The Adventures of a Teenage Trackman
Until the summer of 1943 the only paying job I had ever held was mowing Mrs. Van Buskirk’s lawn. This 50 cents aweek job kept me in soda and peanuts quite well, and the one afternoon a week didn’t cramp my style too much. When my father started questioning me as to mysummer plans that June, I thought he had more lawns lined up and wasn’t interested and tried to talk my way out of them.
At the end of this little talk he announced that the Erie was hiring trackmen at sixteen. The War made it necessary. I was to get my little self down to the track supervisors office in the station and sign up or else.
The next day I applied, was given a trip pass to Jersey City for a physical, and at the close of school, I went to work. The fact that I would be working the rest of my life never entered my mind. I was off on a “great adventure”.
I was assigned to the Montgomery Branch gang of Joe Papandrea, better known as Joe Papp. We were stationed at “MQ” tower and worked between Goshen and Montgomery. I can still see the New York Central’s FX class ten wheelers rocking down the track past us.
The branch crossed the Graham line at “MQ”. So there were two gangs headquartered here Walt Warren’s Graham Line crew was the other gang. They covered from somewhere west of Moodna Viaduct to the “O&W” bridge west of “MQ” crossing. The way the two gangs worked it was hard to tell who belonged to what crew. Very often we worked together.
When we were on the branch with cinder ballast we got 60 cents an hour. When we went out on the the main lines where there was stone ballast it was 65 cents. Eight hours a day, six days a week. Union scale.
On my first day I pulled every spike on the inside of the east rail from the route 207 crossing to the O&W diamond. Every kid in town was there to offer encouragement and advice. Then we proceeded to prove to the world that I couldn’t swing a spike maul. I still can’t. At tamping ties I was a master of sitting on a bar and holding the tie up to the rail. I could shovel tamp in cinders, but pick tamping in crushed stone, FORGET IT.
Marvin Ellis, a member of our gang, accidentally put me on to something. We were cleaning the ditch between the pond and the track at Eager Road Crossing when I heard him yell,”stick your head out at me will you”, and bring his shovel down hard. He threw a dead snake onto the track. Joe Papp took one look at it and announced that he had to go to Montgomery. We put the Motor car on the track and took off alone. We went back to work. Later Marv told me Joe was afraid of snakes. This was duly filed for future reference.
One day a month later we were raising low joints south of the cripple track at Egbertson road. Joe as boss was sighting the raises. This meant that Joe had to lie down and look over small blocks to a level board set up ahead of the job to see if the raise was high enough and not to high. I killed a Garter Snake and when no one was looking I coiled it up and put it next to the rail by the lead block where Joe would lie down. He did and didn’t see anything. We made the raise and he was about to get up when he turned his head an there was this snake not six inches from his nose. He shouted “Geesa ma crist I gotta go Goshon, jumped on the track car and took off. We didn’t see him till quitting time.
The next day it was his turn to laugh. I was told to go to a nearby farmhouse for water. To get there I had to climb the right of way fence. This was what they call sheep or small livestock wire hung on used boiler tube posts. I had climbed up one side with my left hand on top of the post. I swung one leg over and started to change hand preparatory to going down the other side when out they came. About twenty Yellow Jackets and they were VERY angry. I fell off the fence face down in the mud. Every body had a good laugh. I got stung three times.
When both gangs worked together we would go to the job on one motor car. I was forced to ride at the front next to the wind shelf. Walt Warren smoked a corn cob pipe full of Yellow Gold pipe Mixture. Phillip “Scotty” Treacy had another cob pipe and he filled it with sun dried cut plug chewing tobacco and Sammy Amodio would fire up one of those Italian twisted cigars. The wind would come over and around that wind screen a blow all that smoke to me. I was not asmoker at that time. Sometimes it would really get to me.
One morning both gangs boarded the caboose of a work train. We were going to set off rails and ties for a track program west of the big fill near RED ONION. I went up into the cupola for a better view. Joe Papp was to flag the job on the east end. He stayed on the platform and talked to the brakeman. As we neared the fill the train slowed and someone yelled “Joe this is where you get off.” He dashed in, grabbed the flag case and his lunch pail and jumped off. As we pulled away I looked back. There stood Joe with just the handle of his lunch bucket. The rest of it was nailed to the caboose floor. They made metake it back to him.
During my second summer of track work, both gangs went to Goshen and boarded a train of hopper cars loaded with cinders. We were to help the Goshen and Florida gangs dump them on the Pine Island branch for ballast. This was a regular occurrence in the black dirt area. This process called for opening a pocket under the car and dumping the contents onto the track. A tie was placed ahead of the rear truck. As the train moved this spread the cinders neatly to the level of the rail head. But the ashes didn’t fall out that easily. They had been in the hoppers a long time, been rain soaked and gotten thoroughly packed. To shake them loose some of the men had to beat on the sides of the cars with heavy hammers. This caused a hollow to build from the bottom up. The younger men were sent up on top to break through from there by poking into the crust with long pipes. After a hole opened we could shove the rest down with shovels. There was always a chance you could fall when it let go. So we poked with one hand and held on with the other. When you got one empty it was ontothe next.
About noon we pulled into Pine Island for lunch and to let some L&NE trains go by. When we started back, I found that one of the water cans had been filled with beer. We were on our second pocket of the afternoon when one of the Florida men came up and announced that he would show us how it should be done. From the smell I guessed that he had finished the beer all by himself. He stood squarely in the center of the half car load and rammed the pipe down into it. On the third jab it gave way. Some body yelled, the train stopped short, and we all started to dig. The people on the ground got to him first and pulled him out through the hopper door. He tried to laugh it off but it didn’t work. The track supervisor had arrived in time to see the whole performance and sent him home. We went over there on several similar trips and I never saw that man again.
Being a teenage trackman was hard work. But I learned a lot. Like what creosote does to bare skin if not washed off promptly. That sun light reflected off rails and ties can give you just as good a sunburn as direct sun light. I would like to be able to go back and do it again but life doesn’t work that way.