Days: Yard clerk at the Rock Island Railroad.
Nights: Night Manager at the Hilton Inn.
With different days off, only three days had me working both jobs. At night from eleven, until seven in the morning, I ran the front desk at the Airport Hilton Inn. (Usually pretty quiet, except that time the Stones arrived). In the wee hours, I balanced the NCR 1600 bookeeping machine, and in the morning …
I walked through the halls and past the aviary — a large cage with the tiniest, quickest tropical birds, bright as a paint kit, and full of song so early, with cheery quick eyes askance — onward, to the Olde Weste Coffee Shoppe for my free breakfast. Oh, that was grand!
Then, piloting the volkswagen home to my unheated trailor, just off the end of the jet runway at St. Louis International Airport. Though the planes were very loud, I slept soundly.
A quick sleep it was, as needs be I’m up and dressed in Sears insulated underwear, thick roustabout clothes, and big brogan-style boots. Off to the Rock Island Railroad, Carrie Street station.
Not a passenger stop, no. A rough-looking switchyard in a rough part of town. Here’s how it works:
There is a local railroad called the Terminal Railroad. Their only job is to go around St. Louis, to the real railroads: Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Rock Island. Railroads hand off cars to other railroads, and Carrie Street was the Rock Island switching station.
When the Terminal Railroad showed up, I stood beside the track. They have 54 cars for the Rock, that’s us. Our switch foreman, Danny, would tell them to put the cars into our switching tracks 7, 8, and 9. As they backed the cars into these tracks, I stood alongside and wrote down the cars and their numbers, as fast as I could. (If I could write them as the cars passed me, then I didn’t have to walk up and down the tracks writing them down.)
The conductor on the Terminal Railroad would give a thick wad of the “Bills of Lading” to the Bill Clerk. These are forms that show where the cars are going, and what’s been laeded into them, laddie.
Me and the bill clerk sorted them, to discover we had sixteen cars for Kansas City, fourteen for Oakland, and so on. The switch foreman Danny figured how to move these long strings of cars around so as to get all the Kansas City ones together. It took most of the day.
Then, our train took off to Kansas City and points west. I think that, on the other shift, some of those cars went back east, but I never saw them, and for all I know there are thousands stranded somewhere out west.
Danny, the switch foreman, was a young fellow, and acted very sour. I think it helped him control his tough-guy crew. So I would often annoy him by striding through the bitter cold, along the track outside the switch shanty (while they huddled around the coal stove). I’d swing my arms wide, taking big strides.
In a loud voice, I sang, “Oh, the Rock Island line is a mighty fine line! Oh, the Rock Island line is the road to ride! Oh, the Rock Island line is a mighty fine line! If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you find it, get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island line!”
Sometimes my voice cracked, but it was never less than completely chipper and enthusiastic. And loud.
This goober act never failed to amaze Danny and the switch crew, and they pretended disgust with such cheerfulness, while I in turn pretended not to notice nor comprehend in any way.
Just before eleven each night, in the office bathroom, I’d change into my suit and black shoes. Then off to the Hilton Inn, to balance those books.
In the St. Louis winter, daylight comes late and night falls early. Some cold and snowy days there were when the sun hardly showed. During one stretch it had been over a week since I saw the sun, and snow fell heavy that day.
That evening, trudging across the yard toward the office, underneath the yard’s lamps high on their poles, I noticed that all the falling snow ahead of me, and the snow upon the ground ahead, glittered in sharp bright points, so beautiful they were, glittering.
Glittering before me like gold.