Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 6

Train Number #A1

The wedding took place on January 10, 1932. I was one of the ushers, and had so far left behind my aspirations for Vignis that I functioned happily in an entirely appropriate way. It was a good thing that I did because there were multitudes of reporters and photographers, drawn by Mac's fame and the reports of Vignis' beauty.

In between photographic sessions, Vignis was overflowing with gratitude toward me, regarding me more or less as the architect of her marriage. I, for my part, made the most of her affectionate kisses and hugs. Her gratitude, however, didn't keep her from calling on me whenever she needed help anew.

At her wedding, what she needed, most especially, was someone to see to her father. He really was a bit of a pill, and Mac simply rolled over him, clapping him good-naturedly on the shoulder with a huge hand and ignoring all his carping objections to the wedding procedure. However, Vignis and I knew that there would be a reckoning, and that she, not Mac, would have to pay in a coin of her father's choosing.

I had originally pointed out to her,

"If your father has doubts about the whole thing, the presence of a man of my reputation in the wedding party will only confirm them."

"He'll get over that, and he'll find you much easier to deal with than Mac. You listen to people, James, and you're very good at making soothing noises."

I knew that she spoke only the truth. Anyone with my financial background, not to mention my other tendencies, must perforce listen carefully to people and make soothing noises before they kick up a hell of a fuss.

Vignis is also good at spotting trouble before it arrives. The daughter of a man of high and inflexible moral principle is constantly being put in the position of trying to mediate between her father and the world. It's an amusing consequence that, in those circumstances, she will quickly learn to happily compromise almost any of his principles behind his back.

The wedding passed much as Vignis had planned it. She, looking quite unbelievable, got her father by the arm with her strong hand and propelled him through the ceremony. I took, figuratively and sometimes literally, his other arm. All the while, I kept burbling to Mr. Momsen whatever platitudes came into my head. He would angrily reject them, one after another, but he felt better for doing so.

Just before setting off on her honeymoon, Vignis caught me alone and whispered to me,

"You did wonderfully, James. He's hardly complained about Mac at all."

I replied,

"I'm sure he thinks I'm an utter fool."

Vignis didn't answer me directly, saying,

"I was so afraid that he and Mac would start talking about philosophy. Father's also a bit of a philosopher. Now that it's done, they need hardly ever meet."

I bowed decorously and silently. Then, as people came up and the farewells began, I kissed the bride with no little vigor.

Mac and Vignis took a week's honeymoon in Florida, leaving Sam Hanks to administer the system. This was no mean task since our new yards all over the eastern half of the country were being pushed to completion. In a matter of weeks, they would have to handle our first circumnavigating freight trains. My task was vastly simpler, the setting up of my skeletal organization. I called a meeting of my senior staff, namely Speed and Odie, in my office.

A little before the appointed time, Speed burst in with Odie at his heels and announced,

"Here we are, captain, all set to lay the system on its ass."

Speed had always addressed me as "captain," evidently with some ironic intent. I was now either a lieutenant colonel or a lieutenant general, depending on the way one looked at it, but I was evidently going to remain a captain as far as he was concerned. Having absorbed this somewhat raucous greeting, I began by pointing out that someone would have to establish a headquarters and remain there while the others went about the system. Speed replied,

"I'll tend the home fires while Odie charges around the country."

We all burst out laughing. It was so obvious, from physical characteristics alone, that Odie was meant to stay in one place and Speed to roam that we settled that one immediately. I next asked Odie,

"Do you want to set up in Huntington, Indiana, right next to Mac, or would you rather be a little distance away?"

It sounded as if Odie was of two minds. He might have preferred a headquarters in a small house beside a trout stream in Michigan or Wyoming. He would have a secretary and housekeeper who kept everything in perfect order, and he would co-ordinate our far-flung operation with nothing more than a telephone. Odie actually only mumbled a sentence or two, but I could imagine the whole scene. He then added,

"I don't think that would work out. We'll have to have the headquarters in Huntington if we want to stay in touch."

Speed agreed quickly, adding,

"You'll be a part-time senior courtier, captain, and I'll be a part-time junior one. We'll have to turn up in Huntington fairly regularly. Courtiers who are absent too much are likely to be replaced."

So far, neither Speed nor Odie had met Mac, but they seemed to have a surprisingly good idea of what he would expect. I replied,

"Even at the best of times, courtiers don't have much security. Anyhow, it's better than being the juggler or the court fool."

I also had another motive for putting the headquarters in Huntington which I didn't divulge to my colleagues. In addition to checking in with Mac at fairly regular intervals, I would also be able to check in with Vignis. It was obvious that, as long as I didn't cross a certain line, I would remain one of her favorite people. Moreover, it looked as if that arrangement suited Mac almost as well. He'd be delighted to have someone safe who could have long intimate talks with his wife, particularly if she were especially nice to her husband as a result of them.

It was then decided that both Odie and Speed would set off for Huntington fairly soon. While Odie started to put together our headquarters office, I thought of another mission for Speed.

"The first thing is to make secure the home base for the whole system. We want to know what sort of impact our considerable operation will have on a small city, what kinds of people will be pleased, and what kinds will be hostile."

He replied,

"I can tell you one thing right now, captain. The rich old lady who lives in the big house on the hill overlooking the town will be pissed as hell. She'll think that we're a loud and crude bunch of roughnecks who're ruining the place."

"Yes. But I want to know who else will feel that way, and whether they can cause us any trouble."

Speed nodded and actually wrote in his notebook. I didn't really want to know what he wrote, but it seemed that he was willing to take my orders, at least after what the diplomats call "a frank exchange of views." That was what I had had in mind when I hired him.

Since Odie would hire a secretary, that would bring my command up to the grand total of five persons. Two, Odie and the secretary, would stay in Huntington. Speed, John Henry, and I would wander, sometimes together and sometimes singly.

When Mac and Vignis returned, a day early, Vignis said to me laughingly,

"I did well to keep him in Florida as long as I did. He wanted to get back to the railway on the second day."

Mac denied this charge, good humoredly but without much vigor. I knew, of course, that it was true.

A policeman of great experience once told me,

"You may know a married couple for twenty years, think them as normal as any people in the community, but not have the slightest idea of what goes on between them when they're alone. And you won't ever find out unless one murders the other."

By the same token, Vignis might have called Mac pet names no one would ever have imagined, and they might have chased each other naked through the surf in Florida. But there wasn't the slightest sign that I could see, either of that or of any serious disaffection between them. It was normal for Mac to want to be back at the railway, no matter what else might have happened. Vignis knew it as well as I did, and I doubted that she had been upset when she detected signs of restiveness in him.

Soon after that, I set off on my own travels. My most important task for some time to come would consist in monitoring the morale of our work force. John Henry could help me greatly, both as an agent provocateur, stirring up the white workers, and as one who could report fairly directly on the thoughts and feelings of the black ones. I thus wanted to be somewhere near hailing distance of him, but not so close as to be identified with him and arouse suspicion against either of us. I therefore posted him as the engineer of my train, so that we might ride at opposite ends.

We both wore rank badges, designed by Vignis before her wedding, which understated our true status. John Henry, a major, masqueraded as a second lieutenant, the ordinary rank for a freight engineer. I, a lieutenant general to be, travelled as a lieutenant colonel, the proper rank for a middle-level financial person.

Since Speed and Odie were accompanying me on the first part of the journey, they installed themselves comfortably in the other sleeper. We had dinner in the dining car the night before our departure, and sat around with coffee afterwards. There were some bangs and bumps as we were coupled on to a passenger local, to be towed to the new division point from which the freights would run.

Different sorts of men though Speed and Odie were, they seemed to adjust easily enough to one another. Speed, in fact, pointed out that the train would suit Odie ideally.

"He likes to eat, and we've got all the food anyone could want. He likes to digest, and the motion of the train will help him do that."

I asked Speed,

"How are you going to manage with all your energy? Are you going to be like a caged animal and snap at everyone who passes?"

"No indeedy, captain. I've got plans."

"I can't imagine what's going to replace going to the YMCA."

"I can go to the local Ys where we stop. I'm also going to run on the tracks."

It turned out that he had brought his track shoes, and had experimented with running between the rails. The spikes on the shoes caught the ballast much as they did the cinders on a track. I objected,

"But won't the spikes catch in the ties and trip you?"

"I tried it out yesterday. Your feet automatically adjust to the ties, even where they aren't covered by ballast. The same thing with broken bottles."

Odie obviously thought this insane, but didn't seem at all bothered by it. I was never sure when Speed was joking, but I did believe that he intended to do something of the sort. I hoped only that he wouldn't be run down by a train.

We set out from the division point on a critically important date in American railroading, January 22, 1932. On that day, Mac placed advertisements in newspapers across the country which said exactly how fast freight shipments would travel. Any customer anywhere could be told exactly when his shipment would arrive. It didn't matter if it was a single crate or a string of fifty cars. It would still get there. Not only that, the advertisement said that, if the shipment didn't arrive by the promised time, all shipping costs would be remitted. No one had ever made such a promise in the whole history of transportation.

This promise was made well before the full uniform schedule was realized. While the eastern circle was mostly ready, the western circle existed only in principle. We consequently gave ourselves more time to move shipments in the west. But, even there, the guarantee still held. As Sam Hanks said,

"Practically everyone in the country will know that we've made a promise. People in the west will gradually realize that we haven't promised as much as the original publicity led them to believe. But that wave of moderately unfavorable delayed publicity will never catch up with the earlier, much bigger, wave of good publicity."

The final preparations were being made all over the northern part of the Eastern Circle in the early morning of January 22. The best locomotives available were being lubricated and fuelled, freight cars were being assembled, and train crews were gathering and conferring. Most important, yards were getting ready to take in freights, switch them, and get them rolling again, faster than had ever been done in the history of railroading.

We were at a point some forty miles east of Binghamton, later known as New York Point. My cars were coupled on to the first of the thirteen freights which would, that day, begin a continuous circumnavigation of the Eastern Circle. We intended to maintain that service as long as there were railways.

At 0730, the three of us were standing by the front of the train as a big freight engine backed down on it and smashed couplers together. Then, after the air hoses were connected and the engine pumps started up, we walked back to our end of the train. Speed remarked,

"I can think of a couple of thousand things that can go wrong, and only one that can go right, getting there on time."

I knew that there was something wrong with that reasoning, but I was actually quite nervous myself, too nervous to argue about it.

This division point had been located in the middle of nowhere, and, through the early mist and half-light, we could see only the barest outline of the nearest hills. On the other hand, there was much to excite the other senses. In addition to that hollow banging which I will always associate with the Westinghouse cross-compound air pump of a locomotive, there was the ringing sound of crews striking wheels with long-handled hammers to detect cracks. In the distance, there were other crashes of couplers as the next few freights were assembled to follow us at ten minute intervals. There were also scattered shouts and occasional curses when men found themselves unable to inflict their will on machinery.

Soft coal smoke drifted everywhere. It left a gritty taste in the mouth, and one's eyes became irritated as one attempted to blink away the particles. But, for all that, the unique smell was a good one.

It was cold on the mostly frozen mud, and the men had built fires in empty oil drums to warm hands that had grown too numb to handle tools. Odie, Speed, and I stood by one, trying to get close and dodge the smoke at the same time. As a six-wheeled switcher trundled and chuffed by, Speed said something that I couldn't hear, but he would often go on talking even if he didn't get any response. I only nodded as I twisted to take in a new spurt of hot steamy activity behind me. As Speed continued to express his thoughts, my own thoughts lay with the vast expanse of dank dark earth which had been ripped open and exposed to create the yard.

Few of these sounds and smells have, in themselves, caught the fancy of poets. There are no odes to the bang of couplers, or to the smell of creosote ties. Even the aggregate of these sensations, while fascinating in mixture and variety, would have been repellent to the ordinary citizen. It was a bond between Speed, Odie, and myself, and probably every man in the yard, that we preferred that place to even the most idyllic tropical resort replete with every luxury.

At precisely 0800, John Henry blew his whistle exhuberantly and yanked on the regulator. Even from the end of the train, we could hear distinctly the first slow rhythmic exhausts coming up the blast pipe to the smokestack. There was shouting and cheering all over the yard, and even Speed looked rather pensive.

According to schedule, we would reach Elton at 1100, at which time the train would be modified with the addition of some cars and the deletion of others. The engine would also be replaced with a fresh one.

The uniform schedule was set back three hours and twenty minutes at each division point, so that A1 would leave Elton at 1120 and arrive at Sumatra at 1420, with myself still attached. In this fashion, A1 would travel almost five thousand miles. Without any of the same cars, it would again pass the same points at the same times six days later.

While most of the divisions in the Eastern Circle weren't yet entirely set up for this kind of operation, they were all told to cancel everything in the time that it would take A1 - A13 to pass through. Since we were A1, we were leading the parade.

When we got under way, and Speed and Odie had gone ahead to their car, something unforeseen happened. Since there is some six inches of slack in each pair of freight couplers, the engine had moved some thirty feet before my car moved at all. By that time, the rest of the train was moving at a significant rate of speed. I, standing in my lounge with a coffee cup in my hand, soon found myself on my rear end with my stomach and lower regions drenched in hot coffee. Riding at the end of a freight is quite different from riding at the end of a passenger train.

Even at the instant of falling, there was one thought in my mind,

"I musn't get coffee on the new carpet."

The pain of the hot coffee was considerable, almost excruciating, but I kept my legs tightly together to keep any from flowing through. The stewards were men who reacted quickly in emergencies. One took my cup while the other mopped. Then, while I lay writhing, they got a towel under me. It was only then that I was able to get up and jump around to relieve my pain. The carpet had come through unstained, and we were all pleased. One of the stewards, an older man, was moved to remark,

"Better you than the carpet, sir."

I could only reply,

"Yes, but it's not the best omen is it?"

He only shook his head quietly, as if not wanting to comment on the probable fate of a man so ill-starred as to begin his travels in such a way.

There were more jerks as we picked up speed and proceeded down the line. When going down a grade, the cars would pile up behind the engine, and a person standing in my car would be knocked forward as the process was completed. The jerk was particularly pronounced if the engineer had to brake. Then, when we went up the next grade, the slack would be taken out of the couplers, and the jerk would come the other way, often more strongly than when we had first started out. The stewards were no more used to this phenomenon than I, and I gathered that there were some spectacular accidents with trays in the dining car up ahead.

It now seems to me that it's not a terribly bad thing to know that, at any moment, one may be knocked flat. It certainly tends to keep one from becoming pompous, and, even as I now lie perfectly secure in my hospital bed, I sometimes imagine myself back in that position as a corrective to increasing moral certitude.

In time, we reached the point of being able to predict the jerks. Indeed, one could hear the slack action moving back and forth through the train. The stewards and I secured everything on the shelves, as if we were sailors at sea, and we eventually came to take the jerks as lightly as sailors do the waves of the ocean.

Even on that first journey, there were pleasures to offset the danger of being knocked down. As I sat in one of my new chairs with a large cup only half-filled with coffee, I looked out over the hilly landscape, made dismal with a steady rain. At one point, where a road ran alongside the track, I saw a man about my age walking along with no hat or umbrella. His hair was plastered over his head, and it looked as if his trench coat had soaked through. The sight made me feel even more comfortable in my warm dry rolling residence.

It also gave me satisfaction to think that I was probably more comfortable than anyone in any of the cold- looking houses that we passed. Moreover, I was fairly certain that there wasn't one man in one of those houses who could, on whim, go anywhere he wanted. I, on the contrary, had a heady sense of freedom. I could go to Savannah or Salt Lake City if I felt like it, and I could take my home with me.

Having rolled across a timber bridge spanning a creek, I noticed a small and familiar car parked by the side of the road. It was Vignis, having driven up from Scranton, and she was out waving happily. I jumped up and waved with both arms, mouthing endearments which she couldn't have heard through the window. What then surprised me was the sight of Mac lumbering out of the passenger door and waving rather tentatively. While I could believe that he liked to watch trains, particularly this one, it wasn't like him to admit so openly to sentimentality. That must have been Vignis' doing.

When we came into Elton, now on the rails of the Erie, I was on the observation platform, holding on to my hat as I stuck my head around the corner and looked forward. We had run through the rain, but there was a light gray mist that hung about the tops of the hills. The track curved enough to allow me to watch the engine cross a bridge over a river and head up the flat valley. The way to the yards led past the passenger station, and, quite to my amazement, the high school band, in its colors of blue and yellow, was out there banging away.

Mac never neglected public relations in any of his enterprises. If asked about them, he would revert to his most Texas self and reply ingenuously,

"Well, son, I jes want people to know what were doin."

The people at Elton had obviously been informed. Indeed, everywhere that we went, we found ourselves treated as pioneers of a revolutionary new service which would tie together the country as it had never been tied together before. In some places there were even speeches in a patriotic vein. The underlying reality was that the people located on our routes, not yet aware of what we would do to their towns, thought that we would enrich them. Fortunately, I never had to attend any of the speeches, although I did later have to deal with some disillusioned town officials.

On this occasion, I reverted to my old president-of-the- line behavior and waved from the observation platform in a dignified fashion. Even as we passed, I could see the smoke of A2 down the valley. Every ten minutes for the next two hours, the band would play for another freight train. We were, indeed, a force to be reckoned with.

Things happened fast the second we came to a halt in the newly re-organized yard. The secret of our speed wasn't so much speed on the road, but in the division-point yards. Most railways took a day or more to classify an incoming freight train and send the through cars onward in another freight. Our idea was to do it in twenty minutes. Since we had facilities that could handle two trains at once, but not three, that meant that A1 had to be gone by the time that A3 rolled in, exactly twenty minutes later.

The essence of Mac's scheme was that every train would be perfectly ordered at all times. Mac's explanations of perfect ordering involved more mathematics and more references to Plato and other philsophers than most people wanted to hear, but the idea was quite simple. The empty cars would be at the rear end of the train. For the rest, a car would be placed according to its destination, the farther forward the farther it was going. Thus, any cars destined for the present division would be at the rear, right in front of the empties.

I hopped down to watch the operation just before a switcher drew away the rear of the train. My four cars would be parked somewhere, the empties taken to the empty yard, and the locally destined cars taken to another yard.

In order to watch the critical part, I trotted ahead to a switch tower and began to climb the ladder to the little cabin at the top. I had seen a man against the window, but hardly worried lest I seem an intruder. I was used to going anywhere on the railway, introducing myself, and even taking part in the activity. If it's done in a friendly fashion, no one minds or feels spied upon. On the contrary, most people like the attention, and want to show their bosses what a good job they can do.

There were two men in the cabin, a stocky white man with glasses, about forty, and a young black man. Unlike the older towers in which signals and switches were controlled by large levers which interlocked in complex ways, this one was electrical, both the track switches and the signal lights on bridges over the tracks being controlled from a board with miniature switches and lights. The young man was bent over the board, but the other, his supervisor, was relatively unocccupied. After introducing ourselves, he said,

"You just got off the train didn't you?"

"Yes. I'm on my way to Toledo, and thought I'd watch if you didn't mind."

"Not at all. We've been practising this, and Solomon's reached the point where he can do it all by himself."

I was glad that I didn't have to go into my song and dance about being an inspector of benefits. This man, a first lieutenant who had probably been on the Erie, seemingly did not recognize my name as the former president of a neighboring railway. In any case, he provided an explanation.

"After the empties and the local cars for Elton are gone from the rear, our job is to insert loaded cars from Elton here into the remainder in the right places."

Looking down, I saw a track immediately to the right of the main line which joined it right in front of us. On the subsidiary track was a string of cars with a switcher behind it. These were the ones to be inserted.

I didn't tell my companions that I had myself put the finishing touches on this part of the system for Mac, wanting to see how they understood and executed it. At the moment, the switcher behind the main section was pushing it forward past the junction. Solomon, looking down, called out the cars that passed, verifying them against a list posted beside the window in front of him. The lieutenant explained,

"The whole consist of A1 was signalled ahead to us, and that's the list for our section of it. The first new car's for McGehee, Arkansas, and that'll put it fourth in line in the newly-formed train."

After three cars had passed, Solomon turned one of the lights on the bridge to red, and the main section stopped abruptly. A man at track level uncoupled quickly, and, when he stood clear and signalled with his light, Solomon signalled for the switcher behind the main section to back it away. As soon as it was clear of the switch, he stopped it, threw the switch, and brought forward the string from the right hand track. It deposited a car behind the three in front, and then backed off. Four more cars were brought forward from the main section, and then two from the right. After another couple of movements, the lieutenant said,

"We've used eight minutes, and we're mostly done. We'll make it easy."

I congratulated him, and inwardly congratulated myself. Hardly had the last car been inserted, than I saw the string of empties, probably plus or minus a few, approaching from the rear. Not wishing to miss the train, I bade the men a hasty farewell and scrambled down the ladder.

The left side of the yard was the mirror image of the right, and A2 had been going past on the track immediately to our left, now on my right as I went to the rear. The empties then reached me and rolled past on the other side. There was just room to walk safely between the tracks, and I hustled along in the narrow steel canyon amid the harsh urgent sounds of brakes against wheels and crunching couplers. There seemed to be more empties than there had been before, thus indicating a surplus of them at Elton. I found my car on the end, and hopped on board with minutes to spare.

The whole procedure had been designed, mostly by Mac, as an alternative to the hump yards that were considered the latest thing on other railways. In those, a string of cars was pushed slowly over a hump, at which point the cars were uncoupled and allowed to run freely down the hump. As they did so, they were switched into different tracks for different destinations. There were retarders on these target tracks which slowed the cars enough to avoid damage, but left them rolling fast enough to couple with the cars already on the track.

The hump procedure could be got to work well with constant fussing, and it economized on switchers. It also allowed for the making up of trains for a half dozen or more different destinations.

One trouble was that humps had to operate in slow motion to avoid damage. More important, they were designed to solve a problem we didn't have. As Mac said,

"Hump yards are for railroads misguided enough to want to send trains in different directions."

It was true that our branch line operations were entirely separate and independent, and that our main line trains never deviated from their continual counter-clockwise movement around the circle. The only question concerning any car was whether it was going with the train or staying. Our procedure required a number of switchers for each train, the movements of each signalled from the towers, but it reduced to the absolute minimum the amount of time it took to switch cars, and yet send the train out again in perfect order. Needless to say, all movements had to be perfectly coordinated, and the danger of chaos was greater than it would have been in the more leisurely operation of a hump yard.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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