Cutting and Smacking Old Rail

Illinois Central Railroad 201, built by Rogers...

Image via Wikipedia

The summer after my bout with polio, I was sixteen going on seventeen and barely over the legal age to work.  Dad lined me up with a job in the scrap yard of the Illinois Central Railroad in Markham, Illinois.  They paid minimum wage. The work was physical and mindlessly boring.  Markham was a long way from Burnside, so Mom asked Mrs. Schulz whose husband worked at the Markham yard to give me a ride.  I gave him $5.00 a week for gas.  The Schulz family lived west of Cottage Grove on 92nd Street.  Every morning I rode my bike to their house by 7:00 a.m.   The ride to Markham took forty minutes.  I carried a lunch pail with a sandwich, an apple, and a thermos of coffee.

The job excited me in the beginning because I learned to use an acetylene torch to notch old rail. A partner and I worked together.  Our job was to “break rail”.  We faced a field of old steel rail stacked neatly in rows.  The rails wore out and had served their function.  It was time to melt them into something new. The steel mill could only put short pieces of scrap into the smelter;  the twenty-foot rails were too long.

My partner and I took turns with the torch. The “torch man” went along the rail and cut a shallow notch into the surface every twelve inches. When the rail cooled, the “hammer man” smacked the end of the rail with a full swing of the sixteen pound sledge-hammer.  Like magic, a short piece of rail fell to the ground.

All day long we cut and smacked, trying to get rid of the pile of rail.  When we finally finished, a crane car came and picked up the pieces with a magnet and loaded them into a gondola car.

When the pile of broken rail filled the gondola, they shifted us to sorting scrap.  There were many different kinds of steel used on the railroad and when they pull out old rail,  spikes, tie plates, connectors, bolts, and nuts came out with it.   All of this junk came to the scrap yard mixed up.  A magnet crane unloaded the mixture into a twenty-foot hopper.  An opening at the bottom of the hopper allowed me to pull scrap to the shelf with a big hook.  I started sorting when junk covered the shelf.  Behind me stood two lines of empty fifty-five gallon oil drums. I threw spikes into one drum, tie plates into another, and so on all day long.

On most days there were two of us sorting so we talked as we worked.  On other days I worked alone.  I set mini goals to fill an entire drum with spikes in one day.

A whistle let us know when lunch started, and ended.  Everyday, a milk-truck came, and many workers bought a quart of cold milk to drink with their sandwich.  I started doing the same thing.

The milk came unhomogenized so the cream rose to the top of the glass bottle.  I peeled off the metal cap, and picked out the paper insert sealing the bottle. My ritual was to drink off the cream first.  Gulping an entire quart of milk with lunch made me bloated.

The summer sun was hot and when we were cutting rail it got even hotter.  One day my teammate and I needed some shade to cool off.  The only shade was under a gondola car parked near us.  We sat on the rail in the shade of the car when Mr. Lassiter, the yard supervisor, drove up in his pickup.

“What are you boys doing?” he asked.

“Getting some shade”, we answered.

Mr. Lassiter got out of the truck, walked over and proceeded to chew us out. I’ve never been dressed down like that before.  He gave us a lecture about how dangerous it was to sit on a track anytime.  What if a switcher pushed another car down the track we were sitting on?  We’d be cut in two for sure.  We never sat under a rail car again.

Hudson Hornet four-door sedan finished in burgundy

Image via Wikipedia

By the time the whistle blew to end the day, I was dirty, tired, and needed to go home.  I dragged myself through the scrap yard to the parking lot to find Mr. Schulz’s Hudson Hornet.  He come out of the shop all washed up and fresh looking.  I plopped into the back seat and fell asleep.  His regular carpool friend sat in the front.  I got home at 5:45 to take a bath, eat supper, then went out to spend time with my friends.

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