Greece in a $100 VW Bug

A gypsy encampment in northern Greece (taken about 1974)

One of the things that I have spent some evening hours doing is going through boxes of slides that I haven’t given much attention to in a long time.  The move to my new house has made them more accessible, but viewing what’s on each of the little colored transparencies hasn’t been easy.  The projector and small box-type viewer have long since disappeared, so I have been trying to glean through them with the aid of a flashlight. The majority of the slides were taken when I was in the Air Force stationed in Greece.  I’ve written about having been in the Air Force in other posts.  I was lucky enough to have an exciting job and be stationed with the 6916th Security Squadron at Athenai Air Base.  I was also fortunate to be able to have a job where I worked six days in a row, then had three days off.  I spent a lot of those days traveling around Greece, mostly on day trips, in the beat-up VW Beetle that I had bought for $100 dollars soon after I arrived at the base from another guy who was being transferred.  That little bug had a loose steering column and wobbly back wheels, but it took me and friends on many jaunts about Athens and to quite a few places out into the Greek countryside.

The photo at the top gives you an idea of some of the amazing sights this country kid from Kansas encountered.   My old boxes of slides are certainly bringing back a lot of memories.  However, cleaning off all the bits of dust and lint isn’t easy, and getting the slides digitalized so that I can see and share them isn’t cheap either.  Consequently, I’m doing all of that a little at a time.

The quality of the photos is pretty good (if I do say so myself), so I’m planning to enlarge a number of them and frame them to use in my house.  Hopefully, my writing fingers will get into the mood once again as I have a couple of posts started about those days back in Greece, and some of the photos would make good accompaniments.

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VW Bug–College Life: The Selective Service and Student Teaching (Chapter Five in the VW Bug Chronicles)

draft-lotterySometime during my junior year in college (69-70), many of us guys sat nervously around the radio, waiting to hear what our draft number would be. I’m not sure how the Selective Service had determined the order of eligible young men to be called up for military service prior to that time, but at the end of the 60s, a lottery system was put into place, and the order a date of birth was pulled from the jar determined how high or how low a guy’s chances of being called up would be. Therefore, if you had a low lottery number (under a 100 at least), your chances of being drafted were very high. If your number was larger, say in the 300s, your chances of not being drafted would much better.

There were other factors involved also. Each county had its own draft board, which received a quota for the number of young men that it was required to send (probably based on the population of the county), and a guy’s lottery number within that smaller county pool might also determine whether he would be called up or not.

I don’t recall anyone in my group of friends or even others on the Fort Hays campus that were very “gung ho” about going, but if someone had a low number, he was surely resigned to his fate of either being drafted or enlisting. There were a few anti-war protests and counter-protests on campus; however, in reality, there were more students who chose to be onlookers, rather than participants for either side.

By this time, the Vietnam War had been going on with U.S. involvement for more than seven years. Everyone had seen a lot of the fighting and other images of the war on TV. (Here we are forty-some years later, and what we can see is that there was a lot more openness in what was shown of the war then, than is shown of what is happening in Iraq in this war. Every day the names of the soldiers who were killed and where they were from could be found in the newspaper. (These days unless it’s some local soldier who has been killed, the rest of the country has no idea whose life has been sacrificed. And everyone–both those for and those against the war– knew there was a sacrifice in fighting a war–something the Bush government has always seemed to want to hide from the American people.) Many of us had brothers who had already gone off to the military, and, very likely, to Vietnam. If not brothers, at least, we new of other relatives or local guys who had been called to service.

So, for a those of us guys there at Fort Hays and other schools across the country, getting our draft number in those days was part of college life, and, of course, the lower the number, the more heavily it probably weighed on one’s mind.

Even before the lottery, the draft system was something involved in our lives, because if you were in college, you had to get a deferment from your local draft board. When you turned 18, you had to sign up with the draft board, and if you weren’t in school, you were eligible to be called up. That meant college guys had to have a deferment, in order not to be drafted, but it also meant that you had to maintain passing grades and be taking a full college course load. The deferment was only temporary, though. When you graduated, you could be called up right away. Consequently, while you were still in school, what was going to happen to you afterwards, especially in respect to going into the military, was never far from your mind.

My number was 156. It was neither a good number nor a bad number. It wasn’t low enough so that the certainty of being taken was there. On the other hand, it wasn’t high enough that it was likely that I would not go. It was a middle number–a sort of “in limbo” number.

College life went on, though, that year or so, with the usual studies, parties, and vacations back home. Mixed into that life, some guys looked for alternative means, if not to avoid the draft altogether, but, perhaps to delay the inevitable. Some decided that getting married and starting a family–earlier than they might otherwise have come to that decision–was their way to hold off Uncle Sam (Think Dick Cheney). A few went into grad school in order to get an extended deferment (Think Dick Cheney again). There were others who chose to commit to the National Guard or the Reserves (Think GWB) because in those days very few guard or reserve units were called to go to Vietnam. However, in those days with so many wanting to go that route, these more local units had limit restrictions on the number of men they could take; consequently, in a lot of cases, a guy had to “know somebody” in order to get into the guards or reserves. (One thing that really irks me about the Iraq War: If the country really had been ready AND WILLING to go to war there, they should have re-instated the draft in order to have the manpower to complete that task successfully and fully maintain the military’s strength all around the world.)

At some point during my senior year, I got orders to go for my pre-induction physical. I had to go to Kansas City by bus, stay overnight, and was given my physical, lined up with hundreds of other guys, at the induction center which was in KC back then. The Selective Service made you take this physical early so that there would be no doubt about your health situation before they actually drafted you.

My final semester of college was my teaching block semester, so I spent part of it doing my student teaching at Great Bend High School. For the six weeks that I did my student teaching, I rented a basement apartment in a little old bungalow near the high school. Some people drove the approximately 50-mile drive each way from Hays every day, but I had opted not to do that. However, I drove my purple VW back to Hays to spend time catching up with my roommates every weekend, and even sometimes during the week when I had meetings or a big basketball game to watch on campus.

I had two cooperating teachers (the real teachers of the class), and for some reason, the one I worked with most, felt threatened by me. I don’t really know why. He was pretty well known among the teaching circles in that subject and had won different honors, and I was just this kid, having just turned 21, but looked even younger. Maybe that was the problem: that I wasn’t much older than most of my students. I learned a lot during that time, for the practical experience was real, and what we had studied in our “block” courses hadn’t really prepared us for the reality of the classroom. On my last day of student teaching, one class of my seniors gave me a going away present–a mini keg of beer–in class nonetheless. My cooperating teacher was just about beside himself–irate is probably more like it, but he didn’t do anything, maybe because it had happened on his watch. Or perhaps in those days, it wasn’t such a big deal. I can’t imagine anything like that happening these days, but, heck, these days they bring guns to school.

I was a bit worried about how that might affect my student teaching report because I still had to return to campus for a few weeks to finish up my courses and get my final student teaching evaluation. Despite my nervousness, the evaluations from my cooperating teachers were good, and there was no mention of the mini keg.

VW Bug and College Life on the Great Plains (Chapter 4)

I went to college in the middle of the Vietnam War years. Though I’d had my VW painted purple and maybe even had a peace sticker on the back window, I was hardly a hippie or a protester. Right at the time I started college, my brother had just come back from Vietnam and gotten out of the army, so I was personally aware of the war and its consequences, but I’d really never thought about whether I was for or against it.

I went to college in Hays (Fort Hays State) and sometimes drove the 44 miles home on the weekends. Forty-four miles seemed much further in those days, and some of the trips back to school on a Sunday night felt long, especially in the winter. The VWs of the 60s had terrible heaters, and sometimes the car never got warmed up the entire ride, and if there was snow or sleet, it would freeze on the windshield because the defroster had so little effect. I know there were times that it was so difficult to see through the windshield and through the blowing snow that it was only because the car knew its own way that we got back to Hays.

However, being light-weight and having the engine in the back, the car got really good traction. Because of that, if the streets around Hays hadn’t been plowed clean, my roommates would always get me to drive. My last year at Fort Hays, we had gone back for inter-session ( a short 2-week mini-semester) early in January, but there had been such a big blizzard that they called off classes for a few days. Of course, we had to get out of the apartment anyway. We found out that the movie theater downtown was open, so we got into the VW and headed out. With the weight of four guys in the car, we moved pretty well through the snow-filled streets, but sometimes we’d run into a drift in the road and the car would just get stuck; then, the other three would jump out of the car and push it through, jump back in and off we’d go. When we finally made it downtown, there weren’t many other cars out and the crowd inside the movie theater was a meager bunch of the most hardy of souls, or maybe the craziest. I guess we felt something like pioneers for being able to get ourselves through all that snow to watch a movie.

The student population at Fort Hays was very homogeneous in those days. The farm population of western Kansas was already dwindling, but not nearly as much as it has in more recent years. Most little towns still had their own high schools as consolidation had just barely started. Like me, the majority of the students came from small Kansas towns and from a more or less isolated existence. There were some out-of-state students and a few foreign students, but most of us came from the same rural background. The first black guy I met was at Fort Hays, but he too was from a small western Kansas town. (Nicodemus, Kansas was started by the exodusters, freed slaves from the South, who settled in western Kansas after the Civil War.) The people I went to school with were basically nice people, really good people, but I think most of us had grown up relatively naive to what was going on very far beyond our part of the state.

Even so, there were a few anti-war rallies on campus, but they were tame in comparison to most, and certainly there were no campus buildings damaged or destroyed by war protestors like happened at KU and some other campuses around the country.

There was a “head shop” that sold mostly black lights and black light posters, but drug use wasn’t that big. Like most college towns, there were a few bars and clubs that attracted students, but aside from weekends, I didn’t know that many people who drank that much. However, one of my roommate’s dorm friends was a pothead of sorts. Through him, I had my first and only experience in Hays of getting high. He had this stash–and, yes, it was truly stashed. One night four of us went out to the college farm to this pasture testing area. There were some test plots, which had fences around them in order to let the native plants grow and prevent the cows–or maybe buffalo (they had some buffalo out there too)–from eating them. We drove all over the place until we located the right plot, and the guy who had the pot stashed went and dug out this big bag of pot–I mean it was about the size of a bread sack. (I wonder how much that amount might be worth today.) He got back in the car, and we drove to another place there on the college farm, which looked out over the city. (At about 15,000 it was a city to all of us from towns of 300 or so.) He rolled some, and we proceeded to smoke it, looked at the glowing city lights, peered through the swirls on glass Pepsi bottles, and laughed a lot. I don’t know whether I got high from smoking the marijuana or just from the excitement of that new experience, but whatever, it all felt a bit dangerous but nonetheless fun.

My social life was typical of most of the “dormies”. Most of the students at Fort Hays were either dormies, lived in a frat or sorority house, or lived at home and commuted. Of course, like my roommates and I during our final year, some of the dormies eventually moved into apartments.

Looking back, the four of us probably could have been classified as nerds, but I don’t think there was such a stigma of being studious as there is today. The three of them were science majors of one kind or another and I was an English major. They studied more than I did, but we all ended up getting good grades. On the other hand, after living in the dorm for three years, we did like to have parties. About once a month, on a Saturday night, we’d throw a party, inviting everyone we knew. Of course, it was always alcohol-centered. If food was involved, there was never anything much more elaborate than some bags of chips. Sometimes, we’d have a “trashcan party”. We’d get some cans of Hi-C, pour it into a big plastic trash can, then everybody would add whatever booze they’d brought into the can. Sometimes, there would be 60 or 70 people inside our small two-bedroom apartment on Custer Drive, with the majority of them spilling out onto the balcony that ran all along the second floor. Well, maybe we weren’t such nerds (and maybe some people did drink quite a bit) after all.

Somehow I got this girlfriend, the first semester of my senior year. I had had a few dates before then, but for the most part, I was scared of girls. Don’t get me wrong; I liked girls, and always had lots of friends who were girls, starting from grade school. Dating, though, was a different matter. In college, I was pretty out-going and involved with student government and other organizations, and lots of other guys I knew were dating, and even getting married, so I guess I felt it was something I should do. I really never felt pressured to do it, for sure not from my roommates, who had less going on in that part of their social lives than I did.

Anyway, that fall, I started dating this girl, who was a year younger than I was. I guess you could say she was on the aggressive side when it came to making the moves. No doubt, she was more experienced than I was, because I had never had any kind of physical relationship with a girl up till then. She seemed to really be into me, so at the beginning I liked going out with her. She liked to come out to our apartment and get me into my shared bedroom, even with the roommates out in the living room, which sort of embarrassed me. There were two things, though, making me reluctant to go all the way: one, I just wasn’t quite as interested in doing it as she was, and second, my mom had put “the fear” in me when I was back in high school about getting a girl pregnant. So while we can say there was sometimes a lot of frenzied action, “no deal was ever completed”.

We soon “started going steady”, exchanging high school class rings and framed photographs. Then not too far down the road, she got me even to look at some engagement rings in a downtown jewelry store. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in hindsight, I realized that this girl was one of those who went to college to get an M.R.S. degree. One weekend, we drove out to meet her parents in Ulysses, where her dad was a school administrator.

Saturday of that weekend, we went around town looking at different churches because the church she and her parents attended would just not do for the wedding she was thinking about; it wasn’t big enough nor nice enough. Mind you, I had not even asked her to get married, but to her it was a foregone conclusion. Sunday morning, we all went to their church, a Baptist church. (Growing up, I went to the Methodist church in Dorrance with my family, and it was pretty low key: a lot of singing of hymns, which I liked, and listening to the boring sermons, which were mostly about how to be a good person, and probably sometimes about how people needed to give more money. When I was about 13 or 14, there were three of us who took catechism classes at the church parsonage in Wilson, taught by the grizzly old preacher that we had at that time. We had to learn Bible verses and other lessons in order to become full members of the church. I really didn’t like going because this old geezer thought that he really had to put the “fear of God” in us. He treated us like we were stupid and primarily terrified us. In the end, I did become a member of the church, but I never liked going after that.) I knew people who were Baptists when I was growing up, and they were no different than any of the rest of us Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, or whatever. I guess maybe they weren’t supposed to dance, but I think at that time if you were really a strict Methodist, you weren’t supposed to dance either.

But this Baptist church in Ulysses was really different. The preacher was one of those “fire and brimstone” types, and he said that if you weren’t a Baptist, you were going to Hell, but you couldn’t be just any Baptist; if you weren’t a member of that particular Baptist church there in Ulysses, you were going to Hell.

Needless to say, I was beginning to feel like a runner caught between second base and third base in a squeeze play. That drive back to Hays was one that I couldn’t wait to end, and over the next few weeks, I began to distance myself. I knew I didn’t want to get married to this girl, (and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to marry any girl), not because of what had happened during that weekend, but I knew I wasn’t in love with her.

She still had one more card to play; a couple weeks later, she called up and told me that her period was late. I didn’t do anything but worry for a couple of days, wondering how her being pregnant was biologically possible and what I would do if she were. Then finally convinced by a mutual friend, she told me that she had made it up. The one thing I wanted back was my class ring, so I went over to her dorm with her ring and picture. She still had a couple more scenes left in that little drama of hers; when I took her ring and picture back over to her dorm, she started screaming and threw my ring and framed picture down the stairwell at me, shattering the glass all over the place.

Sometime after I had graduated and was already in the Air Force, I heard that she was able to get that M.R.S. degree. Over the years, I’ve thought back on that fall of my senior year and what a miserable mistake it would have been if that relationship had gone any further.

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You may also want to read VW Bug and a Summer Job, VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter 2, and VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town.

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.)

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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.

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