VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town (Chapter 3)

When I was working at the depots at Sylvan Grove, Luray, and Natoma, I drove back and forth every day to the folks’ farm, where I was staying for the summer, so I had no rent to pay. With only to supply my own lunches, I didn’t have much to pay out of pocket for food since I rarely ate breakfast, and Mom always made supper. Most all of my summer wages I could save for college. For entertainment at home, we watched TV in the evenings like we had always done since we got the first TV set.

But every Saturday night, I “went to town”. Town was my little hometown of Dorrance, where I had graduated from high school. Going to town was what almost every country boy who had his own car did on Saturday nights. It was also kind of a tradition for the boys in my family. My older brothers had gone to town on Saturday nights after they had their own cars. And those summers after I had my own car, I went to town.

Not that there was all that much to do in Dorrance on Saturday nights. By that time, the drug store had been closed quite a number of years, and I’m not sure if there was even a restaurant any more. There was the pool hall, but I didn’t spend time in there because my aunt and uncle ran it. I had been taught at home that it wasn’t the kind of place to hang out. I did go there sometimes in high school when some of my friends went there, and we played a little snooker or 8-ball. It was such a weird situation because we grew up in this little town, but we were never close to most of our relatives, so the aunt and uncle who ran the pool hall didn’t really seem like relatives; on the other hand, to hang out in the pool hall and drink beer in front of my aunt and uncle seemed like something I shouldn’t be doing. Though, they, of course, were the ones who sold the beer! (That’s really convoluted thinking, isn’t it?)

So those summer Saturday nights, I would buy a six-pack of beer (maybe at the pool hall or maybe I would go to Wilson), and do the only thing there was much to do in Dorrance for a young guy with a car–drag main street. Of course, dragging main street in Dorrance could be pretty repetitious–because the part of main street that we would “drag” was only one block long. You drove one way to the corner, made a u-turn and then drove the other way and made a u-turn, hoping some of your friends would be doing the same thing. If they were, sometimes you’d stop in the middle of the street and shoot the breeze for awhile because there probably wouldn’t be any other cars for awhile, and if there were, the street was wide enough that they could get by with no problem.

Of course, dragging main got old after a while, so then you started driving around the rest of town, which even if you drove only about 20 mph would only take about 15 minutes, and that would be all of the streets on both the north and south sides of the railroad tracks. I usually didn’t find too many of my friends because by my last two years in college, many of them had gotten married or moved away.

If I didn’t find anyone to talk to or hang out with, sometimes I would take off the seven miles down Old 40 to Wilson or even the fifteen miles to Russell and drag main street in those towns. The only object was that it was some place to drive to, because more than likely, I wouldn’t find anybody I knew, but for sure in those towns there would be more people “dragging main”.

At the end of the night, I would have finished my six-pack. Probably not the most exciting thing to do on a Saturday night, but I’m sure it wasn’t so different from what a lot of young guys in rural areas with their own cars did on Saturday night. (After all, both beer and gas were cheap back then.)


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


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.

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.


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