The railroad had not hired anyone in seventeen years and the man I followed had started to work in 1929. Needless to say, I was considered just a kid again by all of the other men with whom I worked. And that is exactly how they treated me. I had a regular job just one week after I started to work, something that I don’t think had ever happened before or ever since. I didn’t realize how lucky I was or did I feel that I was trapped. More money than I had ever made before the feeling that the trains left college so far behind in the distance that I was lost in another world when school began in the fall.
I will always remember my first pay trip where I assigned to the local, working between Lafayette and Hammond. We had to switch every cow crossing and elevator for the 100 miles. It was the first time I had worked in such a close relationship with men twice my age and it was a difficult adjustment to the hard talking, bossing that I had to take as they resented a kid moving into a man’s world. The fact that I had been in service didn’t mean much, for they had served their share of long hours on the railroad during the war. Now was a time for a new beginning for all of us.
I recall the first question I was asked when I boarded the train was, “kid, do you know andThus began my first lesson as a brakeman from a very mean, old conductor. The next lesson was how to trim the wicks and keep the globes shining on the kerosene lamps. We lived in our little wooden caboose at the other end of the line as we sat parked on the side track in the yards. The crew members expected their home on wheels to look its best as we worked on and off for the twelve hour day. Guess who got the job? And I thought KP in the service was bad.
There were so many things to learn: teamwork and communication seemed to be the key. The job of each crew member was dependent on knowing what the other guy wanted or needed. There were all kind of hand signals to learn and the whistle signals for movement of the train. And probably, the one signal that I learned first and best was how to signal the engineer that it was time to take the siding and go for beans. I soon learned every hash house on the line and all the waitresses. It was fun stopping at different towns and meeting different people.
In a way we carried the local news from town to town for some stations were still using the telegraph key and the station agent was the pillar of information for the community. It was a common sight for some of the older men to hang out at the depot and wait for the local to arrive each day. They would sit on the mail carts and wait until we arrived and ask us what was going on in other towns.
Our local also delivered sacks of mail between Rensselaer and Hammond so that the fast passenger train would not have to slow down at each small town. Any mail picked up as we worked south from Hammond would be unloaded at Rensselaer where the passenger would pick it up and vice versa. It was quite a bit of work and responsibility and the other brakemen and I each received a dollar in addition to our regular wages for doing this days work.
Of course we switched cars in each town. We pulled away cars that carried LCL (less than carload lots) freight. Everything imaginable from kegs of nails to drums of oil and boxes of candy for the local merchants. While running between the towns I would be on the caboose stirring the pot of beans that was sitting on top of the coal stove that would be our supper when we arrived at our destination. I remember throwing orange peels on top of the stove to sweeten the smell of burning beans that had spilled when the hogger made one of his fancy stops at the last station.
When it was warm I would sit on the back of the platform on the crummy watching the tracks to see if anything might be dragging on the train all the while listening to the engine up ahead. I would shine the globes of the lanterns with newspaper that had been wrapped about the red flag stick by working the paper through the globe. As I sat there, even when we weren’t switching there was always plenty to do. I don’t recall that we were allowed much time for the coffee breaks or the long rest room periods as the young folks have come to expect today.We were expected to fill our caboose hopper with old Indiana slag coal before we left the terminal so we could keep warm and the stove also served as our means of cooking. But one of the things I recall more than anything else was switching cars of coal now and then to position them back next to the caboose. We always tried to get what was known as cannel coal that was destined for the Gary steel mills and similar special uses as it burned with a hot flame. When the train would stop to take the siding I would drop off and walk up to where the car was, throw as many chunks of coal on the ground. I then signaled the engineer to slack ahead, pull ahead and then I would load the coal in the caboose. That was another nice job the flagman
Jim Strother, as originally written in The Hoosier Line, Volume 13, Number 2
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