VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter Two

In “VW Bug and a Summer Job”, I was telling about how I got my first car and about working at the Sylvan Grove Union Pacific depot for two months each summer before my junior and senior years of college. Actually, during those summers, I was on the “extra board”. I don’t know if the railroad still works the same way, but in those days, it had an extra board for each of the variety of different positions that one could hold working for the railroad. I think part of this was that the railroad employees had really good unions in those days. (This is part of the problem with the situation of the American worker today–the unions are not as strong as they should be. Having had so many pro-ownership Republican administrations in Washington, the executives and company earnings have multiplied to the Nth power, and the workers who actually do the job get piecemeal raises at best.)

So there were extra boards for the trainmen, like engineers, conductors, firemen, and switchmen, and there were also extra boards for the more clerical-type people, like telegraphers and clerks. When you were on the extra board, basically you filled in when a regular employee went on vacation or got sick, so people on the extra board were constantly going from one assignment to another. A lot of people who started out working for the railroad began on the extra board; then as they gained seniority, they got permanent jobs in one place or another. However, some of the guys just liked the variety that working on the extra board gave them, so they stayed on it for quite awhile

The wheat elevator at Natoma, Kansas.  Notice that the tracks of the Lincoln Branch Line have been pulled up.

The wheat elevator at Natoma, Kansas. Notice that the tracks of the Lincoln Branch Line have been pulled up and the depot's gone.

So for three months of each of those summers, I was on the extra board, but I spent two of those months going back and forth to Sylvan from the folks’ farm in my VW. Being on the extra board, I also worked the vacations of the depot agents in Luray and Natoma. Like Sylvan Grove, these little towns were both on the Lincoln Branch Line of the UP, which ran between Salina, Kansas and Plainville, Kansas, which was the end of the line. Luray was almost the same distance from the farm as Sylvan, around 20 miles, but Natoma probably was about 40 miles away, but i drove back and forth every day in the Bug.

Unlike the depot in Sylvan, the depots in Luray and Natoma were still full-functioning depots, with electricity and furniture and all the other accoutrements of small town depots. There still wasn’t much to do, though, because like in Sylvan Grove, the only real activity for the train was bringing in the empty grain cars and taking the filled ones back out. And as the regular agents didn’t take their vacations during harvest time, I didn’t have a whole lot to take care of. I knew these little towns pretty well because my hometown, Dorrance, had always been in the same league with them in school sports and activities. (That league was actually called the Lincoln Branch League, after the name of that railroad line, which ran through or near many of the towns in the league.)

Nothing much happened at either of these depots that is fixed in my memory, but I do remember the “johns”. Although these little, small town depots had electricity and phones, most of them didn’t have any inside plumbing. If they had running water, it was from a spigot, either attached to the outside of the building or one away from the building, a stand-up type with one of those release handles that doesn’t give you much control of how much water comes out. So with no inside water, there had to be an outhouse. I guess it was the duty of the depot agent to take care of the outhouse, basically making sure there was toilet paper and adding lime down the hole to help with the bio-degradation. I don’t remember much about the Natoma or Sylvan toilets, but the one in Luray is what I remember most about working there. It sat some ways away from the depot out in full sun; a “two-holer” it was, and god-awful stinky. I remember finding the lime in the freight room and adding as much as I could to get the stench down. If I had to use it, I just tried not to breathe, but as for any “major business”, I made sure that I got that taken care of in the morning before I left for work because that outhouse was not one that I wanted spend any more time in than I had to.

What with opening the depot in Sylvan and filling in for the Luray and Natoma guys, I didn’t have much time left to work during the summer on the extra board, but I did also work in Abilene. My oldest brother had been working as a telegrapher and agent for a long time, and, in fact, he was the one who helped me get such a good summer job. At that time, he worked in the depot in Abilene, and the Abilene depot (this is the depot where President Eisenhower’s body was brought back to from Washington when he died in 1961) was not just some small town depot on a branch line; it was on the main line that ran between Kansas City and Denver. As I recall, it was even open round-the-clock. They had regular passenger and freight service there, so during the day, there were several employees in the depot. At that time, quite a few trains either stopped or just ran by in one day. Those two summers when my brother took vacation, I filled in for him, and stayed at his family’s house.

Abilene, Kansas depot, now the Abilene Visitors' Center

Abilene, Kansas Union Pacific depot, now the Abilene Visitors Center

At the Abilene depot, there were busy times and there were quiet times, but after working in the small towns with not a lot to do, this job was really exciting for me. First of all, there were passenger trains, so I got to sell tickets, and if there was baggage, I had to make sure it got on the train.

But the scariest thing for me was taking train orders–remember, I was just a 19-year-old kid that first summer. Even though they still had the telegraph, they didn’t use it to give out the train orders anymore. By that time, they were given out over the company phone. Where the phones in other depots were just the regular old black dial-type phones, the one they used for train orders in Abilene had some kind of headset to listen on and a pull-out accordion type receiver to talk into, and the phone had a special ring when they called to give a train order.

And when I heard that ring, I got pretty nervous because it was going to be the dispatcher calling from Kansas City giving the order. To me, the trainmaster was somebody up there pretty high on the totem pole. I had to take down the order on a special train order pad. The paper was very thin and there was a piece of carbon paper because–well, maybe, there were two pieces of carbon paper–anyway, I made more than one copy. The trainmaster would give out the order in a kind of formal verbal shorthand, and I had to copy it down exactly word for word. I’d get really nervous because I didn’t want to make a mistake. When I finished taking it down, I had to repeat it back, just to make sure I’d gotten it right.

Then I had to get the orders ready for the train. There was one order for the engineer, who was in the engine (of course) and another copy for the conductor, who rode in the caboose. (That’s why I think I had to make an original and two copies because I’m sure one had to be kept on file in the depot.) If the train was going to stop, it wasn’t such a big deal because then I would see the engineer and the conductor and just hand them the train orders. But . . . if the train wasn’t going to stop, it was a whole ‘nuther’ story. In that case, I had to prepare the train orders–and the forks. The forks were long, skinny poles that at the end had “forks”–two pieces of wood, similar to that of the pole, about a foot long, and that angled out from the main pole. There was a special string that had a loop in it that was put taut between these two sticks. The train order had to be rolled up and put into this small loop so that it wouldn’t come out. One of these forks was very long, and the order for the engineer went in that one. The other was shorter, and that one was for the conductor. Then when the train was going to come by, I had to go out on the platform and stand next to the tracks. First, I would hold the long one up, and as the train came by, the engineer would stick his arm out his window, and in that way, catch the string with the train order. Then when the caboose passed by the conductor would either be inside and stick his arm out the window or be standing on the back of the caboose. In either case, he would be a lot lower than the engineer; that’s why one fork was shorter. This little event was probably the scariest part of anything I did while working for the railroad–standing there just a couple of feet by a humongous machine whizzing by and hoping some piece of metal strapping from a boxcar wouldn’t swipe me across the face and hoping that I had the fork stuck up there close enough so they each could reach their copy of the train order, because who knew what might happen if they didn’t get the message!

But as I said there were also quiet times in the depot. Even though Abilene had/has the Eisenhower Center, Old Abilene Town, and the Greyhound Hall of Fame, and a lot of tourists come from all over to visit, it was/is only a town of about 6,000 people, so even with the tourists, it’s not actually teeming with people. So during the quieter times, there would be one or two locals who liked to come in and shoot the breeze, and sometimes we’d just stand by the glass double doors that looked out onto the street that ran parallel to the depot on the north side. It was a wide street, so there was actually extra space for cars to park out there. In other words, if someone was driving up just to drop another person off at the depot, they would drive between the parked cars and the depot, and the actual street was even further behind the parked cars. Because some of Abilene’s downtown streets are narrow and don’t have much parking, some people who worked close by parked there cars there by the depot. That was where we who worked in the depot also parked our cars. And that’s where I parked my VW. On the other side of the street was a typical small town hotel of 3 or 4 stories and next to it was a liquor store, so while we stood by the doors passing the time of day, the most interesting thing to do was watch who was going in and out of the hotel and the liquor store. (Sounds a little bit like Mayberry, doesn’t it?)

One day we were standing at the doors looking out when a big convertible with the top down and two guys inside it pulls up in front of the liquor store. The two guys go into the liquor store and come back out and get back in the convertible. Then from somewhere, maybe the liquor store, another guy runs to the convertible and starts punching the driver, who, meanwhile, throws the car into reverse. They’re fighting–half in, half out–of the car, and the car with no one controlling it makes a big ‘ol backwards U-turn and bams into the side of the rear of my VW, mostly crunching the back fender. I don’t actually remember what happened immediately after that. I suppose we called the police.

Anyway, it turned out that the guys in the car were soldiers from Ft. Riley (the big army base about 25 miles east of Abilene). Eventually, I had to go over to Ft. Riley to find these guys and their commanding officer to get them to pay for the damage to my car. The car was still drivable, but having my first car crunched right before my eyes like that was not a happy moment.

Later on in the fall, I had to go back to Abilene to serve as a witness in the assault case. What the outcome of that was, I don’t remember.

Purple, but not mine.

Purple, but not mine.

When I finally got the money from them (or their insurance), I took the car back to Great Bend, where I had bought it. They fixed the body damage, and I had them paint my VW purple! There were not many purple VWs in Kansas in those days, so everybody who knew me at college always knew my car.


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