Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 3

John Henry Jamieson

In the next week, I went to work on the papers Mac Garner had given me. I started with the uniform schedule for all regions, and found it a very curious document indeed. At the top, there were laid across the paper the letters A through E, representing the termini of a division and three intermediate points. The division as a whole would cover as much as one hundred and forty miles in flat fast country and as little as eighty in the mountains. The intermediate points would be spaced equally between the termini. I wasn't sure what Garner would do if there didn't happen to be towns and interchanges where points A-E fell.

What puzzled me more was that the great majority of the freight trains went from A to E, and never came back again. The freights were designated with the letter 'A' and a number, and there were A1 to A52 running, every day, from A to E. A1 left A at 8:00 AM while A52, leaving at one in the morning, arrived at E at 4 AM. Coming back, there were only A97-A100, making their way from passing track to passing track against the stream. Those four trains couldn't possibly bring back anything like the tonnage that had gone the other way. What on earth made Mac think that the freight would only go one way? For that matter, how did he think he would ever get the empty cars back?

I was determined not to run to Mac with questions any more than was absolutely necessary. He obviously loved paradox, and it was equally obvious that he was testing me. There would be an answer, if only I could find it. Racking my brain, I could remember that, in one conversation, he had talked, not only of Kant, but of Plato and the Pythagoreans. I had heard of Plato and did remember that the Pythagoreans had been mathematicians who attached great importance to certain simple numbers and basic geometric figures. Mac had commented,

"Plato probably got his geometrical notions from Pythagoras, and he learned what a powerful lot you can do with points, lines, circles, and damned little else."

All very nice no doubt, but I could hardly see what it had to do with a railway schedule. I then took up another document Mac had just given me.

This consisted of a list of all the railways he had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, and of the divisions he was creating. In each division, the towns were specified which would be, not only the division termini, but the intermediate points, B, C, and D. Glancing through it for the area around Scranton, I saw that these points were often specified only as a certain number of miles from such-and- such a town, meaning that the required facilities would have to be constructed from scratch. Some of the equipment at the existing facilities could be moved, but it wouldn't be cheap or easy.

As I paged through this document, my amazement grew. Mac, while avoiding the most famous roads, was still creating an enormous empire. Moreover, there would be two complete loops, the westernmost of which was over five thousand miles long. It went from the small city of Huntington, Indiana through Chicago and Minneapolis all the way to the state of Washington, turned south through Oregon and northern California, and then came back to Huntington via Salt Lake City and Kansas City. There, of course, was my answer. A circle! There was no need to go backward since you could reach any point by going forward.

Almost all the freight was going to move around the circle in one direction. If it went clockwise, and you wanted to send a car in the other direction for any distance, you sent it around the long way for five thousand miles!

There was, I immediately perceived, a rationale behind all this. Delay and expense is created by having cars hanging around freight yards waiting to be classified. On an average railway, a freight car is in motion only a tiny percentage of the time. If you have the rule that everything goes clockwise, it's necessary, at each division point, to pull out of a train only the few cars destined for that division. If you know in advance where they will be in the train, and thry're all together, that will take only a few minutes. You then hook a new locomotive to the train, add a few cars, and send it off on its endless journey around the circle. There would also be an endless supply of empty cars. At each division point, you simply took enough from passing trains for local requirements.

I then looked back at the schedule. In some parts of the country, the long distance lines have only a single track. This was, at any rate, true of many of the lines Mac controlled. If trains are going in opposite directions, one train has to wait on a passing track for the other to go past. This creates a great deal of delay, some confusion, and a certain potential for accidents. It was because Mac had so few trains going in the "wrong" direction that he could schedule a stupendous fifty two freight trains a day going in the right direction. He would be capable, more or less, of moving all the freight in America without much help from anyone else.

Armed with my new knowledge, I wandered casually down the hall, strolled into my old office, and sat down in the visitor's chair. Mac, sitting sleepy-eyed with his hat pulled forward and his boots up, boomed out,

"Mornin, son. You look like you got varmints in your garmints."

By this time, I had realized that Mac's Texasisms were at least two thirds affectation. However, he both enjoyed them and hid cagily behind them. I responded by scratching myself indelicately and saying,

"I got jest one question. Are we runnin clockwise or counter- clockwise."

Mac smiled broadly enough to show his gold tooth. I was proving to him that he had made a good choice. He replied,

"I been workin on that. It don't seem to make hardly a damn bit of difference. We may have to flip a coin in the end."

"What happens if I want to send a car from Milwaukee to Chicago and we go the other way. Does it go on A96, or does it go around by Oregon and K. C.?"

"A96 will do it. I think cars can go the wrong way for about four hundred miles. Beyond that, they go around the long way."

I nodded and asked,

"Do you like circles because of Plato and Pythagoras?"

The philosophy was, with Mac, much less an affectation than the Texasisms. It, too, had its uses, but that act was a little nearer the essence of that particular showman. The two affectations were also, so far as I could see, entirely exclusive of one another. He now replied in standard English,

"Of course, the Greeks had in mind perfect circles. All radii aren't equal in mine. However, our circles are topological invariants of their circles. That is, they have the same abstract properties. That's what Pythagoras would be interested in if he were alive now."

Mac then shifted back to Texas.

"Son, jes imagine a single pair of rails runnin unbroken for over five thousand miles, and then comin on back to a little town in Indiana that ain't got no idea of what's a'goin to hit it."

I imagined as instructed. I also became aware of a critically important truth. Mac really didn't give a damn whether the whole thing made money. He had a vision, an aesthetic vision. Most of the time, he was entirely obsessed by it.

We then went on to talk of the Eastern circle, which was almost as long. It also began and ended at Huntington, Indiana. In between, it went south to Louisiana, toured the deep south, and came up through Virginia to Philadelphia and New York. It then came past us, right at Scranton, and went through the midwest on its way back to Huntington. Later on, other loops and branches were added, but, right at the beginning, Mac had those two great circles in mind.

The financing was then just about complete. Mac had gained control of some thirty railways, and parts of a few others. Some were acquired virtually for the asking, but others had been parts of competing systems, and had been bought dearly. I was never part of his financial team, perhaps because of what he had seen of my financing on the DL&W.

As I was leaving the office, Mac asked me how I was getting on with the reconstruction of my car. I answered with some enthusiasm and mentioned Miss Momsen. Mac looked at me cannily, but didn't, to my relief, make some remark in the Texas style about my intentions.

At that time, apart from his status as a bachelor, I had very little notion of Mac's attitudes toward women, or, indeed, whether he had any interest in them at all. It seemed entirely possible that, apart from his fascination with railways and philosophy, he hardly cared about anything. I did, however, let fall,

"She's a delightful young lady. If you ever want anything decorated, you might think of her."

A bit later on, I went out to lunch. Lunch is important to me. I dislike eating at my desk, whether out of a brown paper bag or otherwise. I must go somewhere and be served. On the other hand, resources in Scranton were rather limited.

If I had appeared near his office at the right time, Mac would most likely have clapped a great hand on my shoulder and taken me along with him. I had misgivings on that score. Holding up my end of things with Mac always required a certain effort, and I wanted to relax. In addition to which, too much familiarity might have led, not necessarily to contempt, but to my becoming a bit of a court jester. Since Mac always had lunch in the restaurant in our hotel, that left only one place of like stature, the Coach and Four.

The Coach and Four presented a different set of problems. I had eaten there hundreds of times over the years. I knew almost everyone who ate there. More to the point, they knew me. They would be polite and unfailingly correct. Some people might be a little embarrassed by my presence, but they would also be embarrassed to see me eating alone. Some of them might invite me to join their table in order to minimize their embarrassment.

I would much rather have eaten alone, something that has never bothered me in the slightest, but, knowing that the others would be embarrassed, I would be embarrassed. And, then, too, if I were invited to join a table, I couldn't refuse without embarrassing everyone. It was just possible that, if I made a practice of lunching at the Coach and Four, all these forms of embarrassment would gradually diminish to a manageable level. Instead, I chose another alternative.

The Railway Cafe was just that. Men from the works, the yards, and the engine houses thronged there to drink. At lunchtime, they often partook of something solid as well. They all knew who I was. To them, I was still president of the line. They saw no reason why I shouldn't sit at a little table with a beer and the blue-plate special while I looked through my papers. I was soon on familiar terms with the waitresses, and would often nod to a few others as I passed. No one seemed to be embarrassed. I suppose that they assumed that I was no longer wanted by my own kind. I saw no reason to argue with that, and casually hung my hat on the coat- rack. Among the various kinds of head-gear favored by the men of steam and steel, there was exactly one businessman's hat. The waitresses occasionally made jokes about it.

On this day, the special consisted of lamb chops and cabbage. Surrounded by noise and activity, I ate with good appetite at my little table in the corner. I heard somewhere above me say,

"And then he hit the son-of-bitch with a left hook."

It was spoken passionately, but with discernment. I guessed that the subject of discussion was a boxing match rather than a free-for-all in the yards. That was gratifying. I was also glad that I wasn't the son-of-a-bitch on the receiving end. The men of the Lackawanna were certainly rough, but they were unlikely to attack without cause.

It was in that atmosphere that I noticed a definite quieting, first out by the doorway, and then into the recesses of the room. It was so unusual that I half stood, thinking that something might have happened in the street outside. What I saw was inside the door, in fact, a man. The man was very young, very large, and very black. He wore an engineer's cap and advanced slowly to the bar, the crowd making way for him.

It is sometimes said that, in such cases, people stop talking altogether. This didn't happen. Some people still talked, a few loudly, but there was nothing like the ordinary bedlam. And, of course, we weren't in the south. There weren't many blacks around Scranton, those few being, for the most part, servants. While notions of racial equality would have been remarkably scarce, there was no law, written or unwritten, that a black man couldn't come into a bar frequented by whites. Indeed, I had often seen black Pullman porters in this very cafe at night, getting a sandwich before going on duty. However, the porters were most often stooped older men with diffident manners. Above all, they didn't wear engineer's caps.

It was in this subdued and questioning atmosphere that the young man placed his order and was handed a blue plate special over the heads of those at the bar. He then looked for somewhere to eat it. There were no vacant seats except the one facing me at my little table. No one had ever asked to share my table, and I had never invited anyone to do so. No one, I think, thought much about it. The men didn't find it natural to share a table with the president of the road, nor did I find it natural to make a stab at breaking down the various class distinctions which have always been so much a part of American life.

It should be clear by now that I am not a revolutionary, a visionary, or a man with a pronounced tendency to make life a little bit better for everyone wherever he happens to be. On the other hand, I was faced with a man obviously looking for a place to put his plate down in order to avoid the awkwardness of trying to cut his meat with one hand while holding his plate with the other. When he looked in my direction, I motioned with my hand.

In the circumstances, it would have been possible not to talk. Two Lackawanna men who weren't previously acquainted might well not have, even if they had both been white. Each might have been sufficiently awkward socially not to introduce himself or address any remarks to the other. I am not awkward socially. Moreover, I am not without a modicum of the sort of civility which seeks to avoid embarrassment. I spoke to the young man, introducing myself quietly as a railway accountant. He replied,

"My name is John Henry Jamieson. I'm an engineer with the Columbus and Greenville Railway in Mississipi."

As he spoke, there was light in his black eyes and a peculiar play of feature around his mouth. He was amused. Since the situation struck me as rather tense, I couldn't imagine why. I later discovered that John Henry Jamieson could speak with many voices and as many accents. He addressed me in the sort of standard English which might have been copied from a radio announcer, and which was designed to be neutral in all circumstances.

It was a little puzzling to hear it just then because my new acquaintance, far from being neutral, was obviously up to something. He was barely eighteen then, and, as we talked, I was reminded of the sort of high school student who is never far from planning and executing a scheme for embarrassing the headmaster in front of an audience. While he also studies hard and has difficult questions for some of his teachers, his sense of humor and thirst for adventure haven't yet been tamed.

When strangers meet, there's always a subject of mutual interest if they have the wit to find it. In this case, it was easy enough to speak of locomotives. I asked him what sort of engine he was used to, and he described in some detail the old Consolidation which he had been nursing along.

"Thirty or forty years ago, it must've been a good engine. Nowadays, you have to hope that a main rod won't come through the cab and wipe the clock."

Wiping the clock was a process in which the rods of an engine came loose and shot through the light steel of the cab, killing the engineer or fireman. Along with his audacity, there was in John Henry a definite and calculated streak of caution. He took risks, but he knew to a nicety the severity of the risk.

I asked him whether he had gone to high school in Mississippi. He was amused by the very question and replied,

"I was working in the fields before I got to the railway. All you needed to know is what to pick and what to leave."

I soon gathered that rural Mississippi was hardly different from what it had been in the days of slavery. The blacks who worked in the fields often got no education at all, and it wasn't common for them to be able to read. My young man most probably had gotten a job on the railway which required great strength, much like the John Henry of the ballad, and had then showed his competence at many things until he broke through to the pinnacle of engineer.

I then paused to reflect. Things didn't happen quite like that. In my experience then and since, people don't just come out of nowhere to accomplish something significant. There has to be something in their background which predisposes them or, no matter how indirectly, gives them a little push or start. I probed gently.

John Henry seemed disinclined to say anything at all about his parents. However, there was, of all things, a great grandmother. Growing up as a slave in Virginia, she had worked as a ladies' maid in a large aristocratic home. Then, as was unusual but not extraordinary, she had been educated by a tutor along with the white children of the house. She had survived to an old age, indeed long enough to teach John Henry every evening under candlelight in a cabin. She had died only two years previously, and, although he obviously missed her, he laughed when he spoke of some of the exotic, and even abstruse, things she had taught him. When I congratulated him on his attainments, he replied,

"I usually learn by making mistakes, and, the further I come, the more mistakes there are to make. So I'm learning faster and faster."

This sort of self-deprecation, was, of course, a mark of inner confidence. As we talked on, and John Henry jokingly told a story in a Mississippi accent, I was reminded of something that I couldn't immediately place. It was a rather unnerving quality, an undeniable strength which isn't quite straight-forward, a strength which is always seeking additional advantage at the expense of anyone who may happen along. It was more or less by luck that young Mr. Jamieson had ended up at my table, but I had a definite feeling that he was about to capitalize on his association with me.

It suddenly hit me that he was very much what Mac Garner must have been at the same age, so much so that I wondered if Mac had brought him to Scranton. It was only then that I remembered that the Columbus and Greenville, a sleepy little railway in deepest Mississippi, had been Mac's first railway. That was the connection!

I hadn't known that the C&G had black engineers, and wouldn't have thought it possible for a little line in the deep south. Even the Lackawanna had none. Evidently Mac had somehow managed it. It was the sort of thing that only he could have gotten away with.

With all these thoughts in mind, I wasn't so terribly surprised when John Henry Jamieson told me that he was taking the three o'clock drag freight to Binghamton that day. He didn't try to overpower me the way Mac would have, but he probably didn't sense any opposition in me. However, he, like Mac, knew that there were people who would want to stop him. They might think about stopping him, but, at the last moment, they'd decide to let him do as he liked. It was that thought which so amused him.

John Henry next asked me about the railway unions. It went without saying that he wasn't a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The union movement had had a long and bloody history on the railways, and, by that time, there were agreements between unions and management which specified who had the right to blow his nose when. The Lackawanna, for example, couldn't possibly have hired a non- union engineer. On the other hand, in 1931, people were beginning to be laid off by the hundred thousand. There was consequently a growing army of men, many of them skilled, who were desperate for a job, any job. The unions had been considerably weakened, and, if ever there was a time to challenge them, that was it.

Moreover, while the DL&W had signed contracts, the DL&W no longer existed as such. It had just been re-incorporated by Mac, and, as it was to turn out, Mac didn't deal with any union which he hadn't set up himself.

We discussed these matters somewhat obliquely, but I felt sure that we understood each other quite well. Indeed, John Henry's style of conversation, careful and systematic, seemed designed to preclude any possibility of misunderstanding. That was the element of caution again. In Mississippi, blacks who misunderstood whites often came to bad ends.

I suppose that, somewhere in our conversation, I must have revealed that I was a much more important person in the railway than a petty bureaucrat. Somewhere in there, John Henry evidently decided that I would be a good man to know, and that he might profitably associate me with his project. In the event, he was so affable and friendly to me as to give the impression that we had long known each other. Anyone might have thought that it was I, not Mac, who had brought him to Scranton. If I had been the one, I would certainly not have met him in the Railway Cafe. That fact, however, seemed lost on the majority of the onlookers.

The group of men that gathered around us wasn't quite threatening. At least, John Henry Jamieson didn't act threatened. On the other hand, I noticed one man in particular whom I had often observed, and with whom I was in the habit of exchanging nods. A slight man of medium height with bright red hair, he was unusually articulate in the discussions I had overheard. Indeed, I had taken him for a working class intellectual.

I had wondered if this man were a Wobbly or socialist, but had never sensed any hostility from him. Now, however, his aspect had changed. He looked as if he might utter some unpleasant words, not quite loudly enough to confront my companion, but audibly enough to set the minds of the others going in a certain direction. He then began to tell what was clearly intended to be a funny story, loudly enough so that neither John Henry nor I could ignore it.

"I read in the paper a while ago that a local man got in a little trouble up across the state line. At first, a girl said he exposed himself to her. But, when they picked him up, it turned out he hadn't taken his dong out and waved it at her, or anything like that. It was just that his pants fell down by accident. So they were all set to let him go when some other girls came in with complaints. His pants had fallen down three separate times in the same night in front of three different girls."

There was, at this point, uproarious laughter. When it quieted enough for the red-haired man to make himself heard, he fairly shouted,

"The judge also wondered why he wasn't wearing any underwear, but the man said he'd forgotten to put it on that day."

When the laughter again subsided, someone asked the raconteur what had happened to the man. He replied,

"Oh, he was a big-wig in the railway. He bought himself off, the same as they always do."

John Henry laughed pleasantly, as one might at a minor incident of an amusing sort. He had no way of knowing that the story was aimed particularly at me and, indeed, that it was about me.

The others, who must already have heard about the incident, were also laughing. In their case, it was an unpleasant nasty laughter. It wasn't merely contemptuous, but the sort that looks forward happily to the further discomfiture of the victim. It was clear enough that they believed that I had brought John Henry, and probably others like him, to take their jobs. They wanted to get at me in any way that they could. The choice of that particular story was certainly no more an accident than the matter of the falling trousers. I believed that I was in danger of being beaten up and injured, possibly seriously.

It was at that point that I squared accounts with John Henry. He believed that I was a locally respected man, and, in the circumstances, he couldn't have realized that the crowd was more hostile to me than to him. Their natural inclination would have been to let him go and set on me. I leaned over and said to him,

"I'm feeling a little dizzy. Could you help me back to the company offices?"

John Henry was delighted to oblige. He was evidently aware of the growing hostility, and, naturally enough, thought that it was directed at him. It was therefore equally natural for him to suppose that my presence would afford him some protection. While I knew better, I didn't trouble to correct his impression. Taking his huge arm, I was gratified to see that the crowd parted in front of us. Once outside, he said to me,

"It's always a mistake to look back, but I'd be able to hear them if they were following us. It may take these people a day or two to get used to my running their engines."

I realized that my friend was enjoying himself. I wasn't, and I was unable to restrain myself from catching a quick look back over my shoulder. The men were crowded in front of the cafe, staring at us, but not moving. After another block, I thanked John Henry for his assistance and scuttled for the office.

I didn't see Mac again that day, but, the next morning, I was able to discover that John Henry Jamieson had taken his train to Binghamton without incident. Not knowing where to eat lunch, I eventually had one of the secretaries bring me a sandwich and a bottle of beer.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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