Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 8

An Encounter with Wolves

Sumatra hadn't been a division point on the Erie before Mac acquired it, but there were some yards and a small engine house to service a minor branch. These were located a couple of miles west of the town, at the point where the branch joined the main line. The facilities were now being vastly expanded, and I saw large groups of men at work in the distance.

My cars were to be left in Sumatra for at least a day, and we were accordingly spotted in a quiet corner of the yard. A2 came in right on time, but, then, there was no sign of A3. When it was overdue by twelve minutes, I went into the dining room with my coffee cup. Odie said,

"There are bound to be some little hitches the first day. It'll be along soon."

I wasn't so hopeful and replied,

"It might've stalled on the grade out of Elton and had to back down."

Speed, pacing restlessly up and down the car, put in,

"Yeah, particularly if that same piece of Russian shit was the helper."

I wondered myself why a better engine couldn't have been found for such an important function, and allowed as much. I added, however,

"I'm not going to report things like that to Mac. If that's what happened, he'll find out about it and raise hell without any help from us. Our function is to uncover morale problems which are harder to see but more pervasive."

Just then, John Henry clambered on board and dropped into a chair with a force that almost shattered it. I hadn't thought of him as someone who ever got tired, but, after all, he had been at the throttle for six hours with only a twenty minute break. It developed that he was really more hungry than anything, and, as he ate, we had what amounted to a full staff meeting.

What evolved, without my really intending it, was an atmosphere which really was military, but also casual. It was as if we were all irregular soldiers, some operating in secrecy, who had need to coordinate our plans. I really was in command, but the contingencies to be faced were so unpredictable that it wasn't practicable to give many orders in advance.

Since the men laying out the new yards were mostly young blacks from the south, John Henry was the only one of us who could realistically make contact with them and find out how things were going. He announced his intention of walking down to the bunkhouses at quitting time and spending the night there.

I was myself inclined to wait until the next day and make a courtesy call on the commander of the division point. Speed added,

"While you're doing that, I can hustle some of the girls who work in the division point offices. You don't usually ask the boss' permission when you do that, and I could probably find out a lot."

The reactions varied in our little group. John Henry laughed. Odie wasn't shocked or outraged, but he was prepared with objections. I rather wondered whether Speed was serious, but the simplest thing was to treat his suggestion as a joke and join John Henry in his laughter.

I very much hoped that Speed was more serious about putting on his track shoes and running up the line than in seducing the secretaries.

It was just then that, with some relief, we heard the whistle of A3. I moved back to my car to make my preparations for a journey into Sumatra.

I was then a man who often wore brown, and one of the stewards helped me into an appropriate costume. I wore my cheapest brown suit, a trifle threadbare, but with touches of flash. My shoes were a little on the vulgar side, and weren't in the best condition. It was only with difficulty that I had kept the stewards from polishing them. I wore a high-crowned brown snap-brim hat with a black band which had a vaguely authoritative look. My overcoat had actually come from the Salvation Army, but it looked a bit better than that origin might have suggested. Altogether, I could easily have been taken for one of the less successful of the travelling salesmen, often called "drummers," who made their perpetual rounds of the small cities and towns of America.

While such an appearance was prudent, in view of what had happened at the Railway Cafe in Scranton, I also wanted to practice infiltrating just such towns as Sumatra. My brown mode suggested a lack of pretension and a slight shadiness quite different from the aura created by a blue or black suit with trimmings. I was fairly certain that I wouldn't be identified as the railway grandee who had waved from the observation platform.

As I walked out of the yard, headed for the point where it narrowed to the throat tracks, I became aware of barbed wire converging from both sides. At the entrance, there was just room for the main line and a driveway into the yard. In the gap was a guard, a young black man. Knowing that he must be under my ultimate command, I was tempted to stop and introduce myself. I knew that Napoleon would have done as much. In fact, I had read that, before reviewing troops, he would chat with the sergeant majors to find out a little about the men. Then, in mid-review, he would pause, go up to a man, and say something like,

"I remember you at the bridge over the Meuse."

It made a great hit, but it can be a mistake to try to imitate the great. Besides, I had no sergeant to prompt me to say something like,

"I remember you guarding the warehouse at Elton."

As it was, I merely passed out with a nod and set off down the road to Sumatra. In time, businesses and residences could be expected to spring up in the space between the yards and the town. For the present, there was nothing but a lonely black-top road down which I strode in the gathering darkness.

Most salesmen still didn't have cars, and, travelling by train, they reached outlying customers by walking. I might have sold anything from a Bible to a gingham frock, but sold it I had. I was now returning to a well-deserved dinner at the restaurant I had seen from the train.

I hadn't gone far before I heard an A series engine blowing for the grade crossings in town. It was now dark enough so that, a few minutes later, the yellow beam of a headlight coming around a curve ahead stood out sharply as it illuminated the fringe of the forest to my right. Then, moving swiftly down the road, the beam picked out, for anyone who might have any interest, hostile or otherwise, my humble person. The engine, another Mikado, was coasting with a chuffing noise as the weight of the train pushed it onward to its destination.

After the train passed, I was again left in solitude. The woods on my right, and those on the other side of the line, were deep, dark, and sinister. Fancying that I heard a wolf, I lengthened my stride.

In order to keep up my spirits, and also to create the right impression should any wolves happen by, I began singing in a rough martial voice. Since I knew no complete songs of an appropriate nature, I sang,

"Marching to Pretoria, the eyes of Texas are upon you, Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you. Mine Eyes have seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord. On Wisconsin, your terrible swift sword ......"

I did feel better for a while, at least until snow began to fall. As visibility was rapidly reduced by the combination of weather and darkness, it occurred to me that a man could vanish without a trace on such a night. At any rate, I was glad that the road ran parallel to the line. No matter what flights my imagination might take, it was undeniable that the road led to Sumatra.

After what seemed, and may have been, more than ten minutes, the sound and sight of the next A engine was a gratifying one, calculated to calm a heart that was now racing. The wolves, or possibly dogs, had come closer, but I couldn't imagine that they would tear a man to pieces while a train was passing. Not only that, the short lapse of time between the whistling and the sight of the train itself indicated that I had almost reached my goal.

The train having passed, I climbed the low embankment to the track. The road might conceivably be included in the territory of the wolves, but, as a general officer of the railway, the track was mine. It was thus, striding two ties at a time, that I crossed a bridge over a small creek and rounded a curve that brought me, suddenly, into the heart of Sumatra. Still striding at a great rate, I vented my feelings with a short burst of,

"Glory, Glory Halleluyah, lead me across the wide Missouri."

Finally slowing down, I took off my hat and threw open my coat to cool off. I wanted to present the confident and pleased mien of a small businessman who, with a certain amount of exertion, has concluded a transaction favorable to himself.

I knew that I would lose plausibility if I told people that I had been chased into Sumatra by a pack of wolves. It would also seem odd if I entered an establishment with snow on my head and my hat in my hand. Brushing off the snow and replacing my hat, I got down from the line and moved to the sidewalk in front of the ice cream shop. Although it appeared to be doing a good trade, I passed down the line of buildings to the Little Italy restaurant.

It was warm and noisy inside, and fairly friendly. There was a lot of Italian being spoken, and also a language which seemed to combine largely Italian sounds with something like English grammar. No one seemed to take exception to my presence, and, when I squeezed behind a little table in a corner, a waitress swirled up flamboyantly and said to me,

"Whatsa matter, you no smile, you maybe sick?"

Not wanting to be thrown out on suspicion of having an infectious disease, I smiled. I did have a feeling that she might have been sympathetic about the wolves, but, playing safe, I only assured her of my well-being.

While I was looking at the menu, she poured, without asking, a glass of wine from a large flagon. She then spoke and gestured simultaneously, not quite splashing wine out of the half-filled flagon as she did so. When I attempted to clarify matters, she nodded as if I had assented to what she had said. She then swept away again. Evidently, I had ordered my dinner.

While sipping my wine and looking around, I gathered that the Italians were railwaymen. I couldn't understand much of what they said, but their gestures, and the sounds accompanying them, obviously had to do with the action of steam locomotives, the coupling of cars, and the throwing of switches.

Since many of the men were of middle age, and appeared to be recent immigrants, I suspected that they had been railwaymen in Italy. The Erie had apparently recruited them and settled them in this relatively isolated place. It seemed unlikely that they had much to do with the non-Italian railwaymen of Scranton, and it was quite possible that no rumors of John Henry had reached them.

Despite the fact that the diners were all men, and the two waitresses were the only women in sight, the atmosphere was far removed from that of a male barracks. There were red and white cotton tablecloths, candles in wine bottles, and some rather exotic wall decorations. Vignis had made me more conscious of interior decoration than I had previously been, and this was done with a flair that suggested a woman's hand. When the dinner, which turned out to be ravioli stuffed with spinach, arrived, it, too, had a spicy zest far removed from anything to be expected from a bunkhouse cook.

A little later, I heard feminine conversation and laughter from the staircase. I couldn't understand what was said, but it had that tone women use when they make fun of men to whom they must show outward respect. That was a little surprising. It was hard to imagine that my waitress, for example, would go very far to disguise her feelings if a man offended her. However, the younger women might be more inclined to silently do a customer's bidding, and then do humorous imitations of him afterwards.

It must be admitted that the men weren't precisely gentlemen. I did, for example, hear someone say,

"You gotta da focka da wife twica day or she go stale."

On the other hand, it was said quietly in a reasonable tone. While there were times when the men were loud, and even a little boisterous, they stopped short of rowdiness. Good humor prevailed, and it didn't seem likely that fights would break out. I was used to the ordinary run of railwaymen, who would have eaten in more primitive ways, and who would have more often resorted to obscenity. These men were different. I wasn't sure whether it was because they were Italian, or because they felt themselves to be in a civilized place.

It was, indeed, a civilized place. Having finished my meal, I lingered over a cup of expresso and fell into conversation with the waitress. Now that the rush was over, her speech was noticeably slower and easier to understand. The restaurant belonged to her older sister, and she, a woman of some thirty five years, had been brought over from Italy to work in it. One suspected that she had also come in the hope of finding an American husband, a desire which apparently hadn't so far been satisfied. Since she was rather attractive, her figure showing to good advantage in her peasant-style dress, I was a little surprised. Answering my unspoken question, she waved at the men and said,

"They all hava da wives back home. Besides, they lika da young girls."

With that, she flounced off to answer a call for more wine.

Leaving the Little Italy, I made my way, against increasing wind and snow, to the Railway Cafe. It was there that the men stopped talking and stared suspiciously at me. These men were non-Italian railwaymen, and they weren't in a good mood. I took a seat at the end of the bar away from the others, and quietly ordered a beer. The others gradually went back to talking, and I could understand them only too well. The words, 'nigger' and 'wop' occurred with roughly equal frequency in their conversation, and there was a reference to 'that fucker Garner.' At one point, I heard,

"Now, Tom, the first nigger engineer he sees, he'll pull him outta tha cab and break his fuckin head on the rail."

I was used to these sorts of men and that statement was oddly reassuring. It was an implicit admission on the part of the speaker that he would himself do nothing, and that he didn't think any of the rest of the present company would either. Tom, evidently, was more dangerous. On the other hand, he didn't say that Tom was carrying a gun or that he would shoot anyone. Whoever Tom was, he was no threat to anyone like John Henry if he didn't have a gun.

In the short time that I remained there, some of my long-standing impressions of American railwaymen were confirmed. They can be very tough in a good sense. They will often take great personal risks to avoid an accident, or even to keep a train on time. I was sure that the men down the bar from me would do all of those admirable things.

On the other hand, they were so very unpleasant! It was typical of them to be suspicious of outsiders, of whatever kind, and to take umbrage at almost any action on the part of management. Mac, of course, was baiting them. But, even when I was president of the Lackawanna, most of my efforts to treat such men decently had foundered in the same sea of surliness and suspicion.

And then, of course, there was the ever-present problem of drink. The Italians drank wine, but didn't seem to fight or become alcoholics. The men beside me were capable of that and more. I wondered whether the toughness was worth it.

The ice cream parlor was different yet again. As I entered, staggering confusedly as I tried to clear my glasses, I was greeted with friendly smiles. A young couple with a child moved their things off an adjacant table to clear it for me. I sat down, thanking them, and we immediately fell into conversation.

Now a bit embarrassed about the seedy appearance which had so recently served me so well, I introduced myself as a railway official on a tour of inspection. The young man, a Mr. Jensen, was assistant manager of the Sumatra bank. His wife, a slightly plump but pretty young women with glossy black hair, looked as if she might be pregnant with their second child. The first one, Jimmy by name, seemed more interested in sculpting the ice cream in his dish than in eating it.

Pausing only to order myself a dish of chocolate ice cream, I encouraged the Jensens to tell me about the town. Pointing to the window, Mr. Jensen said,

"You can't see it now, but the nicer part of the town is on that low hill a little way over there."

His wife added,

"In this town there's no right and wrong side of the tracks. Either side is bad if you're near them. We come here for the ice cream, and because Jimmy likes to see the trains. There've been a regular procession of them tonight."

There was then a whistle as one of the A series trains approached Sumatra. Jimmy ran to the window, plastering his hands and nose to it as I explained the situation to his parents. They had known vaguely that great improvements in the railway were promised, but hadn't realized quite what it would mean in practice. Mr. Jensen looked quite pleased, his wife less so. Then A11 arrived.

A train in a snowstorm at night is a remarkable sight. It sucks up the snow from the ground, and, combining it with that in the air, creates a white tunnel around itself with the yellow headlight glaring out in front and a column of fire and smoke shooting up above. Jimmy was fascinated, and even most of the adults looked out of the front windows, some of them pausing in their conversation to do so.

On the other hand, not all those glances were admiring. Many people don't love locomotives and trains, and don't want one of each crashing along and destroying their tranquility every ten minutes. I was pretty sure that Mrs. Jensen belonged to this latter group, even though she was too polite to say so. Instead of alarming her by telling her that A1 - A13 would, in time, be joined by A14 - A52, I mentioned having had dinner down the way at the Little Italy. Both adult Jensens laughed in an odd way, he knowingly and she a little embarrassed. I said,

"Almost everyone beside myself was Italian, and I had some trouble communicating. But I got quite a good dinner."

Mr. Jensen replied,

"Those men belong to railway work crews. A few live down here by the tracks, but most just pass through. One of their work trains is often parked on the siding. Some Italian woman bought that restaurant, apparently just to cater to them."

"I must say, they seemed a rather happy lot, less likely to get drunk and fight than the others."

Mrs. Jensen said,

"They have their own kind of violence. There's a little Italian boy, Louis, who goes to first grade with Jimmy. He's rather sweet, and he sometimes stops by on his way home for a cookie. His uncle was actually murdered and left on the tracks."

Mr. Jensen seemed to think that his wife was being a bit of an alarmist.

"Well, Alice, I think that was just a fight between two of them over gambling, or perhaps over a woman. They're always very polite whenever our women are around."

"Oh yes, I wasn't worried. The funny part was when Louis told me about his uncle. Instead of being disturbed and sad, he was thrilled. He would have told me all the gory details if I had let him. And then there was the funeral. He said, 'My father was dressed in black, my mother was in black, my brother was in black, and I was in black. Boy, was I proud!'"

We laughed at that little insight into the world of an Italian-American six year old. Then, speaking quietly so that Jimmy wouldn't overhear, Mrs. Jensen added,

"After Louis left, Jimmy asked me why he couldn't have an uncle who was knifed and left on the tracks."

Jimmy, leaving the window, approached his mother with great seriousness while his father and I restrained our laughter.

After some more casual conversation, I explained that I belonged to the new management that was taking over the Erie, and that they must know more about its local operations than I. Mr. Jensen replied,

"Then you must know about the Negro crews who're building the new facilities out to the west of town."

I was afraid that this might be a sore point, and briefly wished that I had continued to be a travelling salesman. In the event, I replied, with only the slightest hesitation,

"Yes. I hope they aren't causing any trouble."

"No. They keep completely to themseves. I don't think I've even seen any in town. But they're talked about, and I went out the other day to watch the work."

Mrs. Jensen added,

"At first, we were a bit concerned. But there haven't been any unpleasant incidents at all. Are they going to stay here?"

"Some will. We've recruited young blacks in the south, but we've done it very carefully. They're all upstanding young men, and they're good workers, much better than most white railwaymen."

Mr. Jensen replied,

"I don't think most people in Sumatra much care whether the railway workers are black or white as long as local life isn't disrupted. Of course, the white railwaymen are very upset, and they show some signs of violence, but most of them aren't really part of the town."

I suppose I must have looked a little puzzled. It was odd to hear such a young man speak in such a way. When he referred to "most people in Sumatra," I knew that he meant, not the absolute majority, but the majority of those who counted. In short, the better people. The white railwaymen who were not "really part of the town" were, of course, the men I had met at the Railway Cafe. They might live in Sumatra, but he felt that they could easily be dispensed with. Mr. Jensen spoke much as one might have expected his father to speak. In fact, his wife put in,

"Art's father is actually president of the bank, and I think most of the influential men in town would agree with him."

I had no doubt of it. Most of those influential men weren't happy about the blacks, though they understood our real reasons for hiring them. They might also have some reservations about other aspects of our operation. On the other hand, they did expect to prosper, and they could live with the changes we were about to make in the life of their town if we would accomodate them in certain ways. Mrs. Jensen was telling me that I need only listen to her husband to find out how. I, my mouth half full of ice cream, was happy to do so. It remained only for me to show them that, despite his appearance, they had happened on a man important enough in the railway to respond in a positive way to any suggestions they might have. I said,

"We in the railway are very much concerned to have good relations with the communities along the line. We're also aware that a great many tramps and undesirables ride on freight trains and cause trouble wherever they land. It's already our policy to keep the doors of empty box cars locked, and to keep all hobos and tramps out of our yards."

My little speech met with approval. In the depression, there were, at any given time, as many as a million men living off the land and travelling on freights. Most began as honest men who had lost their jobs. However, as soon as they took to the rails, they came into contact with all sorts of sleazy characters. Moreover, it was virtually impossible to survive without begging and stealing, and the life itself was thus degrading. The railway districts of major cities were crowded with such men, and the smaller towns on main lines lived in daily fear of being inundated. I added,

"Mr. Garner and I have discussed this several times. The Erie may have tolerated tramps, but you won't find any on our new trains. As we take over the rest of the schedule, you'll notice the results."

All this was, in fact, true. Mac wanted to run a quasi- military operation, and he certainly didn't want his men mixing with hobos and sharing bottles with them. Jensen was reassured, but not entirely satisfied.

"That certainly solves a large part of the problem. The rest concerns the railway employees themselves. There are a number of Erie men who live here, and are perfectly respectable. They're our customers at the bank, they own homes, and they don't get in any more trouble than anyone else. But those are the engineers, the freight agents, and the like. When you get down below that, there's always been trouble. The lowest grade employees live in the rooming-houses along here, but they wander all over town. They're likely to turn up anywhere."

There was then a slight pause. If one took Mr. Jensen literally, one might imagine that railway laborers had taken to walking up and down his street, perhaps leaning against the street lamps and begging money. That didn't sound terribly likely. Platelayers aren't ordinarily beggars, and they don't often spend their free time wandering around the residential areas of a town. Those were the things that might be expected of tramps, and I did wonder, just for an instant, if he were confusing the two. Mrs. Jensen, after a brief questioning glance at her husband, then enlightened me.

"Art's younger sister got involved with a man, some sort of railway laborer, and it was terrible for all of us. The Italians may not be exactly an advertisement for the town, but they stick to their own kind. Most of them never leave that place where you ate. The blacks are even less troublesome. They live in those barracks and stay there."

I nodded, as sympathetically as I could, and replied,

"Well, you know, a railway is a bit like an army. Soldiers aren't welcome in most places, most of all because they tend to cause problems with the local girls. The secret is to keep them away from the civilians. Now, our railway is run much more like an army than any other, and we aim to do the same thing. Our young men out in the yards work all day and then play sports under lights at night."

"What about the Italians?"

"They were a surprise to me. The Erie must have brought them here. I don't even know whether they're paid the union wage."

Mr. Jensen, seemingly not embarrassed by his wife's revelation, replied,

"I happen to know about that from the local gossip. The Erie recruited Italians with railway experience in Italy. They then signed them up for maintenance of way men. They belong to the union, and are paid accordingly, but are actually doing a different sort of work."

It turned out that the Erie had done something rather clever, something that only a railway on the edge of desperation would have tried.

The Erie, like most of the early railways, was originally a shoe-string operation. However, at about the time that its contemporaries and competitors were going in for massive capital improvements, the Erie had fallen into the hands of the financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk. These gentlemen were more interested in watering stock and swindling the public than in running trains. The result was that the Erie had never had good track and roadbed.

The embankment is the critical element. It mustn't shift in the rains and snows, and it must keep the track level, except where it is banked for curves. On those curves, the track must be kept at a precisely calculated slope, or the trains will fall off one side or the other. Whether the embankment can ensure this stability depends on its depth, the care with which it has been constructed, and the materials used.

The Erie had decided to improve its shoddy roadbed, a very costly and inconvenient procedure, particularly since trains must still be run while the earth beneath the tracks is dug out and re-formed. Ordinary track maintenance men only maintain the ties and rails, and don't begin to have the skill to reconstruct the roadbed. The Erie had found Italians possessed of such skills who were willing to be paid as if they were only maintaining the track. There was no union specifically designated for this function, something more commonly associated with the construction of a railway than its maintenance.

One thing was certain. No native-born American with the ability to look at a valley and say exactly how the land will shift over the decades would work for the salaries the Italians were earning.

When informed of all this, I naturally had no set answer to give Mr. Jenson. I could say only,

"It sounds as if we might want to promote some of these men and use them all over the system. In the meantime, I imagine we'll just let them complete their reconstruction of the Erie and congregate at places like the Little Italy restaurant."

"Yes. I think we can certainly live with that in Sumatra."

"There's going to be trouble, of course. We'll want to let go the traditional white non-Italian workers at the lower grades. After all, there's something wrong with them if they haven't progressed up the ladder at all. What we hope is that the men who are well established, and whom we want to keep, won't side with them. We want them to keep on doing their jobs, and even fill in for strikers where necessary."

Mr. Jensen considered a moment. He then replied,

"I don't think those men, the ones in Sumatra anyway, will jeopardize their jobs for no ultimate purpose. Men like my father may even have some influence on them. We want the railway to prosper, and we've never had much feeling for some of the men the Erie has hired."

I felt that an implicit bargain was in the works. It was a small thing, affecting only one division point in over a hundred, but it was, I hoped, symptomatic. Mr. Jensen was representative of a great many young men on the way up who would later have means and power, and I was sure that he did speak for his father, a man who already had means and power.

What was most heartening to me was the willingness, indeed the eagerness, of such men to distance themselves from all but the elite of the working class. They thoroughly feared and disliked the men of the Railway Cafe. Above all, they were afraid that those men, rough, strong, and uninhibited, would either take their women away or humiliate them in front of their women.

Italians and blacks might be rough and strong, but they were much more inhibited. They didn't think of themselves as owning the country. On the contrary, they were taking small steps lest they be thrown out of it or sent back to the fields. Mr. Jensen would have no difficulty with them, and he knew it. He was quite happy to let us take away the ordinary American working men and substitute others in their place.

Having no intention of again braving the wolves, I crossed the line to the little hotel. It was decent enough, and I managed to place a call to the yards, saying that I would return in the morning. Finding myself quite tired, I went almost immediately to bed.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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