A Sudden Event
We met our first batch of three hundred men in Southampton on the first of August. If we had known that we had only a month before war, our spirits would certainly not have been as jubilant as they were.
We naturally waited for our people in the main customs shed, and, when they didn't appear, we made inquiries. It developed that "the railwaymen" had been sent through a different customs building. As we hurriedly went outside and approached it, we found that this other building was primarily used for unloading cargo and machinery, not passengers.
I suppose Vignis and I must have realized, almost simultaneously, what had happened. Part of it was just racism. England, despite its continual posturing as the champion of civil liberties, was, in some ways, more racist than the United States. They could claim to have outlawed slavery in 1733, but the corresponding attitudes had hung on tenaciously in many sectors of the society. They went relatively unnoticed only because there weren't many blacks in England.
Another part of it was probably that our men were big and young, and probably looked dangerous to the English officials. But, even more than those things, the English believe, wherever possible, in separating social classes. Hundreds of railwaymen, even if white and middle-aged, would probably have been unloaded along with the mail sacks.
There wasn't much time to think about these things, and, when we got inside, we saw our men, led by John Henry Jamieson, across the wide empty space. Vignis was just rushing up to greet him when a small chunk of plaster fell from the roof and hit the cement floor between them. John Henry, after embracing Vignis and shaking my hand, called out to a nearby customs official,
"It's a good thing Chicken Little isn't coming through here. It would confirm his worst suspicions."
The man looked utterly baffled and mystified.
Our poeple probably didn't realize that the other passengers had been treated in a different way, and, in any case, their bouyant spirits weren't easily deflated. I was myself amused to see how frightened the English seemed to be of a quite inoffensive group of happy young men.
The events at the docks were the precursor of a series of similar occurrences. Wherever our men appeared, people got quite confused and did peculiar things. Then, once the various misunderstandings were sorted out, satisfactory arrangments were made. It was mainly Vignis and myself who did the sorting out and arranging.
We took everyone direct from Southampton to their new home at Brent. The nearest passenger station to the yards was at Dudding Hill, on a short stretch of line which was part of our circle but which had little passenger traffic. Our three hundred men suddenly descending on the platform so disconcerted the station master that he was on the point of calling the police when Vignis and I got to him with explanations.
In order to get to the yard, we had to go down Dudden Hill Lane, along a small thoroughfare, Denzies Road, and then across Neasden Lane. This was an area of modest residences, many occupied by railwaymen, and Saturday nights weren't ordinarily very quiet or restrained. On the other hand, I realized that our group, en masse, might well persuade the inhabitants that a Moorish invasion was taking place. I therefore suggested to John Henry that we string everyone out in a long loose file.
Unfortunately, the men formed up into a neat double file, and as I led the way, I was reminded of nothing so much as the advance on the yards at Eugene, Oregon. People stared at us agape, and the length of the line might have done more to disconcert them than a concentrated gaggle. Fortunately, there were no incidents. No one threw stones at us, and our men looked around them with curiosity.
There is something about almost any part of England which simply has a profoundly different look from the corresponding parts, or any parts, of America. The GER men were just beginning to take this in, and I could hear the buzz of conversation behind me.
We arrived in the mid-afternoon with the young ladies hard at work. There were, in theory, just a sufficient number of compartments which had been converted to house everyone. However, by this time, we had lost control of the men, and couldn't make ourselves heard. They flooded down the lines of coaches, but, wherever they saw the ladies, or any evidence of their work, they assumed that the cars were already occupied. They then went past them to the untouched coaches and began to make themselves at home. It was, of course, our fault for not having briefed them properly.
Meanwhile, the ladies became upset. They thought that the men didn't like what they had done, and I heard one complain,
"If they want to live in pigsties, let them!"
Vignis and I did much rushing back and forth, explaining yet again. One of the men asked me,
"Do the young ladies have anywhere to live?"
"Not really, just yet. We'll fix up places for them next."
"Let's let them take the places they've already done, and we'll do some for ourselves."
I had forgotten the tradition established by Vignis at Virginia Point, where each man built his own house.
Returning to the ladies, I explained that the men wanted them to take first pick of the accommodations. One little blonde, perhaps a Cockney, burst out,
"Coo! They must be gentlemen, then."
There was laughter, and I was able to go back to the men with the explanation that the young ladies did have temporary housing, all over London, and that they could commute until they had a chance to do up cars for themselves. With that, the men came back up the line in small groups, at which point they were met by women pointing out the advantages of the various compartments they had worked on.
Before we could really settle in, there was one remaining task of considerable magnitude. The toilets of the passenger cars simply dumped on to the tracks, and it was necessary to connect them to the sewer. Some of the work had been done, but the lines had to be dug in, and that was too much for the women. It took three days of part-time work, on the part of both men and women, to accomplish this rather unseemly task. But, at the end of it, almost everyone had become acquainted.
The highest priority was to train our men to run the freights around the London Circle, and the next priority was to train them to run the long distance freights. As it turned out, about half of them had had some practice on the doubled Midland engine at Huntington. In any case, it took much longer to learn the signals and the routes than to make the relatively easy transition from an American engine to an English one.
In this area, we were properly prepared. We knew that it would be unwise to simply show up with a GER engineer one day and tell the regular English driver to train him. Instead, Mr. Stewart had given us a list of over a hundred engine drivers who had volunteered to train our "engineers." They hadn't even been offered extra money to do so, but, to get things off to a good start, we did give them a handsome fee.
Some men started their training course on their first full day (or night) in England, and all were in action by the third day. I soon discovered that Sigiloff had sent over a detailed description of all our routes, and that men who had never been outside America, or even very far from the main line of the Eastern Circle, had memorized all the stops and knew how to thread their way through the maze of traffic at Clapham Junction. Indeed, as I later discovered, they had spent their five days aboard ship quizzing each other on the niceties of the routes.
This was a particularly useful circumstance. The English drivers had expected our men to know nothing, and, when they turned out to be surprisingly knowledgeable, they were accorded a good deal of respect. In the end, it probably cut the training time in half.
Vignis and I went out on the training sessions at night, and came to know the system almost as well as the drivers. Our men quite quickly reached the point where they could man an engine all the way around the London Circle without help. The tricky part was that of the lead driver. He had to know exactly how much speed he could carry into an interchange, when to start braking, and how to coordinate the other engines with his signals. Since each driver took his turn at being the lead engineer, it was necessary for all to acquire these skills.
The system that we instituted was for the trainee, at each interchange, to run up ahead to the new engine being tacked on in front, and thus get the necessary practice all the way around. I did this a number of times myself, imagining that bombs were bursting all around me to heighten the effect. Indeed, I worked to the point where I could have functioned as an engineer on the circle, both in order to establish credibility as a leader and in order to be able to better evaluate others.
Vignis and I still had our rooms at the hotel, even though we were preparing to transfer to cars at Neasden to be with our people. I was having trouble sleeping one morning about six when I noticed an envelope being slid under the door. It turned out to be a telegram from Atwater:
"MAC IS DEAD STOP HEART ATTACK WHILE PLAYING BASEBALL STOP I LEAVE IT TO YOU INFORM VIGNIS AND JOHN HENRY STOP I WILL ARRANGE FUNERAL AND BURIAL IN THREE DAYS UNLESS INSTRUCTED OTHERWISE STOP YOUR WIFE HAS GONE TO CINCINNATI STOP ADDRESS 22A POPLAR ALLEY."
My first reaction was to feel my own heart. At first, it didn't seem to be beating normally. Then I sat down and took my pulse. That seemed to be fairly regular, and I then thought of Mac. It had never occurred to me that he might have any sort of heart trouble. He had never mentioned anything of the sort, and, certainly, he hadn't lived like a man worried about his heart. Most likely, he had never gone near a doctor.
As for Sidonie, I recognized the address as that of Mrs. Hawkins. That wasn't so surprising. It was hard to guess whether she would eventually want to come back to me. I then wondered how it would affect my relations with Vignis. That, too, wasn't so simple. Finally, I wondered how it would affect the present operation. Probably not very much. Mac had already done most of the fund-raising and much of the organizing, and his death would probably cause even more of the men to throw themselves into the cause. Particularly since he had died playing baseball with them. I had a couple of hours to think what to say to Vignis. There was certainly no point in waking her up with the news.
As usual, we met at breakfast. Vignis was there first, and I sat down across from her. I had intended not to say anything about Mac until I could get her alone in her room. I really didn't know how she would react. As it happened, I said,
"I have bad news about Mac."
She looked up at me quickly, and said,
Neither of us said anything for fully a minute. Vignis didn't cry. She just looked as if she were thinking very hard. She then looked at me with a quizzical expression. I handed over Atwater's telegram. Vignis smiled briefly, I was sure at the mention of baseball, and then said,
"Atwater is a man of great sensitivity."
"You mean for having me tell you?"
"Not that so much. For realizing that John Henry is going to be the one most hurt."
"Yes. I suppose he will be. He owes everything to Mac."
"I'll tell him, James. It'll be easier for him that way. And then, there's so much going on that he can lose himself in his work."
The news didn't make the morning papers, but, since, it would be in the afternoon editions, Vignis went out to Neasden immediately. When she came back, in time for lunch, I asked how it had gone. She replied,
"It wasn't only John Henry who was upset, it was everyone there. It was almost frightening. Even the girls that we've just hired knew all about Mac and began weeping. I cried myself, and everyone was very nice to me."
"Are you all right now?"
"Yes. The truth is that I'm not all that upset. It was only when I was with them, and realized how much they had lost, that I broke down. I suppose Mac was a great man."
"He emancipated a lot of people, not from slavery, but from something almost as bad."
"Well, I suppose he also did a great deal for each of us. I wonder why we don't mourn him more."
"He saved me from God knows what. He was certainly my benefactor. But it had nothing to do with me. He knew I'd be useful."
"Much the same with me. He recognized our worth when other people didn't. At least, not as much. But one would expect to be grateful to the person who recognized one's worth."
I almost laughed as I replied,
"One is. But there wasn't much more that he could have done for us. I suppose we've realized that for some time."
"Are we as bad as that, James?"
"It makes me ashamed when I think of John Henry. Even Sidonie is probably mourning him deeply at this moment."
"Undoubtedly. But we've got a railway to run, and we have increased responsibility. We'll have to get in touch with Stewart and make sure that he recognizes us as Mac's successors in control."
"Yes. I think he will."