The other day I went over to the new United Chem-Con plant in order to cover the story of the local YMCA. being given to that company. As it turned out, I was asked to leave the room until preliminary discussions were held. So, I waited in a room nearby, which was once used as the lunchroom for the guys who worked in the shop, when it was a part of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
As I sat there, I realized that my father and uncles had probably sat in the same place many years ago.
I pondered the idea that many dreams had crossed the minds of the men who had worked within those walls. Dreams that may or may not have come true, but were dreamt as most men do, while relaxing on a coffee break or having a quick lunch.
I remember how Dad liked his work but felt it was too dirty, not demeaning, just dirty, for me to have to work there. He had always wanted me to go to Notre Dame, but I never went. He just wanted me to have a job where I wouldn’t have to get dirty like he did. Personally, I think he felt that I wouldn’t be able to do that kind of work, anyway.
In any case, I went to work in 1965 as a brakeman on the railroad and when I got laid off, I was called back to work as a fireman. On Nov. 17, 1971, I was promoted to engineer and worked in that capacity until I took severance pay on June 1, 1982.
As I sat in that shop last week, I recalled some of the incidents that had occurred when I was running engines from Buffalo to Renovo.
One incident in particular that I remember, happened on a cold, wintry night in the midst of a fierce snowstorm.
After I finished my inspection of the engines, three AF-15s, which we called “covered wagons,” I informed the foreman that all was in order, except the sanders needed cleaned.
In the way of explanation, sand is used to create friction between the steel wheels of the engines and the steel rail. The sand is forced onto the rail in front of each of the “drivers” (wheels, which are under power in the direction of movement) by a series of pipes and hoses. This is accomplished by the operation of a set of controls by the engineer, which are electro-pneumatically (electric and air) controlled.
During the winter, these pipes, which hang down in front of the wheels, become either plugged with snow or ice, or they just freeze up due to condensation in the pipe.
When this occurs, a laborer must use a burning torch to melt the ice and open the pipe. It is a cold and tedious job, which sometimes requires the man to lay in the snow under the engine in order to melt the packed ice away.
Well, the foreman said, “Someone will get right on it.”
So, I enjoyed the warm cab of the engine while the laborer, who had shown up, almost immediately, went about his icy task. He was bundled up for the cold and, with his safety glasses on, he was totally unidentifiable.
As I waited for this figure in the night to melt away the snow and ice, I said to myself, “Boy, I’m glad I don’t have to do that. It’s too darn cold out there.”
Presently, the door opened behind me and a familiar voice said, “Well, if I had known 30 years ago that I would be cleaning sanders in the middle of a snowstorm for my son, I don’t think I would have believed it.”
Stunned, I turned around and looked into the face of my father, the man who had just finished working on the sanders! I was speechless. I was happy to see him. But, I also was sad that he would have to be the one who was ordered to do the job. I was unsure of how to handle the situation, but, as usual, Dad had everything under control, as he said, “Jack, the next time you need some sanders cleaned, make sure it’s on third trick.”
With that, we left the subject and went on to the usual chatter of railroading.
I knew that Dad felt uncomfortable at first, but I also knew had no choice. The shops in Renovo, which had employed more than 2,250 men, were being phased out and the work was being transferred to the Conway and Juniata shops. Consequently, the men in Renovo had to make a choice. They could leave Renovo and go to either of the two other shops or they could stay and take their chances on holding a job in town.
My Dad chose to stay, but the decision cost him a cut in pay and then they abolished his job as a sheet-metal worker and a pipe-fitter. After his job was abolished, he was forced to work as a laborer, in order to remain working for the P.R.R.
He later took his severance pay and then, two months later, on Feb. 1, 1972, he suffered a fatal heart attack. The incident, which I have just described, is one I usually remember on snowy nights, but that day in the old shop made me feel a closeness to Dad I had not felt in a long time.
As I thought about it, I knew he would be pleased to see the town getting back on its feet again, and I smiled as I walked out into the bright sunlight.