Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 37


During my short tenure as president of the GER (I didn't promote myself to the rank of field marshal), I saw myself as the tinkerer who can follow the visionary and make the latter's schemes work better than they ever had under the great man.

I came just at the right time. The great turbine engines roaring around in never-ending circles had captured the imagination of the public, and of many businessmen. But there were others who knew that, under certain rather special circumstances, they could get their shipments from one point to another more quickly and cheaply by going to one of our competitors. By re-arranging schedules in various ways, and adding turbine trains which filled certain critical gaps, I was able to almost eliminate those holes. There was, however, a potentially much more serious problem.

By the summer of 1937, railways were beginning to get serious competition from trucks for lighter and shorter hauls. Some businesses weren't located on railway sidings, and, as long as the shipment had to be loaded aboard a truck in the first or last place, or both, it was tempting to have the truck take it the whole way.

Not surprisingly, our less-than-carload service was, by this time, operating at a loss. In order to meet our guaranteed times of delivery, we often had to dispatch a box car with a load of only a few hundred pounds.

I spoke to Glencannon and explained,

"I want storage bins that can be loaded on and off special freight cars in our warehouses, and then put on our own trucks for delivery."

"Well, we could put the bins on wheels, roll them off the car, and then on to a lorry. Better yet, we could take all those heavy twelve wheel passenger cars we have no use for, rip out the furnishings, and lay rails on the floors. We could then make little cars, about fifteen feet long, that will just fit in the interiors. We then enlarge the end doors of the passenger cars, and run them up to a stub end siding in the freight house. The little cars can then be pulled out and put on lorries."

Glencannon pronounced 'little' as 'leetle', and he spoke of 'lorries' rather than trucks, but he was proposing nothing less than having a train within a train. It was feasible because, while the standard track guage is 4' 8 1/2", the cars overhang the track so much that there's plenty of room to lay another track of the same guage on the floor of the car. The cars that go on it must have much smaller dimensions to fit the interior of the larger car, but that reduces them sufficiently in size and weight so that they can be accomodated easily on a road lorry. An eighty foot passenger car, with some strengthening, turned out to be capable of holding five fifteen foot four-wheeled "interior cars" or nine seven and a half footers. As I began to limn the possibilities, Glencannon added,

"There's a great advantage in keeping the track guage the same. We may want to run the little cars on yard or industrial tracks. Many factories have tracks in the buildings. In fact, they could be used in assembly lines. A pump factory could assemble pumps right on little flat cars that we could run into our cars, transport, and deliver on our lorries. The pump wouldn't have to be moved from our little flat car until it got to the place where it's to be used."

As always, Glencannon made use of things that we already had. Because of our attitude toward passenger service, we had a virtually inexhaustible supply of passenger cars in good condition that weren't being used. His scheme involved some waste of space, since an eighty foot passenger car would probably carry only the tonnage of a forty foot box car, but it cost us very little to carry around empty space. What mattered was the tonnage that had to be lifted up grades.

Some of the little cars would be flat cars, some box cars, and so on. There might even be little tank cars for special products.

Once I had taken it all in, I replied,

"This might work, not only for less-than-carload shipments, but for larger ones. If all the cars have doors that open on the ends and we had little connecting tracks between the cars, a whole train could be unloaded at an industry by pulling out all the little cars coupled together. They could then be shunted wherever needed."

"I'll design a little section of hinged track that folds up when the car's in motion. It'll keep the little cars from rolling out, and then, when it comes down, they can be rolled either into the freight house, on to another car, or on to a lorry."

Freight houses and factories would be provided with a combination of winches and tiny electric locomotives for handling the little cars, and at least some of the road lorries would have winches geared to the engines for hauling cars on to the tracks laid on their beds. After some quick calculations, Glencannon concluded that a standard heavy lorry would be capable of handling even a heavily loaded fifteen foot container on wheels.

As 1937 drew to a close and some of my other troubles mounted, I was fully occupied in organizing the conversion of passenger cars and the manufacture of little cars. The former came to be known as "container cars" and the latter as "containers." By New Year's day, we had a hundred of the former and four hundred of the latter.

Things started slowly because most shippers didn't have, and some did not want, tracks on the floors of their warehouses and factories. That is to say, we were proposing a revolution in the means of handling materials everywhere, and, as in the case of other revolutions, most people didn't want to join until they saw that they would be swept along.

While the containers could be rolled over bare concrete floors and heavily-planked wooden ones, even the seven and a half footers were larger and heavier than the objects workmen were used to handling. Glencannon then developed some light- weight temporary trackage which came in sections, and which could be moved around by a few men. That helped, and we got a few converts.

At the same time, we were building up our lorry fleet. That was an immediate success, and, while we were mostly not using the rails laid on the beds at first, our lorries always had as much business as they could handle.

As the months passed, we persuaded more and more customers that, instead of unloading a container when it arrived, they could wheel it into their building and unload it at their leisure. We supplied temporary track liberally, and a container could be moved almost anywhere by picking up a section it had run over and putting it down in front. It may have taken as many as four men to push the container and move the track, but it was a novelty that they enjoyed. Moreover, almost all industries lack organized storage space. They may not admit it, but it's very nice to have a carefully labelled reasonably mobile store of widgets ready for use in any crisis.

We let shippers keep our containers for months without even a reminder in the hope that they would get hooked on our system. Unfortunately, it was also expensive. Containers disappeared into factories, and, by the spring of 1938, there was a shortage of over five hundred. I was tempted many times to start charging demurrage on containers, just as railways do with freight cars, but I forebore until I could see that the point of no return had been passed.

At the beginning of March, Mavis remarked to me one night at dinner,

"Your new service needs some publicity."

"We've been doing our best. Meanwhile, I'm getting entirely too much publicity."

"My idea would both counteract some of your negative publicity and make more people aware of the little cars."

Her suggestion turned out to be that I have myself shipped in an open container from one point to another. The newspaper photographers would be invited to take pictures of me at various stages in my journey, and some of the pictures might even make the front pages of the less prestigious newspapers of the country. By this time, I was aware that Mavis' suggestions could be as extraordinary, in a different way, as those of Sidonie. I registered no alarm, merely asking her what had prompted that thought. She replied,

"Remember when the Lockheed aircraft company was having trouble because the tail of their new transport kept dropping off in mid-air?"


"Well, they countered the publicity by putting their president and vice-president on one and flying them from California to Texas."

"But the tail dropped off that, too. They were both killed."

"Well, it didn't quite work, but it was a good idea. I didn't have it in mind to put you in a closed container and suffocate you. Aren't there some with wire mesh sides?"

"Yes. They're intended primarily for livestock of various kinds."

"We'd find a clean one for you, of course. I dare say it'd get quite a lot of publicity."

"Are you sure this would be favorable publicity? I think some people would conclude that the swindler and sex pervert is also a fool."

"In America, anyone is forgiven if he's perceived as a good sport. You really are, you know. This would establish it in the public mind."

"I'll do it if you'll go with me as representative of the union."

Mavis, I think, hadn't anticipated that. It wasn't at all her style of behavior. The last thing she would ordinarily do would be to make a foolish exhibit of herself. But she, too, was a good sport.

The thing was arranged quickly by the public relations department that Mac had created, and I had only a week to prepare myself for this event. As the plans developed, Mavis and I would ride in a cage on wheels, fifteen feet long, six feet wide, and five feet high. While intended for pigs, ours would be brand new.

In order to emphasize the careful handling we gave our freight, a maid in black uniform would accompany us and serve tea as we sat at a little table. A particularly short maid would be chosen, so that she could stand upright. I doubted greatly whether it would actually be possible to drink from a cup during any stage of our journey, but I was prepared to pretend to drink from an almost empty cup for the benefit of the photographers.

On reflection, it seemed to me that I was about to become a buffoon. But then I remembered my Kierkegaard. If it seemed obvious to me that I was a buffoon, even if I were in a wheeled cage, there was some reason to doubt it. Was it possible that the gentleman seated sedately in his cage drinking tea wasn't a buffoon while all those outside laughing at him were? I put this to Mavis, and she said,

"I think that, if there's a good reason for doing something, and you do it well, it needn't appear foolish or undignified."

On the appointed day, almost at the last moment, there was a change suggested by the publicists. They had discovered that Mavis had a dog, an English setter named Humphrey, and they insisted that he accompany us. I had met Humphrey and had my doubts. Although he was a beautiful animal of impressive lineage, and very photogenic with black markings on his bright white fur, his temperament was, I thought, rather too lively. Mavis also had misgivings, but we were over-ruled.

The cage was already sitting on the front lawn of the headquarters building with two comfortable chairs, a little table, and a maid at a sideboard with thermos bottles. Everything but the maid and the bottles was bolted to the floor. While our little cars would ordinarily be picked up from the loading docks of factories and warehouses, the loading dock of our building, which still served us as a private hotel, was ordinarily filled with garbage bins. Since some of our trucks were equipped with ramps and winches for pulling cars up from ground level, it was decided that such an operation would present a superior spectacle.

Mavis, Humphrey and I entered in fairly good order to the clicking of camera shutters. My doubts about Humphrey were eased when he moved by my side in a docile way, and then sat handsomely facing the photographers. He was probably used to cages at veterinarians' establishments, and may have thought that this was an unusually large and comfortable one.

On the other hand, it occurred to me how conveniently a person might be conveyed to prison in such a container, and I hoped that there would be no corresponding waggishness on the part of the press. It was particularly unfortunate that there seemed to be no way of securing the door without locking it from the outside.

When the large truck backed up and the ramp with tracks on it was slid down, I realized that the incline would be considerable. We hung on tightly and the winch worked well, but there were alarming noises and thumps. Mavis sat with a set smile, but Humphrey wailed most piteously. I could quite understand his misgivings, but, when I attempted to comfort him, he raised his leg and urinated on my trouser leg. I didn't believe that he had any hostile intent, and it may well have been intended as a gesture of solidarity in the face of alarming noises and movements. On the other hand, this event didn't pass unnoticed in the crowd that had gathered, and there was considerable laughter.

Once under way, the ride was bumpy, but not impossible. The easy chairs absorbed most of the shock, and the maid was actually able to move about successfully. Humphrey got under the small table between us, and seemed willing to suffer the situation in relative silence. Mavis apologized for the wetting and added,

"You know, even at eight, he's not entirely house-trained."

"Really? I don't think I've ever heard of its taking quite so long."

"Well, he was really Hank's dog. They used to go hunting together. Humphrey will actually point, and Hank used to shoot over him."

I gathered that Hank had been a big free-spirited man who took many things lightly. When Mavis had complained about Humphrey wetting the radiators, Hank was wont to say,

"Shucks, Mavis, he can point. You can't have everything."

It hadn't occurred to me that Mavis was willing to live in a house whose radiators got a daily dosage, but, as she now smoothed Humphrey's brow, she said,

"I suppose any sane woman would get rid of him, but I just can't."

Our next stop was one of the Huntington freight houses. Almost the instant that we backed up to the dock, a hook was attached and we were pulled briskly off the truck. The maid was caught unprepared, and sent sprawling, but she was a young good-humored person who immediately picked herself up. We then went coasting along the rails in the interior of the large freight house until we were restrained. Just as we came to rest, one of the modified passenger cars was backed in. The end doors were open, and a man who had been waiting with a hook immediately attached it. To our surprise, a container just like our own was pulled out. The difference was that this one was filled with pigs.

I didn't grow up on a farm, and, as more and more pigs came out of the train, I found the stench and noise simply appalling. There had been supposed to be photographers at all points along the way, and, if there were any, they must have caught some extraordinary expressions on my face.

Mavis held on amazingly well. Despite her very real dignity, there was a good deal that was rural about her. More precisely, she was a sophisticated person with a rural sort of dignity. That might seem a contradiction in terms to a New Yorker, but, in that situation, it was impossible to doubt it. Humphrey, too, was a rural dog. While he wasn't what the southern mountaineers would have called a "houn dawg", he was something that they would have recognized and appreciated. Unfortunately, rural background or no, he was as overwhelmed as myself.

I cowered in my chair. Humphrey, on the other hand, went beserk. With all sorts of outlandish howls, barks, and moans, he jumped up against the sides of our cage, seeming to scale it at times, all the while moving back and forth in a rather dangerous way. It wasn't long before it was painfully evident that Humphrey was excited by the pigs and wanted to mix in with them. Mavis called to him,

"Be calm, Humphrey, they're only pigs."

She spoke, as if to a rational person. Humphrey looked at her briefly, but then resumed his frantic efforts to get to the pigs.

I, whatever my detractors might have thought, wanted primarily to get away from the pigs. I therefore kept to my chair while Humphrey ranged along the side. Mavis, moving back and forth between us, tried to cool Humphrey, and, hardly more successfully, to calm me. The maid simply stood, with a singular expression on her face.

Fortunately enough, the loading and unloading process was a brisk one. The time we spent among the pigs was, probably, no more than a minute. We were then pushed into the car. While the smell of the pigs who had just departed was still evident, the atmosphere was, by comparison, one of great peace. Humphrey, much calmer, looked after the departed pigs and contented himself with moans and sighs. He may not have realized that they were headed for the slaughterhouses of Chicago, but there was nevertheless a certain poignancy in the situation.

It was fortunate that the windows had been left in the former passengers cars, and that we didn't have to be transported in darkness. In the minute or two before being picked up, we did manage to have a bit of tea, poured into cups from the thermos bottle, and a photographer did get a shot of us through one of the windows. We were then plucked away by a switcher and put on the end of a freight.

A trip on a turbine train to Maysville would have taken five hours, so we had settled for a ride of three hours on an ordinary freight to the next division point at Cottage Grove, Indiana, almost on the Ohio line. The ride was smoother than it had been on the truck, and was fairly pleasant. Humphrey settled down right next to my trouser leg, the one that he had previously wetted. As Mavis remarked,

"That's the way a male animal marks his territory. He's actually made your trouser leg his, and, since it belongs to you too, it's something for you to share."

"I see. I suppose that's quite fortunate in its way. I wonder if Cottage Grove will have a gents' haberdashery that can outfit me with something dry."

"I wouldn't get your hopes up too high. We should be able to find some overalls, though. In the country they sell them at the feed store."

Our arrival at Cottage Grove was, in all respects, superior to our departure from Huntington. There wasn't a pig to be found in the much smaller freight house, and the local press was all lined up as we rolled out of the car and through the building in a stately fashion. Mavis and I pretended to drink out of our now empty cups, and Humphrey, who seemed to like to be photographed, struck an alert and rather noble pose.

We were rolled right on to a waiting truck, and, with the distraction of only a few backfires, we were away within five minutes of our arrival on the train. Quite apart from the exaggerated showmanship, it was an impressive demonstration of our system of trans-shipment, one that couldn't have been matched by any other railway or shipping company.

Since there was no natural destination for us in Cottage Grove, we were delivered directly to the town hall. This time, probably fortunately, the truck wasn't equipped with a ramp. Some steps had been provided, and, after a brief delay in finding the key that unlocked the cage, we exited in a reasonably dignified fashion as more cameras were aimed at us.

There was also an interview with a reporter. Mavis told him that we had had a very comfortable journey, and I took that opportunity to point out how little time had been spent in moving from truck to train and back to truck.

During this phase of our operation, Humphrey behaved beautifully, and was much admired on all sides. Our public relations people had been vindicated, and no seemed to notice, or smell, my trouser leg.

At the end of the festivities, the editor of the local paper said to me,

"That's a beautiful dog you have there. I could take him for a run over the fields while you have dinner if you wouldn't mind."

Mavis and I both assured him that we wouldn't mind in the slightest. I hoped that Humphrey wouldn't pizzle on his trousers, but thought it best not to mention the possibility.

The maid, now finished with being a maid, came with us to the restaurant. She was named Stephanie and wasn't really a maid in the first place but a young second lieutenant who was the engineer of a switching engine in the Huntington yards. We had hardly had a chance to talk with her during the commotion of our journey, and, when I asked her how she had been chosen, she said,

"I have a friend who's one of the publicity men, and he picked me because I'm an inch under five feet. He said that it'd be a different kind of experience."

"How did you like the pigs?"

"I was wondering at the time if Joe had arranged that on purpose, but I don't think he'd play tricks on the president of the road."

I wasn't so sure. The people of the GER worked hard, but they were also happy and relaxed. While I was quite popular, I certainly was not feared. I replied,

"Well, even if we were subjected to Trial by Pig, all of us but Humphrey acquitted ourselves fairly well."

Stephanie replied,

"Just to be on the safe side, I'll arrange something for Joe. I'm sure he could be lured out to a lonely location at night by a woman with a sultry telephone voice. Then, once he's there, I could think of all kinds of things."

Neither Mavis nor I was inclined to doubt it. Stephanie was an energetic and enterprising young woman. Quite apart from her plans for Joe, I could imagine her, her hair done up in a bandanna, accelerating and braking rapidly as she charged around the yards with her switcher.

The waitress in the restaurant was chatty, and both Mavis and Stephanie chatted with her. I myself don't like chatty waitresses. I want them to get a move on and get my food. However, on that occasion, I indulged my companions. In any case, we had time to spare before catching a local passenger train back to Huntington.

Since we had begun running trains both ways around the circle, our passenger service had improved. It was still rather spare, but it was no longer necessary to get up at three in the morning to catch a train to the next town. Humphrey rode in the baggage car, and we had a pleasant enough time chuffing along through the fields. We stopped at Richmond, which didn't amount to much, at Muncie, a small city in which the Indiana killer, John Dillinger, would have felt at home, and then at Bluffton, which amounted to even less. I made fun of the people we saw in the streets, and Stephanie joined me in this pastime.

Mavis, at first a little startled by our lack of respect for strangers, then added some particularly telling remarks. Of particular interest was a group at Bluffton who stood with signs, waiting to greet their new minister. He appeared not to be on the train, and, as we pulled out, they were still standing on the platform, their signs drooping, evidently willing to wait for their minister or Kingdom, whichever came first.

I was jolted out of this pastoral mood when we arrived at Huntington. We thanked Stephanie for her efforts, and Mavis and I were proceeding into the station when Vignis, of all people, came rushing up. She almost shouted,

"James, Sidonie's waiting for you in Iceland."

I was very pleased to see Vignis, whom I had supposed to be in Europe, and thrilled with what she said. But, as I introduced Mavis, I was also confused. Vignis, who hadn't realized that I was with someone else, was also confused. Indeed, each women, seemingly thinking she might be in the way, tried to leave me with the other. I managed to keep either from doing so while we reclaimed Humphrey, whose behavior had deteriorated so far as to again wet my trouser leg before diving into the station and racing in circles around the waiting room. It was then so obvious that it would take all of us to cope that there were no more attempted defections.

As soon as we got Humphrey bundled into a taxi, Mavis holding his collar, myself with my legs clamped around his mid-section, and Vignis holding his hind legs, Mavis managed to say,

"That's wonderful news about your wife."

I allowed that it was, but Vignis was now somewhat restrained. She had evidently decided that I had found someone new, and she seemed to like Mavis.

When we did get to Mavis' house, and Humphrey began to give the radiators his special treatment, Mavis shooed him out into the back yard. She then found me some trousers which had belonged to her husband. As I left to put them on, I could hear Mavis explaining to Vignis about Humphrey. By the time I got back, I could see that Vignis liked Mavis quite a lot. It seemed likely that, if Vignis got a chance to talk privately with John Henry, they would convince themselves and each other that Mavis was more suitable for me than Sidonie.

I had left the ladies together a little longer than was necessary, and I had the sense that Mavis had managed to convey to Vignis that, apart from friendship, nothing had really happened between us. I gathered that Vignis had been working on Sidonie, all along, to get her back to me. But, now that she had finally succeeded, and come to collect me, she was wondering whether it was a good thing after all. She did say to me,

"We've been rather alarmed at what we've been reading in the papers about you, and thought you might want to come to Iceland. It's very unlikely that you could be extradited from there. And we could turn the railway over to Uncle Atwater. On the other hand, you might do better to just stay here and ride it out."

"I hardly know what I should do. Would Sidonie come back here?"

Before I could reply, Mavis said,

"If you're beginning your marriage over again, it might be better if you made the gesture. If the one who's been in the wrong has to crawl back in humiliation, it gets things off to a bad start."

She was right in a way. But, in that moment, I saw that Mavis had never really pictured herself as my wife. She wanted to be the loyal friend who solved people's problems for them. She then said to Vignis,

"I don't think he's had his mind completely off his wife for a single minute during all this time."

The latter replied,

"Well, Sidonie isn't very consistent in her behavior, but she is fascinating. I think she may be a little steadier now."

It turned out that Mac was, most surprisingly, building a railway in Iceland. According to Vignis,

"We went there just to see the country and look up some of my relatives. We then found that there's an independence movement which wants to free Iceland from Denmark, and also make it more modern. It's the only European country that doesn't have a railway, and they're willing to finance a limited one, if only for the show of the thing. When they found out who Mac was, they asked him to be in charge of it. We've already gotten off to a good start. It's almost a toy railway compared to this one, but it's fun."

By the time that Vignis and I left Mavis, it was a foregone conclusion that I would go to Iceland. John Henry got back the next day, and I wasn't there when Vignis told him about the new developments with Sidonie. I doubt that he was much pleased, but he did come around to congratulate me.

Atwater hardly seemed surprised when we told him that he would be taking over. It was as if he had completed one tour of duty and was being posted to a new one. His attitude seemed to be that, by making him president, we were only doing the reasonable thing. I wasn't present later on when Atwater, long a widower, married Mavis. That, too, must have seemed to him a reasonable thing to do. We all sent gifts and messages of heartfelt congratulations.

As far as the GER was concerned, this change of command was a fortunate one. It also followed a classic pattern. There is first the great innovator who gets everything to work. Once it does work, he becomes bored. There is then the interim leader, in this case myself. He hones some of the procedures, and adds some modest innovations of his own. Most of all, he shows everyone that things can run perfectly well, even a little bit better, without the founder. And then comes the true administrator, the one who presides over the golden era. In this case, the golden era is the present one.

It's said that Admiral Jellicoe could have lost the first war in an afternoon at Jutland. This war, the first true world war, is, above all, a war of logistics. The most important of those logistics lies in the heartland of America. Only that concentration of industrial power makes it possible to wage campaigns across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Great Eastern Railway has become the center of railroading in that area.

Someone in Atwater's position could lose this war, not in an afternoon, but with a few ill-considered decisions. Atwater is, of course, the most unlikely of men to make a bad decision when it counts.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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