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.

1 comment:

GETkristiLOVE said...

I still have the Abe Linx sweater. Plus I know your ssn.