Richard Bostwick Reminiscences
Cab Driving Stories
N.P.R.R. (Northern Pacific Railroad)
The year was 1941. We were living in Fargo, North Dakota. I was unemployed and deeply in debt. There was no work to be had, and I desperately needed a job. I went to the R.R. office and asked if they were hiring anyone. It so happened that I had served an apprenticeship in the car shops at Dilworth, a division point of the N.P. and a suburb of Fargo. My employment with the N.P. was prior to, and terminated by, the National Shop Craft Strike of 1922. At the end of the strike, my failure to be re-hired was due to having been judged as, “Too active during the strike.”
As I applied for the present employment, I told the hiring clerk I was an experienced car repairman and gave him the dates of my previous employment. He said he would have to contact the St. Paul office to get clearance on my being hired, and for me to come back next Wednesday.
Well, the following Wednesday when I reappeared to the N.P. office, the presiding clerk said, “Sorry, St. Paul says you are ‘black balled'”. This meant I was not eligible for hiring. This was a big disappointment to me, but I could not believe they (the N.P.R.R.) could hold a grudge for 19 years. The clerk told me that the general supervisor of car shops for the N.P. system was a Mr. Moody, whose office was in St. Paul. I decided I would plead my case personally to Mr. Moody.
That night I caught a freight train to Minneapolis. After riding most of the night I arrived early the next morning. I got a cup of coffee and 2 doughnuts in a cheap bakery and proceeded down to the Union R.R. station. I went around to the baggage room, and I talked the driver of a yellow baggage truck into giving me a ride to St. Paul in exchange for me helping him load a large load of trunks onto his truck.
Upon arriving in St. Paul I got off at the nearest point adjacent to the Como Shops, where Mr. Moody's office was. I entered the large two-story frame gray painted building. I remember one feature of the inside of the structure which was a very wide hallway with large glass partitioned offices on each side. As I walked along the hall I was looking for a door nameplate identifying Mr. Moody's office. After traversing about half way down the hall I spotted a fellow I knew, Mr. Bert Stebbins, brother of Howard Stebbins, who was a former brother-in-law of mine. I barged into Bert's office, explained why I was there, and asked him where I could find Mr. Moody. Bert said, “Come with me, I will introduce you to him.”
I followed Bert upstairs and into Mr. Moody's office. He was a large fellow with a full head of white hair. Bert introduced me to Mr. Moody, and I proceeded to explain that 19 years ago I was just a kid, and had not damaged or harmed any N.P. property during the strike.
The R.R. had forced the strike to take place by repeated wage cuts. It was their way of breaking the union. As soon as the strike was called, the R.R. began building large dormitories next to the car shop. They enclosed them in high wire fences and hired armed guards to protect the scabs who would inhabit them. The R.R. the recruited men from all over the nation.
At the time of the strike I was earning some .30 cents an hour. The company's next move was to have Jean Crotoue and his boss, Mr. Emerson the master mechanic, visit the homes of the striking car men and try to induce them to return to their jobs. They came to visit me one evening at my home. Emerson did all the talking-offering me $1.00 an hour, plus room and board if I would return to my old job. Being a good union man, I turned him down. As they turned to leave, Jean looked back at me. I believe it was the first and only time I had ever seen him smile.
The strike was dragging along into winter, and the striking car repairers were really feeling the pinch. This forced a lot of the strikers, nationwide, to travel to another division, even another railroad, and go to work as scabs. Our national union headquarters finally acknowledged defeat and sent out notice that the men were to go back to work. The railroad set up a sort of ‘employment office' in the westbound yard office. The men were instructed to go there to sign up for their old jobs.
I was amongst those lined up waiting my turn. It was quite a humiliating experience. Old man Emerson, the master mechanic, was standing alongside of the chief clerk who was accepting the applications. As my name was called and I stepped forward, Mr. Emerson said, “No deal, application refused!” When I asked why, his reply was, “Too active during the strike.” Well, I wasn't any worse off than I had been. If it had not been for Clara's folks, I don't know what we would have done during those hard times. Believe me, Bell and Bert Baker were two wonderful people.
History will tell you that we lost the strike, which was a very vicious and bloody affair. I missed working for Jean; he was one of the fairest men I ever worked for. Due to all of the interest he had shown in me and the counseling he at times gave me, he had become like a second father to me.
The National Union Headquarters sent out word that the Baltimore and Ohio railroads were hiring experienced car men and any union member who was still out of work could find employment in Chicago. I grabbed the ‘blinds' on an eastbound passenger train that night and days later I was in Chicago. I made my way out to the B and O South Chicago car shops. The next day I was working at my trade as a ‘car knocker.'
The ‘rip tracks' (repair yard) and car shops were much more extensive there that in Dilworth. I managed to find room and board nearby, and was doing good but far from satisfied. Not only was I a little homesick, being such a long way from home, but the conditions there were far from what I had been accustomed to working under. You see, there was no longer a union to see to the working conditions or to the enforcement of safety rules. Another big reason was the fact that a large majority of the car men in this shop were run away members from some other local in some other city or state.
Mr. Moody seemed a good-natured fellow, and agreed to rehire me. But he explained my employment would not be in Fargo, but would be out on the West Coast, Tacoma Washington in fact.
This pleased me exceedingly because I was pretty well fed up on living in Fargo. Mr. Moody told me to return home, and I would receive transportation to my new place of employment in a few days. I then informed him I had a wife and 9 children. I asked if I could get transportation for them also. He said that if I remained on the job for at least 6 months, I would receive passes for my family to join me. He also said that most fellows sent out west to work in the car shops seemed to find the shipyards before they found the railroad yards. He assured me that if I remained with the company the required length of time he would see to it that my family would join me. Now 6 months seemed a long time to be separated from my family, but what choice did I have?
After thanking Bert Stebbins for the good that he had done for me, I caught another freight train back home and began making plans for the trip out west. My wife was very happy at the prospect of me going to work and of a new home in the west. We both felt bad, though, thinking of being separated for the 6 months. I received my pass on the R.R. that would take me to Tacoma Washington the following weekend. This all seemed glamorous and exciting-up until I realized that in accepting this new job, it meant my separation from my family. I really hated to leave my family alone during those 6 months. I had made arrangements with the local welfare department for my families' care during my absence.
Well, the morning of my departure soon arrived. It was a beautiful June morning. After kissing my wife and children goodbye, I proceeded down to the R.R. station accompanied by my oldest daughter, Renee. I had my work clothes and other possessions in a small cardboard box held together by a piece of rope. While waiting for the train, I realized that I had forgotten my work shoes. Renee rode her bicycle as fast as she could back home to get them. She returned back to the depot just in time, as the train I was taking was about to leave.
Well, after a long and lonesome trip out west I finally arrived in Tacoma and proceeded out to the south Tacoma shops. The superintendent told me to be to work the following a.m. and advised me to check the bulletin board which displayed a listing of the nearby rooms for rent. I rented the first room I applied for. It was in a family residence on Warner street . I liked the room, as it was within walking distance and the people seemed very nice. Their names were (these names were left blank by Grandpa). The gentleman worked in the car shops also.
All that I had learned about repairing railroad cars 19 years ago was of no use to me now. You see, 19 years ago all boxcars were built of wood. Today they are all steel and much larger. As I was not a welder, burner or riveter, I was somewhat at a loss in a modern car shop. The upshot of my inadequacy was my being transferred to the Head of the Bay yard uptown. There I was put to work as a car inspector. It was my duty, along with a partner, to check all incoming freight trains for safety defects, such as bent or broken brake wheels, grab irons or other safety mechanics. When I wasn't checking for safety defects I would be busy helping in the ‘make up', or putting together out going freight trains.
As the switch engine kicked in the box cars on the make up track, I would have to step in between the cars as soon as they came to a stop, pick up the end of the air hose on each car and lock their couplings together, then lower them into position. My hours were from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Now this railroad yard was what was known as a ‘hot yard.' This meant that you hooked up the air hoses on these cars as they were shoved in. Normally the cars would be all coupled up, a blue lantern put on each end to notify any engine not to bump them because they were being worked on. You then would go down the live step in between each car, hook up the air hose with no danger of them being moved.
But in this ‘hot yard' you hooked up the air hoses as each car was kicked in and came to a stop. This was a dangerous way of doing it, but it helped speed up the war effort.
It was not long until Tom, my second oldest son came out to Tacoma from Fargo by way of hitch hiking. He got a job with the R.R. as an oiler in the roundhouse.
During the war there was an awful lot of cargo going through the Port of Tacoma and it all came by rail from other parts of the country. This necessitated a large yard crew, mostly switchmen known in the trade as ‘snakes.' How they came by such a nickname I'll never know. These switchmen came from all over the country and were classified as ‘boomers'. They traveled from one railroad to another. The majority of them were quite hardened characters, especially one who was known for his fighting ability. It seemed that no one rubbed him the wrong way. He was a large man and very mean looking.
All of us who worked during the night carried carbide lanterns. They were issued to us by the company and they were pretty lights. Their only fault was that some of them had cloudy chimneys, only a few had clear glass. That was an exception. It was my luck to have been issued a lantern that had a very cloudy chimney. Now, it was the general practice to always have your lantern on the bench outside of the switch shanty when you went in to eat your lunch. Sometimes there would be 10 or 12 lanterns lined up on the bench outside. One day I decided to switch lantern globes with someone who had a clear one.
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