Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 13

An Inquest

Even after returning to the warmth of the car, I seemed to go on shivering. I sent Cindy Lee into the bathroom to soak in the tub while the steward took my still dripping clothes, wrapped me in blankets, and brought me coffee and soup. Cindy reappeared in a surprisingly short time, dressed and seemingly unaffected otherwise. I, still shivering, took my turn in the tub. That helped, but I was still decidedly shaky when, dressed in pajamas and robe, I joined her in the lounge. Since she was obviously hungry, I had lunch served.

There was only one possible subject for conversation. While we had hardly known Henry Fowler and the fireman, and Fowler had been rather unpleasant, I certainly hadn't wanted him to be killed. But I did find myself wishing that I was a little more moved, not only by the shock and manner of his passing, but by his loss.

I soon found that Cindy was furiously angry at Fowler. It seemed hardly to matter that he was dead. She asked,

"Why did he go past my red signal? Didn't he see it?"

"I think he must have. He was looking right at you."

"Did he think I couldn't tell whether the bridge was falling apart?"

"Well, you know, wooden bridges often do creak and groan without actually giving way."

"These weren't creaks and groans. They were the noises of timbers cracking and snapping. But I see you agreed with him."

She gave a little smile as she spoke thus. I admitted that I had also thought that she was probably exaggerating the danger. I then continued,

"As you can imagine, I've been thinking about it. I was right beside Fowler, and I should have at least tried to get him to stop."

"You probably couldn't have. You certainly couldn't have convinced him in three seconds or less that you were really a general and not a sergeant."

"No, I suppose not."

"Did Levi also think that I was out of my mind?"

"No. He believed you. He called to Fowler to stop."

"Really? It's odd then that he didn't stop. He obviously trusted Levi, at least more than he did us."

"Levi and I were talking in the cab on the way back. He's very bothered. He thinks he was too late when he called out and not forceful enough."

Cindy, by this time, seemed less angry and more puzzled. She replied,

"Levi was talking about not wanting to be a leader. I guess, when it comes down to it, people really don't follow him."

"Oddly enough, Levi seems to think that this is reason to go to medical school after all. He's convinced that, whatever he does, he can't avoid responsibility."

"Medicine might be better. Most people at least act as if they're going to follow a doctor's orders."

"Yes. Levi's an intellectual, and intellectuals don't carry much weight in America unless they're also doctors or lawyers."

We both fell silent and concentrated on eating. When we spoke again, Cindy said,

"I did appreciate your trying to save me."

"And I appreciate your actually saving me. It takes a damn fool to drown in water that doesn't even come to his shoulders, but I was managing it."

"It wasn't your fault. Your feet got tangled in the weeds. I've been swimming and diving in Lake Michigan since infancy, sometimes in water almost as cold as this."

We talked over the details of our experience for an hour or more, not excluding Cindy's really rather successful beginning as a railwaywoman. She finally said,

"We can't have women signallers if the men are going to ignore them."

"Those were very special circumstances. We were all so intent on not delaying A14 that we lost sight of everything else. Still, I'll call Mac soon, and I'll put your point to him."

I began then a practice which I long continued. Instead of using a telephone in one of the railway offices, I went to the nearest hotel, took a room with a telephone, and made my calls at leisure. Then and later, Mac and I simply disregarded telephone expenses, talking as long as we wanted. If he wasn't available when I called, I would lie on the bed and read until he called back.

Mac had just moved to the new system headquarters at Huntington, Indiana, and I reached him easily. As I had expected, he wasn't particularly upset, or even surprised, at the news. After I had given him a brief but fairly complete account, he replied,

"It's too bad to lose a good engineer, but that's part of railroading."

"The wreck seemed to come out of nowhere. I would never have dreamed that that would happen."

"I've read quite a few accounts of wrecks. There's often some strange sequence of events leading up to the fatal accident. You think it won't ever happen again. And it won't. But something else will."

"There'll be an inquest, probably in Dundee, the nearest town."

"I think I'll come on up. I feel like a change, and we'll have a good chance to talk."

That being the case, I decided to wait until I saw him to raise the issue of hiring women for many more jobs than we had originally intended.

On the way back from the hotel, I stopped to see Major Howison, and found him in conversation with a white-haired gentleman. The latter was introduced to me as Major General E. C. Atwater, the division point commandant at Toledo. Our rule was that a C point, such as Ann Arbor, belonged to the "preceding" division point. Consequently, all the operations leading to the wreck had been under Atwater's control. He seemed only slightly more disturbed than Mac at what had happened, and remarked, in a deep southern accent,

"Things are too tight. There's not enough margin for error. That unscheduled pickup of the five cars threw everything out of whack and encouraged Fowler to take a foolish chance."

I confided my suspicion that the foreman at the metal-working plant hadn't really put in his pick-up order. Howison replied,

"We never got any order to pick up those cars at all. We've had trouble with that company before. They'll change their minds, and then insist that it's our fault."

Atwater nodded and replied,

"There'll always be people like that, but I'm not prepared to say that we won't haul their freight. We've managed to isolate and eliminate most of the causes of delay in the A trains, but we'll never get the local freights to that point. They depend on the actions of people we don't employ and command."

I said,

"I've found out in a practical way just how tight the schedule is. But we could have made it to Dundee with a better engine. We ran out of steam on the grade south of Milan, and had to stop for fifteen minutes."

Atwater seemed rather amused that I had put on a sergeant's outfit and gone out on a local freight. Although I guessed that he, too, was a retired military officer, he was older and less prickly than Howison. After the latter was called away, I invited Atwater to my car for coffee.

Cindy was shopping in town, thus making unnecessary the explanation I had prepared. Since Atwater had missed lunch in his hurry to investigate the circumstances of the accident, I had the steward make some sandwiches. Atwater thanked me and added,

"As a retired army officer, I'm used to missing meals, and then making them up wherever and whenever I can."

A year previously, Atwater had been commanding a division of infantry. I asked him how Mac had been able to find so many military officers for the railway. Atwater laughed and replied,

"Didn't you know? Mac grew up at army bases. His father was General Ezra Garner, the only American general seriously wounded in France."

I was amazed. I could say only,

"I thought he came from a family of Texas oilmen."

"That was his mother's family. His daddy's family was military through and through. I first knew Mac when he was about six, just about the turn of the century. I was a young infantry captain then, and Ezra was my battalion commander. Then, after Mac graduated from West Point, he was my subordinate for a little while, just before we all went to France."

"I never dreamed that Mac went to West Point. He seems so un- military compared to the rest of you."

"Well, he was a good soldier, but of a very different sort. He would have made a good leader of irregulars, but there wasn't any room for that in trench warfare, or in the peace afterwards. This is what he was meant for."

"You mean, running a railway is like conducting guerilla warfare?"

"This railway, yes. We have groups of men whose allegiance is uncertain, and who may quarrel and fight with other groups also under our command. Most of all, irregulars have always been motivated by the hope of booty. Our men here won't have a chance to sack a town, but they hope for a kind of rapid promotion and monetary gain which isn't possible in a regular army. Even some of us generals are like that ourselves."

I realized that Atwater was teasing me a little. But he was also serious. For a regular army officer, the Great Eastern Railway was, indeed, something like a guerilla operation. I said,

"I thought our friend, Major Howison, was making rather heavy weather of things, even before the accident. Then, when I landed him with two bodies and rushed back here to get warm, I thought he might explode."

"He's a regular officer who only left because the army pay is so inadequate. He's not a gambler, and he doesn't like having undisciplined ruffians under his command without being able to put them into the stockade. But he'll learn."

I asked,

"Did you ever have an irregular command, general?"

"I was part of the expedition sent out to catch Pancho Villa. I worked with, and commanded, various sorts of Mexican auxiliaries. We didn't catch Pancho, but it was a wonderful experience."

Just then, Cindy Lee returned, dressed nicely, and apparently none the worse for her experience of the morning. I introduced her to Atwater, who was quite gracious and courtly, but, I thought, more amused than ever. I was almost certain that Howison had told him about her.

Cindy explained to Atwater that she had run into some trouble at the university, and that I, meeting her at the station, had recruited her for the railway. Atwater was impressed with what she had done and replied,

"There's no reason why women can't perform a great many functions on the railway. The only problem will be getting the men to accept them."

As we talked on, it became clear to me that Atwater believed that, in an irregular force, one could get away with doing almost anything if one went about it in the right way. When he finally left, it seemed to me that I had found another division point commander with whom I could work easily.

A couple of days later, we went down to Dundee for the hearing. Another engine had been scrounged up for W11 South, but we were attached to W12 South as it swept the sidings.

When we got to the scene of the wreck, the cars on the bridge had been removed, but the ones that had been in front of the engine, including the caboose, were still stranded on the other side of the river. Beyond the collapsed trestle, we could just make out the exposed part of the engine and tender. Neither of us said anything about it.

We arrived in Dundee about ten in the morning, our cars being spotted in the yard. Cindy, warm and comfortable in the lounge, had little inclination to explore the town. I therefore left her in the car and made my way to the main street, indeed, the only street with shops. The day was another typical Michigan one, overcast, but still with a light bright sky. The dry snow of the last few days was being whirled around corners by a wind that felt as if it came straight from the North Pole.

I took shelter in a cafe, where I sat at the counter and ordered coffee. The proprietor was a stout middle-aged woman who had an ugly infection of her right eye. She rubbed the eye with her hand, picked up a cup with the same hand, her fingers nicely inside it, and poured my coffee. I sipped gingerly, hoping that the coffee would be hot enough to kill any germs that might have been transferred. The only other customer was a respectable lady who was also seated at the counter. She asked in a friendly fashion,

"What brings you to Dundee on such a cold day?"

I replied, without much thinking about it,

"I'll be a witness at the inquest on the railway accident a couple of days ago."

The proprietor shook her gray head sympathetically and murmured,

"It's terrible what they do to people."

It was an odd remark, as if a criminal syndicate had killed Henry Fowler and his fireman, but I nodded along with her. As nearly as I could make out, both ladies took me for an innocent bystander, perhaps a farmer, who had happened to see the accident.

The atmosphere changed markedly when it was discovered that I was an official of the line. It was really because Dundee was a B point.

At a B point there was generally a single switcher to classify cars and a couple of work trains. There was a small engine house, a small yard, and that was it. All told, there weren't more than twenty five employees, in this case fewer than the Ann Arbor had previously had there. The favorable economic impact of the GER on a B point was generally slight, and Dundee was no exception.

The second factor was the cancellation of most of the passenger trains that the people depended on, to be replaced only by a few locals running at bizarre hours. That rankled, but, I think, not so much as the third factor, the full slate of A trains that we had just begun running. They came through at about fifty miles an hour with a tremendous roar, shaking the ground and bellowing with their whistles. They prevented many from sleeping, they caused the mothers of young children great concern, and they blanketted the entire town with volumes of greasy black smoke. Houses that might otherwise have been painted every ten years would now have to be painted every year to remain respectable. The people of Dundee had a strong inclination to remain respectable, and the dignified lady on my right said to me,

"Those trains of yours are making the town fit only for the scum of the earth you've brought here."

It was really surprising to see such a display of emotion from such a woman, and it was also upsetting. I tried to explain in a weak sort of way, but my attempts were brushed aside. She said only,

"I know you didn't decide in advance to come to Dundee and ruin it. It's just that you don't care what happens to the towns along the line."

I sensed that it would be useless to argue further, and was, in any case, not sorry to abandon my infected coffee cup. I paid with a quarter, which constituted a tip of one hundred and fifty per cent, and retreated quickly to the safety of the howling gale outside.

I next went to the small courthouse in search of the coroner. He turned out to be a rather austere man, a tall stiff-necked Michigan Dutchman. He was also unhappy with us. He had had to go to Ann Arbor to examine the bodies, and he began the interview by telling me that it had been a criminal act to remove the bodies from Dundee without his permission. I apologized and asked, with studious naivite, whether we should have left them in the locomotive cab. He replied,

"You should have brought them right here, but I know all about your schedule. You wouldn't delay one of your god- damned trains if there was a woman tied across the tracks."

I wasn't entirely displeased by this remark. That was exactly the reputation we wanted to have among our customers, but I also didn't wish to be installed in the Dundee jailhouse. I therefore said that I was sorry we had caused him inconvenience, hoping to implicitly make the point that causing inconvenience was rather different from, say, armed robbery.

My meeting with the coroner ended at noon when he said that he was going to lunch. I wasn't surprised that he didn't invite me to accompany him. I then made my way back to my car in the Dundee yard. I was about to climb aboard when I noticed smoke up the line. Consulting my watch, I realized that Y3 was due.

As the engine rolled slowly past, I noticed that something was a little different. Behind the coaches of Y3, there was coupled another engine, a high-wheeled speedster of an Atlantic with three passenger cars. When Y3 stopped at the station, the Atlantic was uncoupled and backed its cars toward me. The last car was an observation one, and, when I saw two figures waving from the rear platform, I realized what had happened.

It was natural that Vignis would fit up another car like mine for herself and Mac, and not unnatural that she had come with him. I flattered myself that she had heard about my ducking in the cold river, and was concerned to see that I was all right.

The visiting cars were brought back to abut my own, but, even before they stopped, I swung aboard the front steps of the observation car. Vignis came rushing through the car and gave me a big hug and a kiss. She almost knocked me over, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. It also occurred to me that, married to Mac, she had much more affection for me than she would ever have had otherwise. I was delighted to take what was offered.

Mac didn't hug and kiss me, nor did he do undue violence to my hand with his handshake. But he did actually look pleased to see me.

The interior of the car was strikingly different from mine. There was dark panelling throughout, with etchings hung on the partitions, and the furniture was mahogany and leather. Vignis gestured at it and, laughing, said,

"Mac's a much more conservative man than you are, James. Too much color would unhinge him."

Sitting down, I replied,

"It is comfortable and peaceful."

In my telephone report to Mac, I had mentioned the female intelligence lieutenant I had recruited. I had also told him that she had gone on the ill-fated run as a signals corporal. He had told Vignis, and they were now both curious about Cindy Lee. I told them most of what had happened, and then, when they heard that she was in my car, there was nothing for it but to go back to fetch her.

Vignis was very nice to Cindy, embracing her and thanking her for saving "our James." Mac had a pleasant but amused look as he was introduced to her, as if he hadn't thought me capable of such things.

Since the inquest wasn't until two, Vignis had lunch served for us in the dining car which she had also converted. We talked mostly about Henry Fowler. It turned out that Mac had known him, and wanted all the details of his last journey. Cindy put aside her anger enough to speak favorably of him, and I described the operation, with special emphasis on the five extra cars and the inadequacies of the locomotive. Mac listened intently for some time. He finally said,

"It's too bad he's dead. He was exactly what we need. A man with daring and imagination who'll go to great lengths to keep to schedule."

I was a little surprised. Despite his obvious competence, I hadn't thought Fowler the ideal engineer. I knew that Cindy thought he was a good deal less than that, perhaps even a fool, but she remained silent. I did, however, hear her catch her breath when Mac said,

"Fowler must have been something like Casey Jones. He also got scalded to death trying to keep to schedule."

I replied,

"Casey Jones got killed staying at the brake to save the passengers on his train. He also got his fireman to jump to safety."

"It's too bad Fowler didn't manage to get his fireman to jump. We'd be able to make more of it that way."

I hadn't told anyone that Fowler had actually prevented the fireman from jumping, and I saw no reason to mention it now. Cindy then put in,

"I don't think Fowler thought he was in much danger. He either didn't see my red signal or he ignored it."

Mac didn't like to have his theories contradicted. He was no sentimentalist, about Fowler or anything else, but he thought a new Casey Jones legend would give us valuable publicity. He therefore suggested that Fowler recognized the danger, but disregarded it in order to clear the line. That was possibly true, and I was assenting when Vignis said,

"You can't make a hero of this man, dear. He went through a red light and got killed. That's all."

Mac smiled at her as he said to me,

"Don't you think, son, that it would be good for our shippers to believe that we're ready and willing to get ourselves killed to get their shipments delivered on time?"

This was said in the great booming Texas voice that brooked no opposition. I, of course, agreed. Vignis then asked me sweetly,

"Where are those shipments now, James? Sitting in the river?"

"Well, one box car did drop in. The ones on the north side of the stream were recovered. The others will take some doing, depending on the condition of the branch line out there from here."

Mac, replied affably,

"The facts always get lost in the shuffle. I'll get out an appropriate statement about Fowler and the fireman."

I assured him that that would be just the thing, and then added,

"There is one problem. Fowler may have ignored Cindy's signal because she's a woman and he didn't think she could tell if the bridge was falling down. If we're going to have female employees on any considerable scale, we can't have that sort of thing happening."

Mac did look somewhat subdued as he replied,

"Well, we could make an example of him. Here's an engineer who ignored a red signal because a woman gave it, and see what happened to him. That might do a deal of good. Let's make that the message that goes out internally to everyone on the railway, and save the hero stuff for the newspapers."

Cindy started laughing. When Mac good-humoredly took exception to it, she replied,

"Could anything happen, Mr. Garner, that you wouldn't be able to take advantage of?"

We had by this time returned to the lounge. Mac put one of his great boots up on a nearby chair and replied,

"Well now, young lady, I certainly hope that I would always be able to rise to the occasion."

He then guffawed loudly, patted Vignis on the arm, and said,

"I've put Vignis in charge of our newsletter and other publications, all dealings with advertizers, our own advertizing, and things like that. I'll deal with the newspapers, though."

It was agreed that Vignis would announce the death of Fowler and the fireman in the internal newsletter in such a way as to emphasize the importance of obeying red signals, no matter who gave them.

I was glad that, all during this time, Mac had never questioned the appropriateness of taking a woman along as a signaller. Indeed, it had been implicit in the latter part of our discussion that there would be other women signallers. When I tentatively suggested that there were many heretofore "male" positions in which we might employ women, Mac burst out,

"Of yes, all over the place. They're an under-used resource that we can get cheap, just like the blacks from the south."

I couldn't gather whether Mac had intended this all along, or had been inspired by the example of Cindy Lee. Vignis, however, looked quite definitely pleased, as if it were a new development.

At two-thirty, we set out for the coroner's inquest. What happened was quite amazing. I knew how much hostility to us there was in the town, but it turned out that James MacPherson Garner was a celebrity. And then, when the people saw Vignis at his side, they wanted, more or less, to worship them. There must be, in Dundee, a hundred carefully preserved scraps of paper with the autograph of Mac or Vignis, or both.

Before we got started, General Atwater arrived from Toledo, looking very distinguished. Once the people saw that he was a confidante of Mac, he, too, was included in the general welcome. I myself seemed no longer to be the villain of the piece, and I was pleased enough to simply be ignored.

The inquiry was fairly straight-forward. Even that unpleasant coroner hadn't a word of criticism for the railway. He didn't ask Mac for his autograph, but he showed a humility I hadn't supposed to be within him as he expedited proceedings so as not to waste the time of the great man. Fowler and the fireman had indeed been scalded to death by the escaping steam. Cindy testified, but I didn't. The accident had been caused by Fowler's ignoring of the red signal. Case closed.

It had often been difficult to hear the progress of the inquiry because the A27 - A39 series of freights had been roaring by, less than a block away. One of them was blackening the sun with its smoke just as we came out. While it had traffic tied up at the grade crossings throughout the town, there were still nothing but admiring glances for Mac and Vignis.

I even noticed the woman who had excoriated me earlier with an entirely changed face. The railway prince and princess had come to town, and it no longer mattered if the town itself had been sacrificed for the greater good of the Great Eastern Railway.

As Mac, Atwater, and I walked back to the cars behind the ladies, the other two men renewed their old friendship. Left mostly to myself, I couldn't help comparing Vignis and Cindy as they spoke and laughed together. There was, of course, no true comparison. Vignis was incomparably beautiful. Cindy was an attractive young woman who was, without looking it, a surprisingly good athlete, perhaps as good as Vignis, who did look it.

On the other hand, Vignis didn't make Cindy look less attractive than she was. Cindy held her end up quite well, and that, of course, was enough for me. I was myself no Mac. That had been demonstrated conclusively, without Mac's even realizing it, in Dundee.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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