Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 18

A Surprise Visitor

After a few days, I was able to get a better room in the Waverley Hotel, one that had a telephone. I didn't dare conduct any confidential conversations on it, but, when Odie or Speed called, I had only to go to the pay phone across the street and call back.

My first call was from Speed. He, Cindy, and Dave were in Roanoke. Cindy had been fortunate enough to get a temporary job at N&W headquarters, replacing a woman who had been rather seriously hurt in an automobile accident. Dave, now working on the Virginian, was also based in Roanoke. That allowed him to go to the same places of amusement as the N&W employees.

Speed immediately suggested,

"Let's have Cindy start a rumor to the effect that the GER is going to do exactly what we're thinking of doing. She can also say that no one'll lose their job or have their pay cut."

Rumor spreading has all sorts of advantages in labor relations. It's best done by quietly mentioning the content of the rumor to a certain sort of person in the presence, but not within the hearing of, a group of people. The person selected should be stolid, have little imagination, and should have a reputation for truthfulness. That person, often forgetting which member of the group confided in him or her, will then relay it to the others. If the rumor is of compelling interest, it will spread amazingly quickly. In a concentrated setting, such as that of a factory or railway headquarters, it can reach several thousand people within a day.

If the rumor sparks a strong negative reaction, strong enough to make unfeasible the envisaged action, it's simply denied. We could abandon our plans and say that we never dreamed of such a thing. On the other hand, if, after a few days to think it over, the people of the N&W displayed no clear signs of revolt, we would know that we could go ahead with a manageable level of complaint from the work force.

In order to make sure of the details, I had Cindy call me. She and Speed had already talked it over, but I gave her a detailed version of our proposed re-routing of the Eastern Circle, and of our assurances to the N&W workers. She would probably not leak it all at once, or in the same places, but, she pointed out,

"If I put those details in, a clever person will realize that this is coming from close to the source."

I replied,

"That's all right. Even if a few sharpsters realize what's in the wind, it'll still be possible to deny everything and avoid revolt."

I next called John Henry Jamieson, being fortunate enough to catch him at our offices in Huntington. He was the last person I would call on to start a rumor. If he did, everyone would remember exactly what he had said and when he had said it. My business with him was of quite another sort.

While John Henry was still under my command, he was also president of the company union. It was in that capacity that I warned him that, if the re-organization went through, he would have many more workers to organize for the union. He didn't welcome the prospect, and I didn't blame him. The N&W men wouldn't easily desert their traditional unions to join the GER company union. He said that he would do what he could, a reply that I was to get increasingly often from more and more people.

It was still fairly early in the morning when I emerged from the phone booth and returned to the hotel. Having climbed the stairs and gone around the bend in the corridor, I was really quite shocked to find Vignis knocking at my door.

At first, as I seated her as comfortably as possible in a room which wasn't as neat as it could have been, but much neater than it might have been, I supposed that Mac was somewhere in the offing. Since I had been meaning to call him anyway, this was a lucky chance. My second great shock came when Vignis said, with a little smile,

"I've had a huge fight with Mac. He doesn't know where I am. I got in here late last night and took a room upstairs."

As she talked, rather pleasantly, I wondered, rather desperately, whether Mac would be able to trace her to Waverley, and how he might interpret her choice of destination. The actual situation wasn't so terribly distant from the hypothetical one that I had previously imagined, although, of course, Vignis had said nothing about wanting to be mine. Even so, my sensations were not, on the whole, the ones that a hero might have had. I must have looked rather peculiar because she said, quite quickly,

"Of course, I'll get you to call and tell him where I am."

"I bet he'll want to know much more than that. He may tell me to tell you to come back."

"Yes. If he does give you instructions for me, I'll call him back so as not to put you in the middle."

It was no small thing on my mind that I would have to call Mac and tell him that his wife had joined me in Waverley, but it was better than having him find out on his own. I did wonder if he might conceivably have had her followed.

I remembered that it wasn't altogether clear that I wasn't a hero. A hero might well enjoy living dangerously to the extent of taking Vignis down to breakfast.

We were hardly seated before Vignis started telling me what the fight was about.

"He wants me to hang around the house and look pretty. He also wants me to entertain people like Sam Hanks and A. C. Glencannon. I'd as soon entertain a chimpanzee as Glencannon."

"Well, I wasn't exactly enthralled with Glencannon either. But Sam Hanks is nice."

"He looks at me oddly. I think he tries to look through my clothes."

"Probably so, but you must be used to that by this time."

"Oh James, you don't understand either. I want something real to do, and I've decided exactly what needs to be done. I can do it, very well I think. It's too bad that Mac's being so difficult."

I realized by that time that we had all, in our various ways, underestimated Vignis. It was probably because of her beauty, but we should have remembered that she wasn't beautiful in the conventional way. Beauties of a dozen years ago often had soft doughy faces, without much character, and soft rather passive bodies which they draped over bits of furniture. Vignis' face was all planes and angles, wonderfully arranged and blended, but not at all pliant. Her body was hard and strong, and she seldom remained in one place for long.

The key to understanding Vignis' appearance lies in casting one's mind back many centuries. Consider, for example, the feelings of the beleagured Britons of the time when wild young Norse giants descended on their shores and came charging at them with swords and battle axes. I can even imagine them attacking the hospital here in Swansea, chasing the nurses down the corridors and putting useless mouths such as myself to the sword.

The blonde blue-eyed look wasn't always something that people wanted to have in their homes. Indeed, people who looked like Vignis, both male and female, must have been regarded as wild and bizarre, dangerously ready to get up to almost anything.

Some thoughts such as these might have occurred to Mac when Vignis knocked him over a couch. I suppose I must have looked aghast when I asked,

"Was he hurt?"

"I don't think seriously. I heard healthy swearing and cursing as I left the room. If he'd known that I was going straight to my car, he probably could have stopped me."

Of course, as I now know, but didn't then, Vignis always becomes physical in the end. I may thus have spluttered a bit as I integrated the concept of the lovely woman across from me with that of a hellion capable of knocking a man Mac's size for a loop. I hardly dared ask what she wanted to do with the railway.

Vignis then went off to catch up on her missed sleep, and I called Mac. Not surprisingly, I was unable to reach him at Huntington. On impulse, I instead asked for Sam Hanks. I wasn't sure whether Mac would have told him that Vignis had left, and, when Hanks came on, I told him that I had been trying to reach Mac, adding,

"It's rather urgent, really."

"You may have some trouble reaching him. Vignis has gone off, and he's out somewhere trying to find her."

"Well, she's turned up here, actually. In Waverley, Ohio. I'm not sure why she's come here, but she seems to have lots of things she wants to do with the railway."

"Where's she staying?"

"She's taken a room in the same hotel I'm in, the Waverley House."

"By God, Jimmy, you'd better be careful."

"I am, as careful as anyone could be. But I'm still a bit worried what Mac might think. You might be able to help a bit there."

"Yeah, okay. We also don't want to end up negotiating between them. I can imagine Vignis telling you something, you telling me, me telling Mac, and then back again."

"She seems to be willing to talk with him directly, so we should be able to avoid that. Well, I'll just sit tight here until I hear from you or Mac."

I was much relieved that Sam was willing to represent me in the best possible light, particularly after what he had heard about me at my divorce hearing.

As it happened, Mac called just I was finishing lunch. I took the call at the front desk, and when he came on the line, he asked immediately, and in a relatively good-humored voice,

"Have you got her there, son?"

"Well, she came around this morning and we had breakfast. I think she's up in her room sleeping now."

"When did she get there?"

"She said it was late last night."

There was a muttering sound, and then Mac fairly shouted,

"Did she tell you she pushed me over a fucking couch and then ran off afore I could swat her on the bottom?"

I tried to be diplomatic, inquiring whether Mac was hurt, but he cut me short with,

"You didn't tell me she was a goddam banshee when you brought her around."

Of course, I hadn't actually brought Vignis around in the first place, but, as I tried to explain, Mac burst out laughing. He then said,

"I've got a little job for you, son. She wants to do all kinds of things with the railway. I'm prepared to let her do some things, but she's got to compromise. Nothing too expensive. It's your job to get her to be reasonable."

As I hung up, I was both relieved and worried. Mac obviously didn't think of me as a threat to his marriage. On the other hand, it might not be at all easy to get Vignis to be reasonable. My job description, so vague when it was first given me, seemed to include more and more different sorts of activities.

Vignis had asked me to call her at two, and I duly tapped on the door. When she opened it in her gown, I pointed to the bright sunshine outside and suggested a walk. She agreed readily and went into the bathroom to get dressed, leaving the door open far enough for us to converse. I told her that I had talked with Mac, and that he seemed relieved to know where she was. She sounded satisfied with the situation, seemingly never having questioned his concern for her.

I found myself quite interested in what was going on on the other side of the door. I could see a tiny sliver of pink skin through the crack, but it then changed to a darker color. Vignis called out,

"I remember once telling you and Mac about the boys' army I joined as a child. Do you remember that?"

"Yes. When the boys wouldn't make you a general, you pushed one of them into the duck pond. Then, they disbanded the army rather than make you a general."

At that moment, Vignis emerged in slacks and a sweater. She replied,

"You do have a good memory, James. Well, it's the same now. I've pushed Mac into the duck pond, but I don't think he'll disband the army to avoid making me a general."

"Well, he had you design all the insignia and put out the newsletter."

"Generals don't design insignia and put out newsletters."

"No, I suppose not."

It came out by degrees what Vignis wanted. She said first,

"I'm worried about all these young men from the south that we've got working for us. They're having a good time living in barracks and playing sports whenever they're not working, but that can't last forever."

"Well, the average age is only about eighteen. They're learning and getting promoted and living better than they ever have. I think they can go on that way for a good three years with occasional vacations. It must be a lot like being in college."

"Ok, but what then? Now's the time when we should be making plans."

I suspected that Vignis didn't realize how much fun young men could have living and working together and playing football in front of the barracks, particularly if they had girl friends somewhere. I allowed, however,

"Well, most of them will then be making enough to move out of the barracks if they live pretty modestly. They may even be able to marry and have children. They'll have secure jobs, and they can almost all count on some advancement."

"It sounds to me as if we're going to turn them loose in the big cities with barely enough to live on, and practically no experience of the kind they'll need. Many of them are illiterate. Hardly any have had bank accounts, or know how to budget. They'll be cheated by every kind of big city predator, and many will probably turn to drink."

It did seem to me that Vignis was exaggerating the difficulties. I replied,

"They're being treated as students. We have teachers, and every one of them is learning something besides railroading."

"You haven't investigated to see what's actually going on, have you?"

"No, but John Henry has. Have you talked with him?"

"Yes. He's extremely unusual, really a brilliant young man. He's also an optimist, and he tends to assume that everyone can do what he's done."

It turned out that Vignis had gone around the system talking with our young men, and had even been giving them little informal tests. She said,

"What happens is this. They're delighted to learn anything that they think has to do with the railway. They learn to recognize and know the meaning of all our signs, but they often do that without learning to read them. It's the same with everything. We're producing a lot of young men who know a great deal about the railway and almost nothing about anything else. They aren't being equipped to live in an ordinary community, much less a big hostile city. The girls are better, mostly because they have clerical jobs that do require literacy and a good deal more in the way of general information. But there aren't many of them in proportion."

There have been a number of times in my life when I have felt my perspective suddenly shift. Before my marriage to Marcia, I had thought that marriage was, in general, a good thing. I had assumed, without thinking a great deal about the details, that my marriage would also be a good thing. However, several days before it was to take place, I did think the matter out in detail. Indeed, I arrived at predictions which were surprisingly detailed, and which, later on, were confirmed. I went through with the marriage, of course. It was partly that I distrusted my own judgment, partly that I wanted to undress Marcia, and partly that I was afraid of the disapproval I would incur, on all sides, if I withdrew at that late stage.

On this occasion, too, most of us had made some comfortable assumptions. We were proving that boys right out of the fields could learn a great deal and become thoroughly competent railwaymen. We were thrilled. We assumed that, in like manner, they would learn everything else they needed to know. Vignis now convinced me that, among other things, they wouldn't know how to deal with the stresses of marriage in a totally alien environment. As she pointed out,

"Married people aren't necessarily driven closer together when they encounter problems. They may well be driven further apart."

I could say only,

"What does Mac think of all this?"

"Mac half recognizes these problems, and he'd like to teach the men philosophy. But his kind of philsophy is too abstract, and it won't do them any good. Besides, he doesn't have any sense of urgency."

"Well, I've also been a railroad president, and I never tried to intervene in personal lives. I knew, as a matter of fact, that many Lackawanna employees got drunk on Saturday night and beat and raped their wives. I was never thrilled about that, but I knew that abusive behavior is going to turn up in a certain proportion of the American working class. Or the European one for that matter. I didn't think it was appropriate for me to try to mount a crusade."

Vignis looked for a moment as if she thought I should have mounted a crusade, but then replied,

"No, that would probably have been a waste of time. But you were dealing with men who already had a firm place in society. It might not have been a very good society, but, as you say, there wasn't much you could do about it. Everyone had their role, and they played it out. But the young people we employ have got to carve out roles for themselves. If we help and guide them, they may find much better ones. If we don't, they'll end up in ones that are even worse and more brutal."

"Well, I see your point. That much sounds reasonable to me, and I'd be surprised if it didn't to Mac."

"It was when I got to the solution that he dug in his heels."

By this time, we had come out of the hotel and begun walking south along the canal. While bright and sunny, it was still cold, cold enough to leave a film of ice over the puddles. The canal wasn't sunk as deeply as most, with the result that all the road bridges had to arch upward to clear the canal boats. Although I sensed that the only boats in sight were used more for storage than transportation, and might never again see either Lake Erie or the Ohio River, the row of little arched bridges, all faded to pastel colors, reminded me of posters of Holland. Vignis also seemed to be affected by the bright happy scene, and, altogether, she seemed very little like a woman who had had a serious row with her husband and left home.

We were certainly not in a mood to discuss Vignis' marital problems, and I probably wasn't terribly anxious to hear about her solution to the railway problem she had raised. Neither did she seem particularly anxious to tell me about it. She may have guessed that it had been left to me to negotiate with her, and neither of us looked forward to a session of hard bargaining. Instead, we amused ourselves by stepping on, and cracking, the ice that covered the puddles.

Just south of the center of town, the canal curved a little to the right, and, without buildings to restrict our view, we could see down the valley which led to Portsmouth and the Ohio. Some distance in front of us there was a black iron railway bridge over the canal which linked two long trestles. These cut through the southern residential part of the town at second storey level. I immediately recognized the railway as one of our own, in fact, the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton over which I had come. I remarked on it to Vignis, adding,

"That'll be part of the new Eastern Circle if the plan for the N&W are ever implemented."

"Not really. But there are other things I'd like to do."

By the time that we passed under the bridge on the towpath, I had told Vignis everything, not excluding the football game several nights previously. I was about to offer to introduce her to Lumpy and his friends she burst in,

"I think some of the things I want to do can be tied into your plans."

Vignis, even more than Mac, understood that, in order to sell something, it's best to connect it to the existing plans and desires of the prospective purchaser. She also didn't make the mistake of assuming that, because I was a friend who wished her well, I would agree to anything she proposed. She then explained,

"The thing we most need to do is create new communities at the division points. Of course, when they're out in the middle of nowhere, that'll happen automatically. But, more important, we need to create our own railway communities, even if they're side-by-side with existing towns and cities. That's the only way we'll keep our people from being corrupted, and people like your friends can be charter members."

I, of course, was happy with the idea of Lumpy, and men like him, as leaders of communities of young men. However, it sounded as if these new communities would be expensive. That was presumably the problem with Mac. That turned out to be the case. Vignis went on,

"So it's parly a matter of money. But there are some other attitudes that'll have to be overcome. Glencannon's idea of a railway town would be one lined with speakeasies from end to end."

"Yes. Well there's Sam Hanks. He's pretty abstemious."

"He's also cynical. I can hardly imagine him trying to be the pillar of any community, or even allowing himself to be drawn into one in any important way."

"Well, Atwater and the other ex-officers might agree with you. In their eyes, a military command almost automatically encloses the whole community, including the wives and children."

"I'm certainly counting on Atwater's support at some point. In fact, I like the way the army runs what really amount to stores for soldiers and their families. They buy very cheaply in great quantities, and then they sell at cost. We could do the same thing. There's no reason to let ordinary merchants make a profit out of our men. We can take over that function, and it'll give our employees much more purchasing power with their wages."

"Company stores have usually done the opposite. They've often had a monopoly and used it to sell shoddy goods at unconscionable prices. There's even a song about a man owing his soul to the company store."

"Sure, but we'll do it the way the army does. I'm used to dealing with manufacturers and distributors for furniture and housewares, and it's the same principle on a larger scale. You say you're going to buy a million of something, and you take bids. All you have to do is make sure there's no collusion between the bidders."

My ears pricked up when Vignis spoke of buying "a million of something," and I asked,

"Is your problem with Mac that he doesn't think you've had enough experience to manage an operation on this scale."

"That's part of it. I'm also not sure that he thinks it needs to be done at all. I tried to explain that a community will center around the stores, and will automatically exclude anyone who isn't allowed to buy in them. That's how we'll keep undesirable influences out. I think we'll also have a chance of keeping liquor out of our towns, even if prohibition is repealed."

"Whether it is or not, some men will go outside the towns to get drink, and they'll bring it back."

"Certainly. But I'm interested in having towns where the bar isn't the central institution and gathering place. I want it to be a little string of restaurants, stores, and coffee shops."

"It does sound a little too wholesome to be true."

"That's what Mac said. But he hardly drinks himself. There's no reason why he shouldn't be willing to at least give it a try."

I personally didn't want to be around when A. C. Glencannon was told that he might have difficulty getting a drink, but I said nothing about that. I asked instead how Vignis intended to help me with my problem. She replied,

"If you're going to take over the N&W, and not lay anyone off or cut their pay, you'll have to give them pretty high rank in our system. Then you'd have captains running switchers. So, to give them responsibilities commensurate with their rank, you'll have to scatter them over the system. They aren't going to like just being plunked down in, say, Detroit or Chicago, where they won't know anyone and won't have any home. In my scheme of things, we'll be able to provide homes at low cost to railway families."

It struck me then how different women are. Mac thought of abstract shapes realized in track patterns, Sam Hanks of financial instruments, and A. C. Glencannon of steam and steel. But Vignis thought of people's lives. The retired officers did also concern themselves with people, but often with more emphasis on the marching feet than the emotions.

I was myself something of a special case. I didn't think in terms of families and communities, as did Vignis, but I was quicker to recognize the importance of such things than other men. I now applied myself to the details of Vignis' scheme, saying,

"Part of my idea is to make an engineer on the mountain divisions of the N&W a captain instead of a first lieutenant, which is justified because of the greater skill required. My friend Lumpy gets about fifteen hundred a year for running a switcher. That's what we pay a first lieutenant, and that's what we'd make him."

"So that'd promote him beyond switchers and make him an engineer on a road freight, but on some other part of the system?"


"But his pay wouldn't be raised?"

"No, but he'd be happy to get out of the yards and off on his own."

"Then he'll be the kind of man I'll have to build communities around."

"Perhaps you'd better meet Lumpy before you make him a community leader. He may be ready to handle a main line freight, but he and his friends are still young and rowdy. They also get drunk on bootleg beer and moonshine."

"Are these young men married?"

"They don't appear to be, but there's a sort of ladies' auxiliary attached to their group. I'd say that the girls in it definitely have the boys marked out."

"The boys may settle down after they're married."

"I hope they don't stop playing football."

"That would be too bad. I'm certainly opposed to that idea that there's no fun after marriage that doesn't involve drinking. If only we could get them to play sports without carousing, we'd be all set."

"Yes. I doubt that we could keep them from drinking at all, but we might get them to keep it within reason."

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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