Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 14


When all five of us were settled with coffee in the lounge of Mac and Vignis' car, I noticed that Mac was much less the Texan than he had been previously. It was presumably General Atwater who made the difference. Whether it was because the latter was a southerner, who might detect affectations, or because he had once been Mac's commanding officer, I couldn't say. In any case, Mac didn't address anyone as "son," nor did he put his boots up on the furniture. He instead began a discussion of ethical principles.

Atwater pointed out, reasonably enough, that there would often be a conflict between considerations of safety and the maintenance of the schedule.

"I doubt that Fowler, or any other engineer, would have gone past that red signal if he hadn't been trying to clear the line."

Mac surprised some of us by saying,

"If he'd gotten his train across, we would've given him a promotion for it. Even if the last car or two had dropped into the creek, we would've marked him down for a daring and adventurous young man, one to watch for future promotion."

I expostulated,

"But we've got to have rules. If stopping for a red signal isn't a rule, I can't imagine what would be."

It wasn't often that I spoke up in defense of rules, even important ones, and the others looked at me oddly. Mac replied,

"Plato points out the limitations of rules. In his example, it's in general a good rule to return borrowed property to its owner. But if the property is a knife and the owner wants to hurt himself or someone else with it, the property shouldn't be returned. One can always imagine a case, in connection with any rule whatever, in which it shouldn't be followed. We're all prepared to reward a man who breaks the rules if he does it in the right way at the right time."

I could tell at a glance that Cindy was much bothered by this view, but I wasn't sure whether awe of the great man would keep her silent. In fact, she asked, in a somewhat rebellious tone,

"Was Fowler breaking the wrong rule at the wrong time?"

Mac, apparently not irritated by this intervention, replied,

"So it turned out. You thought the bridge would collapse. He thought it wouldn't. Neither of you could have known. The fact that it did collapse doesn't in itself show that your grounds for belief were better."

Cindy didn't look very pleased with that either, but Atwater, looking at her, broke in,

"To a civilian it seems that, where there's doubt, the safest course should be chosen. In this case, not crossing the bridge. In military affairs, it's generally impossible to know what's really safe. Cancelling an attack may be as dangerous, or more dangerous, than letting it go, even if you learn that there may be a mine field in the path of the troops. In our case, it may be dangerous to allow the schedule to be dislocated. It might even lead to wrecks far more serious than this one."

I did just see Atwater's point. In this one case, it was very unlikely that a delay of the A trains would lead to an accident. Indeed, they were in fact delayed, and there was no accident. However, if men didn't have Fowler's sort of mental set about maintaining the schedule, it would soon be disrupted sufficiently often so that no one would feel certain about the arrival of any train. In the history of railways, such attitudes had often led, directly or indirectly, to some horrifying wrecks.

I doubted very much that Cindy was convinced, but she said nothing more. Mac then added,

"Of course, for Plato, the only guide for right action is ultimately a knowledge of the Good. This is a more sophisticated notion than Kant's, that one should act only according to maxims that can be applied universally. Plato implicitly, and rightly, claims that there aren't any maxims that can be universalized."

Vignis gave Cindy an amused look. Both ladies were well educated, and neither was entirely innocent of philosophy. However, I think that it seemed absurd to both of them that anyone should try to run a railway on philosophical principles. Vignis said to Mac,

"What's the Railway Good according to Plato going to be dear?"

"It's easy enough to infer. The Good is orderliness writ large. Geometrical notions are as orderly as anything could be. On a railway, orderliness can amount to nothing so much as running trains on an elegant and maximal schedule around a circle. We'll always have some elements of disorder, but we approach the Good as closely as possible by purging day-to- day change. I like to think that that's what Henry Fowler was trying to do."

As Vignis started telling Mac that he would surely have to be the one to deliver the eulogy at Fowler's funeral, I said quietly to Atwater,

"You told me that Mac was a natural leader of irregulars, but that doesn't sound very Platonic. The reular army with its marching in formation and barracks square drilling sounds much more geometrical."

Atwater whispered back,

"What a man says and what he does are two different things. I know Mac's serious about the philosophy, but he got bored very quickly with the regular army. Geometrical formations are fun only if your rank is high enough so that you don't have to be a part of them."

"Yes. He's actually doing things that are likely to promote a great deal of disorder. In fact, we're virtually inviting trouble from the unions. Violence may break out almost anywhere."

Atwater looked as if he thought incipient violence the natural state of mankind as he replied,

"One might say that a certain amount of guerilla warfare is required to prepare the world for Platonism. I don't know much about Plato, but I gather that, in practice, he took a rather similar view himself."

"Well, most people with a grand design think that it's necessary to act contrary to it at the beginning until they can just get things organized."

Atwater laughed. I suspected him of thinking that the grand design would never actually be realized, but that it did no harm.

After we had had wine, it was settled that we would all move to my car for dinner. My stewards were already prepared for four, and one of Mac's stewards was sent back to tell them to expect a fifth. I had been on the road more than Mac and Vignis, and my crew had learned, not only how to keep me warm and comfortable in all weathers, but how to adapt to meals at odd hours and sudden visitors of all kinds. In fact, I heard Cindy say to Vignis,

"James' stewards verge on the heroic in their ability to adjust to his strange and chaotic hours."

Vignis nodded gravely, concluding, I suspected, that the strange and chaotic hours reflected a strange and chaotic turmoil in my soul.

For the next half hour, Vignis talked mostly with Cindy. While I couldn't hear most of what they said, I could see that Vignis liked my new friend. It wasn't long before they began to laugh, probably about me. Mac looked as if he thought they were laughing at him, and joined their conversation, probably in self defense. I talked with Atwater.

Of all the retired officers I had met, Atwater seemed to me the most congenial and sympathetic. It helped, of course, that he was older. My own father had been dead some years, and I had been more relieved than saddened by his death. Having had a bad experience with the first one, I certainly wasn't looking for another father. On the other hand, it was nice to sit down with someone who had some of the qualities one might want in a father, but wasn't likely to be at all bossy. In this case, the fact that I outranked Atwater probably made me feel even easier.

It wasn't long before I disclosed what had become my chief worry, that I, practically the only senior officer without military experience, might wind up in command of our guard forces in a large-scale fracas. As I said to him,

"There've been lots of outbreaks of violence so far, but nothing that the divisional commanders haven't been able to handle with the guard forces already assigned to them. If it's a matter of concentrating larger forces at any particular point, then it'll be my responsibility."

I hardly needed to say that it was a responsibility I didn't know how to exercise. He nodded and said,

"It's important to make some decisions before the trouble starts. First, you have to decide how to equip your force. Are they going to have any weapons beyond sticks and clubs?"

I felt particularly stupid when I admitted that I hadn't considered that question, nor did I even know what equipment my men already had. Atwater didn't seem particularly surprised at my unpreparedness, and answered,

"We've had some troubles in Toledo, and elsewhere on my territory. My policy has been to give every security guard a policeman's night-stick, and to give each guard squad a strong-point on which they can fall back. At the strong- point, there are rifles and ammunition under lock, with only the squad leaders and above having keys."

"So they bring out the rifles only if they're in danger of being overwhelmed?"

"Yes. They haven't come close to having to use them so far. For other purposes, the night-stick is better than a pistol. A man who knows how to use it can knock out his opponent, but is unlikely to kill him. If things should get too hot, I'd have one squad break out the rifles and cover the others as they retreated. Even if the other side should have some pistols and hunting rifles, they wouldn't be able to cope with organized and concentrated rifle fire from a previously selected position."

At that moment, I realized what had happened. As commander of the system guard forces, I had created a command vacuum. In the absence of orders concerning equipment and tactics from above, each division point commander had made the necessary decisions himself. Most of them, like Atwater, were well equipped to do so, and had routed the badly organized strikers and protestors whenever the latter had challenged them directly.

One of my few acts in this area had concerned recruitment. Given the fact that ordinary guards were only privates in Mac's system, they would have to either be "students" straight from the south or anyone we could hire at that wage in the local communities. There were dangers in either course.

If we used young blacks against white strikers, we'd be setting off something very like a race riot. On the other hand, there was the danger that only the degenerates in the local populations would be willing to live in our bunkhouses and be paid so little. I could imagine a gang of such people attacking a picket line and murdering some of its members.

In the end, I compromised, telling division point commanders to make guards out of some of the students, but to leaven them with the best that they could find for the price locally. I pointed out that there were some decent enough young men who were in desperate straits, due to the depression, who would be attracted by the security we could offer.

Atwater and a good many of the other divisional commanders had begun by getting the sergeants and junior officers from their old regiments to lead squads and platoons. They had then improvised to fill up the ranks. There were inevitably some unemployed boxers and saloon bouncers who had joined in the hope of getting opportunities to hurt people.

In one way, it seemed to me that I could do much worse than leave matters as they were, exercising only titular control over the whole force of security guards. Most divisional commanders were certainly better qualified than I to direct their forces in action. On the other hand, the idea of contenting myself with being head spy while appearing as no more than a figure-head to everyone else was more demeaning than I might have wished. And besides, like so many men, I had always wanted a chance to play general. That opportunity, frightening as it was, would be realized as soon as the employees of one of our larger railways organized the kind of violent strike which was so typical of coal mining, and even the automobile industry. It was surprising, really, that it hadn't already happened. I determined to catch up a bit and prepare myself for Armageddon.

With this in mind, I rather shamelessly put to Atwater some questions which would have done no credit to a plebe at West Point. After answering them, he concluded,

"I would think that the other division point commanders, like myself, have probably recruited squad leaders and company grade officers who know what they're doing. If you do get anything approaching large-scale combat, you'll need only to maneuver and position fairly large units, and that's actually something an intelligent person can do without much special training, at least against basically a civilian opposition."

There was just one last hint, this time of a strategic kind.

"Whatever you do, don't get your whole force pinned down defending some key point, say a roundhouse or yard. There must be some other force left with which you can attack the rear of anyone laying siege to you."

When we broke up that evening, Atwater drove back to Toledo in his automobile while Mac and Vignis returned to their own car. Both sets of cars were to be coupled to the local passenger train, Y4, in the middle of the night and taken north. My cars would be dropped off at Ann Arbor while the others were taken back to Huntington, Indiana.

Cindy Lee and I had been using our separate bedrooms, but with a degree of intimacy. She had, she said, detected quite early my attitude toward women.

"Unlike many men, you really do like women. You like them better than men, on the whole, but you want to be the one to decide when and how to approach."

"I did marry a woman whose concerns about her own health were so great that, most of the time, she insisted that she couldn't be touched."

"Yes. You don't mind if a woman says no, but you wouldn't want one who said, 'Come here James, I need you!' "

Cindy exaggerated this last sentence, and made the corresponding gestures. We both laughed, and I acknowledged the truth of what she said.

Early the next morning, while we were sleeping soundly, there began a blizzard. When I got up at nine and looked out, I could see only white. The flakes were soft, only padding against the window, and not very large. But there seemed to be infinitely many of them. The door to the observation platform opened outwards, and I had to push it against a snow drift blocking it. I could get it only half way open, and staggered out in my pajamas. It didn't seem so terribly cold, and it was bracing to stand there, invisible from any distance, with the snow drifting over me. I called to Cindy, and she came running out in abbreviated costume. We cavorted there for a few minutes until we got cold, and then dashed inside.

Exactly on time at 0930, A14 came belting along at its usual forty to fifty. We could see to the south through the window in the door without opening it, and, while we had just a glimpse of the engine at speed, I could see that Atwater had equipped his engines with plows.

We had, of course, known that it snows heavily in Michigan, and we had made our preparations. During most of the day and night, our traffic was sufficiently dense so that the simple expedient of equipping the engines with plows kept the main line clear. After all, if not much snow has accumulated since the passage of the last train, an engine with a plow can brush it away without slowing.

Needless to say, the maintenance of the schedule in this weather involved running trains faster than would normally have been considered safe. Visibility was never more than fifty yards, and often much less than that. If there were a school bus broken down across the line, the engineer would hardly have a chance to slow before hitting it. Moreover, he wouldn't be able to see a red signal until he was almost on top of it, and would have to run well past it before stopping. He should still be able to stop before running into a halted train in front of him, but the safety margin would be much reduced.

In the light of our conversation the night before, it didn't surprise me greatly that Atwater was still running his division full speed ahead in line with the military concept of risk. It made me uneasy, but I was a civilian.

The most pressing problem concerned the yards. In a yard, snow pushed off one track simply blocks an adjacant track. To some extent, it can be pushed from track A to B, from B to C, and so on. However, at some point, it comes down to laboriously shovelling the snow onto flat cars or gondolas, and then dumping it elsewhere, preferably off bridges.

Cindy asked me what would happen. I predicted,

"If this keeps up, we'll be reduced to running the A trains straight through the division points without adding or detaching cars."

"Then some cars will end up going thousands of extra miles, all the way around the circle again?"

"I'm afraid so."

That, of course, was a problem peculiar to our circular operation, and I wondered if it had occurred to Mac. Wanting to find out what was happening, I decided to go to Howison's command point at the station.

Having put on railway coveralls, boots, and a coat, I emerged just as the end of an A train passed. I then waded through a deep bank to get to the main line, where I could move easily. Trotting along, I got about a quarter mile down the line when I heard the next A train.

Since sound was muzzled and deflected, the train appeared so suddenly that I had to fling myself off the track on to the bank. With the roaring snowy maelstrom just behind me, I managed to crawl and flounder over and through the bank. I then found myself enclosed in my own private white wilderness. Guessing that I wasn't yet to the station, I turned left parallel to the track. Just as I was beginning to fear myself lost, I blundered almost into the station building.

When I poked my head into Howison's office and asked him how things were, he stated baldly,

"I just don't have enough men to clear the yard here and maintain the local freight operation."

I suspected that he would much rather not have a senior officer looking over his shoulder, and I went downstairs to the coffee and doughnut stand in the waiting room. It was fully manned and doing a thriving business as men staggered in from the storm to refuel.

I had been there only a short time before a large blonde young man, insufficiently clad and obviously not a railwayman, thumped hurriedly in. Even before bothering to brush the snow off, he charged over to the clerk and asked where he could find Cindy Lee Starkweather. I guessed immediately that this was Dave, Cindy's partner the night of her undoing as a student at the University of Michigan.

Cindy was convinced that Dave had never had more than a marginal interest in her, and that, after a disgrace which should have been joint, but was really only hers, he wouldn't wish to ever see her again. That sounded unlikely when she first told me, and, since coming to know how she underestimated herself, it sounded more unlikely still. It now seemed to me that no one in his right mind would abandon Cindy Lee. Dave had probably spent days searching for her, and had just now traced her to the railway.

The clerk knew nothing of Cindy, and I was strongly tempted to say nothing myself. It was obvious that Cindy, or any girl, would prefer this handsome young behemoth to myself. I was in great danger of losing yet another woman.

I think that I would have been as silent as the tomb if I had believed that there was any chance that Dave would give up the search. But, as he made for the door, I could see that he wasn't going home. He was going out to ask anyone he could find in the yard if they knew anything about a girl working on the railway. He would eventually find the car and Cindy, and he might well discover that we had been, more or less, cohabiting. I didn't want that, and I stopped him. When I explained that Cindy was in Ann Arbor, he immediately wanted to know where. Summoning up my most authoritative voice, I said,

"If you go out looking for her, you'll just get lost in the storm. But, if you give me a note, I'll see that it gets to her."

Dave looked doubtful, but, after a brief pause, he agreed. I got pencil and paper from the ticket agent, and he scribbled out a note, folded it, and gave it to me. I made him promise to stay right where he was while I set out. It did seem likely that he would do so. He had been out in the storm a long time, practically to the point of exposure, and he was happy enough to hold a doughnut in one bright red hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

Once I got outside, I huddled against the lee side of the building and read the note. It contained a proposal of marriage.

I wasn't really greatly surprised. I would have done the same thing in his place, and, all morning, I had been thinking about proposing marriage myself. I was aware that people would think it ridiculous and joke about it, but, by this time, that was seeming to matter less and less. The question was, would I now add my own proposal to that of Dave?

It wasn't easy to find my way back to the car, but, as I dashed up the line between A trains, I happened to notice the place where I had previously come through the snowbank. I stumbled back across, and went past the car, probably blinded as much by my own emotional state as by the snow. On the verge of getting lost yet again, I was fortunate enough to smell the coal smoke from the boiler in the baggage car which provided our heat. Following my nose as much as my eyes, I found the cars and scrambled up the steps of my own. Feeling very much done in, I was nevertheless almost desperate to sound out my friend and see how affairs stood.

I found Cindy, with one of my robes coming down far enough to conceal her feet, making cocoa in the dining car. One of the stewards stood by, a bit nervously I thought. I told her immediately that Dave was looking for her, and gave her his note.

Cindy almost knocked over the pot in her excitement, and the steward took over as I assisted her back to the lounge. I said,

"You can relax for the moment. He promised to stay at the station until I found you."

It seemed to me that Cindy was delighted, but that she was trying to pretend not to be. She said,

"I can't understand what he means."

I didn't even pretend not to have read the note, and replied,

"He wants you to marry him."

"Yes, but I can't imagine what he thinks we'd live on. He must be intending to quit school."

From Cindy's tone, it was obvious that she wanted to marry Dave, and was concerned only with the practical details. I had certainly been prepared for this new blow, but I still felt very depressed as I pointed out,

"Some parents would be willing to support both of you until he graduated."

"His parents are fairly wealthy, but I'm sure they wouldn't do that if they didn't approve of the girl."

It seemed to me that Cindy might be again undervaluing herself, and I asked,

"Why wouldn't they approve of you?"

"I'm sure they expect someone from a better social class. Dave himself is a bit ashamed of me. There were a couple of times when his parents were up for games, but he didn't introduce me. It seemed to me that he went out of his way not to."

"There you go again, Cindy Lee. Your father may not be terribly presentable, but no one could tell by looking at you. Boys often don't introduce girls to their parents just out of a sense of privacy."

"Well, anyway, from what I've heard from Dave about his parents, they wouldn't approve of me once they found out about my family. I'm sure he knows that. He's not naive in that way."

"Would he give up college and playing football to get a job and support you?"

"I think that's what he must have in mind. Of course, I could get a job and support him until he graduates."

"The job you have is probably better than any other you could get quickly."

"Oh James, I thought you hired me just so I'd be your girl friend. You wouldn't want to hire me if I were married to Dave would you?"

"Yes. I certainly liked things the way they were last night, but the job is real enough. We need people like you."

I then asked a few questions about Dave's prospects. Cindy replied,

"He's not a bad student as football players go. Of course, they're brought here to play football, not study, and he has flunked some courses, particularly in the fall semester. But he does fairly well in the spring semesters, and he should graduate next year."

"So he's not as smart as you are, but still doesn't strike people as dumb?"

Cindy, of course, didn't like the idea of being smarter than Dave, but she denied it in a way that was so unconvincing as to confirm my previous impression. She added,

"He'll be good in business. Men like him, and they want him to like them."

That, actually, was a very good recommendation for a quite different sort of employment, the one I had in mind for Dave. It took someone big, strong, and combative to lead a small force of security men, and it would help a great deal if his followers naturally sought his approval.

Cindy, anxious to get to Dave, rushed off to get dressed. As we set off together, it seemed to be snowing even harder. However, the last in the sequence of A trains had passed, and we made our way down the track easily enough. This time, I was able to find the station quickly.

Once inside, Cindy flew into Dave's arms. As soon as they separated, she brought him over to me, saying how much she owed me. Dave was a nice boy, not given to suspicion, and I invited him to come back to our "special train."

There was still some of the cocoa left, and we all sipped it while warming ourselves in the lounge. It quickly came out that Dave, in a fit of pique over Cindy's treatment, had quit both the football team and the university. He had spent most of the time since trying to find her, and had finally got it out of one of the sorority girls that Cindy had been with an older man who had something to do with the railway.

Dave admitted freely that his parents would disapprove of their marriage, but intended to take a job at a sawmill until spring, at which time he would become a lumberjack.

At this juncture, there was little to do but offer Dave a position as 2nd Lieutenant and assistant commander of a security platoon. That would make him one rank lower then Cindy, but it was necessary that he break in as assistant commander before he got his own platoon. The young couple were, of course, overjoyed. Cindy gave me a hug and kiss which might have aroused the suspicions of a different sort of man.

I didn't offer Cindy and Dave my bedroom, but suggested that they might manage to share the single bed in the other room without undue discomfort for a few days.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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