I learned a lot from the variety of railroad jobs I held while attending college, namely:
1. I wasn’t cut out for a career involving manual labor outdoors.
2. There’s a lot of wisdom to be absorbed while working with blue-collar mentors.
3. You cover a six-team parlay with one sure thing.
4. It’s a lot more fun to ride a train than work on one.
5. We lost a lot when the passenger trains died.
The Union Pacific Railroad has been very good to me, and my family. My paternal grandfather, a great uncle, my father and several uncles made livings working for the railroad, most of them for the U.P. Both of my brothers worked there and my railroad jobs pretty much paid my way through college.
I took my first job as a mail handler at Union Station in Omaha right after my high school graduation. As an on-call member of a group of students dubbed “the school board,” that meant mostly overnight work on weekends when a regular called in sick (or otherwise impaired). The next summer, I took a more-steady gig at a massive rail mail center in Council Bluffs, tossing bags of bulk mail headed to all corners of the United States. I also managed a couple of weeks during the Christmas rush.
For the last three years of college, though, I returned to Union Station where I worked as a coach cleaner. We didn’t actually clean coaches as much as we provided passengers with water. Since most streamliners passed through Omaha in the dead of night, that was when we lugged heavy hoses to each coach, filling them with water to last until their next stop.
One summer, though, I was lucky enough to have several weeks duty of driving an ice wagon throughout the station, icing down drinking fountains and servicing dining cars. For another summer, I was “set up” as a carman’s helper, oiling wheel boxes and bleeding brake lines.
None of my railroad jobs exist today, at least not in the fashion they functioned at that time. The work could be brutal, working in all types of weather and occasionally getting trapped between trains with no escape until one of them left.
The weather alone was enough to make me determined to never do this kind of work for a living, although most of my co-workers did exactly that. The life lessons learned from these hard-working, mostly uneducated, men was a welcome complement to my formal college training.
I joined my first unions on the railroad, placed my first bets on college football games there, became adept at an obscure version of mumbledy-peg and learned the value of punching in and out on time.
Working as I did in a once-ornate train station, complete with one of the area’s fine dining establishments, I witnessed first-hand the decline of passenger rail service. The restaurant had slipped badly before I started working there and the trains disappeared, one by one. Besides eventually losing my full-time job, it was a sad thing to go through.
Amtrak still serves the area with limited passenger service, but it’s nothing like the heyday. Fortunately, Union Station is still around, but as a museum.
Next time, I’ll write about my four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force.