Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"I Grew Up on the Railroad"

The Wooster, Ohio train station.

A Story by George Crown  

"I Grew Up On The Railroad- Childhood Memories"

Written For Our Daughter Cheryl

At the request of our daughter Cheryl I will attempt to recount the memories of my life growing up on the railroad.  Some of these memories are as vivid as yesterday and some are fuzzy.   The Pennsylvania Railroad ( PRR), then the Penn Central and later was to be called ConRail, is very close to my heart.  Always living near the railroad, traveling almost every weekend on the trains as a kid, and having a Father that worked his whole life at the PRR, it cannot be helped that my life was shaped by these experiences. 

            As the child of a Father that worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, our family always had a year round free pass to travel anywhere that the PRR ran. My first memories were of my family living in a little town call Brilliant Ohio near the Ohio River.   I was very young, pre school age, but I do remember living there. My parents lived in a little 2 bedroom brick house that they had built. I remember hiding under a bed when the high school band would practice in a field across the street. My dad worked as a clerk in an office in a place called Mingo Junction. We lived there for a little over a year before my dad was transferred to corporate head quarters in downtown Pittsburgh. From Brilliant,  we moved to a suburb of  Pittsburgh called Crafton Heights. We lived on Stratmore Street at the top of a steep hill. The Pittsburgh area was very hilly. Half way down the street and I mean down the street was our grade school called Shaffer Public School. At the bottom of the hill was the little town of Crafton Heights. I remember all of the streets were made of bricks.   Both of my grandparents lived in Ohio.   The Webb’s (George and Lillian) lived in Wooster Ohio and the Crown’s (Bill and Myrtle) lived in Denison, Ohio. Both towns were located on the main railroad line of the PRR. This was in the early 50’s and this was before interstate highways.  They only had two lane roads so travel was easier on the railroad with a family of 3 kids, also cheaper since we all had passes.  Wooster, Ohio was on the main line to Chicago and Dennison was on the main line to Columbus and St. Louis.

            We traveled quite often to see grandparents but when my Grand Mother Webb was very ill with cancer, we would all get up every Saturday morning at 4 am, grab our bags, drive into downtown Pittsburgh and catch the Chicago Limited to Wooster about a 3 hour ride.  Grandpa would always be at the station to meet us.  We would spend the weekend there, then leave Wooster in the afternoon Sunday and be back at school on Monday morning.  It seemed to me that we did this for years.  We spent just about all summer in Wooster.  I probably spent more time growing up in Wooster than I did in Pittsburgh. I have many fond memories of my friends and family growing up in Wooster. This is where I learned to ride a bike, make tents and play with my friends, caddie at the country club and have the freedom to explore a little Ohio town.

            Every Sunday afternoon we would walk up town to Stouts and buy comic books or something to read or look at on our trip back to Pittsburgh. Stouts was a neat little news stand store with lots of comic books that cost a dime and a great display of nudie magazines but I didn’t look. I use to sit in my seat on the train and pretend to read like a grownup but I was just looking at the pictures. The station in Wooster was on one side of the tracks and car parking was on the other side. So you had to cross the tracks to get to the loading platform. On one trip I have vivid memories of my grandmother tripping on the tracks as she was crossing and the train was coming into the station. I was so scared that she was going to be run over. 

            In Dennison in the early 50’s this was a real railroad town with Round Houses, train shops, coal bins and water towers.  This was the steam engine era.  I can still remember sitting on the front porch swing at Grandpa Crown’s house in the park, a neighborhood next to the tracks, and looking over to the rail yards and watching steam engines pulling out of the round house.  It was a dirty, smelly town but this was the rail road.  Even today when I smell coal burning I have flash back memories of Dennison.

            Every summer I would spend two weeks down on the farm with my Aunt Edna, Uncle Ray and cousin Bob in Newark Ohio near Columbus.  My Dad would load me on a train with my suitcase and since my Dad knew most of the conductors they would keep and eye on me until I met the Freas family in Newark. I can still see Bob ,Edna and Ray waving to me as we pulled in the station. I knew all the towns along every route because the conductor would shout out the name at every stop.  I loved the clickety click sound of the tracks and watching the country side fly by. If you ever want to see how America lives take a train ride.

            Once every summer my Dad would take me down to the station and turn me over to a friend conductor and we would ride in the mail car.  At every stop I would help open the big sliding door and throw the mail bag marked for that town.  We would travel to Columbus have lunch and then do the same thing on the return trip.  I think my parents just wanted to get rid of me for a day.  It was exciting for a little boy and made me feel really special.

So riding the train was part of our whole family’s life.  My Father worked at corporate head quarters in labor relations on the railroad until he retired. The railroad also played a part when I was dating Barbara Kirkpatrick in high school. Our fathers both worked in downtown Pittsburgh and commuted by train. Barb lived close to the Crafton train station and our house was on top of the hill, so I had to pick up my dad every night. We only had one car. Barb would walk down Emily Street and we would meet and sit in the car and hold hands and talk until our dads would arrive on the train from Pittsburgh.  I would drive my Father home and she would walk up the hill to her house with her Father.


June 1964 was the year I graduated from high school.  I had it made, I was accepted to Principia College in Elsha, Illinois to start classes in September, and I had a great girlfriend and a job cutting grass for a rich man, Mr. Minnicki, in Thornburg and lots of free time to spend at the pool with friends.  One night my Dad came home and dropped a bomb shell.  George he said, I have good news.  I got you a job on the rail road and you to report to work tomorrow in Ohio.  This really burst my bubble.  I packed some work clothes and Dad and Barb drove me a couple of hours to a little town, called Mingo Junction.  That wasn’t even on the map and pulled in next to a couple of old Pullman cars on a siding next to a main line.  This was to be my home for awhile.  When Barb saw the conditions that I had to live in she cried all the way home.  I was young and very innocent, I knew nothing of the world that I was about to enter.

            The camp cars were bright railroad yellow.  We had a sitting area with table and, benches, a bath room with sinks and shower and the rest of the car was upper and lower bunks. This was an old Pullman car. The cars were parked on a siding next to the main line.  At night the trains would fly past, blowing their whistles through the intersection about two feet from my head, then the car would rattle and sway side to side. This would happen all night long. The men that I was to be working with  where part of the signal division corp.  The signal division was responsible for the installation and maintenance of the electrical signals and the communication lines along the track. 

            We had about 10 guys.  Some were old timers, others were young lifers, and then there were a few summer college students like me.  Some lived on the camp cars others went home every night. Everyone went home on the weekend but since I did not have a car or any other means of transportation to get home, I had to hitch a ride to the closest town that the trains would stop at, and armed with a family pass I would catch the next passenger train to Pittsburgh.  Once in downtown Pittsburgh and this was at all hours of the day and night, I would walk across town to Horne’s Department store to catch a bus to Crafton.  I would spend the weekend with Barb and then my Dad would drive me back to the camp car Sun night.

            The work was very hard and physical.  We had to dig telephone pole holes by hand, move the pole into place and erect it and set and tamp the pole. Then we would run the wires and the line men would climb the pole and connect the wires.  I only had to climb poles twice.  We had shovels with 12 foot handles and scoops with 12 foot handles to dig a hole deep enough to set a telephone pole 30 ft high.

            Since only two guys could work on a hole at one time, one digger and one was a scoop.  The foreman or one of the old timers would sit and supervise while the young kids would do all of the work.  Several times I would be working away and the supervisor would say, “George slow down, don’t kill your self.  We got all day to dig this hole.”

Actually these men were very nice and easy to work with.  They were family men working hard to support their families.  But it was still a vulgar work environment where I learned many new words and heard many sorted stories.  For a kid fresh out of High school, living in a sheltered world, where I didn’t have to make a decision on my own, I was forced into a working class world to fend for myself.  When I say that I grew up on the rail road this is what I am referring to.  

            I worked with these men for about 4 weeks when the foreman approached me and said, “Crown, you are being moved to the Canton division.  Report to Minerva, Ohio Monday morning.”   I had no idea where this was, but my Dad did and he dropped me off Monday morning to work with another group of signal men.  The only trouble was that there wasn’t any where to stay.  All of these men went home at night.  I told the foreman that I didn’t have anywhere to stay and I couldn’t go home.  He said that I could stay in the office at night.  This was an old railroad building that was part warehouse, part office, all extremely dirty.  The office had 2 old oak desks, several oak chairs and a small bathroom with a toilet and a filthy sink.  And the building was full of flies. The one desk was to become my bed and I would have to use the sink to take a sponge bath each night after work.  I would spend my evenings learning to type on an old manual typewriter, reading my required books for incoming freshmen and killing flies.  I got real good at using an 18” ruler and a rubber band.  I could shoot a fly on the window from across the room about 14 feet.  I was lucky that there was a small cafĂ© up the street.  I was able to eat supper and breakfast and they would pack me a lunch to take to work.  I got to know the waitress there she took care of me putting extra cookies or a piece of pie in my lunch.

            With this group our job was to maintain the signals that control the traffic on the rails.  This included technicians that were trained in electricity.  We had to make sure all signal lights were working and that the current traveling through the rails that controlled

the signals was working.  As a laborer we had to walk the tracks and check for broken connector wires and we painted the signals, crossing gates and electrical relay stations.  We used silver paint, or black paint.  The silver paint was like water.  We had to climb the steel bridges over the tracks and paint the signals.  Many times the trains were running right underneath of us as we painted.

            One day we were painting signals over the track and the wind was blowing lightly.  As we painted the water silver paint we did not notice that the cars on the adjacent lot were getting splattered with tiny specks of silver paint.

            We sure heard about it the next day when the bigwigs came crashing in.  The railroad had to pay for the clean up of all of the damaged cars.  We really got our butts chewed.  Working on the tracks in the summer, is a hot, hot job.  The ballast collects the heat and can go up to 120 degrees.  The rails heating and expanding and the ties are covered in sticky creosote.  That along with the toilet waste from passenger trains doesn’t make for the most pleasant of working conditions.  And there is always the danger of on-coming trains that sneak up and scare the hell out of you.  One always has to be aware on the tracks.  There are many dangers and we were instructed to get as far away from a running train as we could.  There were times when we were working on the middle track and trains traveling in opposite directions at 60 MPH were flying by on both sides of you. That was a very scary situation and you breathed a sigh of relief after they passed.

            Every weekend I would hop a train back to Pittsburgh and spend time with Barbie and then my Dad would drive me back to Canton Sunday night to the RR YMCA where I would meet up with the gang at the tracks to start work Monday morning at 7 am.  I spent one night in the Y which was the night from hell.  I was scared to close my eyes.  I had to prop a chair under the door knob just to keep the door closed and the smell of diesel fumes out side the window was choking.  After that night, I slept in the truck every Sunday night.  The truck that our gang used was parked in the parking lot and it was a large equipment truck with a crew compartment with bench seats for the crew.  I would lock the doors and sleep on the bench seats.

            Back at the office where I slept on the oak desk at night I would set up my own alarm system if somebody was to try to get in during the night.  I would stack pop bottles on each window and in front of each door.  There were no locks.  Back then pop bottles were made of glass and the racket would hopefully wake me up.  One night about 2 am I was awaken by one of my alarms going off.  It was my supervisor and he came to warn me that some VP’s were coming to run speed checks on trains.  He didn’t want the VP’s to know that I was staying there.  So I had to pack up and get out. He told me to go up the tracks to a switching station.  No one was there so I climbed up the steps and slept sitting in a chair, head on crossed arms on a table.  Of course I would wake up every time a train came blowing through the intersection.

            During this whole summer with all my trials and travels, either hitching rides or riding the rails I came across all kind of characters.  Some down to earth good people, some derelicts, including homosexuals.  I was never so glad to go to college in my life.


            After struggling through my freshman, I returned home from Principia College in St. Louis, how else, via passenger train. From Elsah, Illinois, friends would drop me off in Alton, Illinois and I would take a train to St. Louis and transfer to a train bound for Pittsburgh.  The trip by rail was about 12 to 15 hours.  Needless to say I only went home at Christmas during the year.

Upon Arriving back home Dad said I have some bad news and some good news.  The bad news was that I could not get my old job back working on the signal gang.  The good news was that I had a job working on the track gang.  Track gang, what the hell was that!  Well a good friend of mine, Tom Boland, my dad was dating his aunt, and I were to report to the railroad station and freights yards in Sewickley, PA., north of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.  With a week’s worth of work clothes, leather work gloves and steel toed shoes.

            Well when Tom and I arrived Sunday night we found the RR yellow camp train parked in a siding at the station and workers were arriving.  The train consisted of about 10 old Pullman cars painted what else railroad yellow linked together with sleeping cars with upper and lower bunks, a dining car, kitchen cars and about 10 storage cars for equipment and supplies.  Next to the trains were parked all kinds of machinery on rail cars, including spike pullers, jack hammer and compressors, cranes and supply carts and crew transport carts.

            I wasn’t sure what I was getting into.  If you ever saw prison work gangs in a labor camp, this was it. Tom and I first were to find a bunk that was not occupied.  After walking through several sleeping cars we were able to find two bunks close together. Tom found a lower bunk and I found and upper bunk.  The sleeping cars were old Pullman cars converted for workers, bunks at one end; the other end was the wash area and bathroom.   We all had to take turns.  There was two shower stalls.  The rest of the car consisted of upper and lower bunks on both sides of a narrow aisle.  Our sheets and pillow cases were provided but this was not a hotel.  Nothing on the railroad was the Ritz as we found out.  There were 90 men and our gang. 20 of them were college students.  The rest were full time lifers who resented every college student because we had a future.  I learned quickly that we had to make drastic changes in one’s behavior and language in order to fit in and survive.  Don’t make waves.  Work hard at your job and keep your mouth shut.  You knew who you could talk to and who to stay away from.

            After spending my first night in an upper bunk at 6 am the foreman came though each car waking everyone.  We had to wait for turns at the bathroom, get dressed and meet at the dining car for breakfast.  The dining car was a long open rail car with windows.  Inside there was two long wooden tables down the center of the car and long wooden benches on both sides for us to sit down.  There was definitely a pecking order when it came to eating.  You took what you could get and I must say the food was good.    Breakfast consisted of hot cakes or hot oatmeal, some days cereal or eggs and bacon and toast. We always had juice and lots of hot coffee.  Every other word was fuck.  As in       “ pass the fucking bacon”, or where is the “fucken salt”.  Short stopping was not an option. These guys would just as soon smash your nose as to look at you.   As I said before, one had to adapt in order to survive.  Do not use any words over 4 letters.  After breakfast we all met back on the tracks and the foreman lined us up and assigned us our jobs for the day. 

            The track gang was responsible for replacing old track with new track.  Most of the old track was stick rail, sections of track about 40 feet long, with each section of track set into tie plates that were spiked down to the tie.  There were braces on both sides of a tie, and joint plates bolted through the rail to hold each section together.  The new rail was the new ribbon rail; this was a series of about 15 sections of stick rail welded together. There was less hardware needed for these new rails and the ride was smoother.

            The gang worked in three phases.  The front section would tear up the old track.  The middle section would prepare the rail beds and ties and the back section would lay and install the new rail.

            Tom and I were assigned to do the front section tearing up the old stick rail.  As the spike pullers removed the old spikes and the old rail was removed.  It was our job to pick up the spikes, anchors, tie plates and braces.  Stack them in piles every 10 feet so that a hopper car out fitted with a crane and an electric magnet would come along pick up the scrap metal and deposit it in the hopper car.  This work entailed a lot of bending over picking up and stacking heavy metal pieces.  I would go through a pair of leather work gloves in a week.  The pickup part was difficult enough but having to walk on every tie, bend and pick up arm loads of steel all while singing in unison.,  I’ve been working on the railroad, was quite difficult.  We really didn’t sing. It was really a constant string of dirty jokes from morning until night.  

            In those days I had a great memory for jokes and when I returned to Principia in the fall, I had the guys lined up three deep listening to one joke after another.  Back to the work gang; we would work down the tracks following the disassembly crew and our goal was to do five miles a day.  The work was I must admit physically difficult.  My hands would cramp up and my back muscles would ache.  I was getting stronger and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on me. My hair was bleached blond from the sun. We were allowed to take a water break if we got caught up to the guys in front, and the water cart had a dispenser of salt tables which we could take.  We lost a lot of sweat and you had to replenish your fluids and salt to keep up with the work. I must say that it was interesting to watch an assembly of men and machines rip up old track and lay down a new bed for trains to travel on. 

            When the front of the line crew completed our work at the end of the five miles we would then go to the back of the line and help anchor down the track to the ties.  An anchor is a U shaped piece of steel and once set in place is snapped onto the track with a sledge hammer.  This prevents the track from shifting.  We would put one on each side of each tie.  Needless to say we got real good at swinging a 10 pound sledge hammer, because a missed swing meant wasted energy.  If there were switches or a road crossing and the jack hammers could not reach the spikes then we would have to pound in the spikes by hand.  A spike sledge hammer weighed 10 to 15 pounds and was shaped long and narrow on both ends.     So that we could swing and pound the spike over

the track.  It takes lots of practice to swing a spike sledge hammer and hit the head of a spike.  It would take any where from 5 to 10 good heard swings to set a spike.  And there are 8 spikes to each tie plate.  You do the math in energy. 

Stubenville Shorty was a short but stout Italian about 50 years old who could not read or write.  But he could swing a mean spike hammer.  He could set a spike in 3 swings.  Almost like a machine gun, bam, bam, bam, on to the next spike.  We had spike setters and spike “pounders”.  When Shorty would pick up his pay check he would sign an X for his signature. 

            Most of the time the job site was away from the camp train so they used old school buses to transport us.  Riding these buses was a real treat!  Sitting two to a seat we would fill two buses.  In the front of the bus just behind the driver on both sides were the spotters. The spotters were looking for attractive females in cars or just walking on the sidewalks.  If one was spotted the word was shouted, “one on the Right”, the whole damned bus would get up and stare out the right side of the bus drooling all over the windows and making cat calls.   The testosterone was flowing and it was pretty disgusting.   They would keep this game up for the entire trip.   They never seemed to tire of it even after a hard days work. 

            We had one “sicko” who always seemed to sit in front of us, his name was Bill and we called him “wild Bill”.  He was a man about 50 to 55 beaten down from the years of hard work.  As we would be riding along Wild Bill would say, “hey, how about that one, or how bout that one.?”  We would look and there would be a 10 year old girl walking along.  He was a real sick man.  But that is the kind of characters that we worked with and lived with.  

            The gang and the camp train would move around to different locations from week to week.  Sometimes we were in city locations sometime out in the boon docks.  We laid some of the high speed rail between Washington and New York City.   We laid track through the mountains of Pennsylvania, and worked on track outside of Altoona, PA, near the Horseshoe Bend.   

            One memorable experience occurred in Emporium, Pennsylvania up in the mountains.  We all arrived Sunday night to this little town which was about three blocks long.  The camp train was parked on a siding at the edge of town.  We all got up and worked on Monday morning.  After work we returned to the camp trains, we all got cleaned up and ate dinner.   There were four college guys including Tom and I.  We decided to go for a walk around the town.  There was not much to do after work and before bed, no television.  So we were strolling and window shopping, just passing the time.  One block into our walk we noticed a few teenage boys following us.  When we would looked back, they would stop.  After the second block there were about 10 to 15 boys. They just seemed to come out of no where.  After the third block we made a quick left back toward the tracks.  By this time the hostile crowd grew to about 20 to 30 including cars full driving by and yelling names and throwing stones.  We were literally running for our lives back to the camp cars.  When we got back we told everyone what had happened and several others returned with the same story.  So we all went to the supply cars and loaded up with anything that could be used to fight, like shovels and picks or crow bars. About 50 of us walked in mass up town and met face to face with the “townies”.  After some verbal negotiations they all disappeared and we never had any more trouble.  I have no idea where the police were or even if there were police.   Evidently they would do this any time there were strangers in their town.  Not great for the tourist trades.   Well we were railroad workers and we were not about to take any crap.  This was as close to a fight as I ever care to come. 

            The Pennsylvania mountains were beautiful but they were not without their dangers.    The track beds were great resting places for the rattle snakes, because of the warmth.  They would crawl up and sun themselves on the tracks.   Our foreman wore a six shooter, “Western style” on his hip.  He would walk up in front of the work gang and shoot the rattlers off the tracks.  Being a real lover of snakes this scared the hell out of me.  As we worked we could hear pow! Pow! Up in front and we could see the dead snakes as we worked by.   Needless to say we did not venture off into the bush to go to the bathroom.   One guy call Rizzo, mean bastard took a tie plate with him in to the bush to take a crap.  A steel tie plate is about 12” x 20” and ½” thick.  We heard some commotion and hollering, and he came out from behind a bush with his pants down around his ankles holding a five foot rattler.  He had cut the head off with the tie plate.  As I said, this is the kind of characters that we worked and lived with.  I am not sure which was scarier the headless rattle snake or Rizzo with his pants down.

            Then there was Buck Shaw, he was a piece of work.  Buck was a skinny little guy, unshaven with no teeth. That’s a beautiful image right there.  Buck’s favorite line was “you know what really makes a woman mad?’  After you finish screwing her, jump up on the bed, put your foot on her stomach and do a Tarzen yell and beat your chest.”  He was some piece of work.

             Well one day while we were working on another section of track, Buck was working up ahead of us.  Three State Police cars pulled up along side of the tracks, lights flashing, talked to the foreman and he pointed to Buck.   They cuffed him and lead him off to jail on the charge of wife beating.  We never saw Buck again. This was just another fine example of the RR human kind.

            At this point I guess I should mention Robert.  Robert liked young boys and Robert was gay. Unfortunately Robert lived in our camp car.  He would sit in the wash area and watch each naked guy come out of the shower and towel off.  Robert would say, every day,  “ are you my buddy”, and we would all say NO.   He would say, “you know what a buddy is?  He is a guy that goes out and gets two blow jobs and brings one back for his buddy.”  Needless to say we all stayed away from Robert.   One night during the last week of our working summer, Robert came into the car about 12 PM, drunk as a skunk.   He was trying to crawl into the bunks with the guys.   I heard all of this noise and it woke me up.  I leaned out of my bunk and looked down the aisle.  All I could see was Robert working his way down the aisle and getting punched in the face every time he tried to crawl into a different bunk.  I huddled up in the corner of my bunk praying that he would not make it that far.  Fortunately he passed out about half way down the aisle. 


            Unfortunately the summer of 1966 was a virtual repeat of 1965.  Tom and I worked and lived on the track gang.  We were assigned various jobs.  It was amazing to me how machinery developed to make our jobs easier, but it also eliminated jobs.  Some of the machines that could be operated by one man replaced four workers who used to do it by hand.

Some of the names of Men that I worked with:

Buck Shaw;  Stubenville Shorty,  Shorty (the cook); Cowboy; Louie the Louse; Louis the Juke; Buck Myers: Rice; Gige (foreman); Bob Ross (bald Eagle);  Clarence the Race Car Driver.


            This was another summer of “good news”  “bad news” discussions when I returned home for the summer of 1967.  They were not hiring for the track work gang, but I could get on as a “fireman” on a diesel.  What the hell, was a fireman on a diesel train?   Well it  was the classic example of the text books definition of “feather bedding”.   The fireman was the man that shoveled coal on a steam engine.  It was a hot an awful job and he was partner to the Engineer on the train.  Of course there was no need for a fireman on a diesel, but they had this job.   The fireman’s job in this case was to watch the scenery go by and check for signals, and keep the engineer awake.   The unions would not allow this job to be eliminated.   So I was hired. This was my new summer job on the rail road.   I was told to report to the Conway Rail Yards east of Pittsburgh.  By this time I had a car to drive, a two door used Ford.  Not a hot car but it ran.

  At the Conway yards we would be assigned to a train crew.  We never knew where we were going until we reported in.  And we were on 24 hour call.  The most frequent trip was from Pittsburgh to Columbus, Ohio, but we also had shorter trips or yard duty.  These would be over night trips.  We would go down one day and bring freight back one or two days later.  If there wasn’t enough freight to bring back, they would dead head us back on another train or send us back by taxi.   When we could stay in Columbus, there was a Railroad YMCA that we paid three dollars a night for.  This provided us a single bed with clean sheets in a larger dormitory style room. There was a large group bathroom and toilet room.  This Y was next to the tracks in a very bad section of town.   White men did not go for walks around town.   Actually the Y was not too bad.  It was clean and they had a TV room and vending machines.  The men that I worked with were higher classed than the track gang.  The running of a mile long load of freight cars was a big responsibility.  The crew consisted of an engineer, fireman, conductor and brakeman.  The Engineer and the fireman would ride in the cab of the engine and the brakeman and the conductor rode in the caboose. There is a real art to driving a long freight train so that it does not break apart. To start the train the engineer has to back up the train until thebrakeman signals him from the back with a lantern, in order to take the slack out of the couplers between each car. Then he would slowly start forward to stretch out the train before picking up speed. It also takes a great deal of distance to slow down a train. I was always glad to be riding up front when we were hauling coal cars, because the conductor and the brakeman would look like coal mine workers at the end of a run, completely covered in black coal dust.

            Most of the engineers knew my dad, so they would tell me stories of their younger days growing up on the railroad. These guys knew every inch of the track. Every curve, every up grade and every down grade and every signal and crossing. They even knew every whore house in every town. As we would be flying through little Ohio towns, they would point out all of the houses that I could get laid.

            The trip to Columbus was a familiar trip for me since I grew up traveling this route to my grandparent’s  house in Dennison, Ohio and farther down the line to my aunts place in Newark Ohio. When I knew that we would be going to Columbus I would call my Uncle Ted, who lived in Dennison, and tell him when we would be coming through and since he only lived a block from the station, he would walk down and be standing on the platform waving as we went by. As we approached Newark, my aunt and uncle lived about ¾ of a mile from the main line out in the country. The engineer would blow the whistle all the way through (a long and two shorts). My aunt would call and say “I heard you going by. Thanks for the salute. I really enjoyed this form of communication.

            The one, two, or three day trips were interesting but you never knew how long they would take or when you would be getting home. So it was really hard to schedule any time with Barbie. Remember this was way before cell phones. Communications were difficult.

            As I mentioned earlier that one of my jobs was to keep the engineer awake. The engineer had to touch metal every 10 seconds to short out the dead man switch. This was a safety feature in case of heart attacks. Well some engineers would use a wire to by pass the switch and take a nap. I remember flying through towns and road crossing with no whistle because my engineer was asleep. This scared the hell out of me. Whenever we would just miss a car that went around a crossing gate, the engineer would shake his fist and shout “We’ll get you next time.”

 Another part of my job was to start a diesel engine that shut down. Sometimes when we would be hauling a long freight train, we would have 3,4,or even 5 engines. If for what ever reason one of the engines would shut down, It was my job to climb back and try to start it. Climbing on the out side of a locomotive going 60 miles an hour and jumping from one engine to another was a real challenge. Once I found the stalled engine I had to open a side compartment door, crawl inside and find the start button. The noise inside of the engine compartment was deafening. I remember one trip where all three engines went down while we were waiting on a siding for a passenger train to pass. We had to wait for three hours before a truck with a generator could get to us to start the engines.

Yard duty was boring. It was a regular 8 hour shift but you never left the rail yard and all you saw all day long was box cars on both sides of the engine. You also didn’t make as much money. We were paid more if you had multiple engines and longer trains. This was the summer that I got real good at packing lunches and living out of a suit case.

There is a romance to life on the tracks but it definitely was dangerous. You always had to watch your back and be extremely careful climbing on and off of the trains. I still remember the first time that I climbed aboard a diesel engine. I couldn’t believe how big it was or how high it was and how much it vibrated. When the train was running and another train was approaching, going the opposite direction, the fireman, who road on the left side of the cab, would have to get up out of his seat and move to the other side of the cab behind the engineer incase anything was sticking out of the other train. I was told horror stories of fireman being impaled while sitting in their seat.   

This was to be my last summer of work on the railroad. After I graduated from Principia in 1968, I spent the summer working in a tire garage changing and fixing tires while I was looking for a teaching job. I hadn’t planned on a teaching career but I needed to get a teaching job so that I could get an occupational deferment and keep from going to Viet Nam.

In August 1968, I graduated from Principia, got a full time teaching job at West Allegheny  High School outside of Pittsburgh and I married the love of my life.  Not a bad year for an ex railroad worker. I guess that Barb and I should have taken a honeymoon on a train trip but we didn’t. We drove to Lake Erie instead. I think that I have only been on a train once in the last 40 years. Today is 2008 and I am 63 years old and these are just a few of the memories from my youth that have formed my life.

To Cheryl, I hope you have enjoyed reading this time of my life before your Mom and I were married. I hope it gives you an insight into a different world of the rail road and the hard work that is put in by these working men.

Story by:   George Crown

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

One of the worst waitresses in Pittsburgh

From Connie Lou-
Pittsburgh in 2008- 46 years after this story took place...painting by Fred Danziger

Has anyone else enjoyed the experience of waiting on tables or serving food to the public?  

I would not presume to say that I was at the total rock bottom of waitressing incompetence, there had to be someone worse,  but I had to be close as I began my days as a, "Stouffer Girl" and then as I moved on up to, "The Top of the Towers".

     I began at Stouffers in 1966 at the Wood Street restaurant. We wore starched grey cotton uniforms that were laundered on site in the basement of the building in a real laundry room – dirt walls and all.  They were washed and ironed by a kind, motherly black woman who listened to a radio as she worked.

We were assigned 2 uniforms and we were expected to wear one for two shifts - barring catastrophe.  The uniform included a white collar and cuffs which were detachable and buttoned onto the long sleeved uniform.

It was our responsibility to buy and wear neutral stockings and white Cuban heeled shoes, both being “regulation”.  We were responsible for keeping our shoes immaculate. A girdle was also a must to "support the back", so was the thinking of the day.

We were given a special Stouffer's pin; a bar pin with a gold "S" on a black enameled circle in the middle of the bar,  to keep our collar in place.  I learned that if you were as Stouffer Girl for 5 years, you were awarded new a pin with a ruby on the “S”, for 10 years of service, a sapphire, and if you decided this was the job for you for 20 years- you received a diamond!   There was one woman working with us who had a diamond in her pin.  We all listened to what she had to say.

 We began our day when we appeared in the main dining room for an inspection 15 minutes before customers were seated for lunch.  The dining room hostess quizzed us on menu items, prices and the special of the day.  She also performed an inspection, to see if our aprons were uniformly tied and secured by lingerie pins. Our "Stouffer's Bow" must be perfect and pinned properly; shoes, fingernails (red or clear polish only) and hairnets were also checked. We had to snap our girdle to signify its presence.

 This was our daily ritual amid crystal chandeliers, silver plated flatware and linen tablecloths. A traditional, elegant, (pompous?) drama prior to serving elderly shoppers a "Veg. Plate", which was a choice of 3 vegetables at $.50 a portion, add a cup of coffee for .25, which came to $1.75 lunch. Can you guess how much a tip might be?  After a few weeks, I knew there was no diamond in my future.

     As soon as I turned 21, I took my collection of quarters and ran from Stouffer's on Wood Street and those "Veg. Plates" toward, “The Top of the Towers" at the Point. This was an experimental restaurant, located on the top floor of the Towers Apartment Building run by Post House (owners of Greyhound Bus) and was their first "up-scale" endeavor.

It was upscale. Bus boy in red jackets, chefs in tall hats in the kitchen, French table service, beautiful gold rimmed china, silver flatware, hotel trays, flaming entrees and flaming desserts!  

Wow! I had only seen flaming in a kitchen once in my life and that was the day my Mother turned on the gas broiler under the stove.  She didn't know my brothers had left golf balls inside (They played a game where they bounced golf balls into the open drawer)

 I had to paint my white shoes black and launder my own black uniform and "whites", the detachable collar, cuffs and apron.  We were given a little doily thing to put on our heads a la French Maid look. Viola! I am a frog in another pond.

     I had many experiences during my brief time at work at "The Top", serving PPG executives and other unsuspecting business people lunch, but my favorite involved an ashtray.

     They used flat glass ashtrays on the dining table and to remove one we were to place a clean one over top and whisk it away without spewing debris in the table.

The new young restaurant manager was always looking for ways to make things “flow more efficiently”, (or make himself look competent) so he came up with the insane idea that if we carried ashtrays in our pockets we would save steps to and from the sideboard.  I guess OSHA never came by.

We complained, but he insisted, so we carried ashtrays in our dress pockets.  Lunch was always hectic and one day I fell out of rhythm with the ashtray sequence and put a dirty ashtray with a smoldering cigarette, into my pocket by mistake.

It took a couple minutes before the heat generated enough presence to be noticed. When the realization dawned and I realized what I had done,  I immediately stopped serving a man his lunch by dumping it onto the table, and then I grabbed his water and poured it into my pocket.

The stunned folks at the table looked  very confused when I told them, "It's OK, my pocket was on fire."