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Railroad Fireman
by Newt Harlan


Like most of us who grew up in the country in the '40s and '50s, I had jobs or chores to do around the place from the time I was old enough to get out from under the protection of Mama’s apron, but my first “paying” job came at the age of 11 when I worked as a field hand for a Japanese truck farmer named Imai whose farms were near our place. For twelve dollars per week I picked tomatoes, bell peppers, egg plant and other produce six days a week from daylight until dark.

This sounds like a pittance today, but in 1951 it was pretty fair money, especially for an 11 year old. Also, the job came with several perks such as free produce for my family -- things that were overripe, blemished or otherwise unsuitable for market -- plus I was excused from many of my chores at home and I learned to speak Tex-Mex Spanish pretty well. The Spanish part got me into trouble a little later on in Spanish class at school as it seems some of the words and phrases I learned weren't exactly acceptable in mixed company, but that’s another story. Anyway, at the end of the summer I had almost $200 from my labors and thought I was really “grown-up” to be buying my school clothes with my own money.

During my school years I worked many jobs on weekends and summers. In no particular order, I was variously a cowboy, hay hauler, tractor driver, service station attendant, bait shop attendant, fence builder, burger flipper, oilfield roustabout, pipeline hand, board road builder and several other laboring positions in the oil patch and around farms and livestock.

From June of 1959 until September of 1960, I worked on a job few people alive today have held, and it is highly unlikely anyone will ever again. I worked for the Houston Belt and Terminal Railroad as a fireman on a diesel locomotive. The pay of $3.65 ½ per hour was exceptional and since I worked the extra board I often caught transfer jobs that would run the maximum allowed 15 ½ hours. This meant a pretty good payday for a 19 year old kid trying to make up his mind career-wise between stints in college.

By then the fireman's job was relatively simple, consisting mainly of helping the engineer watch for hazards and reading the traffic control signal lights and semaphores and the hand signals from the conductor and switchmen. The job was primarily in switch yards, switching cars and making up trains, but sometimes we made some transfer runs between yards and also worked delivering cars to industries around town inside the city. The transfer jobs were always fun since we passed railroad crossings and I had a chance to wave at the pretty girls waiting for the train to pass.

We occasionally saw some diesel fired steam engines, but the only times I was ever in the cab of one was when working as a hostler (railroad version of a service station attendant) at the roundhouse. Even though the boiler for the locomotive was fired by diesel fuel, the complexity of the various gauges and valves the fireman was responsible for made me glad I was assigned to a more modern (and simple) diesel electric engine.

Probably the most memorable times in my railroad fireman’s career were the times when the engineer let me operate the engine. This would usually occur in the wee morning hours when there were no big shots around. At first the engineers watched over me pretty closely, but as the word got around that I could handle the controls, they would sit over on the fireman’s side and leave it to me, often catching a quick catnap. I was always just a tad uncomfortable, afraid I would accidentally activate the dead man’s pedal or do something else calamitous, but nothing ever happened and I'll never forget the feeling of controlling that much pure horsepower.

Honestly, the fireman’s job on a diesel locomotive by then was pretty much unnecessary and the railroads were trying to eliminate it. In September of 1960 there was a nation-wide strike in the steel industry which to a large extent shut down the country’s industries. This led to layoffs in many areas and my fireman’s job was among the casualties.

As luck would have it, the fall college semester was just beginning, so I climbed down from my locomotive cab and walked back into the college classroom, forever ending my railroad fireman career. About all I can say is it was fun while it lasted.

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Newt tells us about himself:

I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.

I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.


E-mail Newt at: Newt281@embarqmail.com

Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Earworms
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken
Remembering
Railroad Money
Basura Blanca News
Juicing Bovines
That's Entertainment ~ '50s Style!
Southern Words
Humble, Texas
The Day the Hogs Ate My Little Brother
Curing Colds
Belly Waddin' Lunch

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Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.

Thanks!

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