Another Life, Another Time

Ali’s blog yesterday reminded me of when I was 20 and yes….I worked on the railroad. Yep, I was a gandy dancer. I rode the rails, fixed the rails and lived with a rather dangerous bunch in cheap hotels.

I went to two years of college and thought my brain was going to melt if I didn’t get a break. So I quit college and started working on the railroad building small lengths of tracks called spurs. This is the track that would lead from a main line from a switch to a warehouse.

The men that work on building tracks are a hard bunch. You live and work long hours outdoors in every kind of weather. Several of the men on my crew had done hard time in prison. Most were African Americans. About half had severe drinking or drug problems. I got along with all of them. I had to, I was afraid of most of them.

Now introduce half educated white boys from the city (my roommate and I) and you’ve got yourself an adventure.

The foreman almost didn’t hire me when he saw me. I am short compared to the average male population, vertically challenged. I asked him to give me a chance and he did.

I couldn’t believe how hard the work was. The tools weighted a ton. We would pick up railroad ties with tie dogs, steel rails with rail dogs, and manually hammer in spikes with spiking hammers. There is even a tool called a dog dick.

We did get to ride a cool little car with a gas motor up and down the tracks to get to our work. It was a real treat to ride in the locomotive. I couldn't believe how smooth the ride was up there.

I learned how to build and set tracks. In the US the rails are 4 feet 8 ½ inches apart. You have tie plates, frogs for switches, spikes, spike pullers and nippers.

And God knows I shoveled enough stone to make a mountain.

My hands would blister, my body ached and my face was leathery tan. I was determined that I could do this and I did. My body never actually got used to the work. I ached everyday. But I was young.

I didn’t know that my body type was one of those that developed big muscle mass when strained and trained. Heck I never worked out with weights. Soon I became very broad chested and super strong. The other workers would call me over if some really heavy lifting needed to be done. I swear this is true; I actually split two shirts down the back on two separate occasions from my back muscles expanding.

We traveled up and down the east coast and stayed on jobs 1 to 3 weeks. We would then move on to another job.

It was fun coming to a new town and seeing all the sites, even if the towns were small. We once had a 2 week job in Washington, DC and a 3 week job in Birmingham, AL. Most of the other towns were small.

The 1776 “Spirit of America” passed us once while working in Burlington. It was a beautiful steam locomotive with cars all beautifully restored for the bicentennial. The train blew the steam whistle and the engineer waved to us.

The winter of 76/77 was brutal in North Carolina so we didn’t work one January for almost a month. We were living in Boone, NC at the time. For almost a week the temperatures reached -15 below and the wind would howl. The wind blew so hard that our kitchen cabinets would blow open. We could see frost from our breath in the kitchen. We ended up eating beans for a while so we could buy heating oil.

There was a devastating flood around Easter of 1977 in the coaling mining country of western Virginia, near a town called Clintwood, VA.

My Lord that place was backwards. It is a very closed population with very different ways.

The tracks there were washed out from the flood and had to be repaired now. The coal had to flow and it flowed on the rails. Otherwise the economy there would grind to a halt. We would pull 16 hour shifts to speed the work along.

We were able to do jobs others couldn’t do because we were such a small company and we still built tracks by hand. Most of the larger companies had machines that did the back breaking work. Not us. We got a good reputation there and were hired by the local railroad to stay indefinitely doing track maintenance.

That is when the fun ended and I decided college wasn’t so bad.

After a year on the railroad I returned to the books. My body returned to normal and I graduated two years later.

Oh the stories I could tell. I wouldn’t have exchanged that year on the railroad for anything.


Ali said...

Whoa. Awesome story. I never would have figured you for a railroad man.
But I believe you about bulking up doing that kind of work, physical labour has it's positives.
I've gotta say though, I would have loved to see that shirt tear - I thought that only happened in the movies! :)