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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All Christmas Issue

... including one Christmas at the railroad

December 1st, 2004

railroad.jpgBY TERRY ROSS

For this special end-of-the-year issue, the Black Lamb writers were asked to write on the subject of Christmas, and they responded eagerly. Everyone, it seems, has a Christmas story to tell, even those who don’t celebrate it.

Not all the stories are happy ones, but taken together they give a pretty rounded (and vivid) picture of the meaning of this holiday. You’ll find Christmas in prison (Dean Seuss), Christmas in Norway (Lorentz Lossius), Christmas for Jews (Michele Gendelman, Ed Goldberg, and Joel Hess), Christmas in a monastery (Fr. Jeremy Driscoll), Christmas overseas in the military (Alan Albright), and many another nostaligic, hilarious, or woeful tale of Christmases past and present. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

My own Christmas story comes from an incident that occurred thirty-seven years ago:
Christmas Day, 1967.

A steady rain slanted down, rattling the tin roof of our windowless shack. At four-thirty in the afternoon it was already dark. My companions in the shack, which was called a shanty, were Mike Gibson and Perry Jones, men in their sixties. I was twenty-three years old, and the three of us were clerks, working the swing shift at the Southern Pacific Railroad’s East Oakland yard, known as The Desert.

In those pre-computer days, things were done physically. As the freight trains were composed on the seventy or so parallel tracks in the yard, each about three-quarters of a mile long, we clerks would walk the tracks with a lantern, a pencil, and a list. It was our job to write down the numbers of the various boxcars, tankers, refrigerator cars (reefers), and flat cars, to compile a physical check on the contents of the would-be train. After our lists had been checked in the main office, about a mile away, and the bills of lading for each car pulled and put in train order, the switchmen and engineers in the yard would manuever an engine (a “unit”) or two to the front of the line, slide a caboose (“cab”) on at the back, push the whole thing together, fasten the brake lines, and the train would pull out, bound for northern California, Oregon, Washington, or east via Ogden, Utah, to Chicago.

Gibson and Jones had both been with the SP for most of their adult lives. Jones already had thirty-four years in, Gibson thirty-two. With their seniority, they could pull any shifts they wanted, and they had first choice on extra shifts when clerks called in sick. Jones, who had a wife and large family, regularly worked eight or nine eight-hour shifts a week; Gibson, a widower who lived alone, sometimes pulled as many as fourteen. I had been at the railroad for all of two months and felt lucky to hold a swing shift; more often I was assigned graveyard, from midnight till eight a.m.

A yard clerk’s life was pretty easy. From time to time during the shift, the yardmaster would call down from his tower on the intercom and ask one of us to walk down one track to the shanty at the far end of the yard, and then walk back along another. This happened not more than three or four times a shift. I estimated that I actually worked about five hours out of eight. The rest of the time we were free to just hang around the shanty, which suited me just fine. I brought books to read — I was making my way through all the classics of American literature at that time — and I read three or four a week on company time, my dusty boots propped up on one of the battered oak desks.

Jones and Gibson, not being readers, diverted themselves otherwise. Jones was a talker who almost never shut up. No one listened to him, least of all Gibson, who flatly refused to be drawn into conversation. After a shift or two in Jones’ company, I learned to ignore him, too. This didn’t seem to bother him. He was a hearty, pudgy, jolly bore, full of anecdotes about his family. His specialty was gossip about railroad employees, on which he was always current.

Gibson, who was called Gibby by everybody, neither read nor talked. A thin, sardonic, lonely man, he spent his rare hours away from the railroad at the racetrack. At the beginning of each shift, he would study a racing form or newspaper for a short time, then fold it away into a pocket of his coat and just sit there. Sometimes he dozed. There was always a warm fug in the shanty from an ancient wood-burning stove.

That Christmas I had spent the morning with my parents and siblings, delivered my loot to my little apartment, the first I’d ever had by myself, unplugged the lights on my little Christmas tree (also my first), and reported for duty at The Desert. As low man in seniority, I had no choice but to work Christmas, but I didn’t mind, because we made double-time on holidays. This amounted, for me, to forty-two dollars for the eight-hour shift. Jones and Gibson were getting a little over fifty. Good money at the time.

About midway through that Christmas shift, the yardmaster called down: “Ross, go down eleven track, wait about fifteen minutes at the other end, and then come back on sixty-three. They’re both going out in two hours, so move it.”

I put on my slicker, gathered my lantern and clipboard, and went out into the cold night. The rain had stopped, but deep puddles glowed orange with reflected light from the yardmaster’s tower above. I crunched across the cinder wasteland, leaving the light behind, clicked on my lantern, and started down eleven track. The boxcars on it were empties on their way to the Marysville yard. Some were in lousy shape, and it was my responsibility to note damage when I saw it. Those too broken to travel or be useful were pulled out of service and sent to the car barn for repair or demolition. This was called a “bad order.” I bad-ordered three or four on my trip down eleven track.

At the other end of the yard, the shanty was full of brakeman waiting for their trains to go out. The wood stove was going full blast, the door red from the heat. “Hey, Professor,” one of the brakemen said when I walked in.

That was it for conversation, so I read some Steinbeck for fifteen minutes, then walked back on sixty-three, a string of full loads headed for Reno. Jones was yammering away when I got back to the shanty, and the rain started up again, making a racket on the roof. After the quiet of the dark yard, the noise and the heat from the stove were welcoming. I sent my lists up the pneumatic tube to the yardmaster, sat down, and pulled out my Steinbeck. Gibson was asleep sitting up.

Jones was blabbing about one of the engineers who had a girlfriend in every town on the line, and maybe even more than one wife. “I heard he took his Modesto girl with him once on a train to Flagstaff. Screwed her all the way across the desert. Made his fireman ride back in the cab. They never caught him. If they did, he woulda been out on his ass.”

I ignored Jones, but he carried on talking just as if he had an audience, from time to time chuckling about something or other. With about an hour and a half left in the shift, the yardmaster didn’t seem to have any more work for us, so we just hunkered down in our various ways to wait out the time until midnight.

About eleven-forty-five one of the graveyard clerks, Averill, came into the shanty. He was a young guy, about my age, although with a little more seniority, but I was never happy to see him, for two reasons. First, he was one of those relentless conversationalists who ended every sentence with “You know what I mean?” or some other question. Second, he was a monomaniac about rock and roll, which he discussed with fanatic energy. Rolling Stone magazine had just started publication that year, and he was always shoving a copy in my face. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t interested and told him so. Every time I saw him he’d start in again.

But that night he looked past me and said, “Hey, what’s with Gibby?”

Jones shut his yap and all three of us turned toward Gibson. He seemed not asleep, but unconscious, still sitting upright, his chair against the wall. His left arm lay in his lap unnaturally, inert. The left side of his bony face had sagged somehow, and his mouth hung open.

“Jesus Christ,” Jones said. “He had a stroke.”

The three of us stared at Gibby for what seemed a long time. Finally Jones said, “We oughtn’t to let him just sit there. He’ll get a coma or something.”

So I shook Gibby’s right shoulder. “Hey, Gibby, wake up. Come on, now.” I could hear Jones calling the yardmaster on the intercom.

Gibby opened his eyes immediately. He didn’t seem confused or groggy, but somehow it was even worse: he looked desperately frightened.

He tried to say something but his speech was slurred. “It’s okay, Gibby, they’re calling a doctor,” I said.

Gibby’s eyes rolled and he shook his head. He tried to get up, but his left side wasn’t working and he just turned himself sideways in his chair.

“Gibby, sit still, it’s all right. They’ll take you to the SP hospital.”

Gibby shook his head wildly. “No no no,” he said, quite clearly.

The yardmaster burst into the shanty. “Hang on, Gibby,” he said, “the ambulance will be here in a couple of minutes. They’ll take care of you.”

“No,” Gibby yelled.

“What do you mean? You had a stroke, for Christ’s sake. You gotta go to the hospital. It’s all paid for anyway.”

“No hospital,” Gibby managed to say.

“Why not?”

Gibby mumbled something but I couldn’t understand him.

Between the four of us, we managed to calm him down — although just a little — before the ambulance came. Gibby didn’t want to go, but in the end he had no choice. They strapped him onto a stretcher and wheeled him out into the rain. We watched as they slid him into the back of the ambulance and took off for the SP hospital.

“Jesus Christ,” the yardmaster said. “The stubborn son of a bitch.”

“Why didn’t he want to go?” I asked.

“He’s afraid they’ll get him in the hospital and bad-order him. He doesn’t have any life outside of this place, the poor fucker.”

It shook us all up, even Jones and Averill, who both shut up for once.

When I got home, I plugged in the lights on my tree. I liked those little colors in the room, but it took me a while to fall asleep, even in my new Christmas pajamas. I’d never seen a face as frightened as Gibby’s before.

Gibby was right. They got him in the hospital and kept him there a long while. Then they bad-ordered him. He never worked again after that Christmas at The Desert. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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