Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 29

A Labor Dispute

After dinner at the hotel, the three of us spread out the maps on my bed. The best part of war is the drawing up of plans and the sticking of pins into maps. Since our map wasn't mounted on cork, it wouldn't have been satisfying to stick pins into it. On the other hand, we really did have forces to move around. In the three hundred man battalion sent by Davis, there were six fifty-man companies, each divided into two platoons. In addition, there was the company we had brought with us from the east.

The first thing is to decide on one's objective, and I knew that it was up to me to make a statement of the sort that would be expected from a commanding officer. I drew myself up, as best I could without rising from my seat on the bed, and said,

"Our primary objective is to occupy the yards and prevent further vandalism. That having been done, our secondary objective is to keep the yards in operation and the trains running. If the local railwaymen, or a large group of them, continue to work, we'll protect them. If not, we'll operate the yards as best we can with our own men."

Neither Speed nor Cindy laughed, and we drew up our detailed plan. I continued to be mindful of Atwater's advice, some time back, that I should never get my whole force pinned down in defense of some installation. We thus decided to hold out three companies as a reserve with Speed in command. The remaining question was where to put them and how to maintain communications.

Cindy suggested that the reserve companies be kept within easy reach of the hotel, and offered to stay in her room by the side of the telephone.

"With any luck, the phones in the yards will be working when you get there, and you can call me. I'll just relay messages back and forth to the people outside."

Speed replied,

"If the phones aren't working, we can put a man on top of the hill on the other side of the line here. The yard should be in view, and we can use our full-arm semaphore system with binoculars."

The hill was extremely steep and practically adjoined the station. I replied,

"If it comes to that, we'll put our signaller in the most conspicuous place we can find in the yard, maybe on the roof of one of the buildings. You should be able to pick him out eventually."

We next considered our personnel. We had met Davis' battalion commander and his six company commanders in Portland. Davis had discovered that experienced career non- coms in the army could better themselves by becoming captains in our system, and he had found himself company commanders by raiding the army of some of its best sergeants. They were easily capable of taking on the extra responsibility that was involved.

The battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Biggar, was a youngish retired officer with thinning sandy hair and a drooping moustache of the same color. While he had a somewhat jaded look, his taste for action had apparently not been satisfied by peace-time soldiering. I asked Speed what he thought of Biggar, and he replied,

"A professional soldier. He looks as if he knows his business. This kind of thing is probably child's play for him."

"I know he was in the war. I think all the captains were as well."

Cindy said,

"They may have to be restrained. Their first impulse may be to shoot anyone who's in the way."

Speed seemed not to be concerned about that possibility, but I was more inclined to agree with Cindy. In Biggar's force, most of the men carried only policemen's night sticks. Some were white, some black, and all had been thoroughly trained in the effective use of those sticks. The sergeants had permits to carry pistols in holsters, and the officers also had pistols.

In addition, the headquarters company was armed with rifles, bayonets, and Browning automatic rifles. The main idea was that this company would occupy a strong-point which couldn't be overrun by any number of ill-armed men, even ones with hunting rifles and assorted pistols.

My own company had been trained by Atwater, and looked less like a regular army force. He was an exponent of the Japanese martial arts, and thought them ideally suited for a force that could use firearms only sparingly, if at all.

The result was that each man was adept, not only in the use of a night stick, but also in the arts of judo, kendo, and karate. Judo was also treated as a sport and practised and played, along with wrestling and boxing, all over the system. Since Atwater tended to recruit the best players for this company, which became known as "Atwater Company," it amounted to an elite unit.

The question of command was a tricky one. For symbolic reasons, we wanted John Henry to command our elite unit. But, of course, he had no military training.

As a natural athlete, John Henry had excelled in the various skills all along, and had won a good many of the cups and trophies which we had established. Apart from that, Atwater had organized a number of simulated battles. After a few months, he had told me that, even though John Henry would probably never have the skills of a young officer with combat experience, he would manage well enough in an emergency. He was also given two of the best platoon commanders and advised strongly to listen to them in time of trouble. Atwater and I both knew that John Henry wasn't the sort of man to ignore that sort of advice.

The next phase in military planning consists in the scheduling of phased movements. In this case, we thought it unwise to bring up our forces on a regular passenger train. The opposition might call a strike and stop trains at any moment. Cindy also objected,

"The railwaymen here keep quite a close eye on people coming in on the passenger trains. If a large group got off, they'd notice. But I don't think they would if we used the Oregon Electric instead."

The Oregon Electric was an interurban line, running parallel to our line, with its own station a couple of blocks away from our station. The trains ran every ten minutes in the morning rush hour, and we decided to bring up a company on each train. We then telephoned our orders down to Colonel Biggar.

The first company came in at nine the next morning. Speed and I were there to meet them, and, when the men disembarked with the other passengers, Biggar came up to greet me,

"Morning, General. I'll form the men up presently if we can find a place that's not too conspicuous."

It was almost a shock to be addressed as a superior officer by a man who looked as murderous as Biggar, but I improvised successfully. There was a vacant lot behind a small machine shop across the street, and I led the men there. No one was in a GER standard uniform, and, as far as clothing went, the men looked like a construction crew. However, they had bulging identical knapsacks which contained helmets, and their night-sticks were conspicous. Anyone seeing them would have known that they were prepared for trouble.

At nine thirty, when three more companies, including the headquarters company with its suspicious-looking baggage, had come in, I set off with Biggar. Speed was to meet Biggar's two remaining companies and John Henry with our company.

The main avenues of Eugene run east-west, and there was little automobile traffic on Fifth Avenue as we headed west. Biggar and I led two companies strung out on the north sidewalk, the headquarters company being second in order of march. The other two companies were on the opposite sidewalk.

The men didn't march in step, but loped along, as if hiking over open country, each man with his stick dangling from his belt. Even though no fire-arms were visible from the front, we looked purposeful, and, I hoped, somewhat dangerous.

Biggar was dressed more or less as a big-game hunter in Africa, and stepped briskly along. He was obviously used to leading columns, and walked erectly with his head held high and a look of contempt on his face. It was easy to imagine him casually conquering a small South American country with just that scornful military bearing.

I, in a brown suit and felt hat, wasn't used to leading columns. It was important, I realized, not to skip along beside Biggar as if I were trying to keep up. A little taller than myself and heavier, he seemed to cover ground surprisingly quickly without any particular effort. After a little experimentation, I discovered that I could lengthen my stride and keep up, a little breathlessly, but without making myself conspicuous.

It was a gray morning, with a light mist and fog covering the flat ground. We soon passed out of the residential part of town, and, after crossing a short stretch of undeveloped land, warehouses and sawmills loomed at us out of the fog. We were obviously entering the part of town that was likely to contain railway yards. Far from being fearful, I found myself exhilarated as Biggar called out,

"Companies equip and fix bayonets."

The part about bayonets applied only to the headquarters company, but the other men quickly fished their helmets out of their packs, donned them, and made ready with their sticks. Only Biggar and I remained without helmets, and without any sort of weapon in our hands. I knew that British officers went into battle with only their swagger sticks, and supposed that it was part of the mystique of command.

After rounding a sawmill, we entered a long straight street. The mist just allowed us to see to the end, where we could make out the unmistakeable shapes of pickets carrying signs. Evidently, a strike had been called since the last report I had received. When we got closer, I could see that the signs were hand-made, not the printed ones that the brotherhoods would distribute. It looked like a local effort.

At that moment, we were in a long column, two abreast, with the column of the other two companies moving parallel, still on the other side of the street. To reach the yard gates, which were open and some forty feet across, we would have to go to the end of the street, cross the intersecting street, and then traverse twenty yards of gravel driveway which lay beyond it.

The tension grew perceptibly as we proceeded down the street. The strikers abandoned their relaxed attitudes, formed a line, and clutched their signs tightly. I felt a little sorry for them, and wondered why they didn't close the wire mesh yard gates.

Biggar said nothing at all as he marched along without reducing speed. He showed no sign of reorganizing his columns, and I was acutely aware that, unless he did, I would be thrust directly into the strikers with fifty men closely packed behind me.

We were almost to the intersection before Biggar stepped off the sidewalk into the street and called out,

"Columns of four."

Almost before I realized it, a man had moved up to my side. We were now four abreast all the way back, and the other column had re-formed itself in a similar way.

Even in those seconds, I realized that we were performing the sorts of parade-ground maneuvers which belonged to the time before the invention of the machine-gun. Napoleon's columns at Waterloo must have advanced in much the same way, and I suspected that Biggar's order would have been familiar to Caesar's legions.

I was still in the front rank when we crossed the road, only a little distance remaining between our two thickened columns. I had previously considered stepping off to the side just before the crunch. It wasn't exactly an honorable thing to do, but, after all, I wasn't a soldier. Whatever I might have done, that option no longer existed. I was now squeezed between Biggar on my left and a large young black man on my right. The only alternative to keeping my position would be to quickly run out in front and off to the side before the moment of impact. But everyone would see, and it would be entirely too humiliating to do so.

The whole thing was psychological, really. If the line of men in front of us had looked as if they could withstand us and knock us down, I would certainly have faltered, and I doubt that I would have been the only one. On the other hand, because of our numbers, and the big strong young men in our front row, we must have appeared to the strikers as a formidable force. At the very last moment, estimating the width of the opening, Biggar ordered,

"Columns of eight."

That was what really did it. The sixteen men abreast, all with sticks ready, must have seemed an irresistible force. When we arrived, the strikers were already moving backwards, their signs thrust forward defensively in front of them. In fact, in that last instant, I caught out of the corner of my eye a sudden movement as a couple of them dropped their signs and ran.

Biggar, still next to me, grabbed a sign and pushed the stick attached to it hurtfully into the stomach of the man holding it. He went down, twisting and crying out. I had to step over that man's leg, and, confronted with the man next to him, I pushed with my hands on his chest. Since I had a column behind me, there was actually little else that I could do.

I was really quite surprised when the man went down. He may have tripped as he backed up, or it may have been that I, afraid of being trampled myself, pushed harder than I realized. I had to step over him, and, still fearful of falling down, I managed it with some agility.

All I know is that no one was killed in that encounter. Some of the strikers may have been trampled, but most of our men turned out to be of the sort who, given a choice, would step over rather than on a fallen opponent.

Once past the gate, I couldn't see whether there were men working in the yards. At first, there seemed not to be. However, when we rounded a string of box cars, there appeared in a space of empty tracks a considerable group of men, perhaps a hundred or more. They might conceivably have been described as a mob intent on burning freight cars, but they might also have been a group of men, idled by the sudden strike, who were trying to decide whether to go home.

Colonel Biggar was a man who had no difficulty in interpreting what he saw. He shouted out,

"Form skirmishing line."

This time, three companies spread out in line abreast, each man with his stick in his hand. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the headquarters company backing us up, rifles unslung and bayonets fixed.

The railwaymen in front of us may not have seen clearly the armed men behind us. We in the line were about an arm's length apart, so that a careful observer might have seen between us and noticed the glint of bayonets. On the other hand, it was an emotional situation. The strikers a hundred yards away might have found the sight of a line of a hundred and fifty men with clubs advancing on them sufficiently disconcerting so as not to look beyond it.

Whatever they saw, and whatever their previous intentions might have been, the sight of us galvanized the strikers into action. They immediately scrabbled around for anything that looked like a weapon. Some grabbed up the track spikes and tie plates that were scattered over the ground, and several picked up a length of rail, evidently with the idea of charging us with it.

It was just then that Biggar touched my elbow and drew me behind the line. He said to me,

"We can't exercise command if we get in the middle of the fighting."

The numbers were more nearly equal this time, but my recollection of that pitched battle was that it was hardly a battle at all. It looked like one at first. The strikers actually did rush toward us shouting. Unfortunately for them, they didn't arrive at the same time. The three men with the rail came running, as if to use the front end as a spear. Our men dodged easily and clubbed them to the ground. A few others also reached our line with their clumsy makeshift weapons.

I was watching one of our men, a huge young boy with arms the size of legs. He didn't even swing with his club, but held it out in front and flicked it with his wrist. A man came running at him, holding a tie plate over his head, but a seemingly light blow to the head knocked the attacker cold, the tie plate skidding past our line and ending up almost at my feet.

As the first attackers were being laid out, the others must have seen or heard the blows which broke jaws and knocked out teeth, or which, in one case, left a man screaming on the ground with both hands to his groin. It must have seemed to the others that there was little point in being broken and left on the hard ground in pain. The enthusiasm of the charge simply vanished. Some men stopped where they were, out of the range of our clubs. Others were already retreating, some dropping their weapons. Biggar, beside me, called out,


The counter-charge came with great speed, enough to catch most of those who had tarried in no man's land. As Biggar and I ran after our men, we came across many clubbed strikers on the ground. When one man started to get up to run, Biggar gave him a tremendous kick to the rear end. The man sprawled, hitting his face on a discarded tie, and Biggar laughed. He then called off the pursuit.

It seemed to me at that moment that war was a very easy affair. You marched up with properly trained men, gave the right orders, and routed the enemy. There was nothing left to do but look after the wounded, all of them on the other side.

I must own that I was relieved to find that no one was dead. The ones that had been knocked out gradually came to, and a stretcher was improvised for a man who had a broken leg. Our opponents, so filled with spirit a few minutes before, seemed now to have hardly anything to say. There was no anger, nor were there any cries of injustice. No one accused us of being bullies, and no one refused what help we could give them. The face of the man Biggar had sent sprawling was a mask of blood, but, beneath it, there were only superficial cuts, a squashed nose, and some missing teeth. He was even prevailed on to help carry the stretcher of the man with the broken leg.

I went immediately to the yard office and found it completely empty. There was no superintendent, no yardmaster, and no dispatcher. There wasn't even any clerical staff. I assumed that these people had all been frightened away by the violence, either of that day or the day before. In any case, the telephone still worked, and I called Cindy. When she answered, I told her of our small victory, and asked her to tell Speed to go ahead with our plan to position the remaining three companies on Skinner's Butte. Even though things had gone easily so far, I knew that it was the responsibility of the commanding officer to take full military precautions.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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