Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page
 Chapter 9

A New Society

Feeling much refreshed, I awoke even before first light. Instead of drowsing sleepily as I often do, I sprang from my bed, put on my brown suit, and went downstairs. Since it was a workaday hotel, there was no nonsense of having to wait for the dining room to open. I breakfasted quickly and well, and prepared to walk back to the yards. The hotel manager, on hearing my plan, insisted on giving me a pair of earmuffs. As he said,

"The main thing is not to get your ears frostbitten. Your breath will keep your nose from freezing."

I had never thought in exactly those terms, but thanked him and set out.

It was the brightest kind of winter morning with an absolutely pure covering of the whitest snow concealing every irregularity and imperfection. The road had not a footprint or tire mark on it that morning, and I felt myself a perfect devil of a fellow. Any wolf that attacked me would very soon come to regret it!

There was a light breeze, but I felt not a bit cold as I stepped along briskly. With my breath like steam puffed from an engine, I inspected my surroundings with a curiosity which replaced and surpassed my fear of the previous evening. The storm had left every branch and every tiny twig covered with bare ice, so that the sun, rising behind me, illuminated the scene in front with thousands of reflections. Even in the deep woods there was a riot of light.

Thumping along the road, half intoxicated with the clear cold smell of the morning, I heard, not wolves, or even barking dogs, but the subdued and subtle noises of the many small creatures who can survive in a winter forest. In some places the gleaming tree trunks were so concentrated as to hide everything behind them, but, in others, there were natural open avenues into the woods, at the ends of which whole interior scenes would be revealed. On one occasion, I was so overcome that I left the road and went ploughing into the woods.

I had no idea where I was going, how long I would go, or what I might find. I was simply so abandoned to sensation that these things seemed hardly to matter. As I went scrambling through the underbrush in a fever to reach a little knoll on which there stood a giant beech tree, I tripped over a hidden vine and went sprawling. I was in the act of jumping up and continuing when I said out loud to myself,

"If I keep on like this, I'll die."

It could possibly have been true. The woods were extensive, and, while I might eventually have blundered into an isolated house, I could easily have gotten lost and become exhausted. But such a small thing as my possible death seemed not to matter very much in such an immensity of, well, beauty. I might have continued into the forest if I hadn't heard the whistle of a locomotive. It was much too early for the A trains, and, anyway, it was approaching from the west. Perhaps because the mood was broken, and perhaps partly out of curiosity, I moved slowly back along the trail I had broken through the woods.

By the time I had run through all these thoughts, I became conscious of my snow-filled shoes, and also realized that my trousers were torn in many places. Some of those vines had evidently had thorns. Once the train, a passenger local, had passed, the surroundings were exactly what they had been. I was still profoundly affected, but not in the same way. I thought, not just of beauty, but of my relation to it. In that mood, I regained the road and set off walking again.

I was still mulling over this peculiar departure from my ordinary way of looking at things when the yard appeared around a curve. There were several men carrying signs outside the gate, and, even though I couldn't read the signs at that distance, they obviously proclaimed a strike. Approaching cautiously, I wondered if the strike could be a new one, called that very morning. There had, after all, been no pickets the day before.

On the other hand, the guard and the three pickets were ignoring each other casually, and the pickets looked rather weary and dispirited. In fact, I took them to be the paid professional pickets that labor unions sometimes hire for long-term projects when they want to make a show of protest without really doing anything. Such men might only picket a few hours a day and go home whenever the weather threatened. I therefore walked up briskly, a pleasant expression on my face.

One of the men did wave his sign so as to partially block my passage. I deviated slightly and bade him good morning. He looked puzzled. I was obviously not a laborer of any kind, and I also looked much more like a travelling salesman than a manager. Whatever his thoughts might have been, he hesitated long enough for me to pass.

It was then the guard, another young black, who stopped me. I had two of Vignis' colored patches in my pocket, one for the rank of lieutenant colonel and the other for the rank of lieutenant general. Without thinking it out, I showed him the latter. The guard then looked very suspicious indeed, evidently taking me for an imposter. Realizing too late that the lieutenant colonel's patch would have been more convincing, I said to him,

"This kind of patch is now being issued to accountants and administrative people."

The young man had probably had an accelerated course in the ways of the railway, and he knew that he hadn't mastered all of its mysteries. Whatever his thoughts may have been, he did let me pass.

My cars were sitting on the same siding, completely covered with snow and looking as if they hadn't been moved in months. Flushed and exhilarated from my exercise, I sprang on board to find John Henry Jamieson rising to greet me in my lounge, coffee cup in hand. He remarked pleasantly that Speed and Odie didn't seem to be up yet, and that he hoped I didn't mind his joining me. As I assured him of his welcome, I wondered briefly how he had managed it. My stewards were the most traditional of men, and they would never have dreamed of serving John Henry coffee in my lounge in my absence. Then I remembered. He was a major, and they were sergeants. He had given them orders. He now called into the next car to order coffee for me.

By this time, I was beginning to get used to John Henry. He still seemed very large and very young, but he fitted comfortably enough into one of Vignis' chairs. In fact, there was a relaxed urbanity about his manners which suggested that he was the host and I the guest. It would have offended some people, and would have enraged a traditional southern white, but, knowing that I wasn't a southerner, he had moved into a vacuum. I must admit that, more than anything, I was amused. Much later in our acquaintance, he explained to me,

"Being colored, I never know if I'm welcome. So I just make myself at home regardless."

He might have added, without being far wrong, that he hardly cared whether he was welcome. As he also once said,

"When I get to a place, I decide that I'm going to have a nice time there. Then, as far as I'm concerned, everyone else can also have a nice time."

On this occasion, he was certainly having a nice time. He allowed,

"It's right nice coming here for breakfast. I bet your men really know how to cook."

Just then, a steward, looking terrified, poked his nose in with a tray. He wasn't having a nice time. I smiled and indicated for him to put the tray down on the table. John Henry said,

"We can split this, and then get some more if we're hungry."

Like Mac, he believed in first taking everything, and then giving back what he thought appropriate. Again like Mac, he was quite generous. I got, in addition to my coffee, two sausages, a pancake, and half a glass of orange juice in the first installment.

While it was originally intended that my companion sleep in the sleeping car two down, he had, as planned, spent the night in one of the workmen's bunkhouses in order to find out what was going on. He reported,

"Most are home boys just out of the fields. A few are white. The whites stick together, but they don't bother anybody, and nobody bothers them. About half the sergeants are black, and they work the boys hard. But it's still better than the fields, and everybody likes being paid so much. Morale is pretty good."

It is sometimes said that very poor people are so concerned with survival that they think only about the present and the immediate future. That turned out to be almost entirely false, at least as far as our young black men were concerned. John Henry gave me to understand that even the newly recruited field boys were full of expectations. They knew that they had been caught up in something big that was going places, and they spent half the night speculating on what might happen.

They knew that the yard they were working on would soon be completed. However, they had been assured that there would be other work for them, and that they would most certainly not be sent back to the fields.

These, in fact, were young men who had futures, but no pasts. That is, there was nothing in their pasts which they clung to, or were even likely to remember for very long. That was why they were so adaptable. They had no investment in any way of living or working, and they believed that anything new could hardly fail to be an improvement. I said to John Henry,

"I didn't imagine that men straight out of the fields would be this willing."

"There's another kind of home boy you haven't seen. He either hates everybody or is just dead inside. He won't hardly talk to any stranger at all. There are lots of them back there, but not here."

I wasn't sure just what the recruiting process had been, but it had obviously selected for intelligence, an absence of total hostility, and a yen for adventure.

When I mentioned the pickets outside, John Henry laughed and replied,

"No one pays any attention to them. But there was a union organizer who managed to get into the bunkhouses last night. I talked to him, and he left. He seemed to be frightened."

"What did you do to him?"

"Hardly anything at all. As far as the blacks went, I needn't have bothered. He couldn't understand anything they said, and they didn't understand much of what he said. But he was talking to the white boys. I don't think they really understood what he had in mind, and they might not have liked it even if they had. But I decided I didn't want him there."

Hearing that Speed and Odie were up, John Henry and I went into the dining car to take our coffee with them. Speed asked loudly

"How'd you like the Mary Beth Ice Cream Parlor, captain?"

At first, I didn't make the connection. I hadn't really noticed the name of the ice cream parlor in Sumatra, and, anyway, couldn't imagine how Speed knew that I had been there. While I floundered, Speed explained,

"When I saw you go toward Sumatra, I decided to go along. I was going to catch up with you, but you were going too fast, captain."

I knew that Speed could have caught up, or called to me, but it was like him to want to watch unobserved in case I did something that would provide him amusement. I wondered, under that heading, if he had been able to tell that I was concerned about wolves.

On arriving in town, Speed had chosen the hotel for dinner. He had then gone across to the ice cream parlor.

"You didn't see me when you came in, But I was at the next table, hardly three feet behind you."

Speed grinned broadly. I remembered that my glasses had been fogged, and that I had taken in only the Jensens. Speed had listened to our whole conversation, and had taken particular note when Mrs. Jensen said that her husband's sister had become involved with a railwayman. He said,

"I went back and looked at the phone book. There was an Arthur Jensen, the young guy you met, but also, on the same street, a Harold Jensen. I figured that would be the father, and that the sister would be living with her parents.

In a town like this, a girl who's been in any kind of trouble is almost a sure thing. They have nowhere to go and nothing to lose."

Speed's story was that he had gone out the back door of the ice cream parlor and run the half mile to the home of the senior Jensens.

"It's a big house, and I could see in the front room. The older couple were there, reading the papers, but no girl. I went up the driveway along the side, and noticed someone looking out the window at me. It was her, and I waved."

A salesman selling, say cookware, could go to the back door of a large house to interview the cook. Even if he came without any pots and came at night, he could claim to be taking orders. As Speed said,

"You can do a lot of things that seem shady, but, if you smile, they won't call the police. In this case, the girl opened the back door even before I tapped on it."

Miss Jensen wasn't a naive girl, and she hadn't believed Speed's spiel for a minute. However, she had been willing to whisper with him at the door. Later, seeing that her parents hadn't noticed, she let him in. Speed said,

"She's an adventurous girl, and she hates her parents. She liked sneaking me upstairs. I'll come back in a few years and see if there's a kid playing in the yard who looks like me."

There was laughter, but I wasn't sure that any of us believed Speed. He must have been in the ice cream parlor, but I rather supposed that the rest had been sheer fabrication for our benefit. Indeed, he had told the story in a way that seemed hardly intended to compel literal belief.

Odie looked as if Speed had just told one of the travelling salesman stories that abounded at the time. Those were uniformly absurd. One that I remember went,

"There was a drummer who got stranded at a farm house in a storm. The only place for him to sleep was in a bed with the daughter, but the farmer put a sheet between them.

Ten years later, the salesman came back and saw a little boy who looked about five. When the boy told him he was nine, the man said, "You're small for nine." The boy replied,

'You'd be small, too, if your mother was fucked through a sheet.'"

It seems to me that people have become more sophisticated. I can hardly imagine that anyone could now tell such a story without being shouted down. Even then, Odie was far beyond the reach of such stories, and he obviously placed Speed's account of his adventure in the same general category.

For John Henry, Speed's story, true or not, must have been a revelation concerning certain aspects of white society. He looked interested, but in a peculiar way. I certainly didn't have the impression that he would attempt anything of the sort himself. But it might easily have served John Henry's purposes to know something about the lower reaches of the white, supposedly respectable, society that would otherwise have appeared monolithic and forbidding.

Indeed, John Henry had a few questions for Speed. At first, I thought that he was simply questioning Speed's account. They amounted to asking how a girl in a respectable house could have been persuaded to even admit a stranger, much less go to bed with him. While the assumption had been that such a thing was highly unlikely, particularly where Speed was concerned, I suddenly realized that John Henry did believe that it had happened. He just wanted to know how it had happened. Speed answered, rather casually, as if he were explaining some railway matter.

"It didn't happen right off. We were whispering at the door for a long time, and then in the kitchen. We could hear the radio from the front room, and occasional footsteps. I'd hide in the pantry when we thought someone was coming. Her mother called to her, but neither of her parents actually came back into the kitchen.

She must be about twenty five, but her mother doesn't trust her and hardly lets her out of her sight. It turned out that they'd all just come from church, some kind of evening affair that was meant to make her behave better. She was all dressed up, and joked about it, asking me how I had the nerve to approach such a proper young lady. Then, when I went to kiss her, she pushed me away, saying I'd muss her up. So I asked her to take off her dress. She gave me a shocked look, but she loved it."

It was at this point that I began to believe Speed myself. John Henry looked fascinated, and we asked what had happened. Speed continued,

"She liked the idea of fooling around with her parents only a couple of rooms away. There's something a little wrong with her to do that at her age, but she also was afraid of what would happen if she got caught. She wants there to be a roof over her head.

But, then, a little later, I could see that she'd decided to stop fooling around and really go to it. She made me take off my shoes, and we went up the back stairs to the third floor. I didn't leave til about two in the morning, and almost got caught on the way out when her old man got up to piss. He heard something on the back stairs, but she was right with me and answered back. He asked her what the hell she was doing there, and she said she was going down for a snack. I kept going while they were yelling at each other, and got out the back door."

I asked,

"How'd you get back? That must've been in the middle of the storm."

"I walked. It was cold as all shit, but it was worth it."

Odie had left the car by this time, and I hardly knew what to say. The image of the ruined girl, available to any man with Speed's sort of contemptuous and daring effrontery, was a rather poignant one. I also knew how badly her brother and sister-in-law would have felt if they had known.

On balance, I still wasn't really sorry to have hired Speed. He would do the things he had always done, whether he worked for me or not. More important, the same qualities which had allowed him to succeed with Miss Jensen would be of great use in gathering intelligence. In the end, I pointed out only,

"We're supposed to be improving relations between the railway and the townspeople. That sort of thing can only make them worse."

Speed replied easily,

"None of those people know that I had anything to do with the railway, captain."

My last interview in Sumatra, that afternoon, was with a recently retired naval officer. Captain Paul Beach, USN (retired) also happened to be Brigadier Paul Beach, GER, the officer commanding at Sumatra. In our system, the division points were the principal bases of the system, and, indeed, all trains were constantly under the control of one division point or another, passing from one command to the next just after reaching the C point in the middle of a division. The division points thus corresponded to divisions in the army, the principal operational units of any size.

As I approached the shack which was serving as a temporary command post, I pinned on, not the gold-on-pink patch of my alias, but the purple-on-pink one of a lieutenant general. The shack was a long narrow one with a slanted roof and a volume of smoke coming out of the pipe which served as chimney. Most likely, the whole thing was heated with a single stove.

Squeezed together at the front with their typewriters were three Assistant Clerks with the rank of Leading Private and pink-on-green patches. One of them, a young black woman, gaped speechlessly at my rank and shot into the cubicle behind her. A young man, a 2nd Lieutenant wearing a red-on- blue patch, fairly jumped out of the cubicle to salute me with the rather picturesque GER salute, consisting in a raised right arm with the palm forward. It wasn't commonly used, but Mac, in an inventive mood, had suggested it in one of the many newsletters that were always going out to the system. At the time, he had said to me,

"I think it's Roman. Anyway, it's manly and unaffected, and, unlike most salutes, it doesn't require a uniform cap."

It was also a little like the Hitler salute, which came into prominence later, but it involved a bent arm unlike the straight one favored by the German leader.

I, feeling slightly foolish, returned the salute and smiled genially. This was evidently a young man who read the newsletters before throwing them into the waste-basket. He then burst out forthrightly,

"Welcome to the Sumatra division point, sir."

I had the feeling that the young man might have been recruited right out of a college fraternity. After I returned his greeting, he asked me to forbear "just a mo" while he informed his boss, the major, of my presence. A moment later, a man appeared who looked as if he might recently have been an insurance adjustor, now decked out with a gold-on-blue patch. He omitted the salute, but invited me into his office while he sent the lieutenant in search of the brigadier. I had hardly sat down and been served coffee by one of the young ladies I had first encountered when Brigadier Beach bustled in and took me back to his somewhat larger office. I remarked jokingly,

"I've never been in the army, but I'm beginning to see what it must be like. I've met your whole staff, in strict order of rank."

"Yes. The navy's a little looser, but, still, things flow up and down the chain of command one jump at a time. It can be silly for little things, but it's the best way of running a really large organization."

It developed that Beach, a man about fifty, had recently been retired from the navy after completing a tour of duty as captain of a cruiser.

"Of course, we all wanted to make rear-admiral, but, with all the retrenchment in the navy, there are very few opportunities. One thing, though. I never dreamed that I'd become a brigadier general."

Although Beach was a relaxed and easy companion, there was an aura about him, not so much of authority, but of a willingness to casually undertake difficult and dangerous things. I guessed that he had been a popular captain, punishing men only when absolutely necessary, and not being faced with that necessity very often.

Judging by his present costume, and the dirt on his boots, I gathered that he had been out wading in the snow and supervising construction. That wasn't the role we ultimately had in mind for division point commanders, but it no doubt reflected Beach's energy and his enthusiasm for his new job. It would also get him off to a good start with his men. Even now, he gestured toward the window and said,

"You know, it's always exciting when a ship gets under way and heads out to sea, even if it's only a routine peacetime training cruise. I felt the same way last night when we hitched our fresh engines onto those freights and sent them out to the west. We all stood watching til the flame from the last stack disappeared into the storm."

I wondered whether the others would have stood there in the blizzard watching trains on their own. Perhaps they had done it only because Beach had.

After a short silence, I explained myself.

"As director of intelligence and security, it's my job to collect and disseminate information, and also to give you timely warning of problems that are likely to occur with the labor force and the local communities that we serve."

I could see immediately that Beach took me at my word when I said that I was there to help him. He didn't assume, as some men in his position did later, that I was there to look critically at his command and wait hopefully for an opportunity to fire him. When I asked him about the pickets at the gate, he replied,

"That's not a strike, just a protest by the maintenance of way union. Of course, the yard's being built with non-union labor, and some railways probably would use their track crews to build a yard. However, since our men never leave the yard area, they don't have to cross a picket line and hardly see the pickets at all."

"I got past them pretty easily when I walked out from Sumatra. Have they ever tried to stop a train?"

Beach actually laughed.

"From what I've seen of those boys, they aren't likely to jump in front of a locomotive with a sign. We also use just a single guard at the gate. They've never tried to push past him."

I offered,

"If you ever do get a serious situation, we may want to collect guards from around the circle to protect our trains and facilities, not to mention our men."

It seemed odd, and more than a bit forced, for a man such as myself, who had always been a thoroughgoing civilian, to offer armed support to a man who had spent his life close to big guns. I was glad that Beach didn't laugh. He allowed only,

"We had a one-day strike on the branch line. I just ignored it, and it went away."

In those days almost every conversation between GER officials touched on the fact that our young black people would do so much more for so much less than the traditional railwaymen of America. I said to him,

"For the time being, we'll be paying most of the men we retain from the Erie and other railways much more than our young blacks. It would be nice to resolve the inequities by raising the pay of the latter, but that'll never give Mac the edge he wants over our competitors."

"We shouldn't wait too long to get the pay evened out. The blacks must be used to getting paid less than whites for the same work in the south, but we've treated them in an entirely different way and raised their expectations. I'll feel myself that we've betrayed them if we keep them permanently on a lower pay scale."

"I think we all feel that. I'm sure Mac Garner does."

Beach took a long swallow of coffee, holding the cup carefully as if he were still aboard ship, and said,

"I've had only one interview with Mr. Garner, but I have the impression that he's interested in building, not just a railway, but practically a whole world of his own."

"That's correct. As far as I can see, there are three main elements in it."

Beach's curiosity about Mac was so great that he was actually hanging on my words. I proceeded,

"The first element is a simple delight in seeing a locomotive pull a train down a track. I think you and I also have that."

Beach nodded. He was obviously at least as romantic as I was myself. I then added,

"The second element is more conceptual. It's a fascination with the idea that trains moving in circles can collect and distribute virtually everything that needs to be moved in the whole country."

"Yes. I've wondered if that's really true, but I'm certainly ready to try."

"Okay. The third element is partly practical and partly ideological. It's that there are millions of young men who've been virtually ignored who can be educated and inspired to make the whole thing work. In the course of doing so, they will form what amounts to an ideal society."

"In a limited way, that's already happening. Our young men are happy to work all day laying out the yards, and then play football in the snow at night under lights hung from the telephone poles. They even have time and energy left over to do schoolwork. But only the very young are capable of that sort of thing. I don't know how long it can last."

I suppose that it was then that I first realized that there wasn't really any place in Mac's grand scheme for men who wanted to settle down and marry. I put this to Beach, and he replied,

"I'm used to this from the navy. Sailors aren't really supposed to marry. The old idea was that they'd consort with prostitutes between voyages, and that would take care of their sexuality."

"Our men don't even get to see prostitutes do they?"

"They do get a week's vacation every three months. I imagine some things will happen then."

"Mac's experience is with the army. I suppose he must assume some similar arrangement."

"Nowadays, sailors often do marry, but it usually doesn't work well. The wives are unhappy because the men are at sea so much. In the meantime, they have to live in rather squalid little communities adjoining the bases."

"I hope we don't get little shack villages at each division point."

It occurred to me that wives might make more impact than the men on local communities, particularly when they had children. The Jensens wouldn't like that, but I didn't think it necessary to jump that far ahead for the moment. Beach continued,

"Marriage hardly works in the presence of military discipline. Wives are civilians, and can't be given orders. Some allow themselves to be ordered by their husbands, but there's hell to pay when they don't."

"I may have some problems myself if I ever marry again. Not many women would want to live in a railway car in constant motion around the great circles."

I didn't think it necessary to add that many women would find the nature of my work distasteful, even before they met Speed. Beach replied,

"I'm one of relatively few people on the railway who can really have a home. Even so, my wife isn't thrilled about Sumatra."

I nodded in sympathy. At the same time, I realized that, married or not, I did want to have a woman or women in my life.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page