I spent a day this week in my hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa, helping my parents celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. A gathering of family for occasions like this is always a joyous time of remembrance and a great opportunity to share family stories.
On this visit, we happened to drive by the Union Station area in Omaha where I spent many hours in the 1960s, working my way through college. It’s not far from the famed Old Market area and much of the area between has undergone a major facelift. The station area, though, is kind of a mixed bag.
There’s a nice museum in the old Union Station itself, but the nearby Burlington Station is more of an eyesore these days although signage indicates condos may resurrect the place someday. Buildings aside, I’m saddened to look at the tracks that run between the structures that used to be filled with passengers criss-crossing the nation.
I worked there during the final throes of what had been a thriving passenger rail era. None of the jobs I held in my railroad years exist today. As a mail handler, I filled rail cars with bags of mail at one of the nation’s busiest transfer points in Council Bluffs. It’s long gone. As a coach cleaner, I pumped water into the passenger cars during their brief stops at Union Station. Gone. As a carman’s helper, I toted an oil can down long strings of freight cars, pausing only to lubricate those dwindling number of wheels that had not yet been updated to roller bearings. Gone.
But, though the jobs are gone, my memories of the people I worked with remain. The railroad people I worked with were storytellers, even those of few words.
It was mostly an uneducated bunch and many of them had lived through the Depression. Some of them who were nearing the end of their rail careers had even managed to raise families during those lean years. And they loved to share their experiences with a still-wet-behind-the-ears college kid who obviously knew nothing about the world. This was definitely not a world of political correctness.
It was a great education. Although not all of what I learned was positive – like the sexual terms I hadn’t heard before and haven’t heard since, how to cover a six-team parlay with one good over-under, how to roll your own cigarette or how to catch a catnap where the boss won’t catch you – I’ve carried memories of these people with me over the past four decades.
While I’ve forgotten many of my fellow students from that era, I still remember these hard-scrabble men, right down to the personal quirks that make them unforgettable in my mind.
Storytellers enter our lives from different directions. Sometimes they’re an unexpected gift; sometimes they’re just an annoyance. Learn to identify those in your life and give them the proper place in your own personal history.