Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 19

Toys for Mac and Vignis

The hotel dining room amounted almost to a canteen for the railway men who were either passing through or who, like Lumpy, were assigned to Waverley. It was hardly elegant, but it offered surprisingly good food for a low price. It seemed that it had once been a place for the men who ran the canal boats, and, by all accounts, the railwaymen were a vast improvement.

When Vignis and I went in to dinner early that evening, I heard shouts from my right. Lumpy, at a large table with a group of others, was, in fact, waving his arms and practically jumping up and down. As we approached, I recognized a couple of others, but even the ones I had never seen before were very welcoming. That, of course, was because of Vignis.

As space was made for us at the table and a waitress called, it seemed to be assumed that Vignis was my girl friend. After the introductions had gone around, several of the men, often talking at once, began telling her about my exploits on the football field. I had difficulty in keeping a straight face, both because my abilities were grossly exaggerated and because the underlying assumption was clear. I wasn't nearly worthy of Vignis, but, if they built me up enough, she might not dump me. They were nice young men, and I appreciated the thought.

I wasn't so pleased when Lumpy said to her,

"Wait til you see him play tomorrow."

I protested that I was still sore from the last game, but it was Lumpy, again, who replied,

"Once you start playing, you'll forget all about the soreness."

Vignis then smiled brilliantly and said that she was looking forward to seeing me play. Even though I knew, from the look in her eye, that she was being mischievous, there was then no way for me to avoid the inevitable.

From football, the conversation shifted to a horrifying wreck that had occurred on the C&O a few days previously. A string of twenty loaded coal cars at a mine had gotten loose and run down the siding, accelerating as they went. They were headed for the main line, and, despite the derailer protecting it, the string of cars would probably have gone right past it and plowed into an oncoming freight. Instead, a switchman a quarter mile before the main line had thrown his switch and diverted the cars on to another little branch line. This one dead-ended in a nearby mining town.

On reaching the end of the siding, the careening cars exploded into the little town at something like seventy miles an hour. Some had crashed through stores and houses, and one had actually gone down the main street, knocking cars in every direction. Some dozen people had been killed and a good many more injured.

The incident was talked over from every angle. Clint said,

"It would've been better to let the cars go to the main. Even if they'd hit the middle of the freight, they probably wouldn't have killed anyone, not nearly like they did in the town."

It was agreed that sending the cars into the town was a sure prescription for disaster. On the other hand, it was admitted all around that railwaymen have an instinctive tendency to protect the main line at almost any cost. What wasn't quite said was that life was cheap in the mining towns of West Virginia. One of the men did remark,

"Some of the men killed in the town would've been killed in the mines within the year."

Vignis and the men seemed virtually to be playing out the roles expected of them. She was appropriately horrified while they were appropriately stoical. She was assured on all sides that such a thing could never happen on the N&W. Lumpy explained,

"I've switched at the mines with my engine. We never let the mine employees touch the cars at all. In fact, we don't let a string like that sit without an engine even if the handbrakes are set."

While this discussion was going on, it seemed to me that Vignis had become quite good at being what people expected her to be while, at the same time, making her own assessments. In this case, I knew that she was thinking out a design for a community which could comfortably incorporate men like those before her.

I was better prepared for the next football game. There was a cold snap which froze the mud, and would have made it almost impossible to play in bare feet, as I had previously done. By contrast, the tennis shoes I purchased worked very well, and actually gave me a great advantage over the others, whose cleats merely skidded on the ice.

Just before we began, Lumpy shouted to me,

"You're on my side this time, Jimmy. I remember that tackle."

He was, of course, speaking partly in jest. The real reason for my shift must have been the non-appearance of a different person for this game.

On the first play, I centered to Lumpy and launched straight ahead into Clint, a few yards distant in front of me. I was expecting to be knocked flat or over backwards as he came past me, but, the moment we made contact, he slipped and fell. I then fell on top of him as Lumpy, who had managed to work up speed, raced past and got some fifteen yards downfield before being knocked sprawling. Vignis, on the sidelines, apparently saw this triumph on my part, one that could never have occurred under normal conditions, and yelled enthusiastic congratulations.

Lumpy quickly realized what was going on, and shifted me to guard so that I would have more freedom to block. Before one play, he said to me,

"I'll fake an end run right. You get out and push the end out, and I'll cut inside."

That was a classic play that I even remembered from my youth, and, indeed, it was the play on which I had made my tackle of Lumpy to end the previous game. This time, I ran directly into the end, and we both fell down. I marvelled at Lumpy's acceleration, even on the ice, as he went charging past for a good gain.

With that as a precedent, we ran a number of end runs to the right, coming quite close to Vignis, who was keeping track of the rudimentary first down marker. While my blocks weren't spectacular, I did manage to keep my feet for the most part, often bumping the tacklers enough to keep them off the ball carrier. We eventually scored a touchdown on a pass play when our end managed to turn tighter than the man who was trying to guard him.

On the next defensive series, Lumpy put me in the secondary, saying,

"Those shoes might give you an advantage on pass defense."

It took more than that, and, having been faked out of position a couple of times, Lumpy returned me to the line with the words,

"I guess you're better at the rough stuff, Jimmy."

As the game progressed, the others began to adjust to the conditions, but I still retained some advantage. Withal, I managed to play a pretty respectable game, on both offense and defense. I got knocked hard to the ground a few times, which was quite painful, but I got up each time in the approved manner.

Mostly because of the successful passing of Clint, his team tied us and then scored a touchdown to go ahead of us late in the game. On the ensuing kickoff, which turned out to be a low bouncer, the ball came right into my arms. If Vignis hadn't been watching, I would probably have tossed it back to one of the others. As it was, I took off at full speed, aiming for the right sideline at midfield.

I hadn't gotten very far when, about to be met headlong, I turned left. Even I didn't have terribly good footing, and, as I was just barely balanced, I hardly saw the man coming from my left. By some miracle, I did hang on to the ball. This time, however, I didn't get up. Instead, I had the sensation of trying to talk as I lay flat on my back, but only making rasping noises. Vignis was there, bending over me, and I heard someone else say,

"His wind's knocked out. Pump him up and down."

The next moment, Lumpy was standing over me with his hands hooked into my waistband, and was lifting my mid-section up and down.

Aware of being the subject of an extremely undignified procedure, and also regaining the power of speech, I enjoined him to stop. It was just as I was being helped to my feet that Vignis announced that she would play in my place. The others were certainly surprised, and I did hear a few mild objections. Lumpy ignored them and announced that she should borrow my sneakers. A moment later, Vignis, in sweater, slacks and sneakers, was ready to play. I could hardly hobble, and had no shoes, but I did have her parka around my shoulders.

Although retired from active service, I put my head in the huddle. Lumpy asked Vignis,

"Can you catch the ball?"

She replied,

"Sure. I used to play with my big brother."

He immediately placed her at right end. Part of the reason might have been to keep her out of the carnage in the middle, but she also looked and acted as if she would be at least competent.

When the ball was snapped, Vignis, in my shoes, burst quickly past the man guarding her. We all discovered, in that moment, that she could run like a deer. By the time Lumpy was set up to pass, she was near midfield, so that he had to throw the ball high and far to reach her. It did look as if Vignis wasn't used to catching a ball on the dead run, and it bounced off her hands. Fortunately, it bounced up, and she then grabbed it.

I hadn't been sure how the others would react to playing with a woman, and whether they would tackle her. The point soon became moot as it appeared that no one on the field would be able to catch her, whatever kind of shoes they had on. The game was then tied, and was declared over by general consent. Some of the players were probably still afraid that Vignis would be hurt, but there may have been a few who didn't think that they could deal with her speed.

By this time, I realized that I had a sprained ankle, and that it was swelling and getting worse. Amid the general hilarity, I was actually carried from the field to the beer hall. Lumpy said to me,

"There's no point going to a doctor. All he'd do is bandage it and tell you to stay off it. We'll find you some crutches."

The revelry that evening was even less restrained than it had been after the previous game. The ladies' auxiliary again arrived, this time with a quite pretty girl who was on some sort of terms of familiarity with Lumpy.

On this occasion, Vignis was more interested in the girls than the boys, for a reason which was clear enough to me. She had already taken the measure of the boys, but she wanted to know what sorts of girls they'd marry, and how good those girls would be at holding a community together.

By the time we eventually broke up, someone's brother had come by with an old pair of crutches. I, not entirely sober, did an imitation of a degenerate beggar, half crawling along on the crutches and begging for a dime for a bowl of soup. Amid applause from the others, Vignis assisted me upstairs, giving me a little push each time I showed signs of returning to the party room. When she finally got me to my room, she asked,

"James, are you really that drunk?"

"No, I guess not. It's partly a matter of hurting all over. You think you may just as well relax and let matters take their course."

"I've been thinking of having you taken to the hospital. Your ankle might be broken."

"I don't think it is. I was able to walk on it, and even run, before it got so swollen. But it's definitely sprained. Even though I had it propped up in a chair, it's almost double its normal size."

Vignis went to work on my ankle, and then suggested,

"You really ought to soak the ankle, and probably the rest of your body. I'd better help you into the tub. I won't be shocked, and you're likely to fall and break your neck in the bathroom."

Vignis managed to plug up the little hole that was designed to keep the bathtub from being overfilled, and, after I was in, we got the water right up to the rim. I did, indeed feel much better. She sat in a chair just outside the open door, and I asked,

"Did you find out much about the girls?"

"Well, they're various. There's that little blonde named Gloria. She goes with, I think, Clint. She's just a minor clerk with low morale who wants to get married. I guess she assumes she'll have babies, but she seems never to have thought what she might like married life to be like. I'm afraid she won't contribute much to any community. In fact, I'm afraid she's the kind who'll believe and spread every unpleasant rumor that goes around, and who might join any group that decides it wants to hate somebody."

"That certainly sounds depressing. I can't imagine that any community could stand too many of those."

Vignis agreed, but then brightened as she continued,

"Mary, the one that goes with Lumpy, is much better. She's got two children by a previous marriage, and, of course, that amounts to having two strikes against her."

"She doesn't look old enough for that."

"Those very pretty girls sometimes get married at sixteen or so. I gather that she isn't even formally divorced. Her husband lost his job, couldn't support them, and then just ran away."

"Is Lumpy supporting them now?"

"Apparently so. Most women in that position wouldn't dare say boo to the man for fear that he'd leave them flat. But I think she's got quite a lot of courage and isn't willing to be a menial."

"Maybe Lumpy doesn't want that."

"She thinks he's terrific. She says he doesn't hide his feelings, whatever they may be. Her husband apparently did that. He pretended everything was all right, and then was just gone one morning."

From what I knew of Lumpy, it did appear unlikely that he would attempt to disguise his feelings. Vignis also seemed to think that a good qualification for marriage. I was less certain, but said,

"I hardly know Lumpy enough to guess whether he'll marry her in the end. But I think he does have generous instincts. I don't think he'd hurt her unless it was a choice between hurting her and hurting himself."

"That's true of so many of us. But, anyway, I think Mary's the kind of young woman we need in our communities. If she were plunked down somewhere, I'm sure she'd make a real effort to improve life as she found it. She also wouldn't panic in the face of adversity or feel sorry for herself."

"So it's just a question of how many Marys we'd have and how many Glorias?"

"Yes. I suppose it always is. But one thing did strike me. Is it any accident that Lumpy, who seems to be the best of that group of men, picked out the best woman? If so, careful selection of the men might get us a bonus in terms of the women they bring with them."

It struck me this bonus was fairly problematic, but I was willing to go some distance with it.

"I can think of superior men who've picked out disastrous women, but, of course, we're here concerned with probabilities. I think, at any rate, that a young man like Lumpy wouldn't take up with a tramp or idiot. But she might turn out to be mentally or emotionally unbalanced."

"You're thinking of your own experience with Marcia, aren't you?"

"I suppose so. But, still, whatever may have been wrong with Marcia, she was always very public-spirited. She'd be considered an asset to almost any community."

I was, by this time, fairly well water-logged. Vignis had to help me out of the tub, and I hung on to the door while she got me dry. She then wrapped a towel around me and helped me to the bed. She was quite maternal about tucking me in and went downstairs to get us both something to eat.

When she returned with sandwiches a little later, the conversation shifted from the railway to a comparison of our attitudes toward marriage. For Vignis, it was surprisingly straight-forward. Marriage, she said, was an incomplete contract. The terms were only outlined by the time that the ceremony occurred, and they got filled out as the marriage developed, particularly in the first few months. She added,

"I think Mac understands that perfectly well. In fact, I bet you've been negotiating for him."

"Well, only with respect to the railway. I'm not supposed to negotiate who's going to make breakfast and who's going to walk the dog."

"The railway is what matters to him. He's willing to give me some share in running it, but he doesn't know me well enough to trust me not to try to take it over."

"It's hard to imagine a woman who'd seriously try to take Mac's railway away from him."

"Sure. It's obvious to everyone else that no one would, but people are quick to over-react and panic in areas that are very close to them. Mac's no exception."

My own ideas of marriage weren't nearly so well formed, probably because I was convinced that it wasn't for me. When I said so, Vignis objected,

"You were getting along fine with Cindy. If her boy friend hadn't turned up, you might have married her successfully."

"I can't imagine that it could really have worked with our age difference of over twenty years."

"You have many things that she needs, and not just money. She isn't likely to find most of them in a young man."

"I'd like to find more young ladies like Cindy Lee, but I think I have to be reconciled to their appearing and disappearing. I can give them something for a while, and they can give me something for a while. Then, they'll find someone else and I'll move to a new location."

Vignis laughed and replied,

"I think you want to be a Flying Dutchman in your railway car. Instead of having no anchor, you'll have no brakes. But you can go slowly past the station platforms and entice aboard pretty young things who're standing there."

I knew that Vignis didn't really picture me as a romantic seductionist, but I let it slide, replying,

"My professional life seems to be coming down to one challenging mission after another. It really is much more interesting than being an administrator behind a desk."

"How are you coming with this particular mission?"

"I think I'm ready to make my recommendation, that there must be some better way of shortening the circle. Let's go back to Huntington."

Vignis agreed quickly. I was pleased that, since I would be on crutches, it wouldn't look as if I had been in any position to pursue Vignis.

It was a trip of almost three hundred miles, and almost all of it lay over the secondary roads of the Ohio and Indiana countryside. They were usually, but not always, paved, and they went along fields, barnyards, and streams, occasionally emerging into small towns. It was sometimes possible to drive on such roads for an hour or more without seeing another car. Vignis' little roadster was sure-footed, and she drove well and easily over the countryside.

It seemed as if we stopped in most of the little towns we passed through for gas, food, or a bottle of Moxie. Despite the length of the journey, we were happy and light- hearted. We talked with townspeople when we stopped, and, each time Vignis was taken for my wife, it built me up a little more.

When we arrived in the evening, Mac was out on the porch. As soon as Vignis was out of the car, he embraced her with great enthusiasm. There seemed to be no problems between them, and, indeed, it looked like the beginning of a second honeymoon.

Sam Hanks came down the steps just as I struggled out of the car. He seemed a little concerned about my well-being, but Mac, on seeing me, shouted,

"What happened son? Was it an outraged husband or a difference of opinion in a bar."

Without waiting for an answer, he laughed loudly and went into the house, leaving Sam to help me up the steps.

I made my report on the N & W, and, to my surprise, Mac didn't seem particularly interested. After a brief pause, he went on to other things. As it turned out, Sam and I found ourselves in the middle of some complex matrimonial negotiations. They were carried on with good humor, with an element of jocularity, and with no concern whatever for privacy. Sam and I were sometimes brought in as referees, and there were times when our judgments were actually accepted by both parties.

At issue was, of course, Vignis' plan for company towns. But also, and even more basic, there was her attempt to wean Mac from his Platonism, and to substitute for it her father's version of Kierkegaard's philosophy. Mac resisted this strongly and denied flatly that there was any conflict between his philosophy and his personality.

In addition to these questions, A. C. Glencannon was involved in some way, with Mac supporting him and Vignis taking strong exception. I had known that she didn't like Glencannon, but something else now seemed to be involved.

Mac turned, rather surpisingly, to me and asked,

"Jimmy, didn't I tell you at some point that A. C. and I were going to produce steam turbine locomotives for the system?"

I had been told no such thing, and would surely have remembered it if I had been told. As it was, I merely mumbled. Mac, hardly noticing, went on to explain the matter to Vignis.

Steam turbines had long been used in ships, and had proven themselves markedly superior to piston engines. No one had ever incorporated one into a locomotive, but Glencannon had a design ready to be built. Mac explained to Vignis,

"A turbine involves only circular motion, and a piston engine depends on constantly reversed linear motion, the momentum of which is lost at each stroke. A turbine's bound to be better."

Vignis replied,

"It's crazy to make a practical decision on philosophical grounds, just because Plato liked circles. If you commit us to turbine locomotives without ever having tried one, you may ruin the railway."

Indeed, it took no great insight to see that Mac was prepared to go ahead with turbines, no matter what happened in the initial trials.

According to Sam, even Glencannon admitted that there were certain problems.

"A turbine works best at constant speed, as on a ship. It's pretty hard to keep a locomotive at constant speed anywhere outside of the great plains."

I asked Mac,

"Is it going to be possible to change gears on the grades?"

"Yes. The design for such a large clutch has caused some problems, and it won't be possible to slip it as you do when starting a car. It'll be used only in shifting gears at speed."

It turned out that, in starting with the clutch engaged, a tremendous amount of steam would have to be forced by the turbine blades before they could be got to move at any speed, at least if the engine was coupled to a train of any size. It might well be necessary to give it a push with a conventional engine to get it moving. Vignis then objected,

"If the first freight in an A series stalls on a grade, it won't be able to get started again. The other engines coming behind will be turbines, too, and they won't be able to push it. Thirteen freights will be stalled in a row, and they'll have to be rescued, one by one, with ordinary engines."

It was an entirely possible scenario, one that I was sure Mac had thought of. He replied,

"That just puts more pressure on us to run things so that an engine will never be allowed to stall on a grade."

It sounded a little shaky to me, but it was then that Sam and I seemed to get the same idea almost simultaneously. Arrangements whould be made to allow the turbine engines to run over several divisions before stopping. As I pointed out,

"Decreased need for maintenance should make that possible. And, if they use oil fuel, we can couple on as much oil and water as we need."

A minority of division points would then be selected as termini for the engines, and those would be prime locations for Vignis' company towns.

While our suggestion was obvious enough, it created some problems. If we only used, say, every third division point for turbine engines, the standard schedule would have to be completely re-cast. They would get to their destinations much faster, but ordinary freights would still have to be run to deliver freight to the divisions which would otherwise be passed over. Moreover, some of the existing division points might turn out to be overbuilt. If we did go to such a system, it would be necessary to halt the construction of new yards immediately until we had sorted out exactly what would be needed where.

Despite all these operational problems, our scheme had the great political advantage of satisfying both Mac and Vignis. She could have her towns and he could have his turbine engines. As they were both taking enthusiastically to our suggestions, Sam gave me a little look. I knew what he meant.

In a fully rational enterprise, the only concern would be the maximization of profit. We were here providing toys for Mac and Vignis. These toys might also be described, more elegantly, as approaches to the Railway Good and advances in social engineering. But would they make money?

It would be left to Sam, as I was sure he realized, to make sure that the whole thing did make money. Meanwhile, I would be expected to solve a whole range of problems as they might happen to present themselves.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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