Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tales from Working on the Railroad

In blogging you just never know. Sometimes you spend a huge amount of time working on a post and when you are done you think "This is freaking brilliant". You post it and not a single person in the world seems to read it or comment. Other times you post something you think may not be all that interesting to people and it strikes a chord.

Such was the case from Thursday's post Odd Jobs Over the Years which has turned into one of the most read Economic Disconnect articles since 2007.

I got a bunch of comments and some emails about the railroad work in particular. I have plenty of those stories, did it for a long time. Here are three that jump out at me.

Urinating Icicles
My dad got call one night in February about a stuck switch in Boston that needed a look. He called me around 10pm and asked if I wanted to go help him with the job. I said sure thing, come on over and pick me up. We got there around 11pm and it was cold out. I mean, frigid. I don't know what the temp was, no thermometer, but it was hard to breathe.

We got out of the truck and worked over the stuck switch. We applied heavy grease to it and got it working again. There were two trains waiting for a track change on that switch so as soon as we got it done they started off using it. Took about 20 minutes and I was so cold I don't think I have ever been that cold again.

I had to pee before we went back so I went alongside the truck, unzipped and that was a shocker of cold as well! As I was going the urine was turning into icicles as it hit the ground! That's how cold it was! I could hear the things clinking as they hit the ground. It was surreal. Funny thing it's not even this experience why I hate the cold so much, but that's another tale.

My Hands get Stuck
Freshman year in High School my dad got a contract to build a new rail line from a plastics factory to link up with a nearby access line. It was not long, maybe 200 feet. My father's crew had set most of it up during the week and finish up was for the weekend I was to work. One problem; all the materials were brand new.

Now usually rail jobs use all old stuff like ties, plates, spikes, and rails. It is way cheaper and the stuff lasts forever anyway. But no, the company wanted all new stuff. What's the big deal? New railroad ties are hard as rocks. They are soaked in a sort of oil/tar that makes them weather proof. When new you have to drill the holes for the spikes to hold the rails. The holes are so rigid it takes 3X the effort to get a spike fully hammered in and seated. 6 of us worked all weekend and got it done, but the effort required was huge. My hands were killing me from holding the hammer and all the pounding and I was having trouble getting them to relax from staying the same position as while holding the hammer.

And they were like that Monday morning! My hands were frozen in the exact position as when I was using the spike hammer. I could not get them to relax. I took the day off from school because I could not do anything. By that evening they started to move again, but it was another day until I could hold a pen.

The Race
One summer I was working with my dad laying new rails again. Luckily this was all well used materials so no drama like in the last story. I was 15 and I was heavy into boxing then and in the best shape of my life. I was feeling strong, on top of the world, and so after lunch I walked up to my dad and said "I am going to take you this time".

That was a age old railroad challenge. It meant a race to fully spike down 1 length of rail before the other guy. Rails are about 16 feet long (hard to remember) and there are about 8 ties in that distance with 8 spikes each. So it is a 64 spike race. My dad was rock solid and had a strength that was hard to quantify, but I felt I could take him this time.

I focused in, layed out all my spikes next to the plates and got psyched up. My dad was just looking at me and said "You ready?". Yup, and we were off.

I was flying but of course you have to make sure it's done correct as a check after the race will disqualify you if you missed a plate or a spike is not fully seated. I was really swinging steel and I zoned out, could not hear anything. I had tunnel vision. About half way across I started really breathing hard and I started to see some stars in my vision near the end. I was going all out and almost passing out.

I got to the last spike, seated it down, collapsed and started to dry heave as I was feeling sick. I look up and my dad was leaning on his hammer smoking a parliament. I think it took me 15 minutes to get it done and it seems he was somehow able to get his done in 10 minutes! The rest of the crew were just watching and laughing at the end. I had lost again to the old man.

I caught my breathe and walked up to my dad. I shook his hand and said "Well, I will get you next time or some time in the future!". My dad looked at me and grinned and said "I don't think you will be doing this much longer, your mom tells me the grades you are getting in school".

It was a really sad moment. It was sad because I knew he was right. Even then my mind was very active and I was very serious about becoming a scientist. It was sad because working with my dad had become almost the only time we spent together. I think we worked maybe 10 more times on smaller jobs until the end of high school. By then my dad's drinking roblem was getting very bad and he was not taking many contract side jobs. Two years into College he died. And I never beat him in a spiking race.

Have a good night.


Jennifer Hillier said...

People crave the personal, which is why we're eating these stories up! It's very nice to see you open up like this. Never thought I'd see you write about peeing in a blog post, though. :)

Would have liked to have known you at 15. Mind you, I'd have been 16 or 17, and you probably would have gotten on my nerves.


EconomicDisconnect said...

yeah, that was a funny story. The clinking of the icicles, just grabs a reader yes? Would love to have seen you in high school, bet you were a hell raiser.

David Batista said...

I agree with what Jen said about the personal stuff. I learned that a long time ago on my own blog, although sometimes I tend to get a little *too* personal, perhaps. :)

Your race story reminds me of my best bud and his dad. His father's an electrician and my friend followed in his footsteps eventually. But when he was a teen, his dad would take him with him on side jobs. My friend was always trying to "best" him.

It was only when he became an adult, and his father's drinking and drug problem really got out of hand, that he finally beat him on a shared job one day. But by then, the win no longer mattered. It's hard to feel joy over beating someone who's now a shell of the man you once knew.

Thanks for sharing your stories, man! I'm intrigued about why you REALLY hate the cold, now.

EconomicDisconnect said...

Thanks David. You know how protective I am about my personal stuff, but I have been trying to open it up a bit. The cold story is a freaking scary one and it's one I try to forget but can never do it. Maybe next personal blog I will do it. I should have told you when we met in NYC. I had "NY Style: Dominos pizza last night, no where near as amazing as the pizza place we went!

Dinosaur Trader said...

Thanks for obliging! These were great.

They're interesting because we've all ridden railroads and at least I have taken the construction of them for granted...

Sounds like you had a great relationship with your Dad. Great memory there, I'm sure.


Amanda Miranda said...

Wonderful stories, interesting and well written. I felt like I was there standing beside you watching your pee freeze, working with your dad and competing against him.
It was touching because it exposed the vulnerability of a teen boy who wants to spend time with his father and will do anything to prove he can hold his own weight. The fact that you put so much effort into trying to beat him showed your pride and respect for what he did.
You impressed him and I'm sure your Dad was very proud of you. Not many kids like to work with their parents, you were a great kid.
The time we get is the time we get, can't wish for more or less. You only need a few moments like these for they last a lifetime.


GawainsGhost said...

Yes, the personal is always preferred over the familiar or oft-repeated.

Great story about your dad. Hey, buddy, those old guys were tough.

I remember when I was a little kid my grandfather took me up on the roof to help him put on new shingles. This was really cool, because it was the first time I was ever up high. I could see over the whole neighborhood.

Anyway, my grandather was pounding nails, then BAM! he smashed his finger. Blood spewed, and I freaked, scampered down the ladder and ran into the kitchen. "Grandma, Grandma, Grandpa broke his hand!"

Then my granfather came in and calmly walked over to the sink and washed his hand off. My grandmother said, "You should go to the hospital."

My grandfather said, "The hospital?! It's just a finger."

A couple of weeks later he held his hand up to me and wiggled his finger, it was all bent, and he said, "See there?" That was when I knew what tough was.

My father, he wasn't so tough, but he was brilliant. He took only one six-weeks course in computer programming in 1959. After that, he was largely self-taught. But he understood programming, systems analysis and banking better than anybody. This county, which is larger than some states, would not be what it is today if it weren't for him.

Me, I'm a goof. It's strange, but in high school I always took advanced courses. Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, I was pretty good at math. But after the wreck, I lost that ability. Numbers, equations don't make sense to me anymore. However, give me a poem, and I'll tell you what it means.

My math skills diminished while my literary skills improved. Go figure. Something about being in a coma?

David Batista said...

Yeah, that was some good pizza! :) If you're ever in the city again, I'll take you to where they have even better NY pizza.

I have a scary cold story, too. But oddly it didn't make me hate the cold, although it probably should have. I was in the boy scouts, around age 14, and we once went camping in the woods in the middle of January. A blizzard struck overnight. You get the picture . . .

Hmmm, maybe I should tell the full tale on my blog sometime. Food for thought.

Watchtower said...

"...and I was having trouble getting them to relax from staying the same position as while holding the hammer."

I can relate, I used to get 'arm pump' from riding motocross when I was in my 20's, hurt like hell.

EconomicDisconnect said...

Dino, no problem, glad you liked. Maybe next time I explain how a pratt and whitney jet engine put on rails was used to clear snow from a train depot! Thank you so much. Loved my Dad very much but he could never love himself, sadly.

Amanda, thanks for stopping in. Yes, we can only do what we can with the time we get. Would have loved my dad to be around after I became a scientist, always wanted to buy him a boston whaler boat that he always wanted so badly. I would have liked that very much.

Gawains, you are such a great story teller and I have gained so much with your readership. My good friend.

David, seems I will be in NYC every October going forward so we shall meet again!

yeah it sucks!

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