He was a school teacher, working as a section hand on the Northern Pacific Railroad, trying to earn a living during the summer. On this section were four other men plus the foreman. They were putting in ties, new black ones, covered with creosote. All the other workers were seasoned veterans at this kind of work.
It was Friday. Just yesterday the teacher had finished a nine month term as the teaching-principal at the elementary school in Falcon, Montana. Carl Rowland was fortunate to get a summer job so quickly, although he was wondering whether or not he could last out the day. If only he could have had a few days off after the school term ended before this new grind started–but he needed every penny to support his family.
“Carl, you and Swede hurry up and get these two ties in. The local will be along in a few minutes, and we don’t want ties out side by side,” said the foreman.
“O.K.,” Carl replied, but he didn’t see how in the hell he was going to work any faster. He painfully straightened his six foot-four inch frame and looked down the track. For late May it was unseasonably hot. The heat waves shimmered above the track and the sun glinted off the rails. He rested for a moment on his shovel before reaching for his pick to begin loosening the gravel and gumbo where the old tie had been.
Swede picked up his worn “two-point” shovel and began to clean out the trench. The teacher grabbed the tie tongs and positioned the heavy black tie under the rail. Then both men with tongs yanked the tie the rest of the way under the opposite rail. Quickly the tie was tamped up to fit tightly under the steel.
Almost without loss of motion, the second tie was put in and tamped fast under the rails. By now, Carl’s hands were blistered, his ankles were bruised by flying gravel, and his school oxfords were badly scuffed.
When Carl stooped over his head hurt. The blood pounding in his temples; he became dizzy, and was barely able to stand. The old felt hat with which he had started the day had long been cast aside. It didn’t allow enough air to get to his head, even with holes cut in the crown. His ears were getting sunburned; they stuck out way too far. Tonight they would bleed on his pillow.
Soon the local went by safely. The foreman was in his usual sour mood. He was probably mad because the men were not averaging ten ties per man today, or even eight, for that matter. He did not consider the fact that the track ballast had sunk into the gumbo and was hard as concrete.
After finishing tamping in the tie, the teacher asked, “What time is it?”
“Eleven fifty-eight,” replied Swede. His real name was Harold Blumberg, but all the men and the foreman called him Swede. He was small, but wiry and a working fool. He had sectioned since he was sixteen, and there was little about railroading that he did not know. Carl had been paired with Swede this morning; the men worked in twos when putting in ties. Swede was a good man to work with. Sometimes he acted as relief foreman. Too bad he wasn’t foreman permanently instead of Bill Hirsch. Nobody liked that son-of-a-bitch.
“Well, I have to have some ice water,” said Carl, wiping his brow.
“Better watch it,” cautioned Swede. “You might get cramps.”
“Can’t help it. Might as well die of cramps as of thirst.” He walked over to the canvas-covered water keg that was sitting in the shadow of a telephone pole.
Olaf Rald was there ahead of him, drinking from the only tin cup.
“I’m so dry I could fart dust.”
Carl snorted and almost dropped the proffered cup. He had never heard that one before. He’d have to remember it for the next Montana Education Association convention. That was about all the two day convention was good for–telling stories.
Carl forgot the section momentarily. Maybe he would join the MEA and go to the meeting. But that was problematic, since he would have to get a new pair of oxfords and, possibly, a topcoat. It was embarrassing to walk around town shivering in the chilly weather and pretend that you had left your coat in the car. If only he didn’t have the draft hanging over him, perhaps he could go back to college, get his degree, and a find a better teaching job so he wouldn’t have to work on the section.
The regular section gang was a rugged bunch. They looked with contempt on an “indoor” man, especially if he proved to be unable to do his share of physical work. All day long they had been openly observing the teacher, wondering how long he would last before heat, exertion and ice water would render him sick and retching. But by noon it appeared that he might pass the test. As the men retrieved their lunch pails from the motor car, some of them even ventured a little good natured banter as they headed for a nearby railroad culvert to eat lunch.
“Well, how do you like using a two-point?”
“It’s heavier than a pencil.”
“You’ll sleep on your own side of the bed tonight.”
“Hell, no. The harder I work the more I want it!”
Snorts of laughter were heard from the far end of the culvert.
Yes, the section was very different from teaching school; both the work and the language. In school, all desire for an outburst of profanity had to be suppressed. But on the section, the teacher would not be censored for using spicy language; in fact, he would be looked up to. Talking rough on the section didn’t mean a thing; it was as much a part of life as eating, walking, sleeping, and having sex.