Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 26

Maysville, Kentucky

The very next morning at breakfast, Vignis carefully served Mac his coffee before asking, in front of Sidonie and myself,

"We're definitely going in for the new engines, aren't we, dear?"

Mac was wary, but he had woken up happy.

"Well now, daughter, I think it would take a hard man not to admit that those engines can steam. In fact, we were so sure of ourselves, we set up to make some components in quantity even before we tested the engine."

"And the new eastern circle with the route through Cincinnati is all set, isn't it?"

"Hold your horses there. We haven't even decided where to put the division points on the new route. That's a sensitive matter. We have to take account of every grade, how straight the line is, and so on. If we try to run engines too far, they won't be able to keep to schedule. Not far enough, and they'll waste time."

Looking on, I was sure that Vignis thought that those problems could be solved in an hour at the outside. But she continued to produce her wonderful grave look. Mac still seemed to mistake it for admiration in general and acquiescence to the point he had just made.

Later that morning, at headquarters, I dropped in on Atwater. Vignis was with him. They had railway maps laid out on his long table, and I asked,

"Have you got the new line laid out yet?"

Atwater answered,

"We're doing pretty well. How fast do you think the trains can go through Cincinnati?"

"Well, they won't go through at sixty. Westbound, there's a long grade up out of the Mill Creek Valley to Cheviot, and, eastbound, it wouldn't be safe to come barrelling down the grade into the new station. Figure on an average of thirty for the twenty miles across the city."

"That's about what I thought. That puts the first regional point near Maysville, Kentucky, and the next one just west of Covington in western Virginia."

Since the new engines would run through three divisions, the points where they stopped would be called "regional points," and would be developed accordingly. As the entire run over the three divisions would take seven hours, there would be three men in each cab, and also a bunk where they could rest.

Most of the regional points would be at existing division points which could be upgraded. It was only the two in C&O country, Maysville and Covington, that it would be necessary to start from scratch. It was also at these latter two that Vignis hoped to establish her first new towns. I pointed out,

"On the new schedule there's going to be a turbine train every three hours, night and day, going each way. The next question is how to schedule the crews."

The critical question was now how long to make the layover for each crew at each regional point. Since the trains ran at three hour intervals, it had to be a multiple of three hours. Vignis said,

"Three hours would be too little. It's not long enough to get a decent sleep, and it's dangerous to run trains with sleepy crews, even if they can take turns in the bunk."

I added,

"From that point of view, six hours isn't long enough, either. We're talking about consecutive days of work, and people should have more than six hours before they go back to work again."

Atwater did some calculating, and announced,

"At the other extreme, if the layovers are eighteen hours, a man would hardly get home at the end of the week before setting out again. A night at home would hardly be different from a night on the road. So we're choosing between nine, twelve, and fifteen."

Working it out with pencil and paper, we discovered that a man, setting out at nine on Monday morning would, with nine hour layovers, would return at twenty to ten on Thursday evening. I remarked,

"They'd like that. Nice long weekends. They'd probably go off fishing or camping."

Vignis looked sceptical, and replied,

"So far, we've kept to the rule that every person must put in at least one hour of classwork six days a week, either as a student or teacher. And we don't want that to seem like a punishment. It's going to get squeezed if there's only nine hours which also has to include sleeping, eating, and talking with friends in the cafes I'm going to put up. Let's try twelve and fifteen."

If the layover was taken to be twelve hours, the man would get home at twenty to one on Friday afternoon. That still left a good weekend. Vignis continued to look unhappy, and said,

"The other thing is that I don't really want the men to go off on those weekend trips, a bunch of young men all together for several days. That sounds like potential trouble to me. Wouldn't they dare each other to do dangerous or unwise things, James."

"I never was the sort of healthy red-blooded young man who did things like that. But we have lots of them."

Atwater then worked out a hypothetical schedule on the assumption of a fifteen hour layover.

Arrive Leave

Kentucky Pt 9 AM Mon

Virginia Pt 4 PM Mon 7 AM Tues

Penn Pt 2 PM Tues 5 AM Wed

New York Pt Noon Wed 3 AM Thurs

Erie Pt 10 AM Thurs 1 AM Fri

Huntington 8 AM Fri 11 PM Fri

Kentucky Pt 3:40 AM Sat

Vignis looked at it and said,

"That's not really so bad. You leave two hours earlier each morning, but that's something you could adjust to. I can get up two hours earlier than usual to do something special and not think anything of it."

"Another thing we have to remember is that these men are so young. They won't worry about sleep. With stopovers of any length at all, they'll play football and go out with girls at each regional point."

"The women at the regional points will also be a good influence. We've already had our first pregnancies, but, even so, they keep the wilder spirits from getting into real trouble. I've almost got Uncle Atwater talked into having some of the young women as firemen in the new engines."

With that, she glanced at Atwater. He smiled, but didn't give any assurances.

It was thus that the famed fifteen hour layover schedule came into being. There was a good deal of grousing about it, as there would have been over any of the alternatives, but, in the long run, it served Vignis' purposes quite well. Fifteen hours was long enough to sleep, to play football or baseball, to play around, and still put in a solid hour or two on one's studies without feeling that one was being kept from activities which were more fun.

The few spouses and many lovers weren't happy about the schedule because the crew members weren't home very much. They also had opportunities for liasons elsewhere. On the other hand, I was myself convinced that love more often fails out of too much togetherness than too much distance. As Vignis said,

"Sensible people will realize that they'll have to be nice to their partners to keep them at all, much less keep them on the straight and narrow."

This much having been settled, nothing could have restrained Vignis from setting out immediately for the sites of the new regional points. General Atwater was equally anxious to see whether there would be room to lay out the yards at the appropriate distances from Huntington. Naturally, Sidonie and I wanted to go along. Taking my cars, we accommodated the others easily in an attached sleeping car, and, in view of the importance of the trip, we borrowed our own engine from one of the Huntington roundhouses.

The first regional point, on C&O trackage, worked out to be just one mile east of the station at Maysville. Apart from the fact that the line ran parallel to the Ohio River, we had little idea what the terrain would be like. We did know that, if we had to put the yards more than a mile from the proper place, one division would be too long and the adjoining one too short. As Atwater said,

"If you once build a mistake into the actual physical structure of an organization, it becomes ever more expensive to correct it. In practice, you're condemned to its consequences forever."

As we approached Maysville, there were considerable grounds for concern. The Kentucky shore rose steeply from the river to hills several hundred feet in height. The double tracked main line lay on a shelf that was carved out of the hillside, and even a narrow yard was out of the question.

Tantalizingly, the opposite, Ohio, shore consisted in a flat plain, safely above flood level, which went back a mile or more. It would be ideal for a yard. However, there were no railway bridges over the Ohio for a great distance, and the construction of such a bridge would be a monumental task, comparable to the moving of a couple of hills.

When we got to the station, there was at least room for a couple of short sidings, one of which we commandeered for our train. We then set out walking briskly to the east.

Maysville was a bustling little river town whose connections with New Orleans were so strong that all the better houses were in the style of the other city, complete with wrought iron balconies and railings. Where the barges and steamboats loaded there were romantically faded brick warehouses squeezed into the narrow space between hill and river. The rest of the town mounted the hillside with parallel streets.

At one point, we passed a small rectangular park which lay perpendicular to the river, and whose sides were lined with small shops and cafes. Vignis pointed to them and said,

"There'll be places where we can celebrate if we find what we want."

Before long, we crossed a tributary of respectable size which came from the east and joined the Ohio at a sharp angle. That turned out to be the saving grace. While the hills followed the south bank of the tributary, what amounted to a peninsula between the great river and the smaller one was almost entirely flat.

Once over the bridge, we were in what amounted to a separate little town. On the left side of the main street there were substantial houses whose upper floors looked over the top of an earthen levy to the Ohio River. Because of the prevailing poverty of the time, many were in disrepair. There were also forlorn-looking "For Sale" signs scattered among them.

On the other side of the street, there were only shacks. Behind them lay the main line of the C&O, and, beyond that, there was a wide expanse of flat land covered with scrub growth and the falling-down tobacco warehouses of a company which appeared to be, and later turned out to be, bankrupt. It seemed likely that we could buy the whole place for a song.

After looking carefully up and down the good side of the street, Vignis said,

"We don't need to build a town here. There already is one. These houses will be nice after we've fixed them up."

The next question was raised by Atwater.

"This town may not be far from Cincinnati, but it's much more southern. I wonder what the color line might be like."

While Atwater was himself a southerner, such questions were often implicitly addressed to Sidonie because of her color. She actually knew relatively little about the system of class and caste in America, perhaps less than any of us. On the other hand, Sidonie never admitted that she knew nothing about anything. After a brief and not particularly profitable discussion, Atwater said, with some assurance,

"I'm almost certain that there are black people here, and that they live in a special part of town, perhaps on the back side of those hills. Anyhow, this is a white section and there'll be trouble when we move a mostly black work force into it. We should do something to minimize the difficulties."

I replied,

"About the only thing we can do for a town like this is to employ a significant number of local people. That makes a big difference, and nothing else does."

Vignis asked,

"What about letting the locals buy in our canteens?"

I replied,

"The ordinary people will love it, but the merchants will hate it. We'll need the powerful people in town to approve our plans, and, unless they know more about the GER than they probably do, they'll assume that our people will be spending most of their money in the town. So we shouldn't say anything about our canteen until much later."

We then discussed the next problem. We had never hired locals in the towns we passed through for good reason. We had no facilities for training them on the spot, and they usually didn't fit into the GER scheme of things.

It was hard to imagine, for example, the typical yokel running down a track to throw a switch or participating in one of our sometimes rather frightening classroom discussions. Most of these people, even the poorest, were highly set in their ways. We could use only the sort of flexibility and adventurousness which comes from knowing that the bridges to the past, quite apart from being burnt, never led anywhere worth going.

Vignis finally concluded,

"We'll have to take any local people we hire very young. Right out of high school, or before if they've dropped out. We might promise the town to hire, say, a hundred young men for the GER on a permanent basis."

She looked at Atwater, and he nodded, adding

"That'll have a significant impact here, but we'll want to go slowly, choosing a dozen or so every few months."

Vignis said,

"Besides that, we can hire a lot of temporaries to help fix up the houses and do some of the unskilled work in building the yards. That'll be a sudden infusion of money into the town. Won't that be enough to allay their racial concerns?"

Atwater thought that it probably would, He said,

"We'd better begin by talking to the city fathers. Shall we go to the town hall and start right in?"

With his gray hair, his military bearing, and, perhaps most important in the present case, his southern accent, Atwater was by far the best one to make our case. We sent him into the town hall, agreeing to meet at a restaurant we had just noticed.

Having some time to while away, we inspected the retaurant from the outside in an attempt to determine whether we were likely to be poisoned if we ate there. Whatever the food might be like, we had been attracted to the restaurant because it was in a handsome old house which overlooked the river. It pre-dated the railway, and its inhabitants had probably been horrified when the town, propelled by greed, had allowed and encouraged the C&O to run its track through what must have been a pleasant front yard sloping down to the river. In my opinion, a railway adds aesthetic value to almost any scene, a view I share with Van Gogh, but I realize that most others have failed to come into line with us.

Aesthetic theory apart, no noxious smells seemed to emanate from the building, and, when we looked at the back, I remarked to the others,

"At least, they don't dispose of their garbage by throwing it out the rear windows."

The house next to the restaurant was an even better one. A small brass plaque informed us that it had provided hospitality for Henry Clay and other distinguished southern statesmen. Its windows were now boarded up, but Vignis and Sidonie managed to peek in. They were delighted with what they saw, and this house, too, was to be purchased.

We then walked along the riverbank for a while until we saw Atwater approach. He had a definitely satisfied air and reported,

"They treated me more or less as a messenger from Allah. I didn't even have to exaggerate the good things we'd do for the town. In fact, it turns out that a good deal of the land we need is owned by the town itself. They suggested a very reasonable price, but even that will help them turn a corner in their budget."

I had forgotten many of the ways, some little and some not so little, in which an industry helps a town financially. Even with our men buying at their own canteen, our coming was the best news Maysville had had since the beginning of the depression. Moreover, now that I thought about it, General Atwater did look a little like Santa Claus.

The restaurant had surprisingly good food, but the real pleasure consisted in sitting on what was really a glassed-in porch overlooking the Ohio. As the late afternoon sun dropped toward the hills, there were deep blue stretches of water, still in the light, which contrasted with the gray-blue shadows cast by the hills. There were many other variations of color as light clouds scudding overhead briefly cast their shadows.

Since we were the only ones in the restaurant, and no one at all was visible on the river, the atmosphere was somewhat forbidding and lonely. The wind gradually increased, blowing upstream against the current and raising a steep chop with white-caps everywhere. Atwater said,

"This must be exactly what Aaron Burr saw when he floated down the river in a flat-boat to stir up trouble in Louisiana."

I knew nothing about Aaron Burr, but didn't ask.

As dessert came, a C&O freight moved slowly down the track outside the window. We were right on a level with the engineer, and his face was less than three feet from those of Vignis and Sidonie staring at him through the window. In the instant in which we could see him clearly, he looked somewhat disconcerted.

After the train passed, and conversation was again possible, Vignis said,

"I've been thinking about the house next door. We can buy it and make it a home for about twenty of our best engineers, all captains in charge of turbine engines. We can provide maid service and good food and make it quite elegant. It'll give the others something to strive for."

Atwater replied,

"Many armies have elites of various kinds, quite apart from rank and the corresponding pay scales. It's tricky, though. If you aren't careful, everyone wants to be an airplane pilot and no one wants to clear mine fields."

"Yes. I guess we don't want to unduly favor engineers. They have enough status as it is. On the other hand, we don't want to make the house just for the most senior people. That would be too stodgy. How about making residence there a reward for academic achievement, regardless of rank or job? The person who qualifies at that level would participate in seminars with other residents, and would also help teach classes for the less advanced students."

There was some discussion on this point. We already knew that we had a lot of smart young people. They had been chosen largely on that basis. We also knew that some were a good deal more than that. But it was Vignis who pointed out that they often wouldn't be like John Henry.

"High intelligence often goes with eccentricity. They may go off in a thousand different directions, and it's hard to imagine what a discussion might be like if you brought a bunch of them together."

I replied,

"Sure, there's unpredictability. But a discussion, no matter how free-wheeling, isn't too likely to lead to mayhem."

While Atwater approved of the principle and suggested establishing other such houses in different locations, he suggested,

"The fact that these young people are smart doesn't mean they won't raise hell all by themselves in their own house. Perhaps some of us should look in occasionally."

Vignis replied,

"I'll set aside a room for senior visitors. I'll come through regularly, and I might even get Mac to come with me."

Atwater seemed to take pleasure in the thought of Mac discussing Plato with the troops and added,

"There'll always be a few intellectuals in a town like this. One of them is often the Latin teacher at the high school, but they may work at almost any trade or profession. They should be encouraged to come around."

It all sounded a little too good to be true, but it was undeniable that we had done a good day's work.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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