Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gandy Dancer

The Station Master in Anchorage gave me a pass to ride in the Seward train caboose, with instructions to get off the train as it rolled past the side track between the highway crossings of Portage and Moose Pass, up in the remote valley where Extra Gang number 2 was sidetracked.

The two conductors sat with their feet up on the cold stove of the caboose, playing cards from their laps.
One said I could ride in the cupola if I wanted. I should just keep an eye out and holler if any of the cars were on fire or had left the track.
I climbed up and watched intently, but only saw a million pointed firs, a hundred track-side moose, three mountain goats, a dozen rivers milkiy with rock powder, valleys that narrowed into tunnels opening into bigger valleys with green ice walls that had white tongues lapping down them from glaciers fields in even higher valleys,
I blew for a while on my harmonica burt I oouldn't hear it over the clack of the train and rumble of car sized boulders the glacierl melt water tumbled along the river bottoms. .
This was the goddamn life, flowing through me, me through it!
But of course, working on the railroad, is not the same as riding on the railroad.

After a time measureless to me, the conductor hollered up.
We were due within a few minutes to roll on the down grade past the Extra Gang #2 side track.
Throw your baggage out first, the conductor told me, and then wait until you're past it before you jump. And hit the ground running.

I threw the suitcase clear of the train, and then the sleeping bag; waited until we were past them, jumped, and hit the ground running......and bouncing. on my prosethics.
I bounced right into one of the several men standing there: a fire plug of an Indian who turned like a roller and chuckled me off. but did not fall, totter, or cuss.
When I had gathered up my belongings an nodded toward the approaching assistant foreman , who took my papers, and showed me to my bunk in a sleeping car. He said there was still time for me to get a snack down at the supper car if I wanted and anyway I would need to be bouncing out of bed at six the next morning.
I was very tired from all the landscape and river that had consumed. I closed the door looked out my window at a mountain wall. I could see just where I was in the morning. I closed my eyes and was lost in space.

The assistant foreman on the coal stove with a fire poker woke me and the men around me in the morning fog dim and milky with rock powder or ice crystals.

Breakfast, served up all at once by the assistant cook, was pancakes, cereal, donuts, eggs, bacon, ham, toast, and fried potatoes , juice, coffee. There must have been fruit there somewhere. Do they have bananas on the moon? Anyway there was far too much food for the ordinary human with an untrained stomach. These men shoveled it down like they thought they were fueling steam engines. I did my best.
I never saw the cook until after we had eaten and she came out to see how we were doing and when she stepped up to the table, I stood right up like the chair was suddenly hot. Aunt Sammy!
No not Aunt Sammy I realized, when I was introduced as the new hire, and she spoke a hello, but she resembled Sammy enough to have been her sister, and she could well have done her own radio show.
She was a radiant, red glowing woman, like a farmer, or a fire tender, and fire tender she was.
i would learn that she owned a restaurant in San Fransisco, and left it for Alaska each summer when the extra gangs did thier work, the reasom maybe being that these men were the best and most grateful customers. Nobody complained about the food, and nobody complained later on in my stay when she broke regulations and cooked game one of someone shot, oer about what the two women may or may not have been doing in their private quarters at night.

The work crew was eight or ten common gandy dancers, a heavy equipment operator, a spiker and his holder, plus the foreman and his assistant.. The gandy dancers and the tamper operator shared a couple of sleeping cars with two bunks to a compartment, though there was no one in the other bunk of mine for the first weeks. The foreman and assistant forman shared a sleeping car, the cook and her assistant another. The dining car was between the cooks' car and the wash car, then there was tool car, and a water car. Join one end to the other, whirl it off, and it would be a suitable space station.

I didn't see the brief dark of night for several weeks, but there must have been a night because it was cold every morning.
And then, about as soon as the sun made it through the mountain gaps, the temperature went into the eighties and nineties for rest of the day as the sun circled just over the peaks.
Each day was eight to ten hours of bending to shovel gravel and then jumping, on the shovel to tamp the gravel under the ties. . The foreman and assistaant foreman alernated supervising us, with one of them often going up and down the track above and below the job, laying and removing explosive warning charges in case a rogue train were to come along, and going back to the sidetrack for a trunk packed full of soup and sandwiches. I ate a man share , and then stretched out on the gravel with my head on the raill for fifteen minutes of deep sleep, until the iron hit the rail, then it was back to the shovel.
Except for lunch, you could only stop to drink or piss. I drank a lot, but mostly only pretended to piss so I could rest, because we sweated so we were about pissless. And the sweat evaporated so fast that by the end of the day our backs and shoulders were streaked white with salt like potato chips.

Joe, the spiker who came behind us was the Indian I had bounced into when I had jumped from the train. His helper placed the spike and Joe drove it in. I never could figure out why the head of the spiking hammer was so impossibly small: the same size as the head of the spike, why he never missed, or why he never brought it down before his helper got his hand away. .
Joe didn't read, but he was a great admirer of reading and writing. We didn't talk much, but sometimes, he would come sit in my compartment chair watching sometimes as I wrote notes to Carmella Mignano that I never mailed, Not that she was expecting any. She was Davey's ex girlfriend and I had a crush on her she didn't know about.

But in the first days there was no note writing, because I couldn't sit down and stay awake unless I was eating. After another huge meal at supper, I would generally flop down in my clothes and sink into a sleep l wouldn'tt wake from when the regular train came through at one or two in the morning passing within twenty feet of my head.

Already by the second or third day, my back was totally sprung at the base of my spine, and I couldn't straighten up without climbing up the shovel handle.
I had to pretty much leave my back out of it and do l the work with my arms, legs, and prosthesis.
Since none of those guys seemed to ever take their pants off either, I am not sure what they knew about my limitations and additions in the leg department. .
Wiith a few more days behind me, I would be still up a while after supper each night, when the cook's helper carried the scraps across the tracks and threw them off the berm.
Then the bears come out to feed. Sometimes five or six of them. That is a lot of bears in one place, seeing as bears are mostly lone rangers or protective single mothers with cubs. The news had spread about the great new free-lunch. Now and then there was a little quarrel and one went off and under a bush . A couple of the collge boys insisted on approaching and feeding cookies to the bears by hand. They Indian;s frowned at that.

The track patrolman was called Boomer (as maybe they are all called) after his very loud track car as he came a few hours before each train to insure that there were no sprung rails, no rock slides, dead moose or bears on the tracks.

He also brought the mail and liked to shoot the bull. He carried a .22 on his ride, and used it sometimes to urge on any moose or bears too dumb and puzzled to get out of his way.
This worked, except, according to the foreman, there was at least one bear whom Boomer had managed to lame with his little rifle, and the bear had developed a bad temper as a result.
If we ever saw one of the after- dinner bears with a limp and a snarl, and if the foremen were not around, we were to come and get his thirty ought six and put the animal down.

We often worked eight and a half hour days so that we could quit early on Friday, and then the foreman would take those who wanted to go in the man-haul, to the Porrtage station from where we could try to catch a ride into Anchorage.
After the first week I was too tired to do anything but sleep all weekend, but after the second, I just had to go in, beause the shoulder of the shovel blade and the rough gravel of the track bed had worn through the soles of my lower set of shoes, and was beginning to hack into my shoe stretchers.
So I went into Anchorage, stayed with the Millers, bought a pair of army surplus combat boots, a soggy fly rod to go with the reel and line I had brought from Ithaca, and then I went to a pawn shop on 4th Street and bought a twenty two revolver for sixteen dollars.
I also called Dr. Starr and made an appointment to fly with him to his lake cabin the next weekend. A bush pilot would drop us off Saturday and pick us up Sunday.

I rode back to Portage in the caboose again. I shot out of the window with my little revolver. I don't suppose that was something the conductor would have encouraged or the railroad approved, but I couldn't even hear the shots myself. Firing while we were in a tunnel, I could see flames shoot in all directions from the leaky chamber. It was a cheap little thing.

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