bartenders waited to feed them pickled eggs and serve as a substitute mother. My co-workers would sip George Dickel whiskey until they had misplaced both their cares and their car keys.
I can still hear their tape players blaring over the roar of V-8 engines.
I had never heard a gunfighter ballad, but these men played nothing else.
I recall Johnny Cash warning “don’t take your guns to town,” and Billy Walker crossing the Brazos. As a guitar laid the rhythm down, a weary voice sang of cowpokes doomed the moment they strapped on the “big iron” of a pistol.
I could only watch as they took the hill, trailing Marty Robbins. I was underage and — worse — uninvited. I guess they felt obliged to return me to my momma in the same condition as I arrived.
They would be back Monday morning, so full of coffee they sloshed.
I liked working with Charlie best. He would sing, and in turn I would tell him what I studied in school. For Charlie, nothing illustrated the sorry state of modern education more than the fact I could quote Shelley but had never heard of “Merle-damn-Travis.”
One day we climbed a yard tower to repair a signal, Charlie in the lead, me hauling our gear up the winding stairs. When the walkway narrowed, he waved me on ahead.
Charlie handed up his tools. I had watched and learned. “Here,” he grinned. “Let’s see what you can do.” It was as close to a battlefield promotion as I will ever come.
I vowed to spend my life swinging a hammer. The job would be waiting after graduation. Why not? The world drove a Mustang, or wanted to, and American steel held up the sky.
I slouched in class, watching my calluses soften.
Snow dusted the ground when I returned for a visit. The yard was empty. A foreman told me the repair track had been closed, the men scattered, the work diverted to distant yards. Consolidation, he said, and we both nodded like we knew what that meant. On TV men in expensive suits were calling it a recession.
I half expected a tumbleweed to roll past.
The sky did not fall at that moment, but it sagged a good bit.
That next summer I worked the paint line at a scaffolding factory. I applied to Cleveland State. The foreman used to bring people down to look at the college boy.
That was more than 30 years ago. Life since then has been a taxi ride from one fairy tale to another.
I have done okay in the new economy. It is uncomfortable sometimes, like dancing in borrowed shoes. I am all right with change, although some who know me might laugh. A woman once told me that expecting me to change was like watering a plastic rose.
For a long time I thought that railroad summer did not mark me. What if all those hammer-swingers built was one fine memory? Then, just walking, I cross into their world.
Even for those not birthed under a smokestack — and any Ohioan who says he is not just a generation or two from sweat labor is either forgetful or a Rockefeller — work is ingrained in us. It is who we are. It is why people with soft hands and Blackberrys are drawn to tin ceilings and old lofts, I think. Old voices speak in the creaking floors, reminding us of an Ohio that was something to see just coming up a road. I cannot explain it, I just know it’s true, the way I know food will taste better in a restaurant where today’s specials are posted on hundred-year-old bricks.
That time can come again. The future is a freight train rolling. Now, say the wizards, let’s see what you can do.