Thursday, May 28, 2009

It Is Summer Out and I Am Cold

Just before I graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1954, I was awarded a scholarship for one year of tuition at Iowa State College. Four years later it was rightly re-named Iowa State University. Iowa State was on a 3 quarter system and not a 2 semester system. Tuition for each quarter was $50, so the total scholarship was worth a total of $150.

My parents were divorced and my mother could only help out financially occasionally. So basically, I had to make money to pay my way through. I was very lucky to get a summer job working for the Union Pacific Railroad icing rail cars containing fresh vegetable and fruits being shipped through a major railroad hub called Council Bluffs. It paid well.

Union Pacific Railroad headquarters was located at 15th Street and Dodge in view of the Missouri River and later I would work there also. Omaha usually gets the credit for where the eastern end of the Union Pacific Railroad started, but it was really Council Bluffs where it started and there is a big statue of a Golden Spike to commemorate the event. Natives of Council Bluffs would always remind anyone who dared say the words “Union Pacific” where the Golden Spike Monument was located and what it commemorated. It was unveiled April 28, 1939 to coincide with the release of the movie, “Union Pacific”.

From the Columbia Encyclopedia--Council Bluffs, city (1990 pop. 54,315), seat of Pottawattamie co., SW Iowa, on and below bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, opposite Omaha, Nebr.; inc. 1853. It was first settled by whites when the Mormons came in 1846 and dubbed the site Kanesville; when they left in 1852, the settlement was renamed Council Bluffs. An important supply point during the gold rush (1849–50), Council Bluffs was made the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific RR in 1863.

Abraham Lincoln came to Council Bluffs during his presidency and predicted the city would be a great railroad center. The town put up another monument to dedicate Lincoln’s visit and of course named my high school in his honor.

So, you see, Council Bluffs and the Union Pacific were married. Working for the UP gave me a little more status, which is what older teenage boys are looking for as they approach adulthood.

I worked the 10 Pm to 6:30 AM shift. Almost every night, our shift would be sent to the ice house, where 300 lb cakes of ice were produced and stored. Usually, we spent two hours in the ice mow dragging these big blocks of ice onto a conveyor which took them up to the docks. The crew on the docks pulled them off and stored them to both sides of the conveyor that ran down the center of the dock. Once there was enough ice stored on the dock, we moved from the mow to the dock.

The mow was not a desirable place to work. After walking on ice for 2 hours, my feet got cold even with heavy rubber boots on my feet. I wore a coat and heavy gloves, to keep my hands warm against the cold metal tongs.

Whether working in the mow or docks, it was necessary to have a partner. In the mow, my partner and I each held one side of the tongs as we dragged the ice block to the conveyor. We would change hands once in a while in order to work both sides of our bodies. There would be about 10 teams and usually the teams stayed together unless one was absent.

As you visualize this scene, I will mention a hardship you might not think of. If someone would pass gas, the smell would just stay there. There was no moving air in the mow. Very gradually the odor would dissipate There is one broccoli fart that brought work to a standstill. Eyes watered, men coughed up phlegm, and I had to repulse a gag reflex. Usually the culprit would not feel shame, but a sense of pride. That’s men for ya. The worst night was Sunday night after a weekend.

At the end of two hours in the mow, everyone welcomed the relief of moving to the docks outside into the summer night’s warmth. The docks were built just above the train cars. There were gates held up or down by chains which, when released, filled the gap between the train car and the dock. When a train pulled in everyone went to work filling the ice compartments at each end of the refrigerated cars. The compartments would hold about 3000 lbs of ice at each end. That’s 10, 300 lb blocks of ice. Sometime the compartment would be empty but rarely. In the middle of the car were perishables being shipped either east or west.

One man worked with a pike which had a 135 degree sharp hook on one side and a tapered spike on the other side. An upright block of ice would come down the conveyor and the hook was used to pull the block off the conveyor and lay it on its side. The block was divided into four pieces with the spike. A piece would be moved to a ramp that reached from the dock to the car’s hatch opening. Then it was pushed out to the hatch opening using the pointed end of the spike and in it went.

One man stood on top of the car just to the side of the hatch and chopped the ice chunk into small pieces so the compartment held few air pockets. He used a 2 prong pitch fork looking tool with a handle at the top. It weighed about 15-20 lbs and was made out of sturdy steel.

The dock would accommodate one train on each side, so as soon as one train was serviced, we would move to the other side to work the other train. If there was no train, we got to sit down and rest, taking care to avoid any melting ice water.

The first thing that happened, before working a train, was for all the hatches to be opened for the inspector. He looked in the hole and estimated the amount of ice it was going to take to fill it up. There were two men assigned to him to open the hatches. These 3 walked the length of the train on top of the cars. The guy with the fork hit the locking device on the side to allow the hatch to be open. The guy with the pike hooked the handle and pulled it open. These 3 then got to sit down, fall asleep, or read a novel while the rest of the crew worked the train.

When I got off the docks I would read gas meters for half a day, so I saw that having this job would allow me more rest and an occasional cat nap. So we started to cozy up to the foreman and let him now we would be glad to have this job. Soon we had our opportunity and from then on, till the end of summer the job was ours.

Every Friday morning at the end of the shift the boss would hand out our checks, but you had to tell him your social security number before he gave you your check. Ever since then I can whip off mine in about 3 seconds. When I am on my death bed sometime far, far away and someone were to ask me my social security number, I know I will have no trouble getting it out before I exhale my last breathe.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Night I Was Run Out of Town.

About 12 miles south-east of Council Bluffs, Iowa is the small village of Treynor. Its existence is sustained by local farmers who can purchase farm tools, feed, and seed without having to travel into the big city. It had an American Legion Hall with a bar in front of an assembly hall where local young farm couples got married. So it’s a place to drink, like that bar in Boston called Cheers; a neighborhood bar. Only the neighborhood was a radius of 5 miles of rolling hill farm land.

The bar held nary an iota of sophistication. Beer and shots were the swill of choice. Order a Gimlet and you would see the bartender flinch then move hesitantly towards the seldom used, dusty liquor bottles that sat in front the mottled mirror. And you would almost see his mind’s gears whirling to recall the exotic ingredients and portions. The other patrons nearby the fancy-drink-ordering customer would sneak a startled furtive glance at who was disturbing the peace, then stare down at their drinks in order to hide a slight smirk. People do try to be polite in Iowa.

The reason I was privy to these observations can be found by examining the interests of teen age boys when looking for something to do on a Saturday night. Having access to beer was usually a prime mover, and the wedding parties which took place in the assembly hall behind the narrow bar room attracted single women looking to dance.

Because Treynor was so small, there never was a need to get an invitation to attend the festivities in the back room. We would try to buy a beer at the crowded bar, hoping the bartender would be so harried in trying to serve the wedding party that he would not notice or not care enough to take notice of our fuzzy cheeks. We had some, but limited success using this tactic. A better tactic was to give one of the bar bums $1 to buy you a 75 cent beer.

It was fun to watch the wedding party dance and in general whoop it up to a live band whose repertoire included a generous number of polkas. The bride and bridesmaids typically wore 50’s styled ruffled dresses that came down about 4 inches below the knee, pooched out with starchy layers of petticoats, nothing too elegant or pretentious.

The groom with his farmer’s tan now in full view, presented an impression of awkwardness that is difficult to describe. A farmer’s face above the eyebrows is white enough to make any fair skinned maiden envious, and a sharp contrast to the ruddiness below. Add a powder blue tuxedo to the mix and the red, white, and blue is on full display.

To get away from the noise and gaiety, I would occasionally go outside and enjoy the cool night air. One time, I saw someone was fighting with my friend Ray. Ray was a skinny and mouthy teen who frequently found ways to get in trouble in school. Still the guy having the upper hand with him was a stranger. Without a lot of thought I jumped on the guy’s back to pull him away.

Bam! Bam! Bam! I was being hit with something other than a fist. I soon discovered it was a blackjack. Turns out the stranger was a deputy sheriff wearing faded jeans and a plaid shirt. He pointed to his chest. “You see this,” he said. I looked and sure enough it was a badge. I quickly explained, “No, I didn’t. All I saw was your back while you were beating up my friend.”

That seems to placate him enough so as to not throw me in jail. But, he then puffed himself up, reminiscent of Don Knotts, playing Barney Fife, and ordered Ray and myself out of town.

Luckily, Ray had a car. I got in and we headed out, westward bound. “Wow”, I thought, “I’ve just been run out of town. How many people could say that?” I couldn’t help feel some pride and I ignored the persisting sting of the blackjack.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My First Job with the Feds

During my high school junior and senior years my best friend Phil and I worked nights at the Post Office Mail Terminal for two weeks during the Xmas rush. All the mail was brought in via Union Pacific railroad to the major train terminal in town. Post office employees were right there to start sorting the mail as soon as it left the train cars. I was lucky that Phil had access to a car because after we worked through the night we were able to get to class on time the next morning thanks to his transportation. We then had a full day of school. When we got out of school we were able to get a few hours sleep before leaving for work. By the end of the two weeks we were walking zombies from lack of sleep.

First the mail was sorted by state. The loose letters came in a large bin. I would grab a hand full of letters and start to pigeonhole them by state. As soon as a pigeonhole was filled, the letters were bundled up with brown fiber cord and placed in other bins labeled by state. Then these state bins were moved to separate pigeonhole racks labeled for each state. All the major cities in that state had its own pigeonhole, with a big slot at the lower right of the rack to catch every other place in the state.
First the mail was sorted by state. The loose letters came in a large bin. I would grab a hand full of letters and start to pigeonhole them by state. As soon as a pigeonhole was filled, the letters were bundled up with brown fiber cord and placed in other bins labeled by state. Then these state bins were moved to separate pigeonhole racks labeled for each state. All the major cities in that state had its own pigeonhole, with a big slot at the lower right of the rack to catch every other place in the state.

When I begin to sort mail for any rack I was assigned to, the sorting started slowly. I would have to search and find the proper hole to put a letter. But gradually, I would remember the proper slot location on the rack. And after a while, I could place a letter properly without having to look at the rack with some of the cities.

Once in a while they needed someone to help sort packages and I did 2-3 nights. Most of the older permanent employees sorted packages so this was probably a sign that it was a better job. Anyway, I thought it was. I got to toss, throw, and underhand packages, big and small into various large mail sacks. The packages would come down a conveyor belt cold because they hadn’t time to warm up from outside. The job involved a little walking which was much better than standing all night in front of a pigeonhole rack.
When I worked a rack, I saved all the brown fiber string from the opened bundles. I would make a mat with them for standing on, providing a cushion against the cold, hard cement floor. The further along the shift, the more I had built up the cushioning providing more and more comfort to my feet. Standing all night was tiring.

In the early 50’s, people sent a lot of Christmas cards. Adults sent cards to all there sisters and brothers, parents, grandparents, people at work, neighbors, what have you. All that mail was sorted by hand. The cost of a first class stamp was 3 cents. Postcards were a penny. It was way before the post office issued special Xmas issues; there were no zip codes, no return address stickers, and no letter sorting machines. A mailmen would deliver big bunches of mail to each house. Their big brown leather bags worn over a shoulder were crammed with various colored envelopes. Once opened, the cards frequently became part of the Xmas d├ęcor with the best of the lot displayed most prominently.

The night of the 23rd of December was my last day to work. Then I stayed awake all the next day. When Xmas Eve came I was able to snuggle myself into bed for a good nights sleep with visions of, well, a good night’s sleep.