Summer Jobs: 'Big Iron'
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Sometimes a job can be its own adventure - the stuff of great stories to pass along - and that's the case with today's Summer Job story.
Here's listener John Hyduk of Cleveland with a story he calls "Big Iron."
Mr. JOHN HYDUK (Freelance Writer): When I was 17, I scratched my name across a Norfolk and Western railroad job application, buckled on a tool belt and rode with outlaws. That summer shaped the man I am as much as anything ever did. The N&W repair track sat on an ash-colored rise alongside the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. The industrial boom still glowed back then as the 1960s slid into the '70s.
Freight trains rode to Cleveland night and day like an endless cattle drive. Damaged stock was cut from the herd and hauled to a repair track to be healed by wizards with wrenches and fire. They were called car men and they clambered across boxcar roofs like circus acrobats.
I was a car man's helper, hired to haul tools, use an acetylene torch and not kill anyone in the process. I had wanted a learning experience. What I got was Harvard with blunt objects.
Against that background, my co-workers stood out, but they would have stood out on a carnival midway. Chuck was the foreman, a bear in a madras shirt. Jerry and Charlie were brothers. Jerry was silent as a grave marker, but Charlie filled the air with enough words for both of them. White-haired Frank dipped snuff and read the comic pages out loud. I remember moon-faced him who was called nothing else because he always referred to himself in the third person. Him needs a pry bar.
If they had last names, I do not recall. I know they work like demons and cuss like Baptists - apologetically, but expertly. I admired them. These railroad men were not going meekly deaf in a machine shop or rusting away in an assembly line. They moved fearless, meeting each day head-on like a boxer striding into the ring, but mostly I remember their music.
(Soundbite of song, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town")
Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer): (Singing) A young cowboy named Billy Joe grew restless on the farm. A boy filled with wanderlust...
Mr. HYDUK: I have never heard a gun fighter ballad before, but my co-workers listen to nothing else. As a guitar laid the rhythm down, a weary voice sang of cowpokes doomed the moment they strapped on the big iron of a pistol.
Mr. CASH: (Singing) Don't take your guns to town...
Mr. HYDUK: I recall Johnny Cash warning don't take your guns to town and Billy Walker crossing the Brazos.
(Soundbite of song, "Cross the Brazos at Waco")
Mr. BILLY WALKER (Singer): (Singing) On the Chisholm Trail it was midnight. Carmela was strong on his mind.
Mr. HYDUK: I vowed to spend my life swinging a hammer. The job would be waiting after high school. Why not? The whole world drove a Mustang, or wanted to, and American steel held up the sky.
I returned for a visit that winter, but the yard was empty. The repair track had been closed, the work diverted in the cost-cutting consolidation. On TV, men in expensive suits said we were in a recession. I half expected a tumbleweed to roll past.
That was more than 30 years ago. My life since then has been a taxi ride from one fairy tale to another. I have done okay in the new economy. It's uncomfortable sometimes, like dancing in borrowed shoes. Sometimes, if I hear the rumble of a V8 engine or catch Marty Robbins on oldies radio, I see the car men again in my mind and I remember what I learned on that summer job.
It does not matter if you towed a shooting iron or a hammer. Life is an adventure story and you are its author.
(Soundbite of song, "Big Iron")
Mr. MARTY ROBBINS (Singer): (Singing) ...the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip. Big iron on his hip.
BLOCK: That story from listener John Hyduk of Cleveland. We'll have more of your summer job stories next week. Thanks for sending them in. We're having a great time going through them.
(Soundbite of song, "Big Iron")
Mr. ROBBINS: (Singing) He came riding from the south side slowly looking all around. He's an outlaw loose and running came the whisper from each lip. And he's here to do some business with the big iron on his hip.