|Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1993 / Winter 1994|
by Donald R. Holliday
I guess a tractor-trailer truck is an impressive thing. Along highways and farm-to-market roads and farm lanes and on city streets leading to stockyards and packing houses, boys and girls used to run to a place where they could stand and signal for me to give them a blast of my air horn as I rolled by. Even though it would startle and terrify drivers of mere automobiles, or maybe partly because it would, I almost always gratified the children.
I guess a locomotive is an impressive thing too. When I was a boy, we used to write our names in baling wire and lay it on the railroad track at Self, Arkansas and wait for the train to flatten the wire razor thin between its hundreds of pounding steel wheels and its everlasting steel road. As the train went by, I wanted to run from it, but I didn't because Joe Rex and Tommy and Dean showed no alarm. A score of years later, driving a D-8 Caterpiller along the right of way of the Alaska Railroad, I still felt small, fragile, like a bird egg under a number twelve boot, when four road engines pulling a mile of cars thundered by. The blast of a single engine's air horn shakes the earth.
There's something magnetic about trains and trucks and earth-moving equipment, something that draws us. Maybe it's because trucks and trains on their roads and rails go to places where we'd like to be. Maybe it's their raw power and we would like to acquire and control it, like earthquake and thunder. Maybe we seek to serve it. Or maybe worship.
In 1964, the great Good Friday earthquake in Alaska shook a large part of the southern coast of Alaska off into Cook Inlet and destroyed miles of federally-owned Alaska Railroad--the ARR--which ran into the heart of mineral-rich Alaska and connected a number of major military bases. Around the Knik and Turnagain Arms of Cook Inlet, what parts of the railroad the quake didn't rip apart, the resulting tsu-nami-tidal wave, outsiders call it--tossed up the mountain sides, where it deposited some, and it flushed the rest out into Cook Inlet--ballast, cross ties, rails, concrete bridges. I was in college then, about to graduate with majors in philosophy and literature. But I was really a student of all the human drama that lay between heaven and earth, of which the dreams of philosophy and literature were only a part. And the great drama set amidst the Anchorage earthquake was impelling. Besides, I knew the federal government would pour enough money into rebuilding the railroad--with its economic and strategic values--to ballast it with silver dollars, and I was nearly broke.
Ten days before I was supposed to don cap and gown and march in pomp and circumstance, I sat in Griggs' gravel pit thirty miles southwest of Anchorage, operating a five-cubic-yard dipstick--a crane with a large dipper attached to the boom. Twice a day the work train came in to leave a mile of empty air-dump gondola cars and to pick up full ones. I lived alone in an outfit car on a spur beside the river which ran through the pit, with porcupines and bears and moose for neighbors. It was there I learned the indescribable delight of eating a salmon fresh out of the river and rolled in layers of aluminum foil and buried in a pit of live coals with a quarter-pound of butter tucked into its belly cavity.
Though I returned to the lower forty-eight to begin a masters degree the spring of '65, I was back along the rails the rest of that year, and railroaders were my society. It was a rich society, rich if not in numbers, at least in spectacular character. Alaska in the early '60s was still frontier, Anchorage still a small town, and not yet ready for the progress that always destroys frontier and its people. Some of the saloons still had floors the hostesses dumped the contents of ashtrays onto, and boot soles soon ground the contents into whatever had accumulated there since sawdust and sand had been spread to stabilize the original mud. Railroad society there would have been spectacular had it consisted entirely of the sourdoughs and their only accomplishment the peculiar characteristic which furnished their sobriquet. After working near a few of them occasionally, I developed the opinion they were not called sourdoughs because they carried soured, fermented dough somewhere in their pockets, but because their own natural and rich aroma emanated through many layers of clothing. To me, as long as I lived in Alaska, the sourdough's bouquet seemed as carefully and lovingly cultured as any wine, and it was vintage.
Sourdough living was full of qualities peculiar to an outsider, especially in the bush. Francis O. was a powder monkey and George L. an equipment operator for the ARR. During many summers they had drilled and blasted and loaded rock out of an isolated rock pit north of Anchorage, too far to commute with the work train unless one wished to give up sleeping.
Francis O. appeared to be in his early thirties and George L. in his fifties, but it was difficult not to regard both as "old" sourdoughs. From a Monday morning until Friday evening, all the seasons they had worked in the pit, they had occupied an outfit car which gradually grew to the point that only fire could have cleansed it. From Monday until Friday, when they came in from work, they took off one or two outer layers of clothing, leaving one or two or three under layers. The layers they took off sometimes were hung on hooks in the wall. The rest of the time, they served as bedding. Whatever inner layer was left on the outside then served as lounging jacket and napkin. For entertainment, Francis O. and George L. devised surprises for each other and, especially, for anyone sent to work with them. Porcupines, bulldozers left teetering on rock pinnacles, and dynamite caps were some of the things they amused each other with.
For the summer of 1965, Jim S., a fraternity boy from a Southern university, came to the Alaska Railroad to work, where he was hired as an oiler. He was clean, blond. His third day at work, he was ordered out into the bush to fuel and lubricate and do light maintenance on the machinery operated by Francis O. and George L., and to live in the outfit car with them. Jim S. packed away his camel blazer and other college-boy belongings and rode the work train out. Two weeks later, he rode the work train back into Anchorage one evening, got out his camel blazer, caught the first flight he could get to Kansas City, packed his fiancee and her belongings, and flew back to Anchorage and got married. He went back to the pit to work, but he rode the work train in and out of Anchorage every day work hours permitted.
The sourdoughs and Jim S. didn't mix well in the outfit car, but that summer, they blasted into pieces and shipped south one side of a mountain in the Talkeetna Range, to make a railroad as permanent as it could be made. In doing so, they no doubt contributed a little to the end of sourdough life. Francis O. and George L. were peculiar, their lives no doubt unattractive to outsiders, but during the better part of a century, they and others before them had been the insiders of the Alaskan frontier. If they be crude, it is only because humans survive and endure at the uncivil edge by taking on some of the harsh strength of the edge. If to us in the 1960's they appeared crude, it is because we were outsiders. Measured against Francis O. and George L., we were all college boys.
Before Everett turned railroader, he had been a cowboy, and I guess he couldn't live without his horse, because he had mounted a horse-trailer body on a railroad gas-car flat. He often put-putted down the line to a work site, unloaded his quarter horse, and rode up and down the line to supervise his territory from a proper perspective. Anyone that odd ordinarily would have attracted railroad practical jokers like a dead cow draws flies. But no one messed with Everett's horse, or his saddle, or his rope.
Everett had a tough reputation among Alaska railroaders, generally regarded in Alaska as a tough bunch. A body needed only to look at him. In '65, his wife decided she wanted a Volkswagen, and after resisting for some time the damned little German car,
one Sunday afternoon Everett went with his wife to the bug dealership. The salesman, recognizing him as a western frontier type, began to extol the toughness of the little car. "Get it out on some rough roads," he said, "and see what a tough little car this is." After bouncing over back roads and fishing trails and post-earthquake Anchorage streets for an hour, and having the salesman in the back seat constantly refresh his memory of what a tough little car a super beetle is, Everett was driving back into Anchorage, between Ship Creek and the main railroad yards. "This is really a tough little car," the salesman reminded him. "I wish you had gotten it out on some really rough roads and given it a real test." Everett whipped the car onto railroad property and bucked and spurred it across six railroad tracks with full size 130 pound rails. He drove on back to the dealership in character--silently. There, the salesman had regained his drive enough to ask, "Well, what do you think? .... She can have one," Everett said. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to point at the test car. "But not that one."
One time, near mile twenty, while riding along the line around the edge of Turnagain Arm, not far from the mouth of Bird Creek, Everett spied a cow moose bogged down in the mud flats left when the earthquake raised the inlet bottom several feet. He roped her. He set his quarter horse back on her haunches and dragged that moose free from the mud. The second that old cow got her feet on solid ground, without first giving an appreciative "Much obliged," she charged horse and rider. She obeyed her side of one of the firmest human rules of the north woods--don't get between a cow moose and her calf. Everett slipped his end of the rope from the saddle horn and let the quarter mare demonstrate what ages of breeding had prepared her for--a fast getaway from a charging cow moose. Dripping mud, amiable again, the cow lumbered off into the woods, toward her calf, dragging Everett's rope.
I wished I was like Everett.
In midsummer of '65, I was pulled out of the bush to blade ARR-owned roads in Anchorage, operate cranes in the yards, grade railroad rights-of-way with a bulldozer, and do other assorted jobs. When I was pulled in, the two operators and one oiler who had been performing those chores were sent to the bush. I've always liked to think I replaced them because I could do the work of all three, but it was probably because some boss thought he needed to keep an eye on me.
While working the yards, I became acquainted with Willie O., a railroad electrician. When he wasn't out on a job somewhere, he used to carry his insulated, soft-sided lunch bag--in which he always had a six pack--into the heavy equipment shop to eat and drink his lunch. Willie had had some trouble in his life. After a rough childhood of his own and after his wife had run off to live the laid-back life of southern California, he had continued rearing four children alone, the youngest an infant. But Willie O. was cheerful, always. His countenance usually glowed ruddy from the warm fires within, which were fueled by a constant supply of Oly beer. In any stage of inebriation, Willie was content, even exuberant. He was also competent, more than competent.
Willie O. was the best electrician I ever saw. Just how good I learned when he drove a railroad-electrician's utility truck off a dock into the mouth of Ship Creek. He wasn't injured. Swimming out, he must have had to swim sidestroke, because he carried his six-pack bag with him up the bank. When I took a crane to lift the truck out, members of the section crew said that was the fourth truck Willie had wrecked while waxed. To have the opportunity to wreck a second railroad truck while drunk, a railroader must be a rare talent. But four!
But I have hoisted heavy transformers onto platforms and watched Willie O. install them without disrupting railroad power. I've seen him get die-sel-electric engines running again, out on the line, that would have taken days in the diesel-electric shops.
The cold water of Ship Creek must have shocked more than Willie O.'s thin frame. He stood on the edge of the dock, dripping, looking at the top rear of his truck sticking out of the water. He dropped his bag and walked off. He's been dry ever since.
Willie O. was a character too, as was Everett, and Francis O. the sourdough catskinner and George L. the sourdough crane operator, and Valentine, and Bates, and Sowersby, who could lean his huge bulk--I'd guess well over 400 pounds--on his air-hammer and drive a spike in two seconds. And Sandie, who came from Los Angeles to Alaska in the summers to dance in saloons. And Lila who operated the log Bird House bar beside Bird Creek and the railroad at mile seventeen. They were the characters who built and maintained a railroad where, at the time, no other kind of permanent road was possible. I say permanent, but then I remember the great Alaska earthquake.
I returned to the outside at the end of 1965 to work on a graduate degree. A year and a half later, with an MA, I took a full-time job teaching at a university, the result of which was I continued to need money as much as when I was a student. But I had other needs too, needs developed during all my early life working with stone masons and builders, heavy equipment operators and ditch diggers and fence builders, electricians and appliance repairers, farmers and cheese makers. University life, the liberal intellectual life I had pursued as a career gave me opportunities to study human dreams and feelings and accomplishments--and failures--through the ages, but the humans I studied were historically abstracted humanity, the people I studied with often lost in those abstractions. In my university life, I felt like John Keats, the English poet who gazed into the passions of people depicted around the sides of a Grecian urn--and therefore long dead--and heard sweet melodies of the imagination. But I had been accustomed to living with and working with the people depicted on the urn--in all the intensity of their passion and, always more intense, the passionlessness which covered their passion.
The society I lived in sprawled across America. Waitresses and cooks and cashiers, fuel jockeys and windshield washers, truck washers and mechanics, and truck drivers at truck stops. And prostitutes and pimps and con men roving the truck-stop lots. Interstate Commerce Commission agents. Truck drivers and former fuel jockeys and women, at truck stops with pumps sealed after the petroleum shortage--and inflation-of the early '70s, but which still accepted petroleum credit cards in payment for the human flesh sold there. ICC agents and state patrolmen. Cattle handlers and buyers, auctioneers and weighmasters hustling cattle through livestock auction barns and stockyards. Truck scale operators, and ICC agents, at state weigh stations and ports of entry. At cattle pens lost in a Texas or Wyoming plain, a dozen cowboys who drove in and corralled and helped load cattle for one or a dozen rigs, and occasionally on the northern plains drove in and loaded a young elk no less wild than the cattle they fed with, to be delivered to some unsuspecting Illinois corn farmer. State patrolmen in helicopters and airplanes and cars. Men and women, girls, boys, moving mountains of grain with equipment large enough to be used in strip mining, and corps of veterinarians and their helpers, and USDA inspectors, at cattle feed lots in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma. Cattle handlers, slaughterers and skinners and slunk skinners and butchers, dead-animal buyers, and USDA inspectors, at packing plants in Saint Louis and Los Angeles. In truck-wash lots equipped with high-pressure hoses, always near packing plants, alcoholics worked exactly the number of minutes required before handing the hose to the next in line and being paid in cash and shuffling off to buy a short dog or pint of wine or bottle of house-brand whiskey. And prostitutes. And con men. And ICC agents.
My associates were truck drivers, gear jammers. As a group, we may have been a little self centered. Roads were built for us, we thought. Lines of cars behind a truck, drivers told me, were just people fooling around; truckers made a living on the road. Truckers were full-time citizens of the roads. Everyone else--except the ICC agents and the state troopers--was a tourist, an alien. We hauled the indispensable cargoes of a nation, without which the nation would collapse--immediately, and then, satisfied at having saved the nation again, we switched drivers and drove off into the sunset, or sunrise, or neon glare. Truckers are filled with that kind of wisdom, and I learned a lot from them, all of them, even lowly moving-van drivers. My closest associates, however, and the wisest, were bull haulers, the trade name given us by drivers of rigs whose cargoes left their floors and the shoulders of the highways less fertile.
My first bull-hauling associate was John E., a short tobacco chewer shaped like an Irish potato, who had spent thirty years of his forty five in some kind of truck. When John E. drove out of Springfield, after two or three days of rest, his round and ruddy face often wrinkled in a grin that, if the onset were too sudden, caused his ears to flap, but when he'd been driving too long and his stay-awake medicine had soured him, he was gloomy, nervous, paranoid. During my first trip with him, heading west in Kansas, a midwestern thunderstorm arose in the southwest, marked by a long black squall line. As we and the storm approached each other, John E. peered out the windshield, up toward the sky. The closer we got, the more often he peered, until his face began to twitch from the strain he was placing on his optic muscles, trying to keep at least one eye trained on the cloud. As the wind, in deepening twilight, began to bow treetops a quarter mile ahead, John E. pulled the rig to the shoulder, turned to me, an inexperienced and too-green driver, and said, "Your turn to drive." Without taking time to clear out his chaw, he crawled into the sleeper and drew and buttoned the curtains. Several hours later, four according to what I graphed in the ICC logbook, John E. groaned from the sleeper, "Damn I slept good coming across there." "Yeah, so did I," I said. I gathered from his response that temporary drivers or raw kids of twenty-eight did not joke with old bull haulers.
If a storm could drive John E. into the sleeper, and thereby reveal one of the side effects of his road medicine, coming out of the sleeper sometimes revealed another. Once, heading east through the middle of Dallas, he opened the sleeper curtains enough to stick his head through and announce, "I've got to piss." Naturally--for someone who has not lived for years in a truck--I began to look for a truck stop, or at the very least a rest area. Some minutes, maybe fifteen, passed. John E. thrust his head through the curtains again and remarked, to jog my memory, "Gawddammit, I said I've got to piss." Both tone and volume made it clear that he could not have been less disappointed in my actions than the Almighty would have been had light not appeared when He commanded it. I didn't have to be told a third time. I skewed that sixty-five foot rig and its 45,000 pounds of live bovine cargo to a dead stop on the shoulder of an 1-30 exit lane before John E. could drag himself in his stockings, grey-twill pants, and strap-shouldered undershirt into the passenger's seat and before he could complete a profane testimony to the unhealthy effects of tardy elimination. Before ninety head of feeder cattle could recover their balance, or struggle back to their feet, John E. had opened the passenger's door, swung down the cab ladder, and planted both stockinged feet in a vigorous crop of Texas sand burs. I admired his ensuing oratory, but I couldn't repeat it.
John was as good a man as I ever met, patriotic in his duty to his high profession, a faithful and diligent husband and father who telephoned "Mamma," he called his wife, and children every night, from a booth beside a road somewhere. John quit bull hauling when his children grew up and left home. He and "Mamma" bought their own rig, with a sleeper that was full, as beds go, and became team drivers, hauling cargoes that could be parked while drivers slept, unlike livestock cargoes.
With a load of live cattle aboard, drivers push on to destinations, fifteen hours, twenty hours, thirty, beyond the thirty-six-hour ICC limit. They eat their track-stop meals only while their rigs are being refueled. They turn their ICC logbooks into fantasies for ICC bureaucrats. After a few years, many began to eat dexadrine or dexamil or Mexican blues or something else to stay awake. After a few more, they eat it because they eat it. After a few more, punchy, they gulp handsful and sit gripping the wheel like a 'possum frozen wide-eyed in the headlights.
One old friend, Baldy D., too many years on the road, hired only in the summer by brokers desperate for drivers, started, lead-crystal eyed, toward Memphis with a triple-deck load of fat hogs. He got only a few miles, to the new and unfamiliar U.S. 65 and U.S. 60 interchange, where in his wide-eyed coma he turned south on a 65 ramp. Realizing his mistake, he turned onto a side road leading to an old 65 bridge. In the middle of a sharp and high-banked curve, remembering finally the old bridge and knowing he could not cross it with a full load, Baldy D. stopped. He climbed down from the cab and, because habit demanded it whenever the truck stopped beside the road, walked behind the tractor tandems to relieve himself. Before he could finish, hogs and their considerable waste on three decks rolled and slid into the lower side of each deck, until their weight tipped the rig onto its side. The truck "just laid down," truckers would say. Only a few of the nearly 200 hogs were injured. But Baldy was left standing in the moonlight, on the centerline, one hand still at his fly, alone, except for the indignant commentary of 45,000 pounds of hogs.
These things happened twenty-five or thirty years ago. Thousands, maybe millions, of student and administrative papers have passed through my hands since then, but I still hear the squeal and bawl of the livestock and the prayerful cursing of truck drivers when someone passes where there is no room to pass. I hear the moan and feel the vibration of engine and gearbox being put through the paces of ten or more gears. I smell the clean prairie when I awake in the sleeper after waiting for daylight to load.
I hear the squeal of steel wheels on curving rail and the whine and chuffing of diesel-electric engines. I smell diesel fuel and smoke and roasting salmon. I see and marvel at the mud flats of Cook Inlet, created in a few earth-shaking moments. I see the scarlet fireweed that blooms to its tip to foretell the end of summer.
I remember the faces and names of legions of men and women who worked their work and lived
their lives passionately, did both well and knew it, and were satisfied, bone and sinew deep, like
Tolstoy's mowers in Anna Karenina. I remember a few who shirked at their jobs, and I remember
the contempt of others for them. I remember them all, see them all, dancing, striding, driving their
way around their own earthen vessel. Remembering John Keats, I say for all of them, all of us,
Life lived full is beauty, beauty life. That's all you know on earth, and all you need to know.
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