Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 28

Trouble Brewing

Miss Hanford of the Visitors' Association has kindly complimented me on my narrative, and says that she is anxious to hear more. I know that I hardly deserve such appreciation, but, having failed yet again with water colors, I will persevere.

By the beginning of 1933 we hadn't paid much attention to the Western Circle. It was, basically, a collection of railways we controlled put end to end and run by General Davis. By the time that we acquired them, they had mostly pared down their work forces, proportionately to the diminution of traffic in the depression. He had then introduced a number of economies of scale where the facilities of the various railways duplicated or overlapped one another. However, apart from running a weekly freight train around the circle for the principle of the thing, these railways operated in much the way that they had previously.

Of course, even without making radical changes, Davis' mere presence made a difference. As Sam Hanks said at one meeting at which Davis was not present,

"He may be a bastard, but there's hardly anyone on any of those western roads who feels secure enough to relax on the job."

The result was that we met our guaranteed delivery times, admittedly much less rigorous than in the east, and showed a modest operating profit, enough to service the western proportion of the debt. There was some temptation to leave things as they were, but, as Mac pointed out at the same meeting,

"Davis has managed to keep the west from being the millstone it might otherwise have been while we've been concentrating on the east. But he and I have always agreed that the same thing needs to be done in the west. In fact, he's getting restless and wants to start right away."

Quite apart from Davis' itchiness, there was another reason to get moving. It was widely believed that, when the Roosevelt administration took office in March, it would favor the unions. While, as far as the railways were concerned, the basic rules had been in place since the Railway Act of 1926, they might be enforced with greater vigor.

Now was the time to introduce our own personnel as widely as possible and ultimately replace the railway brotherhoods. We had largely succeeded in doing so in the east, and we intended to move men from east to west as fast as we could train new ones to replace them. Whether we could do so on a sufficient scale to re-organize the west before the Roosevelt administration blocked us was an open question.

It was in this atmosphere that we decided to run turbine engines with non-union crews around the entire Western Circle. It would only be a token presence at first, but it would be expanded as more engines became available.

I was put in charge of the transition forces. That was a bit of a surprise, but I was getting used to the idea of dodgy assignments that other people preferred not to undertake. I began by calling on General Davis at his headquarters in Colorado. With his steel gray hair and even steelier blue eyes, he was a far cry from the engaging and humorous Atwater. However, I was extremely careful, and he appeared to be friendly enough. He remarked easily,

"Mac wants to test the unions out here, and the quickest and easiest way to provoke a confrontation is to bring in your eastern engineers with the turbine engines."

"I thought we might bring in John Henry Jamieson to take the first engine around the circle. That should make an impression. And then, I can choose as many others as we need."

"Ok. You provide me with engineers trained on the turbine engines, and I'll return the favor by providing you with guards. I've recruited and trained about a thousand without any trouble from the unions. There seems to be no railway union for guards."

"No. The railways have usually hired Pinkerton's men in time of trouble, and then for the duration of the crisis only."

Davis seemed pleased with his guards, and I guessed that he had trained them as if they were infantry. He then smiled in a slightly unsettling way and said,

"The command situation is somewhat complex. It's in my sphere of operational responsibility to do the things that will cause trouble. Then, it's your responsibility to take a force which I've raised and trained and use it to deal with the trouble."

I wasn't sure whether I was being challenged in some way, but I replied,

"Whatever happens, I'll stay in touch with you, even if I have to call you collect from pay phones."

"If you're in a telephone booth surrounded on all sides by a howling mob of strikers, I'll try to arrange for a relief force."

I realized then that Davis had, from the beginning, been amused by the whole scenario. What amused him most was probably my humble person in the role I was assigned to play.

By this time, Cindy Lee Starkweather was already moving around the Western Circle. Her boy friend, Dave, at first so willing to displease his parents in order to marry her, hadn't followed through on his intentions. Indeed, he had succombed to their pressure and left her in order to return to the University of Michigan.

I found out these things shortly after marrying Sidonie. While I was in something of an exalted state, I hadn't forgotten Cindy Lee. I would have liked to console her, but wasn't sure how Sidonie might interpret any efforts in that direction. It turned out that Sidonie wasn't inclined to jealousy. Indeed, she asked Cindy to visit us, and was nice to her when she arrived. When there was a reference to the time I had spent with Cindy at Ann Arbor, Sidonie said,

"Complicated people get tangled together with each other in all kinds of ways, but we're none the worse for that."

According to Vignis, abandoned women either go to pieces or fix themselves up to be more attractive than ever. Cindy fixed herself up, not so much to catch another man, but to be a better spy.

By the end of the year, she had verified a theory and very nearly perfected a performance. The theory concerned the fantasies of ordinary American working men, the sort of men who made up the bulk of our employees in the west. It first occurred to her because of a recurrent sequence of events narrated in popular songs: A rich woman, tired of her husband and his effete friends, suddenly appears in a working men's bar looking for action. She quickly finds a man, and, it is implied in the songs, has a wild affair with him. The song would then end, more or less:

"I woke with the cold gray dawn, and she was gone, all gone but for the ribbon she had worn, gone back to the rich man who loved her."

I have wondered at times whether such things ever happen. I have known wealthy women who might have had such fantasies, but their inhibitions were, I fear, always too strong. As a male fantasy, it wasn't, of course, universal. But it was and is common enough so that, there will be found in every bar or diner at least one man who has it. That was all Cindy Lee needed.

With a string of fake pearls, fake diamond earrings, and nice clothes, she could present the right appearance. She had lived with wealthy young women in her sorority, and it wasn't hard for her to act the part. She was then able to bring a good many fantasies to fruition.

Some of the men might have wondered how a rich lady had come to develop the sexual techniques that Cindy Lee possessed, but I don't suppose any complained. And, then, she had the perfect excuse for moving on after the men had poured out their souls. She had to get back to her husband.

Cindy's first reports said that the brotherhoods were quarrelling with one another to an unusual degree. The men would certainly react strongly when non-union engineers appeared in their midst, but the unions would probably not be able to agree on any unified action.

She had been in the west some months before we sent John Henry and a few selected others around the circle in turbine engines in January. At first, there was no overt reaction. That, said Cindy, was deceptive. She said further that the hostility was greatest in Oregon, and that whatever happened would probably happen there first.

Not wanting trouble to break out before we were ready for it, General Davis and I withdrew the turbine engines for the moment while I concentrated my forces at Portland, Oregon.

Speed Trent and I went first, establishing ourselves in the best hotel in Portland. Then, when fifty of my eastern security guards, both black and white, arrived, we put them into sailors' boarding houses. I was confident that they wouldn't be the only unfriendly people in those houses who reacted badly to routine questions.

While the fifty men had been specially chosen, it wasn't a large enough force even to maintain order if, for example, there was a sudden wildcat strike involving thousands of men. Speed and I discussed whether to take General Davis up on his offer and call for his men. Speed thought that we should. I was more hesitant.

"Even if our object is to challenge the unions in certain areas, I don't want to start a war by bringing in what will look like an army."

At that point in our discussion, we had emerged from the downtown area into the waterfront district. A light rain was falling and a heavy fog blurred the outlines of the ships moored to the wharves. Most were only ordinary freighters, but, if one was used to the scale of things on land, even locomotives, they appeared to be huge leviathans temporarily at rest. Out in the stream, other ships, moving slowly and groping their way in the fog, let loose a string of bellows, wails, and sirens.

Nearer at hand, a group of longshoremen came out of a cafe and walked toward a ship. They were big men, rough in a good-humored way, men who would think it funny if, in a fight, one of them scored a lucky hit on the jaw of another and knocked him cold. Even in the banter that I overheard, there were obscene words, threats happily delivered, and gestures of a violent kind. I happened to know that these men had been conducting a sort of war with their employers, and could easily imagine their turning mean. I hoped that the men on the railway were not such as these. Speed laughed and said,

"You needn't worry about our men being conspicuous, captain. You could bring a thousand roughnecks here, and no one would notice."

I agreed readily enough, but I also noticed how different Speed's attitude toward these men was from my own. He wasn't afraid of them. I, on the other hand, could only imagine one of those big fists, propelled by a powerful hairy forearm, cracking in my front teeth.

In point of fact, Speed was wiry, but not particularly big. His strength would be as nothing to that of the men now tramping up a gangplank. Moreover, it was I, and not Speed, who knew something of boxing and hit my bag almost daily. But I knew that my boxing would be quite useless against a longshoreman, and I wondered what on earth Speed thought he could rely on.

I wondered even more vividly when Speed made the appalling suggestion of actually entering the longshoremen's cafe. When I objected, he laughed and replied,

"Come on. They'll think we aren't worth beating up."

It has often seemed to me that courage is a matter of happy expectations. The man who grits his teeth and expects the worst generally doesn't get far. It's the one who thinks that he has a charmed life who reaches the enemy trench line or dies trying. If he gets there, he will likely do so in a state of euphoria.

In we went, Speed leading with a broad smile and myself trailing awkwardly. It was only after we were seated at a table with beer in front of us that I realized that I was relatively safe as long as I was with Speed. He had the right manner. Since there was something about him that suggested that he would fight, he didn't have to. It wasn't in the least that the men didn't think him worth beating up. That might have applied to me, but they had no urge to beat up Speed.

We soon fell into conversation with some men at an adjoining table. I was an insurance salesman, and Speed was my boss. Even though he was obviously younger, it accorded well with their sense of us that he was the superior.

Insurance is an excellent cover for anyone who wants to conceal his identity. If you're selling something, no one wants to know more about it or you, but they may still be willing to speak on neutral subjects. These men were. Their subject was boxing, the champions of the present and past, and the techniques used to win famous fights. I could talk in that way, and my talk was tolerated up to a point which I was careful not to approach too closely. But it was Speed, who really knew little about boxing, who could say things like,

"And then he hit the son-of-a-bitch with a left hook."

He sounded right when he used obscenity, and the men nodded. He could also make them laugh, and it was easy to see that they liked him.

At no point did unions or strikes enter the conversation. When the men gradually drifted off to work, one muttering that, if he hadn't married, he wouldn't have to work at all, Speed and I made our way back to the downtown. My own feelings were somewhat mixed. I was surprised at the ease of our acceptance, and had found that, apart from their forbidding exteriors and manners, the men varied from one another as much as one would expect in any group. When I said as much to Speed, he replied,

"Sure. I like them as well as anybody else. But whoever's fault it may be, American workers are extremely suspicious of management."

"Yes. I know that from the Lackawanna. Almost any move toward greater efficiency was strongly resisted, even if it would benefit everyone in the long run."

"That's true in any industry. The workers don't give a shit about the success of the company. Those men we met will steal liquor from the cargoes they unload and railway men intentionally delay trains to get overtime pay."

I replied,

"Those things aren't nice. But I don't suppose it makes them bad people because they don't care if we make a profit."

"No, it only makes them stupid short-sighted sons of bitches. And we can't be blamed for wanting to replace them with people who do care."

I spoke only rather guardedly with Speed on these matters. Oddly, although he understood working men well, and had obviously enjoyed the company of the longshoremen, he was unqualifiedly and completely on the side of management in any industry. I could hardly imagine why, but I didn't think it wise to ask him to explain himself.

In the next few days, three hundred men from General Davis arrived on regular passenger trains, and were easily lodged in Portland. They made much less impact than the delegates to a convention would have. I then managed to telephone Cindy, who was over a hundred miles south in Eugene, and warned her that we would be sending the turbine engines through again. She replied,

"At least some of the unions will eventually take some sort of action. Before they do, the men here in Eugene may take matters into their own hands and do something crazy."

Since Eugene was the home of the University of Oregon, one wouldn't normally have supposed it to be a hotbed of labor militancy. However, it was also a division point for the Sothern Pacific line that we had bought. We would eventually demote Eugene to a C point, but a lot of men were there now, and they were apparently angrier than any others anywhere in the Western Circle.

I had chosen Lumpy from the Norfolk & Western as one of the engineers. I thought I could recognize him in the cab as we watched the first turbine engine in a week whip past the Portland station with its single tall clock tower, and then lead its freight in a gentle curve out over the Willammette River bridge.

Lumpy got through Eugene without any difficulty that morning. However, the word spread quickly, and there was trouble by noontime. The men working in the yards just west of the town formed what amounted to a mob, apparently without any clear leadership. Surging around the yards, they beat up a few foremen, and then set fire to a string of empty box cars, letting them burn down to the trucks.

This was really just the sort of clearly illegal and violent provocation that we wanted. We could now intervene with our guard force and flex our muscles in an entirely righteous way.

Speed and I went immediately to Eugene, where Cindy Lee met us. She said immediately,

"I can't tell you much about the rioting that you didn't hear over the radio. My new boy friend and source of information is a fireman, and he's been gone for three days on a run. But, mostly, it's as I reported before. No concerted union action, but lots of local anger."

While she had no illuminating intelligence for us, she had something else of almost equal importance, maps of the city showing the location of the yards.

After familiarizing ourselves with the geography of town and railway, I went to the police station. I there found a worried chief who explained that he didn't have enough men to protect all of the railway property. I had expected that, and, in any case, didn't want the police interposed between my men and the dissidents. I assured him that our force of guards was quite capable of maintaining order. He was relieved, and I was relieved that he was so willing to keep his men out of the way.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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