by Nate Bender
Railroads, ranging from laying tracks to operating the locomotives, have long held a special presence in my life. Within one hundred yards of our rural Iowa house, the Chicago Great Western made an indelible daily mark on my life experiences. The sights and sounds of passing trains created fascinations around traveling to new and different locales. For unknown reasons, counting the number of rail cars, often numbering well over one hundred, was an important activity.
Certain trains delivered mail that was ‘caught’ by an over-head ‘catcher’ gizmo, thus removing the need for coming to a complete stop. Grain cars were sectioned off for filling at the adjoining grain elevator. Ordered freight would be off-loaded at the Depot, including a set of weights I had ordered to increase my body strength and girth – yes, I was once a skinny weakling!
Fast forward to the Spring of 1964 -- I had completed my first trimester at Pepperdine University and registered my best academic performance ever. I was formally removed from academic probation, thus qualified to receive a full athletic scholarship. The core expenses would be taken care of---room, board, books and tuition. I experienced a profound upswing in my spirit and momentum, emitting new confidence in my ability to complete the requirements for an under graduate degree, in an unknown major at this point.
I chose to skip the following Spring trimester, as the accrued Winter trimester debt of almost $1000 called for my acquiring a better paying job than my philatelist concession stand clerk job in Robinson’s Department Store. As with much of my life, an unexpected opportunity presented itself: notification that the Southern Pacific Railroad was soliciting temporary hires for the soon to be extinct position of firemen. Firemen were originally the stokers of the coal-burning locomotives. Diesel engines replaced the coal-burners, which powered electric generators from which to move mighty loads. Management, in concert with union agreement, decided to replace firemen with switchmen, the person who formerly occupied the caboose.
I promptly went to the railroad’s downtown Los Angeles personnel office and filled out the required paper work. Without an interview, I was hired! Within a day or two, I was employed full-time, as a fireman, with a pay rate beyond anything I had ever received.
Indoctrination and training was simple. The engineer, who drives the locomotive and is the senior man of the crew gave me instructions on mounting and un-mounting moving locomotives and cars, along with hooking and unhooking cars. Save for one long haul to Yuma, Arizona, and back, all of my work revolved around the main rail yard in Los Angeles where positioning or repositioning different rail cars for departure to other destinations were conducted.
My four-month employment as a fireman became quite a contrast to the labor-intense work I did as a farm hand. I was actually having fun while earning a full time salary in addition to overtime stints, that paid time and a half. For several months I earned nearly $2000 a month!
Three notations around ‘working on the railroad’ stand out in my memory bank. First, was paying off my student loan with one two-week pay check. When cashing the check at my bank, I asked to receive its total in cash. I then commenced to walk to the Pepperdine College registrar’s office in possession of more money than I had ever laid hands on. I left the office filled with a skip in my get-a-long, possessing renewed pride, joy and confidence in my ability to be self sufficient, all on the eve of my 21st birthday.
Secondly, was the high desert trip to Yuma, in the smoldering mid-summer heat. After a brief stop in Colton to drop off and pick up new freight cars, the remainder of the trip was full-throttle to Yuma, spending most of the time viewing the wonders of nature. Of particular note was my having to make engine checks of the six locomotive units while speeding along at 60 miles per hour. This required my transiting on the outside walk-ways of each unit, and stepping over open spaces onto the next engine unit, checking the oil and water levels. At one point I discovered one unit over-heating, requiring me to shut the unit down. I felt like I was on an adventure few people my age could have experienced.
My third noteworthy memory involved my exchanges with career-oriented personnel, many of whom were originally from Oklahoma. Being an extrovert, with a curious nature, it took little time for people to share their personal lives! Having no previous encounters with racist talk, I found myself shocked by their frequent derisive references to people of color. My innocent, idealistic perspectives had to make an adjustment to be compassionate toward those holding such prejudices.
An aside memory involved my means of transportation to and from work. Somewhere, involving another chance encounter I purchased a 1953 Chevy car for $50. It had been reconfigured with an Oldsmobile V-8 engine and a floor-placed ‘stick-shift’ resulting in a gapping hole in the surrounding floor-board. For some reason, this car had an inconsistent pattern in starting, frequently requiring my pushing it out into the street and flagging down a car to give me a push-start. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have an official license tag, and for sure I had no insurance on it. Upon completion of my railroad job, I simply let it sit on a side street, expecting it to be hauled away for junk….Its mission had been completed! As soon as school started in late August, I was able to buy a replacement car, that being a 1951 Ford, for which I also paid $50.
Back to my job…..After receiving my last pay check, I ventured down town to purchase a new clothing ensemble, namely, my first blazer and matching shirt, tie and trousers, along with a pair of Florsheim wing-tip shoes. These acts created feelings of success and prosperity! And, I also purchased an airplane ticket to Newark, New Jersey to meet up with a former college roommate and attend the New York worlds fair.
My work on the railroad resulted in my having an enriching life experience while also granting me financial solvency. The security generated served as an aid in managing the needs of my junior year of college, while also presenting new story telling material in my social life! To this day, I find myself transfixed on each and every railroad encounter I have, whether it be the movement of freight or passengers. And my two young grandsons also have a shared interest in trains, including Thomas Trains around which I can easily become immersed, knowing what the real deal was like.