VW Bug and a Summer Railroad Job, Chapter One

Not Mine But Similar

Not Mine But Similar

I think most guys will remember each and every car that they have owned. I know I do. My first five cars were VW Beetles. I’m not quite sure why I got a VW Bug for my first car; maybe it was because it was during the 60s, and they were a popular symbol of the culture of the time–hippies, psychodelic images, and all that. I know it wasn’t anything about the price of gas.

I just don’t recall exactly when I got that car–somewhere around the time of my sophomore year in college. I know I didn’t have a car my first year at Fort Hays State. I had worked for my sister and her husband at their freight business the summer after graduating from high school and the next summer after my freshman year in college, and I had scholarships my first two years of college, so I had saved up some money. My dad took me over to Great Bend to Marmie Motors–I think that was the name. I don’t know how much we tried it out, but I bought this used 1963 VW for $1200 or $1300 and drove it home. I’m pretty sure the original paint was light green in color. (Because of having owned different ones, a few of the colors have blended together in my head.)

The summers after my sophomore and junior years, I worked for Union Pacific Railroad as a temporary depot agent–I’m sure the official title of the job was telegrapher or clerk or something like that. However, I never learned to use the telegraph; by that time the railroad had its own phone lines to give out train orders and other messages. I spent two months of each of those summers at the depot in Sylvan Grove, Kansas. It was close enough that I drove from my folks’ farm, and a pretty drive at that, because each day I got to pass by (in my VW) Wilson Lake two times.

The depot situation at Sylvan was an unusual one. Sylvan Grove was on the Lincoln Branch Line of the UP, which went from Salina to Plainville. Before those days, even the tiniest little town had had its own depot and depot agent, but by the 60s, the railroad had closed down a lot of the very small stations and were in the process of closing down a great many of the others. (Since then, they’ve even pulled up the tracks on quite a few of the branch lines, but with the price of gasoline, that may have been a very big mistake.) Anyway, the UP had already shut down the Sylvan station sometime during the previous year, but in doing so, they had made an agreement with the town that they would open it up for two months during the summer so that it would be open during harvest.

So for those two summers for two months, I was the Sylvan Grove depot agent. On the first day, I would go to the Lincoln Center (Lincoln, Kansas) depot, which was still a regular station at that time, pick up the key and a desk chair, which I somehow managed to squeeze into the back seat of my VW, and head the 10 or so miles over to Sylvan and open up the depot.

It was a big old musty building, the standard small town, wooden-type, painted green and white. They didn’t even turn the electricity on for those two months, but there were enough windows in the waiting room and the main office room to get pretty good light. I had to keep them opened up to get some air in, especially since June and July are hot months. About one-half of the depot building was a big freight room, which was dark and pretty dirty. It had a big sliding, barn-type door, which I could open up just to take a look around or release the built-up heat. When they had closed up the depot, they had taken everything; there was no desk, no waiting room benches, no freight carts. There was, however, the built-in telegrapher’s desk in the bay window (I know it’s not called that in depot architecture, but it’s all I can think of now) that stuck out so that you could see the tracks and the trains coming, the railroad phone, and the chair I had brought with me. There was still the telegraph, and the depot agent from Lincoln would use it sometimes–I think just to gossip on with some of the other guys who still knew how to use it–but for regular railroad communication, everyone used the phone.

Not that the phone rang much.

There was just one train that ran on that line. Every other day, it headed out from Salina and went up to Plainville. The next day it came by going the other direction. It didn’t even stop unless it was dropping off empty grain cars or picking loaded ones up. Basically, that was mostly what that train did–bring out grain cars and hoppers for all the elevators on the line and pick up the filled ones. On a rare occasion, it might have brought in a load of farm equipment for Plainville. Also there is a rock quarry at Lincoln, but even in those days, I think most of the rock was taken out of there by truck.

Every so often, the sectionmen for the entire branch–3 or 4 of them–would come through and stop. They were the ones who kept the tracks and railbed up on this line. They would come in and hang around for awhile–kind of smelly guys, from working out there in the sun and heat. They had this little electric car they’d ride up on, and I’d have to let them know if the train was coming so that could move their car onto a side track if it was.

If the elevator had filled wheat cars to be picked up, the elevator guys told me, and I made up the bill of lading, recorded the seal number, and went and put the seal on the car. Then when the train came, I’d give the bills to the trainmen. They never picked up more than a few cars in Sylvan–maybe like 5 or 6 at most, even in harvest time.

That was why having me there to open the depot for two months was pretty laughable. Because when I wasn’t there, the elevator guys just made out the bills of lading, put the seals on the cars, and gave the bills to the trainmen. But the town had made the agreement to keep the depot open for those two months, so there I was. It was a great-paying job for a college kid like me. The railroad workers had a really strong union in those days, and because of that, I got the same pay as the agent who had worked there when the place was open regularly. He had probably had a lot of seniority when they closed the depot, so the pay rate was really good. Also Saturday was not a work day for me, but because the train headed back to Salina from Plainville on Saturday, if there were cars to be picked up, I would have to go over there and I would get time-and-a-half for that. I also had to work one 4th of July, and I got double-time-and-a-half for that! Basically, just to make up the bills and give them to the trainmen. But I sure didn’t mind.

I had a battery-operated cassette player–yes, that was after 8-tracks–and I would take it in the depot and play Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I know that I just had a few cassettes that I played over and over. Although the depot sat at the far end of Main Street, there had to have been a few people who heard my music through the open windows, even if it was only the elevators guys. I don’t think I thought much of it then, but now I kind of wonder what those townspeople thought of this 19 or 20-year-old kid coming in to open up the depot. I know I probably looked a lot younger than my age. I always got my ID checked even a long time after that. (Back then you could buy beer when you were 18.) Even though I was a kid and out there at that depot all alone with not much but time on my hands, I made it to work on time and closed the depot at the set time. I took my hour lunch time too.

Sylvan Grove probably had a little bigger population than the 300-400 it has today, and it had a cafe, so I suppose I ate my lunch there. (Weird–I have very little recollection of what I ate, when I ate, or how much I ate when I was on my own, for about 20 or 25 years. I know I shopped for groceries, cooked, and also ate out–but for all that time, I guess it wasn’t that important–must change with age.) But I don’t remember going to the cafe every day, nor do I remember taking my lunch with me. I didn’t have much interactions with too many people except for the elevator and train guys.

What I do remember is taking out in my VW and exploring the countryside during my lunch hour. I’ve always been a nut about geography and where towns are and how big they are–all that stuff. So even though, Lincoln County is not that far from where I grew up, I didn’t know it very well. Some lunchtimes, I’d take out and head to Vesper, Denmark, or Hunter, just to look around the town or even look at the cemeteries. It was a great way to bring dots on the map into reality.

The next year I graduated from college, but I didn’t work since I knew I was going into the Air Force in August. I don’t know how many summers they kept the Sylvan depot open after my two summers, not too many more years, I think.

Having that first car gave me a lot of freedom, I suppose. Getting it though was just a matter of course that I didn’t think about in those days–just what I did because I was the youngest and the others had done similar things–so going to college, working in the summer, going off to the military–even getting that first car was part of it all.

Not so long ago I drove through Sylvan Grove, and the depot is still standing in its same place, but I think they might have been using it as a horse barn.

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If you liked this one, you may want to read “VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter Two”.

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