(Norfolk Southern has renamed its Memphis railyard in honor of Deborah Harris Butler, who is retiring as their EVP of planning. I notice that Ms Butler started out with a degree in English literature…which reminds me of another woman who went from an English degree to a railroading career, and wrote a truly great memoir about her experiences.)
On the Rails: A Woman’s Memoir, by Linda Niemann
What happens when a PhD in English, a woman, takes a job with the railroad? Linda Niemann tells the story based on her own experiences. It’s a remarkable document–a book that “is about railroading the way ‘Moby Dick’ is about whaling”, according to a Chicago Sun-Times reviewer. (Although I think a better Melville comparison would be with “White Jacket”, Melville’s book about his experiences as a crewman on an American sailing warship. Which is still very high praise.)
Niemann had gotten a PhD and a divorce simultaneously, and her life was on a downhill slide. “The fancy academic job never materialized,” and she was living in a shack in the mountains and hanging around with strippers, poets, musicians, and drug dealers. Then she saw the employment ad for the Southern Pacific railroad.
When I saw the ad in the Sunday paper–BRAKEMEN WANTED–I saw it as a chance to clean up my act and get away. In a strategy of extreme imitation, I felt that by doing work this dangerous, I would have to make a decision to live, to protect myself. I would have to choose to stay alive every day, to hang on to the side of those freightcars for dear life. Nine thousand tons moving at sixty miles an hour into the fearful night.
Niemann is hired by the Southern Pacific to work at Watsonville, a small freightyard whose main function is to switch out all the perishable freight from the Salinas Valley. Other pioneering women are also joining the railroad at this time, and Niemann soon finds herself a member of an “all-girl team,” assigned to work the midnight shift during the rainy season. Their responsibility will be to reorganize all the cars that have come in during the day, positioning them on the correct tracks and in the correct sequence. They will have at their disposal a switch engine and an engineer, but it will be their responsibility to plan the moves as well as to execute them–coupling and uncoupling cars and air hoses, setting and releasing handbrakes, throwing switches. Before work, they meet at a local espresso house.
It was an odd feeling to be getting ready to go to work when everybody else was ending their evenings, relaxed, dressed up, and, I began to see, privileged. They were going to put up their umbrellas, go home, and sleep. We were going to put rubber clothes on and play soccer with boxcars…
They get some advice from an old hand nicknamed Wide Load: “Remember, don’t get in no hurry out there. Them boxcars have no conscience at all. They’ll roll right over you.”
With no injuries, but a few close calls, Niemann learns the work. She finds that she takes great satisfaction in it:
We moved stuff people used to build their houses, get from place to place, and to put on their table. I felt a part of it all, whatever ‘it all’ was–something I had never felt before.
The Watsonville job doesn’t last long, though; a seasonal downturn results in layoffs. Niemann is advised that if she wanted to keep working for the SP, she needs to go “booming”–to follow the work to the areas where rail traffic is strong.
Niemann’s journey takes her to Houston, to Tucson, to Tucamcari (“the loneliest outpost on the Southern Pacific system), and to Alamagordo (“the place where modern death came into the world, the birthplace of nuclear energy”). Her external journey is mirrored by an internal one, as she wrestles with her own demons. Along the way, there are intense relationships with people of both sexes. The railroad business is in decline (this is the early 1980s) and the renaissance is not yet in sight. The upper management of the road comes across as distant, not tremendously competent, sometimes even malign in its attitude toward its employees.
A few excerpts, to give you a feel for the lyrical quality of the writing:
The freightyard in Tucson:
The sun in Tucson rose with a brass band and accomplished its miracle in seconds. The town was a sundial surrounded by mountains. Working in the freightyard, you became highly conscious of the movement of the light as different canyons and ranges received their intensities of color, light, and shadow. The temperatures on the ground were fierce–105 on the street and 115 on the track. The black slag roadbed reflected the heat, and the iron sides of the reefers blew overheated air like monster breath as you walked the tracks. You couldn’t drink enough to pee. It just sweated out as fast as you put it in.
An intersection of railroading and literature (this passage occurs right after a near-accident):
“Far out,” I thought. “Gretchen almost killed me and she doesn’t even realize it.” The thought started to sink in about how careful I was going to have to be.
I got off the engine and just sort of stood there looking down two track. Maureen was supposed to be there somewhere bleeding the cars and knocking off brakes. All I could see was a particulate blackness. The hobos had lit a trash can fire under the tower and were clustered around it like witches warming their hands. Soft drips melted off switch stands and padded into pools of oily water like little lakes evenly spaced down the lead. The yard lights were fuzzy yellow balls hung in the fog. I couldn’t see a thing. For a moment it all seemed hopeless.
“Kind of reminds you of the Heart of Darkness doesn’t it?”
I looked up at the engineer, who clearly had his own story. It was a kind of intersection, now with the addition of literary space. A notation that this place was a book I was reading and writing, and at this moment I had found another reading over my shoulder on the same page. A kid of surreal shiver. A red light made tiny circles in the fog.
Sex and seduction:
But women need to get to that acrophobic edge and suffer there for a while. Men don’t seem to understand this about sex. They rush into it, and sex is over before the woman has even noticed that they are there. It’s like the sun waking up a sleepy earth. It doesn’t just turn the lights on. It sneaks up on the earth, lights a subtle fire somewhere else, makes the earth turn over in her sleep and face him. He throws a few drops of red into the inky waters of he sky, and lightens the palette with orchestral resonance. He also makes it colder. The earth realizes she wants to warm up. Unknowingly she starts to desire the sun. She creates the sun in her mind and then there he is, her creation, child and lover, returning from the dream of her sleep. Who would resist such a lover?
The pleasures of inside knowledge:
One thing about being a rail–you are never away from it. You wake up in big cities hearing some town-job’s whistle at 3 AM, and you’re home; you’re on that crew in your mind; you know what that job is like; you can picture the diner where they eat breakfast at four, and the city is yours; the night is yours. Driving along an interstate, you pass a through freight, and you know that train; where it’s been, where it’s bound. Who made it up and where. You know the switchmen’s lives, you know the change points for the braking crews, you know the container yards where it will end.
Unbelievably, this remarkable book seems to be out of print, but used copies are readily available. Niemann has also co-authored Railroad Voices, which I have not yet read but which I bet is excellent.
On The Rails is highly recommended.