Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 11


The afternoon of February 8, 1932, the Monday after Cindy Lee's expulsion, I called on the commander of the C point at Ann Arbor, Major C. D. Howison, in his office at the passenger station. I wasn't surprised to find that Howison, a blonde athletic-looking young man, was also a retired military officer, a captain in the army. He was a graduate of West Point and a regular officer, but had run into financial difficulties.

"A lot of army officers have private incomes, or have families who can help them. I didn't, which was all right until I got married. Then, we couldn't hardly get along. So I resigned my commission and answered a magazine ad for the railway. I get more money than I did, and the prospects for promotion seem a lot better."

As I explained the nature of the intelligence function, I had the distinct impression that Howison wasn't with me. He seemed briefly to debate within his own mind what he could say to a superior officer in this different sort of army. He finally burst out with,

"It sounds to me, sir, as if you want to set up a system of spies."

"Yes, major, that's exactly what we have in mind. This is a bit different from the army, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir. We never needed spies in the army. The sergeants know the men, and a good company grade officer knows both the sergeants and the men. We didn't have to guess about the morale of the men. We knew what it was."

It was obvious that I was in danger of trampling upon Howison's military honor. To spy on one's own men with undercover agents was sneaky, ungentlemanly, and the sort of thing that can cause an officer to permanently lose the respect of his men. I asked gently,

"Major, do you know your men here as well as you did in the army?"

Howison was honest enough to admit that he did not.

"I hardly know the old employees of the Ann Arbor Railway at all. They've been here much longer than I have, and they don't like newcomers. They stick together and go home to their families at night. The trouble is, we don't really have a sergeant class on the railway. The army depends on having long-service men who make a point of knowing everything about their men, and who'll tell their officers everything they need to know if approached in the right way."

"Would it be fair to say that, in the army, the sergeants spy for the officers?"

"No, sir. There's nothing sneaky about it. The sergeants make a point of knowing what their men are doing at all times, even what they're likely to do on leave. They insist on knowing, and everyone is aware of that fact. They don't tell everything they know to the officers, and everyone is aware of that, too. A good officer never presses a sergeant in the wrong way."

"Well, even before we took over the Ann Arbor, there were foremen and crew chiefs. We made some of them sergeants. Won't they do?"

"They don't owe me any loyalty. They try to evade my control and shelter their men from my directives as if I were a bad officer. But I'm not a bad officer. In time, I'll make them recognize that I'm a good one, but that hasn't happened yet."

"Wouldn't you like to know to what degree you've succeeded at any given time?"

"That's easy, sir. All I have to do is watch the men work."

As we talked further, I recognized things in Howison that I had observed in other military officers. They were disinclined to spy because they actively wanted not to know certain things. Indeed, it seemed to be the essence of army discipline that an officer not notice a great many things. I put this to him, and he replied,

"Well there are rules governing every aspect of behavior. If we always enforced every rule, life would be impossible for everyone, both officers and men. The non-coms, taking cues from the officers, decide which rules should be enforced in any given circumstances. If an officer wants to tighten things up a bit, a word to the sergeant is all that's necessary or appropriate."

It was obvious that this system wouldn't work on the railway, and I only smiled. He flushed a little, and we went on to discuss the local labor situation. I already knew that both the Wheeling & Lake Erie, which took the line into Toledo, and the Ann Arbor were completely unionized. They were small lines, but they lay in a heavily industrialized part of the country where everything was unionized. Howison added,

"General Atwater, down at Toledo, is a real fire-eater. He's taken on two unions, the engineers and the maintenance of way workers. The new engineers are blacks trained in Mississippi, as are some of the track people. Others are being trained on the job. The men in charge of the track gangs and work trains are mostly Italians from the Erie. The ones I've met can just barely speak English."

"Then there've been strikes?"

"Yes, sir. The engineers on the Ann Arbor struck when they saw black engineers on the A trains coming out of Toledo. They were all replaced within a day. The track crews waited another day to strike, but they were also replaced."

"How about the other unions?"

"They haven't actually struck, but they're mighty surly, and often uncooperative. I've fired some men on the spot when they refused to obey direct orders."

"Well, we're in a strong position here. We can run the seventy miles or so of Ann Arbor line that forms part of the circle without any help from the original employees."

"Yes, sir. I think the only reason we haven't replaced them all is that we don't want to trigger a strike by all the unions on the Wabash."

The Wabash, which took over at Detroit, was a railway that we depended on for more than a thousand miles of line, in both the Eastern and Western Circles. I decided, then and there, to place spies on it. Generally speaking, we would have to trim our sails whenever mutiny threatened on the Wabash.

I then told Howison that I would need to include an occasional agent in those workers who would constantly be rotated through his command. He was obviously unhappy, but, of course, he was used to executing orders he didn't happen to like. It remained to me only to decide where to insert Cindy Lee, and I said,

"I do already have an agent here, a female one. I'd like just to give her some experience on the railway."

"All right, sir. I'll assign her anywhere you want. The pay checks are all sent out from Toledo, so you'll have to tell them if you want her to be paid."

The main function of a C point was to collect and distribute local freight. It was a rather exacting business. It did no good to run the A trains at a breakneck clip around the circle if it took days to get the freight on to one of them and further days to get it from such a train to its destination. Our general rule was that, once notified of a car to be picked up on a siding, it would be on its way within a day. If destined for any point on the Eastern Circle, it would be no more than six days on the circle, and would be delivered within another day. We could often manage the pick-up and delivery in much less than a day, and, depending on how far around the circle the shipment was going, we could guarantee arrival in much less than the maximum of eight days.

A maximum guaranteed delivery time within eight days may not sound very fast in these days of airplanes, but the other railways were much slower. They might deliver the shipment in a couple of weeks, but they might also get a car blocked in on a yard track somewhere, and not extricate it for a month. Since I wanted Cindy to get a feel for the system, I decided to introduce her to the seemingly rather pedestrian local freight operation on which everything depended. After consulting the schedule in my car, I decided that we would go out on W11 South, she as signaller and I as switch crew chief, under the overall command of the engineer. She asked,

"Won't the locals think that this is pretty strange?"

"Probably not. There's a lot of rotation of personnel anyway, which is possible because of all our standardized procedures. Anyhow, the men must be used to surprises from us by this time."

W11 and W12 were local freights, called pedlars because they continually picked up and dropped off cars. Unromantic as they were, they were the face of the railway for many people, the engines which they saw puttering backwards and forwards in every clime and in every topography from the plains to the mountains.

On this division, however, W11 and W12 weren't seen by quite so many people, operating mainly in the small hours of the morning. Indeed, W11 arrived in Ann Arbor from Toledo every morning at 0420 with its companion on its heel. W11 left Toledo first, as a light engine and caboose, and picked up cars from the sidings. W12 followed, a few minutes later, with a train of cars destined for points between Toledo and Ann Arbor. It, so to speak, filled the sidings that W11 had swept. Both W11 and W12 waited at Ann Arbor until the first series of A trains passed. The two pedlars then returned to Toledo, this time with W12 going ahead and sweeping while W11 followed and dropped off cars.

We carried aboard my car a number of GER standard uniforms, which consisted simply of zip-up coveralls in the field gray of the German army. No one was required to wear them, but, since they were provided free, a good many people did. That night, Cindy tried on uniforms. Even the smallest required turned-up cuffs, but I thought she looked rather appealing as she bounced around the car and looked in mirrors. Her own opinion was,

"I look like somebody's mascot. I'll never be taken seriously like this."

I had doubts myself, but I replied,

"They'll forget that the uniform's too big for you once we're underway."

The next morning, we arose soon after five. With plenty of layers underneath our uniforms, we considered that we were prepared for the early morning cold of some fifteen degrees. It then remained only for Cindy to pin on the pink-on-blue badge of a corporal while I placed the red-on-green of a sergeant on my left breast pocket.

Our engine, an old 2-8-0 Consolidation, was waiting in steam on the track just in front of the small engine house. The engineer, Second Lieutenant Henry Fowler, was a young black, seemingly hardly out of his teens. He was standing beside his engine, not looking very happy, when I approached him. I wasn't sure, in those early days, quite how a sergeant would ordinarily address a lieutenant, but I bustled up and said brightly,

"Good morning, sir. I'm Jimmy Smith, and I'm in charge of your switch crew today."

Fowler looked at me, with something like amazement, and mumbled something. I then saw the fireman, a much older white man, and realized what Fowler's problem was.

We would naturally have replaced the Ann Arbor firemen along with the engineers, but for the fact that they belonged to the same union as the roundhouse men, shopworkers, and others. In keeping with the policy of not precipitating general strikes on our larger railways, particularly the Wabash, the men of this union, one of the largest, hadn't been goaded into striking. Thus, Fowler's fireman was paid a good deal more than he was, and, into the bargain, looked upon Fowler as a scab. Quite apart from whatever attitudes the fireman might have about racial differences, it wasn't likely that Fowler would get more than minimal cooperation.

Cindy then came up, and I introduced her to Fowler. He said even less than before, and looked even more disconsolate. All he needed to complete a very bad day, one suspected him of thinking, was an inexperienced switch crew with whom he had never worked. The fact that it contained a woman, the first he would ever have seen in that capacity, probably did little to ease his feelings. He must have thought remote his chances of getting to the safety of a siding at Dundee (the B point) and clearing the main for A14 two hours after setting out.

Just then, another young black man came up to join us. He wore the same corporal's patch as Cindy, but was a switchman instead of a signaller. I thereby learned that we had also taken on the switchmen's union on the Ann Arbor.

This man smiled, introduced himself as Levi, and greeted Fowler. The latter spoke only to Levi, and gave him the duplicate of the list of destinations for the cars in our train. Since Levi was only a corporal, this list should have come to me as chief of the switch crew. Ignoring this slight, I asked for the list and went over it with Levi. It meant little to me, unfamiliar as I was with the line, but Levi, a quite cheerful and relaxed young man, assured me that he knew all the sidings and industries that we'd be visiting. I replied,

"I'm glad of that. We've just arrived, and I've never seen this stretch of line."

I was careful to speak more loudly and with more confidence than usual, and it seemed to be what Levi, if not Fowler, expected.

W11 South, which would be unusually long that morning, was being carefully assembled. Some of the sidings would be reached by facing points, meaning that we would head into them. In those cases, the cars to be dropped would be ahead of the engine, the first to be dropped the first in line. Other sidings would be reached by trailing points, in which case we would have to take the entire train beyond them, back into the siding, and drop cars assembled in the rear of the engine, the first to be dropped the last in the train.

There is, however, a problem with having the engine in the middle of the train. The engineer and fireman can hardly see where they're going. For this reason, a caboose was placed in front of the train. We, the switch crew, would ride in the caboose, and we would signal, using a horn, if there was anything on the track. We would also use the horn to suggest changes of speed and to tell the engineer when to stop for a siding.

We had some time before departure, and I took that opportunity to refresh Cindy in some techniques that I had taught her in a quiet corner of the yard the day before. The simplest task is the throwing of a manual switch. One unlocks the arm lying on the ground, lifts it, and throws it to the ground in the opposite direction. The first time, she managed it with only a grunt or two, and, after a little practice, not even that. There was no need to repeat that exercise. The tricky part consisted of the uncoupling of cars, the connecting and disconnecting of air brake hoses, and the opening and closing of the valves.

While all these operations are simple enough in themselves, one cannot do anything with the air hoses and valves without getting between freight cars at a time when they may suddenly start to move. Despite safety procedures, thousands of men have been maimed and killed, and are still maimed and killed, when executing these functions. It's easy to have a foot or leg dragged beneath the wheel of a forty ton car, and a hand or arm caught between couplers when they come together is immediately mangled. I said to Cindy, in a disarmingly quiet tone,

"On the Lackawanna, we had a man whose whole body was caught between couplers in such a way that the two cars actually coupled through his stomach. He was still alive when they managed to uncouple the cars, but he didn't last long."

She reacted with predictable horror, and I hoped that she would always bear that incident in mind when she stepped between cars.

The other great danger is that of misunderstanding between engineers and switchmen. One must not only have a good signalling system, but have one that is so convenient to use that men won't be tempted into dangerous short-cuts. With judicious use of additional horror stories, I went over all these matters again.

At 0625 we proceeded to the caboose which had been spotted on a track leading directly to the throat track, the one which joined the main. Levi started the gasoline engine on the rear platform which ran the generator, and thus provided power for the locomotive searchlight bolted to the roof of the caboose. I threw the lever, and a strong beam shot out reassuringly, lighting the throat track and the long turnout which joined it to the main. We had heard A13 whistling its way through Ann Arbor, and, when the beam of its headlight crossed ours, I cut the light so as not to blind the fireman.

The passage of A13 was the signal for W12 to start south, and, within seconds, it came past us, another old Consolidation pulling only a caboose. Since it would be sweeping the sidings, we were to give it a ten minute head start. There might be a siding or two to sweep before we came to one that needed filling.

Just as W12 rolled on to the main, our engine approached, pushing a string of cars up to our caboose. A yard signaller was walking over, swinging his lantern, and, since Cindy would be doing the same thing along the line, I suggested that we get down to watch. When we had done so, Cindy looked at the signaller, a middle-aged man who staggered slightly, and whispered,

"I bet he won't do it the way you want him to."

I had, in fact, invented the signalling system to be used on the Great Eastern Railway. It was designed to prevent those tragic occurrences when the engineer misinterprets a gesture and pulls a car over a man. Instead, our signallers were to use special lanterns with lights that were visible either day or night. These were designed with shutters in such a way that the same color light showed from the back of the lantern as the front. Thus, it would be impossible for a man to hold the lantern toward a locomotive and show a green light under the impression that he was showing a red one. In addition to the red and green, there was a yellow, with the usual meaning, and a double green, one beside the other, which indicated that the eingineer should proceed in the direction away from the signaller.

We had tried out this system successfully in the Lackawanna yards at Scranton. When I recommended it to Mac for the GER, I made an important addition. For ordinary movements, only the green, the double green, and the yellow were used. If one wanted the engine to speed up, one raised the green or double green up and down. If one wanted it to slow to a stop, one moved the yellow up and down at the appropriate speed.

The lanterns themselves were modified so that, to show anything but red, one had to open the shutters against a spring. Otherwise, if the lantern were turned on at all, it would show red. Red now signalled a maximum application of brakes for an emergency stop. If the train was already stopped, a red signal indicated that there might be a man between the cars, and that the engine should, on no account, be allowed to move. This enabled the signaller himself to place the lantern on the ground, showing red, and then go between the cars.

Neither Mac nor I had been able to imagine any way in which these signals could be misunderstood. In fact, Mac had said,

"Anyone who can't understand this system is an idiot, and anyone who's too lazy to use it is a fool. Either way, we'll fire them right on the spot without even listening to any excuses."

We had immediately put out a contract for the manufacture of the lanterns. These were now available at all points in the system.

When the signalman approached, I noticed with suspicion that his lantern was showing red. Did he really wish to signal an emergency stop? He then held the lantern up and waved vaguely with his other arm. The engineer, Fowler in this case, should have opened both his engine brake valve and his train brake valve immediately. He should then have refused to move. In fact, he kept on coming. The signaller waved some more, his gestures hardly visible in the darkness, and, as the train slowed, the caboose was coupled on with a crash. The signaller then took the lantern with him, still showing red, as he walked away. Cindy asked,

"Aren't you going to do anything?"

Following Mac's injunction, I could have fired the signaller right there. Even in my guise as sergeant, I could pursue the signaller and roast him for an important infraction of the rules. However, there was another problem. As I said to Cindy,

"The real trouble is that Fowler, the engineer, obeyed the improper signals. He should have stopped and refused to move as long as he saw the red light. He's even more at fault, but he out-ranks me, and he's in command of the train."

"So you can't reprimand the corporal without reprimanding the engineer?"

"Not really."

I wasn't sure what a sergeant in the army was supposed to do when his lieutenant broke the rules, and, as far as our railway was concerned, that was uncharted territory. Of course, I should have done something. Realizing that I wasn't acquitting myself well in Cindy's eyes, I added weakly,

"Anyhow, Fowler's already nervous enough without adding to his difficulties."

As we were climbing aboard the caboose, I noticed that the signaller had also neglected to connect the air hoses between the caboose and the car behind it.

This last omission meant that the caboose brakes wouldn't be applied along with those of the rest of the train. In all justice, if the engine brakes and those of thirty cars were applied, the brakes of a thirty first car wouldn't make much difference. It would also save time on the run if the hoses of the caboose didn't continually have to be connected and disconnected each time the caboose was coupled on and dropped off. On the other hand, the additional braking of the caboose could conceivably make the difference between hitting, and not hitting, that hypothetical school bus at the grade crossing.

I said no more to Cindy but decided to give Howison a rocket when we got back. I would also recommend that the signaller be fired, at least unless it was likely to precipitate the kind of labor trouble we couldn't afford on the Wabash.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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